Research: Top 10 Women Scientists Of The '80s: Making A Difference

In spite of traditional gender biases women scientists may have encountered as students and as working researchers, they are tackling tough research problems and handling them well. Ellen Vitetta, director of the Cancer Immunobiology Center at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas, says women face different types of sex discrimination during different phases of their careers. When you first start out, other researchers don't take you seriously until you prove that you're

Oct 15, 1990
Abigail Grissom

In spite of traditional gender biases women scientists may have encountered as students and as working researchers, they are tackling tough research problems and handling them well.

Ellen Vitetta, director of the Cancer Immunobiology Center at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas, says women face different types of sex discrimination during different phases of their careers. When you first start out, other researchers don't take you seriously until you prove that you're going to hang in there, she says. They expect you to drop out after only a few years to start a family. Later, when a woman becomes the head of a research group, detractors may then criticize her on a more personal level mainly for the tough, aggressive, and unfeminine behavior required of any team leader charged with the success of a project. They [other scientists] expect you to be soft and feminine, says Vitetta. The pressure, she says, is subtle, but disturbing.

Other female researchers have also noted sex-based discrimination. Candace Pert, scientific director at Peptide Design, Germantown, Md., and guest researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health, has said that she experienced such discrimination early in her career. Pert was quoted in a 1982 essay as saying, Women must manage somehow to short-circuit feminine wiring to achieve the recognition we call `success' (E. Garfield, Current Contents, [17]:5-12, April 26, 1982).

Women scientists, however, are excelling in their chosen fields, and several have achieved citation superstardom; that is, they rank among the top 0.2 percent of the 1.3 million scientists (from all disciplines) indexed by the Institute for Scientific Information during the last decade. From this list of some 3,500 names, The Scientist extracted the top 10 women in science based on data from the Science Citation Index for the period 1981 to 1988.

Name1981-88 Citations Field
Flossie Wong-Staal 7,772 Virology/Molecular Biology
Julia Margaret Polak 7,488 Histology
Philippa C. Marrack 6,462 Immunology/Molecular Biology
Mary Jane Osborn 4,366 Cell Biology
Joan A. Steitz 3,282 Biochemistry/Molecular Biology
Marilyn S. Kozak 3,107 Cell Biology/Biochemistry
Ellen S. Vitetta 3,098 Immunology
Candace B. Pert 2,918 Neuroscience
Marilyn Gist Farquhar 2,316 Cell Biology/Exp. Pathology
Sheila Sherlock 2,053 Gastroenterology
*The Scientist identified these women solely through citation data compiled from the Institute for Scientific Information's Science Citation Index database for the period 1981 to 1988. Citation counts only include citations to papers published and cited during this period. Authors received credit for citations whether or not their names appeared first on a paper. AIDS researcher Flossie Wong-Staal tops the list of these contemporary women in science. A recent article in The Scientist (May 28, 1990, page 18) identified her as a researcher whose work in the 1990s is likely to be worthy of particular notice.

Wong-Staal, of the University of California, San Diego, ranked fourth in that study, which was based on the citation records of scientists under the age of 45. Her area of expertise, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and the genes that regulate its activity, is one of the hottest areas of science today. Between 1981 and 1988, her work received almost 7,800 citations from her peers, an impressive number for such a short period. A molecular biologist, Wong-Staal spent 16 years at the National Cancer Institute where she worked in Robert C. Gallo's laboratory. Gallo was a coauthor on Wong-Staal's most cited paper (see Table 2 on page 21 for each woman scientist's most cited paper). This 1985 Nature article reviewed what was then known about human retroviruses. That's not to say, however, that Wong-Staal lives in Gallo's shadow. Last January, UC-San Diego chose Wong-Staal to be the first recipient of the Florence Seeley Riford Chair for AIDS Research in the university's department of biology and medicine (The Scientist, Feb. 19, 1990, page 27).

Another woman who has the potential to greatly influence science in the 1990s is immunologist Philippa C. Marrack. Marrack, who ranked fifth (on the basis of number of citations) on The Scientist's list of researchers to watch in the next decade, was the third most cited woman scientist of the last decade. She and her collaborator/husband, John W. Kappler, are both Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigators at the National Jewish Center for Immunology and Respiratory Medicine in Denver. They are researching human (and mouse) T cell development, focusing on the recognition of antigens by T cells. Marrack's publications appeared as references almost 6,500 times between 1981 and 1988. The most cited work of her career to date was published in 1983 in the Journal of Experimental Medicine (JEM) and discussed histo-compatability complex-restricted antigen receptors on T cells. This article covered the role of the L3T4 antigen in mice, which correlates to the T4 antigen in humans.

Ellen S. Vitetta, the seventh most cited woman scientist in this study, is also involved in immunology research. Her team of researchers was among the first to discover immunotoxins, potent cell toxins combined with monoclonal antibodies that have the potential to target and destroy diseased cells in the human body (The Scientist, April 2, 1990, page 20). Her group also codiscovered interleukin 4 and, in particular, its ability to make B cells switch to IgG. Vitetta's published work of the last decade received almost 3,100 references from 1981 to 1988.

The most cited paper of her career, however, was published in 1971, also in JEM. It is, says Vitetta, the first paper I published as an immunologist. It established a straightforward point in immunology: the identification of monomeric IgM as the antigen receptor on B lymphocytes.

Histologist Julia Margaret Polak is the second most cited woman of 1981 to 88. Her body of work spans more than 20 years; yet her papers published during the last decade garnered nearly 7,500 citations. Polak's most cited paper, however, was published in Lancet in 1975. This paper provided evidence that the peptide product of pancreatic D cells is somatostatin. Polak is currently affiliated with Hammersmith Hospital in London and has recently published work pertaining to the examination of monoclonal antibodies at the microscopic level.

Mary Jane Osborn, of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry, G”ttingen, West Germany, is the fourth most cited woman for the period 1981 to 1988. During this period she garnered some 4,400 citations to her papers. Osborn is a cell biologist researching the cytoskeleton of tissue culture cells, a specialty that yields information useful in diagnosing and understanding various human diseases. Her most referenced work is a 1983 paper, published in Laboratory Investigation, that reviewed the use of intermediate filament typing for surgical pathology. This technique provides data that enable a pathologist to distinguish among different cell types and to classify tumors.

Joan A. Steitz and Marilyn S. Kozak, ranked fifth and sixth, respectively, are both biochemists. Steitz (with almost 3,300 citations for the period 1981 to 1988) is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator as well as professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale University. She studies RNA and DNA and the structure and function of small ribonucleoproteins from eukaryotes. A 1975 work received the most citations of her career.

Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), USA, it discussed how ribosomes select initiator regions in mRNA. More recently, Steitz has been involved in research on snRNPs (pronounced snurps, she says). A snRNP is composed of a tight cluster of one or more proteins with a small RNA molecule. Steitz and her colleagues found that previously discovered antibodies against a range of intracellular organelles included some with anti-snRNP specificity. Additional research has led to hypotheses that at least one type of snRNP may be involved in RNA splicing.

Kozak, with more than 3,100 citations during the period 1981 to 1988, teaches at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in Newark. She is also involved in research that concerns mRNA and eukaryotes. In her most cited paper, which appeared in Nucleic Acids Research in 1984, she noted that as of 1981 scientists were aware of about only 32 cellular mRNA sequences in addition to those she had compiled for a 1981 paper (Current Topics in Microbiology and Immunology, 93:81-123, 1981). In her 1984 paper, however, Kozak noted that researchers had identified a total of 166an indication of the rapid growth in this field.

  • M.G. Farquhar, G.E. Palade," Junctional complexes in various epithelia," J. Cell Biol., 17:375-412, 1963. (1,854)*

  • M. Kozak,"Compilation and analysis of sequences upstream from the translational start site in eukaryotic mRNAs," Nucleic Acids Res., 12:857-72, 1984. (873)

  • P. Marrack, R. Endres, R. Shimonkevitz, A. Zlotnik, D. Dialynas, F. Fitch, J. Kappler, "The major histocompatibility complex-restricted antigen receptor on T cells. II. Role of the L3T4 product," J. Exp. Med., 158:1077-91, 1983. (219)

  • M. Osborn, K. Weber, "Tumor diagnosis by intermediate filament typing: a novel tool for surgical pathology," Lab.Invest., 48:372-94, 1983. (481)

  • C.B. Pert, S.H. Snyder, "Opiate receptor: demonstration in nervous tissue," Science, 179:1011-4, 1973. (1,288)

  • J.M. Polak, A.G.E. Pearse, L. Grimelius, S.R. Bloom, A. Arimura, "Growth-hormone release-inhibiting hormone in gastrointestinal and pancreatic D cells," Lancet 1:1220-2, 1975. (542)

  • S. Sherlock, W.H.J. Summerskill, L.P. White, E.A. Phear, Portal-systemic encephalopathy. Neurological complications of liver disease," Lancet, 2:453-7, 1954. (304)

  • J.A. Steitz, K. Jakes, "How ribosomes select initiator regions in mRNA: Base pair formation between the 3' terminus of 16S rRNA and the mRNA during initiation of protein synthesis in Escherichia coli," PNAS, 72:4734-8, 1975. (502)

  • E.S. Vitetta, S. Baur, J.W. Uhr, "Cell surface immunoglobulin. II. Isolation and characterization of immunoglobulin from mouse splenic lymphocytes," J. Exp. Med., 134:242-64, 1971. (409)

  • F. Wong-Staal, R.C. Gallo, "Human T-lymphotropic retroviruses," Nature, 317:395-403, 1985. (292) *Number in parentheses represents total 1945-88 citations.
  • A prominent neuroscientist ranks eighth on the list of top women in science, with almost 3,000 citations to her works. Candace B. Pert studies the chemical characteristics, distribution, and function of brain peptides and their receptors. She coauthored her classic work, which appeared in Science in 1973, with neuropharmacologist Solomon Snyder of Johns Hopkins University.

    This paper dealt with the discovery of opiate receptors in the brain. More recently, Pert has studied the link between neuropeptides and AIDS. In fact, in a 1986 article published in PNAS (83:9254-8, 1986), Pert and her colleagues suggest that T4 antigens present on T lymphocytes may serve as the receptor for HIV.

    The ninth and 10th women on the list have written the oldest papers featured in Table 2. Marilyn Gist Farquhar, a cell biologist and pathologist, currently teaches at the University of California, San Diego in La Jolla. She has done research on a wide range of topics, including electron microscopy; cytochemistry and cell fractionation of the aterior pituitary gland, kidney, and leukocytes; cell secretion; structure and function of Golgi complex; and lysosomes and intracellular membrane traffic. Her most recent highly cited work was published in the Journal of Cell Biology (91:577-105, 1981). This paper reviewed the Golgi (complex) apparatus from 1954 to 1981. The most cited work of her career (1,854 citations), however, appeared in this same journal 18 years earlier and discussed junctional complexes in various epithelia.

    According to Vitetta, Farquhar's work is good classic research that has become so well established that it's considered textbook material. As such, Farquhar's work is frequently no longer explicitly cited. Obliteration by incorporation, or OBI, is often the ironic fate of researchers who make basic but vital contributions to science. Farquhar's work, however, continues to demonstrate explicit impact on current research, as evidenced by the 2,300 citations she received from 1981 to 1988.

    The oldest most cited paper written by these 10 women was that of Sheila Sherlock, of the Royal Free Hospital, London, and appeared in Lancet in 1954. A gastroenterologist specializing in liver disease, Sherlock recently published the eighth edition of the now classic text on liver dysfunction, Diseases of the Liver and Biliary System (Blackwell Scientific Publications, Oxford, 1989). Sherlock continues to contribute original research papers as well as editorials and reviews.

    All 10 women in this study are involved in biomedical research, which is not surprising the fields in the biosciences consistently receive more citations than other areas of research, owing in part to the larger number of publishing scientists in these disciplines.

    This list also excludes women who publish infrequently or whose work was prominent in decades other than the 1980s, observes Caroline Herzenberg, a physicist at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, and a past president of the Washington, D.C.-based Association for Women in Science (AWIS). In fact, she and AWIS president-elect Barbara Sloat of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, point out that the list does not include any women Nobel Prize winners. Their work is undeniably as important in their fields as that of any of the women in this study.

    Abigail Grissom is a freelance science writer based in Drexel Hill, Pa.