Vermont's Women of Science

Imagine that you are a girl from a small town in Vermont, born the year that the Civil War began. Times are difficult. Women's educational opportunities are limited, and suffrage is at least six decades in the future. But you are a promising student with a gift for science and mathematics. What could your life hold? A struggle as a mill worker, service as a school teacher, or a career as a brilliant scientific researcher? If you believe that anything is possible, then read the history of one of our Vermont foremothers.

Our Past
Nettie Maria Stevens, discoverer of the chromosomal determination of sex, was born in Cavendish, Vermont in 1861. The child of working-class parents, she was one of the first American women to achieve recognition for her contributions to scientific research. Stevens conducted research in cell biology and regeneration, but her greatest contribution to science was the demonstration that sex is determined by a particular chromosome. Steven's breakthrough in research resulted from her study of the common mealworm. In this species she observed that while the egg always contained ten large chromosomes, there were two possibilities for the pronuclei of the spermatocytes -- they could have either ten large chromosomes or nine large and one small. Stevens concluded that this represented a case of sex determination by a difference in the size of a particular pair of chromosomes. Though Steven's theory was correct, it was not universally accepted by biologists at the time, and she herself constantly questioned her assumption of a Mendelian basis for the inheritance of sex.

Our Present
Nancy Nutile-McMenemy of Weathersfield, Vermont also conducts genetic research. A 20th century Nettie Stevens, Nancy studied animal science and zoology, specializing in cell biology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. As a member of a Dartmouth Medical School research team that studied four multi-generational families for over a decade, Nancy and others identified a gene that carries a rare form of cancer through families. With the gene identified, they are now working toward a simple blood test that will replace a lengthy and painful chemical test to determine its presence. A positive blood test for the gene mutation will help individuals seek treatment at an early age.

Nancy is also a member of the WIT speakers bureau. In August, she treated our VISMT-High School campers to a lively presentation on genetic research and counseling and a demonstration of how DNA molecules are separated into strands. Nancy discussed the many opportunities for women in science and pointed to VTC's new biotechnology program as a way to prepare Vermont students for them.

Our Future
Biotechnology is the everyday magic that transforms grapes into wine...the medical miracle that creates new disease-fighting drugs...the futuristic science of genetic engineering. Biotechnology has evolved over decades as a blend of engineering and life sciences, and promises to become a major world-wide industry with far-reaching impacts across the broad spectrum of our social and economic lives. As biotech companies move from research and development into the production phase of their work, more technicians will be needed in quality control and varous aspects of production. Basic research is another activity requiring significant numbers of qualified technicians in university, private and government laboratories -- a demand that will only grow stronger for the foreseeable future. VTC's Associate in Applied Science in Biotechnology was developed to meet this need. It will begin the 1995 Fall Semester. Graduates of the program will be equipped with skills that will qualify them to perform the many specialized procedures carried out in industry and research laboratories or to continue their education at the baccalaureate level.

c Women in Technology News, Fall, 1994, Vol. 11, No. 1

Return to WIT Home PageReturn to WIT Home Page