Tieraona’s Sheroes: Women in Science and Medicine

Dr. Tieraona Low Dog

In celebration of Women’s History Month, I thought I’d take a moment to honor some of my “sheroes” in the fields of science. Some you probably know, some you may not. All have such powerful stories of commitment, perseverance, intellect, and humanity.

— Tieraona Low Dog, M.D.

“Here’s to strong women. May we know them. May we be them. May we raise them.” — Anonymous

I have had a deep affinity for nature and biology since I was a child. I loved learning the names of plants and where the animals lived and how we fit into the whole glorious picture. While I have learned from many women across my lifetime, my earliest and wisest teachers were my grandmothers. One graduated high school, the other 8th grade, yet the foundation of everything I would learn about life, about mystery, about the Creator, and about myself, sprang from them.

I was particularly close to my Grandma Jo, a fiercely intelligent and intuitive woman who showed me the ways of the world with kindness, patience, and humor. She told me once that when we are born, we are set upon a path that is our medicine road. She told me our entire life is about learning to be human. All the choices we make along the way affect our thoughts, our relationships, our health, and the world around us. This lesson resonated with me deeply…it set the tone for my life.

In celebration of Women’s History Month, I thought I’d take a moment to honor some of my “sheroes” in the fields of science. Some you probably know, some you may not. All have such powerful stories of commitment, perseverance, intellect, and humanity.

Elizabeth Blackburn, Molecular Biologist

Years ago, I started hearing all about telomeres, the caps on our DNA that protect them from damage. It turns out that many of the lifestyle recommendations we espouse in holistic/integrative medicine support our telomeres, thus protecting our health. I read with great interest The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer by Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn and Dr. Elissa Epel in 2017. The book elegantly lays out how we can all lengthen our telomeres (and our lifespans) by eating well, exercising, managing stress, and getting enough sleep.

That got me interested in learning more about the authors. I learned Elizabeth Blackburn was born in Tasmania, Australia, in 1948 to physician parents and geologist grandparents. Her love of animals and nature and infatuation with the story of Madame Curie inspired her to pursue a career in science and a Ph.D. from Cambridge.

Blackburn’s study of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and telomerase won her a Nobel Prize in 2009. In 2015, she became the first woman president of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, a scientific research organization in California. She retired from the position in 2018 but continues to work on science policy and ethics.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Astrophysicist

I am a lover of the stars. As a child, my grandfather bought us a telescope and I spent many, many nights learning the names of constellations and dreaming about distant planets. I became hooked on the series How the Universe Works which had amazing graphics and brilliant narration. I remember learning about neutron stars, the remnants of massive stars that went supernova. These rapidly rotating neutron stars were named pulsars as they emit regular pulses of radio waves that can be detected on earth. In 2018, I read about the woman who won the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics (worth three million dollars) for her discovery of pulsars almost 50 years earlier. I was intrigued.

I watched the story of Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell on part 1 of Beautiful Minds that aired on BBC Four. A brilliant and fascinating woman, Jocelyn Bell was born in Ireland in 1943. She faced discrimination and bullying as one of the very few women in her undergraduate physics department, yet she graduated with honors then went on to receive a doctorate from Cambridge in 1969. While studying at Cambridge, Bell and her supervisor made what was to become one of the most significant astronomical discoveries of the 20th century – pulsars. However, it was her supervisor, Antony Hewish, who went on to win the Nobel Prize for the discovery in 1974. Almost 50 years later, she was finally honored for her work with a three million dollar prize and then…she donated all of the money to support women, refugee, and under-represented ethnic minority students to become physics researchers.

Jane Goodall, Primatologist, Ethologist, and Anthropologist

I love Africa, especially Kenya and Uganda. I feel sad every time we board the plane home. There is something so immense and magical about the land, the plants, the people, and the animals. The big cats, particularly the lionesses and their cubs, are my favorites. But spending time with the chimps in Kibale National Park and the mountain gorillas in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, both in Uganda, were life-changing experiences. To walk beside them, to observe them and interact with them was surreal. There is a quote by Jane Goodall hanging on a faded photograph on the wall of the ranger’s station in Kibale that said, “Only if we understand can we care. Only if we care will we help. Only if we help shall they be saved.

I have always admired Jane Goodall — I’m continually inspired by (and in awe of) her dedication and grace. Born in England in 1934, Goodall was interested in animals from a very early age. She couldn’t afford to go to college and worked a variety of jobs until she was invited by a family friend to go to Africa in 1957, where she met Louis Leakey, the famed archaeologist. Leakey hired her to be his secretary at the site of his archaeological dig and then encouraged her in 1960, to study chimpanzees in the Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania. Leakey arranged for Jane to earn her Ph.D. in ethology from Cambridge University, one of only eight people ever to have a doctoral dissertation accepted by the university without first having an undergraduate degree.

Goodall was sponsored by the National Geographic Society to stay in Gombe and continue studying the chimps. Goodall’s work with the chimps was groundbreaking. She observed chimp behaviors that had never been seen before, like the use of sticks as tools. She showed the world how closely these animals resemble humans, and opened our eyes to the dangers that they face.

Goodall has used her platform to advocate not just for chimps, but for the entire planet. She founded environmental protection organizations like the Jane Goodall Institute to protect chimps and their habitat and continues to work toward world peace with the United Nations.

There is still so much in the world worth fighting for. So much that is beautiful, so many wonderful people working to reverse the harm, to help alleviate the suffering. And so many young people dedicated to making this a better world. All conspiring to inspire us and to give us hope that it is not too late to turn things around, if we all do our part.” — Dr. Jane Goodall’s New Year Message, 2018


Rachel Carson, Marine Biologist, Conservationist, and Author

Along with Jane Goodall, Rachel Carson is at the top of my sheroes list. I have long admired her tireless commitment to all the inhabitants of our world. I always quote her when doing my talks on the Greening of Medicine or the Poisoned Well. She inspired me to study biology and be part of a greater environmental movement. I read her book Silent Spring in my late teens and it had a powerful impact on me. Like many young people growing up in the 1960s and 70s – we were taught about the “food chain” – humans on top. However, through the work of Rachel Carson and others, it became clear we are part of an intricate web of interdependence.

Rachel Carson was born on a farm in Pennsylvania in 1907, where she spent her childhood learning about the creatures that inhabited the air, land, and water. She earned her master’s degree in zoology from Johns Hopkins but decided not to pursue a Ph.D. so that she could help support her family after her father died.

Carson was hired by the US Bureau of Fisheries and wrote articles on natural history for the Baltimore Sun newspaper. She eventually went on to become editor-in-chief of all publications put out by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. She was a prolific writer, though it was her study of the ocean in The Sea Around Us that gained wide acclaim. After winning the National Book award in 1952, she retired from her government job and focused on her writing.

After WWII, Carson became increasingly concerned about the widespread use of synthetic pesticides. Challenging both governmental and agricultural scientists, she used her scientific experience and her gift of writing to pen Silent Spring, which exposed the harm DDT was doing to the ecosystem. As a result, she was attacked and vilified by those who saw her as a threat to their pocketbooks and way of life. Her tireless efforts, including an appearance before the US Senate, all while battling breast cancer, didn’t just raise awareness — it also incited action. The Environmental Protection Agency was created as a direct result of her work. Carson died in 1964, only two years after the publication of Silent Spring, but her legacy continues to fuel the environmental conservation movement.

We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road — the one less traveled by — offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.” ― Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

I know this was a little long but it was so much fun to write about these amazing women who contributed so much to the world of science. I highly recommend the book Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World by Rachel Ignotofsky. Makes a great gift for the budding scientist in your life!

We are volcanoes. When we women offer our experience as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains.” — Ursula K. LeGuin