Monica Schmidt, assistant professor in the School of Plant Sciences, supported KEYS intern Melisa Bohlman in 2014. (Photo: Chad Westover from Biomedical Communications)
Monica Schmidt, assistant professor in the School of Plant Sciences, supported KEYS intern Melisa Bohlman in 2014. (Photo: Chad Westover from Biomedical Communications)

Underscoring Women Innovators, Champions in STEM

Two UA researchers, both scheduled to give talks during the Tucson Festival of Books, speak about the importance of the current nationwide conversation about the contributions of women in STEM.
March 6, 2017
UA researcher Felicia Goodrum (left) has developed a physiologically relevant in vitro model for the study of HCMV latency. A member of the UA's BIO5 Institute, Goodrum also involves student researchers, such as Bre Eder (right), an undergraduate in the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, in her investigations. (Photo: Robert Meares/BIO5 Institute)
UA researcher Felicia Goodrum (left) has developed a physiologically relevant in vitro model for the study of HCMV latency. A member of the UA's BIO5 Institute, Goodrum also involves student researchers, such as Bre Eder (right), an undergraduate in the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, in her investigations. (Photo: Robert Meares/BIO5 Institute)
UA researcher Felicia Goodrum says: "I think too many women think that the demands of academic science and having a family are too hard — bordering on impossible. It isn't. You just have to be happy with the monopoly that these two things — family and science — will have on your life. Science needs women. They approach mentoring and scientific questions in entirely different ways. I love the diversity of science."
UA researcher Felicia Goodrum says: "I think too many women think that the demands of academic science and having a family are too hard — bordering on impossible. It isn't. You just have to be happy with the monopoly that these two things — family and science — will have on your life. Science needs women. They approach mentoring and scientific questions in entirely different ways. I love the diversity of science."

The Oscar-nominated "Hidden Figures," which presents the untold story of how NASA scientists Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughn helped launch astronaut John Glenn into orbit, has helped elevate a nationwide conversation about the historic and ongoing contributions of women in the STEM fields.

Felicia Goodrum, associate professor in the University of Arizona Department of Immunobiology, said the conversation and visibility is necessary. 

"Science is a great place for women. I have generally always felt welcome and respected. Rarely have I felt gender is an issue. However, I know it is out there and adversity exists," said Goodrum, also a BIO5 Institute member, who joined the UA faculty in 2006 to start her own independent research program.

Goodrum, who investigates the molecular virus-host interactions important to human cytomegalovirus, or CMV, latency and persistence, will speak during the Tucson Festival of Books, to be held March 11 and 12. Goodrum's presentation, "Getting to Know the Viruses We Live With," will be held March 11 at noon at the Science Café in Science City. A Science City events schedule is available online.

"There are very few senior women in my field," Goodrum said, noting that the late Priscilla A. Schaffer is one of her most respected mentors. Schaffer, a scientist known for her contributions to herpes virology research, was a researcher at Harvard Medical School and the University of Pennsylvania. Schaffer continued her research of herpes viruses at the UA until 2007 and died in 2009.

"Schaffer was as keen a scientist as there ever was and an incredible mentor," Goodrum said, adding that she takes pride in the work of others, such as Joan A. Steitz, a pioneer of RNA research at Yale University; microbiologist Blossom Damania of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; and biologist Pippa Marrack of the University of Colorado, Denver.

Goodrum's personal goal: "Simply to contribute strong science that helps us better understand an important basic biological principle and, in the process, to make a difference in the development of young scientists."

Several other Tucson Festival of Books events speak to the historic contributions of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. They include:

  • "Incredible Stories From Space," to be held March 11 from 1-2 p.m. on the Science City Main Stage. Panelists are Nancy Atkinson, editor and writer for Universe Today, and Kristin Block, a planetary scientist at the UA Lunar and Planetary Laboratory who is principal science operations engineer for the HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
  • New York Times best-selling author Nathalia Holt and Deva Sobel, also a best-selling author, will speak about women who have conducted transformative work in science and technology. Their talk, "Rockets, Stars and the Women Who Changed It All," will be held March 11 from 2:30-3:30 p.m. at the Student Union Memorial Center's Gallagher Theater. Ticket information is available online.
  • On March 11 at 4:30 p.m., UA geosciences professor Julia Cole will present her talk, "​Can Coral Reefs be Saved?" The event will be held at the Science Café in Science City.
  • On March 12 at noon, ​Anna Dornhaus, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, will present her talk, "Science and Society, Nature and Engineering: What We Can Learn About Organization From Social Insects," at the Science Café in Science City.
  • "Women Writing About Women in Science" will be held March 12 at 1 p.m. on the Science Stage in Science City. In addition to Block and Holt, journalist and author Julian Guthrie will share their experiences as women writing about other women in the sciences and their influences and challenges.
  • Also on March 12 at the Science Café in Science City, Brenda Frye, an assistant astronomer in the Department of Astronomy and Steward Observatory, will present "Finding the Best Natural Telescopes in Space" at 1:30 p.m.

Also during the Tucson Festival of Books, Monica Schmidt, assistant professor in the School of Plant Sciences, will present "​Functional Foods Through Biotechnology" on March 11 at 3 p.m. at the Science Café in Science City.

Schmidt, also a member of the BIO5 Institute, said she has been interested in genetics since taking high school biology. It was then that she learned about the work of Gregor Johann Mendel, a 19th-century scientist known as the founder of modern genetics research.

Among contemporaries, Schmidt said she is encouraged by the work of Mary Dell Chilton, a founder of modern plant biotechnology. "I admire how her work has helped feed the world," said Schmidt, who also takes inspiration from Jennifer Doundna, a University of California, Berkeley, researcher who is revolutionizing biotechnology with newly discovered gene editing techniques. She also has been influenced by the work of Albert Einstein.

"Physics and genetics were both part of my early undergraduate education as they both are sciences where the thought experiments underlie laboratory work," she said. "My overarching goal is to use science to make an impact on global food security."