The Lasting Legacy of One Gram of Radium
This article was written by AAUW President Patricia Fae Ho.
On a fine autumn Sunday in Warsaw, we began our visit of Poland, “following in the footsteps of Marie Sklodowska Curie.” Our AAUW delegation had the exciting opportunity to celebrate the significant achievements of the Polish-born scientist, who won the Nobel Prize in physics and chemistry and left a legacy of scientific research in her native country.
We were warmly acknowledged at each of our stops for the generous donation of funds by our predecessor, the Association of Collegiate Allumnae (ACA), for the purchase of Madame Curie’s gram of radium. This gift allowed the eminent scientist to continue her relentless work and to facilitate establishment of the Radium Institute for research. From this followed the founding of the Cancer Centre and Institute of Oncology, the government-funded, largest cancer research and treatment facility in Poland.
Magdalena Chechlinska, head of the institute’s Department of Immunology, described the institute’s work, and invited us to meet with her colleagues, with whom we discussed issues of women in STEM, gender equity, and opportunities for advancement in medicine.
We then viewed a nuclear reactor named MARIA — a unique first experience for each of us! This was the highlight of our tour at the National Centre for Nuclear Research. An awe-inspiring conversation with Associate Professor Anna Wysocka-Rabin introduced us to the complexities of linear electron accelerators used in radiotherapy and medical physics. It was a privilege for us to meet women scientists who are dedicated to advancing applications for medical research.
But what about the success rates of women in STEM fields in Poland? Although women comprise 65 percent of university students, only 37 percent of technical university students are female. And according to the Perspektywy Education Foundation, that number is up from just 29 percent in 2008. The foundation is committed to advancing gender equality and supporting women’s careers in technology through mentoring programs, research in career choices, and campaigns to engage girls in STEM.
What will the future hold for the women studying technical fields? According to Malgorzata Fuszara, secretary of state for equal treatment in the chancellery of the prime minister, gender stereotypes still exist, girls and women face obstacles in STEM education, and men still dominate the upper echelons.
Indeed, in all our conversations with professional women in Poland, they told us that these issues — exacerbated by difficulties with work-family balance and lack of child care support — have posed great challenges to them. They were somewhat comforted by the fact that similar issues confront women in the United States. However, we all agreed that we must persevere together to secure women’s equity as a crucial aspect of global social justice.