Women in Science

Shirley Tilghman is the nineteenth president of Princeton University, and is the first woman to hold the position. Tilghman served on the Princeton faculty for fifteen years before being named President. A native of Canada, Tilghman was educated at Queen's University and Temple University. She is a renowned molecular biologist, known particularly for her pioneering research in mammalian developmental genetics. She served as a member of the National Research Council's committee that set the blueprint for the U.S. effort in the Human Genome Project and was one of the founding members of the National Advisory Council of the Human Genome Project Initiative for the National Institutes of Health.

In 2002, Tilghman was one of five winners of the L'Oréal-UNESCO Award for Women in Science.  In the following year, she received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society for Developmental Biology, and in 2007, she was awarded the Genetics Society of America Medal for outstanding contributions to her field.  Tilghman is a member of the American Philosophical Society, the National Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Medicine, and the Royal Society of London. She chairs the Association of American Universities and serves as a trustee of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, and as a director of Google Inc.

  • Transcript


I think my father influenced me more than any other person when I was growing up.

I was the eldest of three daughters. He clearly was someone who believed in women’s rights well before there was such a thing as a women’s rights movement. He told me from the moment I can remember that I could be anything that I chose to be if I was prepared to work hard. He never set limits to my dreams. He encouraged my interest in mathematics. And I think without that encouragement I would be doing something very different today.

I don’t really remember what it was, but my earliest memory was one of loving puzzles. I loved math puzzles in particular and still do them. My father and I at bedtime used to do math puzzles together rather than read stories together. So I think from the very beginning, it was some fascination with numbers that I really can’t explain.

It is very important that we continue to encourage young women . . . girls to think about science. I think the rationale is extremely straightforward, and that is that we have to be drawing our scientific future from the largest talent pool that we possibly can. And if we’re restricting that talent pool in any way, including by discouraging girls, then inevitably the quality of the science that is done in the future will not be nearly as good. There are many reasons why women ultimately are discouraged from entering science. I think most of them are cultural. Most of them have to do with what little girls are encouraged to do, and how those are different from what little boys are encouraged to do. I think there are unrecognized stereotypical attitudes that many of us in society have developed about the appropriateness of a girl going into science that need to be stamped out. I think colleges and universities like my own have to be far more encouraging as well. So I think there are literally hundreds of ways in which we could begin to do this. There is not a silver bullet. There is not a single thing, but there are many things. And if we do even a handful of them, we’ll probably make progress. Recorded on: 8/7/07