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Past BNL History Still Present: Brookhaven Women in Science

Brookhaven Women in Science (BWIS) is a well-recognized institution within the Lab community. An interdisciplinary organization, BWIS aims at increasing awareness of the accomplishments of women in science and aiding women’s advancement in scientific and technical careers. Among other activities, BWIS members award two prestigious annual scholarships for women, organize career days for high school and college girls and boys, and host talks on forefront topics of wide scientific interest. In fact, the next BWIS-sponsored speaker, Katherine Prestridge of Los Alamos National Laboratory, will be speaking about “Clouds, Waves and Supernovas: Understanding Fluid Mixing in Extreme Conditions” on March 15.

Said Lab Director Sam Aronson, “These days, when women provide leadership in so many fields, it could be easy for many of us to assume that the difficulties that women in science faced in the past are a thing of the past. But we have not yet reached gender equality in science and technology and BWIS continues to be an important part of striving for that goal. The Brookhaven administration has always supported the work of BWIS, which enriches the Lab in ways that benefit us all, and continues to do so.”

First Steps

BWIS was conceived about 1977-79 as the brainchild of the late Victoria McLane, who worked at BNL’s National Nuclear Data Center (NNDC), and 1995 retiree Harriet Martin, who in the late 70s held two part-time librarian positions, one at the Alternating Gradient Synchrotron Department and one at the NNDC, where McLane — a computer ‘maven,’ according to Martin — was her supervisor.

As Martin recalls, “Before coming to BNL, I had been active in getting the Three Village School District to comply with Title IX, which was a federal law concerning gender equality in the schools. At BNL, I convinced Vicki with very little persuasion that with women scientists and engineers working here, we could organize a group to go to the schools and talk about science and engineering to girls to get more of them into fields where women were scarce. This effort Vicki named ‘One Mind,’ after a quote by Plato.

“We contacted and introduced to each other women scientists and professional staff to let them know our plans,” continued Martin. “Vicki enlisted the help of mentors to back us — including the late Sol Pearlstein, who headed the NNDC and allowed us to work on the project during lunch and after hours, and the late Warren Winche, BNL Deputy Director, who was very supportive and gave a talk to our group about the Lab culture. Others who smoothed our path were the late physicist Gertrude Scharff-Goldhaber, who was the first female Ph.D. hired at Brookhaven; Janet Whitehead of the then-Personnel Division; and the late Gail Williams, manager of Scientific Personnel.”

Naming BWIS

The initial goal was to send female BNL employees into local schools and libraries to serve as role models for students. First named BNL Scientific and Professional Women, the group made its debut on Valentine’s Day of 1979 at the Bay Shore-Brightwaters Public Library.

Then, after more discussion among the pioneers of the group (and “hours and hours of work” by McLane and Martin, said Martin, in writing a charter), on September 26, 1979, the group became BWIS. Founding members included retirees Louise Hanson and Eena-Mai Franz — Franz and Martin being the first BWIS leaders or “co-cordinators;” Stephanie LaMontagne, now of the Collider-Accelerator Department; and the late Prantika Som of the Medical Department. Over the years, these women and many others built up BWIS activities and enlarged its scope to benefit all BNL employees.

Said Martin, “Vicki used to say that I was the ‘idea’ person and she was the one who implemented the logistics. I think we both did equal work in both areas, but Vicki did leave me most of the one-to-one and general P.R. work in trying to inspire others to join us. We both believed that our lasting legacy to BNL was BWIS.”

When BWIS first met in 1979, the group could not have foreseen that, over 30-plus years, their network would have accomplished so much at and for BNL. For example, in 1982, a branch of a federal credit union was established at BNL as a result of a BWIS proposal to ensure equal credit opportunity for all Lab employees and facility-users. Thanks to BWIS’s efforts, in 1988, BNL permitted both women and men employees to take up to three months of leave following the birth or adoption of a child. Also thanks to a BWIS initiative, the first child care center nationwide built and dedicated at a DOE Facility was established at BNL in 1990.

“That’s not all,” said LaMontagne. “BWIS members participated in Brookhaven Town’s Dress for Success program and the annual walk in Stony Brook to raise funds for cancer research. We also developed a relationship with the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) program at Stony Brook University — WISE organizers and students have joined in the BWIS career day events and we have attended WISE functions.

“The social aspects of BWIS should not be overlooked,” continued LaMontagne. “Life at the Lab in the early 80’s could be very lonely for women. Lasting friendships grew from the network we built. We spent time together informally and rarely missed an opportunity to celebrate a marriage, the birth of a child, or a significant professional achievement. BWIS had a profound influence on my life, enabling me to achieve change and enrichment. On the job now, I still actively work to support women colleagues who struggle to balance the demands of family and career, and within my family, I share what I have learned from BWIS with my daughter.”

Open to both women and men, BWIS is supported through yearly members’ dues, as well as by contributions from BSA.

“Women have made strides in achieving equality in the work place, but we are not quite there yet,” said Vivian Stojanoff of the Photon Sciences Directorate, who, with Linda Bowerman of the Global & Regional Solutions Directorate, currently leads BWIS. “The role of BWIS today is to celebrate women’s participation in science through a vigorous colloquia program and to stimulate young women into science careers through mentorship and professional networking.”

— Marsha Belford and Diane Greenberg, with Liz Seubert

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