This interview was donated to the Pembroke Center Oral History Project by Lily Cohen, class of 2012. Cohen conducted an interview with her mother, Barbara E. Ehrlich, class of 1974, to discuss the history and future of women in science. At the time of the interview in 2017, Cohen was a scientist at University of Alaska – Fairbanks and Ehrlich was Professor of Pharmacology and of Cellular and Molecular Physiology at Yale University. Cohen was considering leaving the sciences because of glaring gender inequities. In the interview, Cohen captures her mother’s experience from her undergraduate work through her current professional career.
Ehrlich begins by discussing the fact that it never occurred to her that she would not become a scientist. It was a vision she developed as a young child and then pursued as an adult. She explains that her first job was at the Marine Biological Lab in Woods Hole, Massachusetts in 1972 where she faced much sexual discrimination. She had to force her way into lectures, becoming the only woman to do so at the lab.
She goes on to reminisce about her time at Brown University, specifically working under Helen FitzGerald Cserr. Ehrlich elaborates on the support and encouragement she received from Cserr as well as Cserr’s involvement in the Louise Lamphere vs Brown University sex discrimination lawsuit. Despite this infamous case, Ehrlich admits to not really noticing gender bias in the sciences until she entered graduate school where again she was the only woman in her program after three other women dropped out for various reasons.
Ehrlich shares more examples of sexism that she experienced as a postdoc and in her early career as a professor. Throughout the interview, she demonstrates the struggle she experiences between loving her work as a scientist and recognizing the biases that are rampant through the profession. To her daughter, Ehrlich says that the most important thing is to make sure to give back whether it be through science or any other talent.