University of Vermont

For 50 Years, a Rare Woman Scientist in a 'Man's World'

Commencement Speaker: Wallace Became Expert on DNA Damage & Repair

Wallace walking across stage.
Wallace reflected on becoming a scientist in the era of sexism, women's lib., Title 9 and affirmative action.
  • The day she flew to Berkeley, California, in 1959 to pursue graduate studies in biophyics, was her first-ever cross-country airplane trip.
  • She was the only woman in the University of California-Berkeley's biophysics department, and later in the early 1960s, Cornell University's biophysics department.
  • Albert Einstein College of Medicine told her that her credentials were excellent, but they didn’t take married women with children as postdoctoral fellows.

Distinguished University Professor Susan Wallace has been a pioneering woman of science in a "man' world."

"As a woman scientist it certainly has been interesting to experience overt sexism, women’s liberation, Title 9 and affirmative action, all in one lifetime," she told more than 1,200 people on Sunday, May 20. Wallace was commencement speaker for the University of Vermont College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at the UVM athletic complex multipurpose facility.

Wallace is professor and chair of the department of microbiology and molecular genetics in the Colleges of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) and Medicine. She has been lauded as an outstanding scientist, sought-after collaborator and international leader.

She had the right message for the right audience – the ratio of female to male grads in CALS is 3:1. Both genders laughed when Wallace told how male faculty members blushed when she, as a pregnant woman, walked into their offices. And she recalls, "when I was about eight months pregnant, (at a lecture) my baby started to visibly kick and the row of men on either side of me nervously got up and found other seats."

She has made significant contributions to biomedical science and specifically the field of radiation research. Since her first publication in 1969, she has built a body of over 160 publications during a career that spans the genetic revolution as well as the exponential growth of radiation oncology as a field of scientific research. In May 2011, she was recognized as a prominent UVM professor with the rank of Distinguished University Professor.

Wallace is a now world-renowned expert on DNA damage and repair and radiation research, especially as it informs cancer treatment. And she rose to the highest levels of her profession despite obstacles. She recalls that when she applied for her first NIH grant (National Institutes of Health) she was told "they'd never given a grant to a woman with children before, and they weren't sure they should."

She got that grant – in fact she still has it, has been twice honored with a prestigious NIH MERIT award and has been continuously funded by the National Institutes of Health since 1971. She recently received an NIH Program Project grant award to support a new translational research effort exploring if certain DNA repair protein variants in the human population increase the risk for some types of cancer.

Wallace admitted that she rarely experienced overt sexism and, in fact, had many male mentors. She's watched the numbers tip toward more women in science, though "women still have a way to go in engineering, physics, math and especially computer science where the numbers are falling," and she cited statistics showing that there are fewer women in leadership, salaries are inequitable and the issues of combining career, marriage and children are still a big factor. "When a woman opts out of a higher stakes career early on, it is almost impossible for her to enter such a career later when her children are older," she observes.

To the graduating men she implored, "I paraphrase Steve Jobs: Stay hungry, stay foolish and you will be successful but at the same time be a good partner and a kick-ass dad!"

To the graduating women: "I am pleading with you, choose careers where you can make a difference. The world needs women in decision making roles if we are going to change how we operate….just look at what the world has become with men making all the decisions."