When did you Know You were going to become a scientist?
In college, I started out studying pre-psychology then pre-law. Still, I kept taking math and science classes because, to
me, that was part of education. One day, my chemistry teacher took me aside and asked if I had ever considered being
a chemist. It boiled down to something that was interesting, that came relatively easy to me, and that paid well.
How did you decide to pursue your phD?
My husband wanted to get his PhD in Biochemistry, but I had never considered such a thing. Most girls growing up
would never consider a PhD in Science. My husband encouraged me to go for it and he supported me the entire time
Have you ever felt being a woman in science was an obstacle?
Not at all, I have actually been spoiled in that regard. Everywhere I have been I have had good female and male
influences and support. I do believe that there are some differences as a woman...not that my colleagues or professors
made it difficult for me, rather, it was my own attitude towards things. I have heard that for a woman to do something
she has to be 80% sure that it will be successful, but for a man it is more like 20-30%. That's the sort of thing I had to
overcome more, my own hesitance to try something that might not be successful. Like being reluctant to dive in and
use an intimidating instrument because I might break it. My female students, generally, are also a lot more reluctant to
go in there because they might mess it up. The guys may be thinking that something may go wrong, but they don't seem
to be as deterred by that...I usually don't have to encourage them as much to get their hands on the instrument. So the
difference, to me, frequently boils down to not so much that the boys want to keep you out of the club, but we assume
that everybody is smarter than us or has more experience and we end up not being as willing to go in there and just
learn by trying. As women, we may have the same confidence, but we seem to have a lower threshold for the risk that
we are willing to accept maybe because we take failure a little more personally. As a fix, I think, you have to work on
yourself and have a good support system and good relationships with your colleagues. The closer friendships and the
better collegiality you can build, the more comfortable you feel. As a woman, I think that's even more important to us
- that we feel comfortable in our workplace, so then it's not so bad if we make a mistake or things don't quite go our
Why do women make such great scientists?
Any problem benefits from being looked at with a new set of eyes. Women do look at things differently than men do...it's
part nature and part nurture, I think. I wouldn't say we do anything better or worse than men, but the combination of us
and them thinking about the problem and looking from different angles and different experiences is what helps drive
things forward and come up with new and innovative ways of doing things. With every semester and every generation, I
hope there will be more improvement in women believing that their way of thinking is valid and valuable. I believe that
the more different ideas, the better.
If you could spend the day with any scientist who would it be?
I would want to meet with Marie Curie, but hopefully without any of her radioactive stuff around. It would be interesting
to see how she approached research as a woman going through it in a time where it was still very difficult for a woman
to make her mark. Also, I would want to sit down and talk to her and find out how these incredible scientific discoveries
were made without any of the modern tools...with just simple observations really. It just flabbergasts me.
Do You Have Any Words To Live By?
I like Einstein's quote, "If we knew what we were doing it wouldn't be called research." Also, I don't know who said it
first, but I like, "Where everyone thinks alike, no one is really thinking at all."
What do you like to do in your spare time?
I have lots of cats and two dogs. I like to garden, write young adult fiction, and poke fun at my husband in a magazine
column titled, "The Sportsman's Widow".
Dr. Alexandra Stenson with student Erin Capley.
Dr. Alexandra Stenson with her students at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory in Tallahassee, FL.