Name: Marilyn Ramenofsky
Occupation: Professor Biology - Migratory Birds
Age at interview: 70
Country of residence: America
Languages spoken: English
Advice to other women: "Put yourself in the shoes of your students or someone who seems to be struggling. It’s ok to be generous. Sometimes it’s not the easiest thing to do but it can have a huge impact on others as well as yourself."
I have the absolute honour of introducing you to the extremely accomplished Professor Marilyn Ramenofsky. With a scientific career spanning nearly 50 years, Marilyn is a pioneer in the field of physiology and behaviour of migratory birds publishing many influential papers that have influenced and continue to influence the field. In addition to this, prior to her scientific career, Marilyn was also a competitive swimmer….and by competitive swimmer I mean she competed in the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo where she won the silver medal in the women’s 400-metre free style and in that same year set three new world record times for women’s 400-metre freestyle. Accordingly, in 1988 Marilyn was inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. So as you can see, Marilyn is extremely accomplished and we have endless amounts to talk about. But to begin, welcome Marilyn. I thought we'd start with speaking about your scientific career and what is is that you have been researching.
So my interest has always been at the intersection of physiology, behaviour and evolution, and what we have tried to do in my lab is really try to understand how the environment influences, that is selects for the very complicated life history of migratory birds. To really appreciate what that entails includes a variety of different physiologies and behaviours that take place annually as organisms keep pace with environmental conditions. Our work has tracked migratory birds in various locations, areas where they winter and where they breed and all the connectors where they travel between both sites.
How did you come to be interested in that aspect of science? As you travel through your career you narrow down into a specific field. Is this something you’ve always been interested in?
Well I think I’ve always been curious and looking back, I didn’t realize what was going on at the time, but I remember as a child watching a pair of House finches build a nest under a metal roof of my parent’s backyard, in Phoenix, Arizona, in summer with temperatures measured at the nest near 50°C. I doubt I knew much about any of this at the time but I just found it curious and started asking questions. As I went on in my education, I was a math major in high school, but in college I realized there were many other opportunities and majors and I just loved being outside. So I switched to a Botany Major and studied marine algae, then in grad school I moved more into insect endocrinology and that led to vertebrate endocrinology and animal behaviour. So it’s been a very long and circuitous kind of career. But I think in many ways, all those paths and turns have created for me a curiosity that is broad reaching.
With the type of science you’re doing, are you equal amounts of time in the lab and the field? It sounds like you must have travelled around the world, studying migratory birds?
(Laughs) Yep. No, it is really a match between observation in the field and gaining an appreciation of your organisms their habitats and the environmental conditions to which they are exposed. And from there, generating hypotheses that then you can test both in the field and laboratory. For specific questions, studies in the laboratory where many variables can be controlled is monumental as well as working with an organism that is adaptable for such studies. So a lot of my work has focused on migratory song birds, (Passerines) that are both long distant migrants as well as resident species that can tell you a lot about the mechanisms that underlie the behaviours we see in the field.
This question is purely for my own delight because I’m very interested in birds, but what species have you focused on and why? Have you focused on practical aspects such as being able to keep them in captivity? Has that been your driver?
As a graduate student at the University of Washington, my training was in two fields: comparative endocrinology and behaviour. My study species was the domesticated Japanese quail (Coturnix japonica), that allowed me to investigate the endocrine basis for aggression. As a post doctoral fellow I was able to take these skills to the field and ask the question “what are the physiological and behavioral parameters of dominance within wintering flocks of Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis)”?. This work was done at the Rockefeller University Field Research Center in upper state New York where the winters are harsh and mortality depends upon obtaining enough food and shelter to survive severe conditions and evade predators. These studies brought my research focus clearly in to the real world. Dark eyed Juncos are migratory birds and at the close of the winter depart for northern breeding locations. So surviving winter affects migration and opportunities to breed hence the physiological and behavioral adaptations for overwinter survival are strongly selected. After this I moved with my husband and daughter back to the University of Washington and continued following work along these lines but this time on the Pacific White-crowned sparrows. The Pacific races of White-crowned sparrow provide a wonderful banquet of experimental opportunities because within this group there are races of long-distance migrants - birds that breed in the high arctic and winter as far south as Mexico - races that are shorter distance migrants and one that no longer migrates – a resident race. So, if you think of it in terms of evolution and the appearance or loss of a migratory or resident status within one species, such studies are key to understanding how environmental conditions influence the physiological and behavioural responses producing these movement types. Thus, my work for the past 30 years has been on White crowned sparrows and particularly, the long distance migrant Zonotrichia l. gambelii and resident race Zonotrichia I. nutalli. Together this makes for a wonderful comparison and the perfect experimental design.
So moving on just a little bit to get an idea of your career in science as a woman, when you first chose to pursue science it was even more heavily dominated by men then it is now. I was just wondering how your presence was received when you first started your career, amongst your peers?
Well in college I really didn’t feel the distinction. I think while entering college, I was just bent on finding my passion, taking classes and having new experiences. But once I went to graduate school to do a Masters Degree at University of Texas Austin, it began to creep into my consciousness. There were many more men in my graduate program than women and the opportunities after graduate school seemed much more limited. After my degree, I worked for a number of years and then went back to do a PhD at the University of Washington. In the mid-70's the number of women in my PhD program were far fewer than men. I felt at the time that there were more limited opportunities in terms of laboratory options and potential for jobs in the long run for women. The biggest difference today is that the gender ratio has switched with many more women entering graduate programs in the sciences than men. The question arises now where are the men? Speaking with many of my colleagues it appears that many have gone into other and more lucrative fields. This has created gaps allowing more movement for women. For sure the IT revolution has open doors for both men and women but whether this has been shared equally is an unknown. I think the push to increase STEM education at the high school level has had an impact on encouraging women to pursue the sciences. Women coming into our graduate programs are well prepared and empowered. However there’s another side to this that men in many cases feel overlooked. So it behooves Colleges and Universities to try to achieve balance both in gender and cultural diversity so that all have a fair opportunity to succeed. I think that is something the University of California tries to do but across the board we need to keep the pressure on so that everyone, everyone feels they have a fair chance to move into the sciences and succeed.
A kind of side step here, but when I was swimming in High School and thereafter Title IX did not exist. Title IX was the amendment put forth by the following US Congresswomen Edith Green and Patsy Mink and Senators Birch Bayh and Jacob Javitz, that required all entities receiving federal contracts to end discrimination in hiring. Title IX stipulated that state institutions - any body that receives government funding - must provide equal opportunities for access to education, clubs, athletics etc. to women as well as men. This changed the dynamics tremendously. The number of women coming into the University, professional programs, degrees and careers, etc. increased dramatically. So for sport this was large because up to that point there were no college scholarships/real opportunities for women in sport at a senior level. This was a difficult lesson for me after I had graduated from college. I swam for the US Olympic Team to find no real options to continue on with my sport. I know the men I was training with in high school were offered swimming scholarships and fellowships where there was nothing for women. So if you wanted to continue on in your sport after high school, not just in swimming but across the board, there were only private clubs. So to train and compete one had to combine club membership and training with an education. To say the least this was difficult money wise, complicated logistics, just everything. Up to that point many were just cut off from athletics and other types of pursuits. It's really interesting if you look at the average age of women in the Olympic teams leading up to 1974, it was 14 and 15 and now it’s well into the 20’s. So those doors have really opened and when I came back to swimming just as exercise in the late 70’s, I was shocked to see not one or two women. No it was flooded with women’s sports teams; i.e. Lacross, soccer, hockey, rowing, swimming, etc. This was wonderful and has made a huge difference at all levels, nationally as well as internationally.
You came in at a time when all these reforms were coming in to be more inclusive to women, how was it on the ground? So on a policy level we have this acceptance of women but what about the people around you like your family or friends?
So in graduate school I think in the 70’s it wasn’t a warm environment. I mean I think graduate school is always a difficult experience across the board for a variety of reasons, but while there I felt there were not many options open to me in terms of the number of labs, post docs and eventually professional positions.
In terms of family, I’ve always had strong family support. My parents were large supporters of education and that was helpful. My dad was a medical physician, my mum was a housewife and author. So that was encouraging and I think that I received a lot of support from my siblings and mainly my older sister, Ann, because I think being four years older than I, she was cutting trails even more actively than I. She had to really define her area and watching her struggle and succeed in archaeology has been a guiding light for me. We spent a lot of time together camping and sharing experiences. We just did a lot of things together and so that was a relationship that was and continues to be very important to me. All in all I think most of my support came from my family.
A running theme for women in general is having the ability to balance your career and your family and your personal life. Obviously you’ve been very successful in everything you’ve done. How have you managed to balance that? Have you employed strategies so you can balance that? Or have you made it up along the way?
It’s funny, I think as I am approaching retirement I am getting a lot more of those types of questions. Not that I didn’t before but I think also the students who are finishing their degrees and moving on are very concerned about their professional careers and work-life-balance. This is such an important issue and I think there are a lot of ways to incorporate it into busy lives but it takes work. I’ve been lucky in my marriage. My spouse is a scientist and we share a lot together. For a very long time I wasn’t interested in having children. I was more concerned about my career. But the biological clock ticks away and then in my late 30’s I thought ‘now is the time I want children’. For many people this is a chancy track to take but we have two daughters who we deeply love and with whom we share many things. Both of them have their own careers. However this was all possible because John and I have been able to work closely together in our science and family. It is clear today that marriage is not for everyone but raising a family works best if you have support. You cannot do it all on your own. One thing even with the support I had, you often feel you are failing on both fronts. But looking back I don’t think that I was. I think it was my own personal demons. You don’t feel like you’re prepared enough for that lecture or that grant proposal wasn’t good enough or I didn’t do enough for the kids, but you do what you can. But I think the best endorsement I could have had was when I was talking with both daughters and they said it was such a value to them then and now, that their parents both maintained careers and family. They felt that they were part of this whole unique endeavour so when I heard that I thought, ‘ok, I can relax on that front’. But it’s hard. But you learn so much. So many different things from both sides of that equation.
That is actually a really valuable perspective that I haven’t heard a lot on. To hear that your children see the value in what you did as well. I think we do focus on us and our impacts on our children but our children have voices as well.
Yes that is so true. You drop them off at day care and you think I shouldn’t do this! I shouldn’t do this! But they’re learning too and they have to learn how to negotiate their world as well.
As an aside out of interest, you’re both scientists, both yourself and your husband. Are your daughters in science as well or did they take different paths?
Not directly but they appreciate it and there are definitely parts of their lives that include some sort of science. Emma did a Masters Degree at University College London in African art and archeology and she has her own company now and works with the textile weavers of Cote D’Ivoire in creating, supporting and promoting their weaving, health and education of the community. I think she’s gotten into a little bit of chemistry with the various natural dyes they use and the cotton they produce, so that’s been exciting and enriching- watching her develop from an academic family to a business women. And that’s what you learn in science. You learn how to negotiate all kinds of things. Anna the youngest is a craft cocktail bar tender in New York and she is an artisan – she produces copper etchings and intaglio prints and so has developed observational skills. So science is definitely a part of their lives. We are most pleased that they are happy, well adjusted and following their passions, that is more than enough for me.
It sounds like they are doing interesting things and they love what they do.
They do and that’s one thing for young parents. John’s mum told me, “you know, what young children need is love and a good schedule and the rest works out!” (laughs).
You’ve had many, many achievements throughout your career. Are there any stand out achievements that you’re most proud of?
Wow, well I think in terms of the science in the long run it is really having a nugget of an idea and for me it was the process of migration. What has brought the most pleasure has been the ability to move forward with it, both with collegial support and national funding, and getting to the point now where I can say “I’m understanding this process better and better”. You know, the published papers always feel good and international and national symposia where you are invited to speak and lectures are really wonderful parts of all that. But really that feeling of satisfaction comes and goes. I think the deepest feelings of satisfaction and real pride is when a student comes in and grasps onto the interest that you’re interested in, works in the field and then move that field forward. And so I’ve had a number of students who have just been marvelous and I’ve learned more from them than I think they have ever learned from me. They’ve worked in this field of migration, brought in new ideas and moved the field forward. So it’s this combination of achievements that comes from being able to have had a long period of time in which you can work and with support.
Just off the back of that, with your students and your post docs, obviously you’re supervising a lot of people, what do you look for in a student that you take on board?… Are there any particular qualities that you value as a leader?
I value honesty and I value excitement. And you never know. I mean sometimes somebody comes in and you think ‘wow, this kid is interested they’ll stick with it!’ and then something goes haywire…and then another one will come in and you know, they’re shy, when in fact they are just learning and they are not sure of themselves. So I think you need to give all kinds as much of an opportunity as you can. I’ve seen it both ways. In my experience in grad school it was hands off, I had financial support but very little direction from my mentor. I think that if a student comes into your laboratory and they commit to your program they deserve to be trained and they deserve to know what it is that you’ve learned and how you’ve approached the science. You never know, they are all different. It’s like having children. You see them going through these periods of real self-doubt, even anger, and then things fall into place and they emerge as an adult with this passion and new insights. So I guess it hasn’t always been easy, but I think along with my colleagues and working closely with my spouse has been really helpful as we bring different things to the development of a student. For me this has been a gift.
So I imagine you’d be close still with a lot of students who come through. Do you keep in touch still with a lot of students who have come your way?
Yeah, it works out, it really does because I think we all came into this field of environmental endocrinology and some people have branched off but a lot have stayed in this… and so an international meeting held every year by the Society of Comparative Integrative Biologists becomes a time when we all meet together. Maybe not every year, but it is a time to check in and you meet their students, and their students and their students and so people keep track of ones academic grandchildren! (laughs)
It sounds lovely. It sounds like there is a real sense of community.
And it was great coming to Australian to Deakin University for a six month sabbatical leave on the “Thinkers in Residence Program” in the Centre for Integrative Ecology with Dr. Kate Buchanan under the direction of the Provost for Research, Dr. Lee Astheimer. Previously Lee had been a post doc in my husband’s lab in Seattle. So spending time and working in the department allowed us multiple opportunities to meet new scientists and renew relationships with former colleagues. .
It’s a small world isn’t it?
It is. It is.
And so with that obviously you have travelled around the world and one of my favourite things is asking about stories from the field or the lab that are particularly memorable. Are there any stories you would like to share from the field or the lab that have gone well or haven’t gone well?
(laughs) Oh my! Well I think yes. Of course. Because the way science gets done is by asking questions or developing a hypotheses and then starting to deal with your observations and find out how they fit into the general plan. And some of these hypotheses are right and sometimes the predictions you have made are actually supported so you can substantiate those ideas with real findings. Yet just as often things don’t work out so well. You may have been wrong about your ideas initially and adjustments need to be made. But that is the perfecting side of science. I think the hardest thing is when you set up an experiment and everything is in place and you’ve got the animals - because we work with wild animals, so we are often bringing animals in from the wild and ask them to act normally which does have its own problems. So you pick a species that does well in captivity and everything is all set up and the electricity goes out. Or the controlled photoperiod you have them on suddenly is off. One thing about migratory species is that they are highly photoperiodic which means they keep in synchrony with environmental conditions based on very robust sensitive and accurate cues, and for a lot of migrants that are moving through latitudes or across longitudes, that environmental cue is a combination of photoperiod - which is one of the most accurate environmental cues for an animal to use and other seasonal changes. Even our biological clocks are cued by photoperiod! So these organisms are timing themselves based on this environmental cue they understand and if that cue becomes less than accurate the results are questionable. You might lose 6 months, or I mean you don’t lose the birds of course but you lose that information. So that’s always really hard. Especially if students have a tight schedule. If you’re working with an undergraduate they may have only one year to work and if one set of studies is totally wiped out they have to start again.
Do you have any strategies to mitigate that risk when involving yourself in a project? Are there things that you think about practically going into it?
Well I think one thing you can do is you can try to set up experiments in the field where you do not depend so much on the electrical conditions or the generators. But that isn’t always the case and we’re living in Davis right now and the summers are very, very hot and the organisms you study are breeding in the high arctic. So you can’t really create the high arctic conditions here so you just try your best. You just try and keep your sample sizes up so you don’t suffer from small sample sizes that will affect the results. And working in the field is a great option for designing your experiment. So you can ask questions and solve problems in the field and not having to rely so much on environmental chambers or captive conditions. You of course are limited in what you can ask and what you can actually do and as you well know if you are working in the outback in Australia like Fowlers Gap, sometimes the weather is so oppressive in terms of high heat and desiccating conditions you have to really watch what you’re doing. But I think working both in the field and in captivity provides a unique balances of approaches.
I was wondering, you deal with obstacles in the field but career wise, have you had to overcome any obstacles to get where you are today? Or has it just been a continual process?
Well I think a couple of things…I mean there’s always the internal obstacles of questioning yourself. Do I have the confidence? Do I have the stuff it actually takes? That’s a problem. I know when talking with women students, I know issues of confidence and self-esteem often plays a role. You don’t often hear it from male students. But I think we also suffer from, “well am I good enough to do this?” and so there’s always been those kind of questions in my mind. But as you go along, with each experience, a bit of knowledge and age over time such doubts diminish. I try and address those things with students if I see them. If it looks to me as if they are questioning or not as sure of themselves as I think they need to be I will step in and open up a discussion of what may be going on.
Obstacles? Yes. I think so. I mean I married John whose career was years ahead of where my career was so I was always 3 steps behind. When we decided to marry, he would have the full time position and I would have the lectureship or something like that, just because I wasn’t at the same stage of development. We lived apart for various reasons, so that was an obstacle - I think for both of us to come to the realization that one of us would have the tenure track slot and the other would have sort of a subsidiary position. So I think in a way I always wanted that full time position. But when we had a family I was lucky enough to have my own small lab. I could write my own grants so in many ways that was mitigated. But once again, you never get everything that you want and you just have to make adjustments and make it work. I was lucky in the sense that through my own studies and those with colleagues we kept up publications – kept the science moving forward. You either fight it or you walk away or you make it work. I think now as more and more couples are in grad school or post docs longer, and a lot are coming on the job market married, maybe even in similar fields, it is a problem. I think it is an issue that some universities and colleges are matching straight on and are like ‘well we will create two positions and create a scenario where you both can survive and succeed; or some institutions are unable to do that. So it can serve as a real obstacle for a lot of people. It is largely up to the institutions who are hiring young capable people to make opportunities for both of them and it’s got to be right so that both can succeed.
And are you seeing a trend from universities and institutions to support this or is there still resistance? Or is it still somewhere in between?
It really is institution dependent and I think money is tight across (the board). There was a very interesting article by a journalist named David Leonhard where he’s really tracked (this) and we know this is the case; university state funding from state legislature has really dropped so that the funding coming into the university is seriously reduced. So that has really decreased opportunities. Private colleges have large endowments but not across the board, so I think in many cases these instructions are limited by their financial support. Federal funding for research has gotten to be very, very tight. So some kind of accommodation has to be made if we are going to educate and prepare students of the next generation and I think everyone is very aware of that and hopefully these changes or adjustments can be made for our future depends on good quality education for our children and their children, etc.
You touched on this a little bit before, the whole idea of confidence – obviously you’re publishing papers. You’re presenting. Speaking in front of people is I suppose a ‘natural’ thing for you now. How do you promote confidence in yourself? To be able to put your ideas out there and be proud of what you do?
I think what I do when I’m not feeling particularly confident in any one day is I think back to those periods of time when I met with adversity, or I was trying to present a new idea and I wasn’t totally sure of myself and it came out ok. So each one of these very difficult steps or achievements along the way, going all the way back to the beginning of graduate school (has helped build confidence). Because I think what is tough about graduate school is that you are defining yourself. You’re not going into a program that is adjusted for everybody. So you get in the program you don’t have to worry too much about your particular career. You’re going to make it regardless as long as you stay in and do great work. In graduate programs you are defining your career and so as you move along you hit periods of self-doubt. Or maybe that lab you’re in is not as supportive as it could be. Or you look around and people in another lab are supporting each other in this other lab graduate program. So I think you have to build into your own constitution an inner working of strength and every time you hit something positive, that’s a check, and every time you hit a dark period you see it as a learning opportunity. Where did I mess up? How can I improve on this? And overtime if you build up this inner structure…. it’s not always perfect, there’s no linear path and I think we all suffer from periods of self-doubt. I see it in my students. I see it in myself. I see it in people that seem much more advanced than I. But we’re all trying our best to create information, to create a place of learning and knowledge. It’s not the most comfortable path to take but it sure is meaningful. Define the natural world… and sometimes the natural world is a bit messy and we are sometimes messy but we are building a state of knowledge step by step.
I think that’s a nice thought. Our problems do tend to consume us and we feel we are very much alone, but as you said everyone struggles with confidence at some point regardless of their stage of career.
I think so. I do think so. And if you talk to someone and they seem to have too much (confidence), then you start to worry (laughs).
Now we’ve spoken quite a bit about your scientific career but I am very much equally interested in your swimming career! You’re obviously a very, very high achiever, so I was interested in how you came to be involved in swimming? Was it a passion you had from a young age?
It’s funny, I actually talk about this a lot because although I’m retired now and not teaching so much I was able to (start talking about it). When we moved to UC Davis, there are a lot of Olympians on this campus so there was a community that I had never experienced before because in the scientific realm you don’t run across many Olympic athletes. I ended up teaching a class that was designed around me and Bill Toomey, who was the 1968 decathlon gold medal winner in Mexico City, and he lived here in Davis. So Dr, Jeff Weidner, a cardiovascular physiologist in my department, was acting director of the Physical Education Program, suggested developing a course around the history of the Olympics and lives of Olympians. After competing in Mexico in ’68, Bill became a commentator on radio and TV and later researched and compiled a text on the history of the new and old Olympics. This turned into a great opportunity to start talking about my swimming career that I hadn’t aired in years, because in many ways I was always a bit embarrassed about it. I wanted people to see me as a scientist and not a sports person. I guess I wasn’t as proud of it as I perhaps should have been. But as I got older I began to realise it’s all of who I am and it does fold back into each other. So I was able to really open up about this; discussing the good and bad parts and really begin to understand my role in educating and talking to young athletes. Especially student athletes as they move toward graduation. Because for many, athletic careers will be finished once a student graduates. They will soon be facing the end of one chapter and begin anew. So these are things I know really well having gone through it personally and found it to be a very difficult transition. I can tell them what Title IX has created for many. I know it’s not such an issue in Australia but here in America it has been a very big issue. One problem with it opening doors for women’s programs in some cases is that it shuts down competing programs for men. Title IX doesn’t fully describe the amendment and recommendations and institutions have to fulfil requirements that cut into their ongoing programs. Thus there has been a great deal of mistrust and misunderstanding associated with what Title IX is. So I have spent a good deal of time thinking about these ramifications and talking / informing students about why this is so important.
So back to your question, I grew up in Phoenix Arizona that is the Sonoran Desert. I grew up in the 50’s and so Phoenix at that time was a very small city. I have three siblings; an older brother, an older sister and a younger sister and I just followed closely what my older siblings did. They were swimmers and I was happy to just try and keep pace with them. Summer’s are hot and I have always loved the water. We spent our summers swimming in the Parks and Recreation Programs. I wasn’t much of a competitor. I think that was definitely my brother and sister's strong suits and I was happy just to be a part of it.
So that’s a huge jump. Did you realise early on that you had a talent for swimming? Was it apparent?
No! Well my mother even said I wasn’t going to be much like my brother and sister and so she suggested I try springboard diving! That was not me! I was scared to death! I mean you look at what these divers do now! It didn’t take long for both of us to realize that was not going to be my path.
After that I said “no more diving I will swim, that will be fine” and after that my brother went off to college. He swam competitively at college so he had a great opportunity. My older sister pursued swimming for a while but it really wasn’t her thing in the long run. But as time passed I just found that I really loved it but there were very few programs in Arizona at that time. The big swimming teams on the West Coast were in California. But what Arizona did have was a very well established diving school - The Dick Smith Swim Gym. Dick had produced many Olympic divers. He had a very strong program and I think he saw in the 50's, great advantages to adding a swimming program. At the time I was in 10th grade and Dick Smith brought Walter Schlueter from Multnomah Athletic Club, Portland, Oregon, which was a very well-known swimming club. Walter and Nancy Schlueter moved to Phoenix and I’m sure they were shocked when they arrived and met our small team of 7 hopeful swimmers. I remember quite clearly when they arrived at the pool on the first day, there we stood. Walter and Nancy looked at us and I am sure they shuddered in disbelief and am surprised to this day that they didn’t walk away! (laughs) We were backwater to say the least! But Schlueter had always had Olympic swimmers on teams dating back into the late 40's, early 50's. He was a technician, a naval engineer and had studied hydrodynamics that he later applied to creating a new-age efficient swimming stroke and training techniques. It’s funny thinking about it now because when he came and he started saying, “ok we are going to build this from the ground up”, I didn’t understand. But he was really remodelling us. He was teaching us a stroke that he had developed over the years promoting efficiency of movement through water. And now I find I'm interested largely in how migratory birds move - fly through the atmosphere, an aerobic medium. So that’s kind of a funny parallel. But I was so passionate about the swimming and that I just took in everything and within one year I was at National Championship and placed 3rd in the nation. So it was very intense and I have since realized how critical it is to have that kind of coaching, particularly at the higher levels of competition. All of us really benefited greatly from having him there and it made me realise that in order to get to the top you have to have training. I mean it’s rare that someone just comes out of the woods and just has it. I mean natural ability that is one thing, but skill and efficiency and passion for training, it has to all fit together. When you look at individuals today, say someone like Michael Phelps - he and his trainer together have dedicated years to develop this perfected machine - and so in the 60's we weren’t perfected machines, but all of those ideas and techniques had their start at that time. You know it’s funny, maybe Mum putting me into diving made me realise that I would rather be in the water than out of it.
So it did help! You must have really done some gruelling training. What did your training day look like in that year that you came so far? Were you doing long hours in the pool?
You know it depends on the time of the year. In those days we did swim in the winter but before pools were heated there were primarily only summer programs. But training with Schlueter changed everything, we swam as much as we could given pool time was limited. Schedules included workouts before and after school. When preparing for a championship, I ran to a pool near my high school and I swam during lunch for 3 workouts a day. Hard to believe that is even possible at my current age. So it was a lot of hours at the pool and as you get closer and closer to the event you start really honing your speed. So initially after the summer break we would start back with building endurance with long distance workouts and some limited weight training. Once the schedule approaches competitions, the focus becomes more on speed and perfecting all those little bobbles or errors.
At the time it’s my understanding there wasn’t a woman’s team is that correct? You were actually training with the men’s team?
No that information came from an article written when I was in college. During the Schlueter years in Phoenix, I was one of the older swimmers on the team. With time, Schueter’s program grew into a full fledged age group team for girls and boys and included ages 6 through high school. Our senior team consisted of mostly high school swimmers and a number of college age swimmers who came to Phoenix to train with Schlueter over the summer. As the Tokyo Olympics were held in October after the end of the Monsoon Season, the trials were held in New York in August. At that time I had just graduated from High School but had spent the previous years training with Schlueter’s program. In November, after the Games, I returned to Phoenix. At that time I’d already decided on the college I would attend and they indicated that if I made the team I should take the year off and come in September because they don’t induct students midyear. So I had a full year and after the games I was fully intent on continuing to swim. I hadn’t finished with the sport as there were a few international competitions on the horizon and they had just initiated the Student International World Games that were to be held in Moscow. So I was training for that. But once I got to college without support from Title IX there were no women’s teams and although they have a good swimming teams now, there wasn’t anything of the kind then. Thus, I trained with Claremont Men’s College Team but that was just for that short period of time and I enjoyed it a lot. The swimmers were great but it wasn’t the level of training that I wanted or needed because I was used to a very high powered AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) team experience.
What was it like for you? Did you decide early on that you would aim for the Olympics? Or was it just something that happened as you became better and better?
After the dreadful diving experience, I became a pretty good age group swimmer but that was about it. But remember this was Arizona and so my dear mum would drive me to California to get into the California competitions and I didn’t do well. I didn’t have the training that a lot of these very large teams had. They were well equipped and the training was excellent. So no, I wasn’t even aware of the Olympics at all until the Rome Olympics of the 1960's when they started to televise the Games. I remember sitting in front of the black and white television and seeing these events. It was delayed broadcast and the commentators were few and far between. You could see an event but it wasn’t televised like it is today. So this was very much outside my realm until Schlueter came and that first national championship in Chicago where I was 3rd in the 400m freestyle which was my event. People came up to me afterwards and said, “you know if this was the Olympic year you’d be on the team”! I think it was then that I realized that this was even a possibility.
You touched on it earlier but what about sponsorship for women at that time in sport? How did you go forward to pursue that goal? Were you given a scholarship in any capacity?
No nothing at all. Nothing like that. I must thank my parents for paying the annual dues to the team – “The Arizona Desert Rats” - I hated that name! It was all wrong to me! I believe my parents paid about $250 a month for the training which sounds pretty crazy now given the prices of things and especially sport. But no, they funded everything. But Schlueter’s policy was that once you make the Olympic team everything is covered, but even after that there were no scholarship and no sponsorship. Nothing like that was available. I believe things were different in Australia. I’m not sure but America was just really very behind the times, because I remember in the 64 Olympics I met Dawn Fraser. I met European champions and they were a lot older than I was. For example when I met Dawn Fraser in Tokyo she had already won gold medals in the 56 and 60 Games. I wanted to meet up with her when we were in Australia at Deakin in 2015 but I couldn’t reach her. We had talked previously about getting together. I was eager to see her after all these years and compare notes but it just didn’t work out, I was disappointed. But the bottom line, is that there was little if any sponsorship for Americans in those days. But it’s so different now.
What was the feeling on the team? How many members of the Olympic team were there for America?
Wow, you know I don’t know. But the teams were much smaller. The events particularly for women were much fewer and the longest distance event was 800m and today everyone swims 1600m - I mean women can do this! The other myth that fit into this pre-Title IX attitude is we were told that by the time a woman reaches 25 she loses a lot of speed and strength. So your speed and strength are really maximal in your teen years - so do it now then do something else later (laughs). So yeah, but that was what you had to deal with, you didn’t really question it. But I did begin to question it when I realised there was a lot of “older women” competing and competing well. Sponsorship as well was poor and I know many athletes, men as well as women, were forced out of the sport before they had wanted to quit. In particular, I remember talking to John Thomas, a high jumper whom I met earlier who was at the games and I said, “what are you doing after the games?” and he said, “Well I’m going to have to go into business because I don’t have sponsorship”. He like many athletes in those days just didn’t have the support to continue on. Their careers were curtailed by financial concerns not loss of passion for their sport.
And so was that something that you thought about yourself? Did you go into swimming having a back up plan…sorry I say back up plan but I mean an idea of what you would do after swimming, or did you just not think about it?
I knew after Tokyo I wanted to continue swimming, but I think that was the most forward looking thing I had. I had a slot in good college so I knew academically I would follow that, but the swimming career thing was very, very hazy. I would have had to train with a good team in Los Angeles and so that would have interfered with studying and college time. So there were not a lot of promises that I could make myself. I mean it was more year to year and day to day. But you see now, look at someone like Dara Torres who was in 4 games! She swam into her 40's! And you do make sacrifices, to continue something like that to that extent, that is that time consuming and money requiring.
Obviously you did extremely well. So you got the silver medal in the Tokyo games but you also broke 3 World Records in that year. I mean what was that feeling? Did you set it as your goal to keep beating them as you went?
You know I would like to say there was some planning in it. You know whatever the workout was I gave it my all and when I met up with some team members from The Desert Rats years later as an adult, they remarked, “you were someplace else!” We would do our land exercises and you would just continue on long after everyone else was finish “instead of 100 situps you would do 500”!. I honestly cant remember that at all but it did seem to be a consensus of opinion. But I was set each day in doing the best that I could do and that summer the stars were aligned somehow. That was my third summer with Schlueters. I had learned the stroke. I was efficient in the water. They had figured out what I needed to do to cut down my times for the 400m freestyle. I think eventually I had dropped well over a minute off my original time. Schlueters were developing interval training. They would take a distance, maybe 400m or 200m and divide it into its collective parts. You would take a 400m and work on speed for 4 100 m at 60 seconds flat and for a 4 minute 400 m. So you would train for that and you would do a series of 100m intervals with shorter and shorter intervals of rest with each at the same (gut wrenching pace). The training was so intense so I think that’s what you’re thinking about, not “I’m going to break this record again and again”. Well at least I didn’t think in those terms. I was thinking about those intervals and about the stroke that I had to sustain. I can remember looking at myself, the size of my arms and legs and saying to my mum “will my neck always be so big?!”.
(laughs) But its testimony to your hard work!
Or idiocy! I don’t know. But you know you see, you look at these swimmers now and the many other accomplished athletes, they might all be slightly different, a bit heavier, a little bit more linear but they all have the same relative dimensions for each sport. Their bodies and musculature have been sculpted. Just like a migratory bird with a physique developed for speed, endurance and fuel deposition to fly 1000 of kms. You know it’s just mind over matter…. or matter over mind (laughs).
And what about that feeling for you winning that silver medal? Do you remember what you felt like? I mean it’s such an incredible achievement. Were you proud of yourself?
Well it was hard I think coming off that summer, breaking the world record three times in a row. It was a time when the US was dominant in the sport. Before that Australia was really the leading country in terms of swimming; Murray Rose, Dawn Fraser the Conrad siblings and later Shane Gould, Ian Thorpe have all represented Australian in swimming. In 1964 it took a monumental effort just to make the US team. I qualified first and so I was sort of in the top seat and whenever you are in the top seat you are a target. The hardest thing for me is I had this tight little swimming community that was led by my two coaches, but in those days once you made the team then you were under the control and direction of the assigned Olympic coach and these were two men that I didn’t know. From the trials in New York we had almost a full month of training before the Games began. So you reach your peak at the trials and you either have to maintain that peak or decline and then peak again but that kind of regime is difficult to maintain. Many of the swimmers had their coaches there or were swimmers with the Olympic coaches, but everything was different for many of us. We made the Olympic team and they flew us to Los Angeles. We lived in a hotel for three weeks near the Coliseum where we trained daily. It was emotionally pretty tough, every day was like an Olympic trial swimming against your strongest competitors on a daily basis. It was tough and I think for me it was an experience I had never experienced before. I found it difficult to hold my stroke and hold my training regime because I was one of 32 women. The coaches had to take care of all of us and were not really able to adjust workout to individual needs. The policy has changed over the years as the coaches and staff realized that more individual workouts and training were necessary for their athletes. They choose Olympic hopefuls who train together for a period of time even before the trials. I think everyone learned from the experiences of the ‘64 team. That you’ve got to keep them in their training regime with their coaches in the same type of conditions in which they developed if you want them to perform maximally. So by the time I got to the Games I was struggling. I knew I didn’t have my stroke, the kind of training I had had totally shifted, so I was happy to come in second place. Of course this was a huge disappointment, I can’t deny, but talking with others years later, it was a hard situation for all of us and we were so young for such pressure. I think any time you step onto an international stage when you are a focus or you are trying to hold it all together and trying to do your best, it takes a lot of maturity and poise and as an 18 years old I didn’t have it all together, but I did strongly feel that that I wanted another chance “at it”. But thinking about it now another 4 years of training at that age would have been a mistake. This abrupt end in the long run was opportune because by the time I got to college and I finally quit swimming my attention had turned elsewhere. I found biology to be so intriguing and feel grateful that it came as it did in a sequential manner.
And I mean I know its 2nd but you still went to an Olympics and won a silver medal. I mean it’s such a huge achievement! Correct me if I’m wrong, your team won gold, silver and bronze in that Olympics. What was that like? Was there a feeling of comradeship there amongst you? That’s a huge achievement as well.
Yeah there was, there was. But remember we were kind of kids and you know we were competitors too so it was always a bit edgy. I mean I made some wonderful friends on that team. I’m not in touch with many but do compare notes with Terri Stickles who got 3rd – from time to time. She is a retired glass blower and lives in California. There are a number of former Olympians who live in California and I see Donna de Verona off and on again, but I can’t say I made really close friends during that time in my life. Also I wasn’t particularly open as a person. I mean I had my agenda and yeah it was wonderful, but I think America kind of expected us to win because we were on top, but today when the US wins an event it means something. You know the last games when the butterflyer (Joseph Schooling) from Singapore who had been so influenced by Michael Phelps at a younger age, won the 100 fly, it was glorious. We were in Singapore in February and found his picture posted in numerous places in the city, he is a national treasure.
Yes I remember that race! It was incredible! It sounds like it was incredibly gruelling for you. Did you give yourself a break after that Olympics?
Yeah, I think I did. Yeah definitely because I swam for another year. I went home after the games. I was training for the International Student Games. I trained with Schlueter, but you know I think something had switched. I don’t think my passion was there. I think at some level I had changed… maybe realised that there were other things I wanted to do? That there were other things that were important… started drinking a little beer, even started dating and I found college to be just wonderful (laughs).
Broadened your horizons a little? (laughs)
Oh! Yeah but I think something had hit home somehow. And in a way I’m glad. I mean I love talking about it now and love sharing it with other athletes or anybody, I will tell anybody now. But at one stage I wouldn’t even talk about it. No. It was great and I love that our daughters get so excited about it.
So what aspect of your swimming career are you most proud of?
Wow. I think the Olympic trials, that was a real achievement. It was in New York, in the pool was fabulous. It was right underneath the John F Kennedy Bridge. My mother and father were there. My brother came from medical school. My folks took me to a Broadway play after to do something different there in Manhattan (laughs). Pretty simple but very cool.
Oh! Very good! What was the play?!
Funny Girl! Yeah, Barbara Streisand!
We’ve already touched on this because things intertwined - You are obviously motivated and dedicated as an academic and in your sports career, do you think that aspect of your sporting career assisted your academic career? Did that training mind set help you in any way?
I think not at first because by the time I got to college I was still competing and I didn’t really have the background in a lot of the courses I was taking to compete very well. But, by the time I got to graduate school… you know with science it’s a building block kind of thing. So I didn’t have chemistry or physics in high school so that by the time I got to grad school I was starting to fill in all of the bases that you need to understand the whole biological system. And so by that time I began to, I think calm down, learned how to take notes, tests, ask questions and design experiments. So everything was shifted. You know my high school years were my swimming years so the academic years started in college and by that time for a lot of people like my husband who was trained in England, he was already into scientific research in undergrad! So I had a lot of catching up to do and then I even switched because going from botany into zoology into endocrinology and finally vertebrate endocrinology and behaviour. So I had a lot of catching up to do so learning to take it step by step was important and it wasn’t easy. A lot of skills I had before were not really applicable! (laughs).
How did you cope with that? It’s different now days, people don’t necessarily stay in the one career but even in academia people can branch off. So how did you cope with that change? What was your strategy to narrow down and focus?
So my swimming thing was way behind me and the focus really came from my passion and I had the opportunity to check things out because my college was small with lots of interactions with Professors and teaching assistance, so very hands on. There were lots of field courses and lab courses, things I had never had in high school and so I just followed my interests. My first entrée into the sciences was in botany and there were a lot of field courses in ecology and physiology which I found fascinating. My interests then shifted to marine science - I think I was just curious and not afraid to try new things. All in all this really worked in my benefit…. but unfortunately every time I learn something new I love that! (laughs)
I know that problem! It’s a real thing!
I know! Yeah so you’re constantly changing so I switched departments in graduate school, I went from botany to zoology in graduate school, I don’t know how that happened but it was right, it led me to study birds.
Obviously you haven’t looked back!
But I’m not changing so much anymore (laughs).
That’s probably a good thing! And what about for yourself? Do you have anyone you have looked to for a source of inspiration? Is there anyone that you look up to and particularly admire?
Well I think for sure my husband John Wingfield has been a huge inspiration in my life, in my personal and professional life. He’s the father of field endocrinology. He developed this field that so many of were drawn to and have moved on from and so for that I feel indebted to him and feel very lucky that we were able to build a life together. But I look back in time and think some of the really monumental events in my life revolve around three people. The first was when I was very young, I was very taken with Marian Anderson, an operatic star, a contralto and one of the most celebrated singers of the twentieth century. I remember she came to Phoenix and I begged my parents to go. So we went and she wasn’t allowed to sing at the civic centre being an African American and so her concert was held at the high school. I remember feeling how wrong this was at the time. How do we deprive someone of her stature the opportunity to perform at the finest venue available in Phoenix? For some reason my dad was able to get me back stage and I got to shake her hand. And besides having this beautiful voice, she was full of poise and grace and though I didn’t really appreciate what life was like for someone of that ability, skill and prestige, she shook my hand and wished me the best and I don’t think I washed my hand for a month! I mean she was lovely. She was just lovely.
And then when I was on my first Maccabiah team in 1961. The Maccabiah games were developed in the 40's to be a place where Jewish athletes of the world congregated to compete on the world wide stage. This was even before Israel had attained statehood. The whole idea of the Maccabiah Games was proposed by Yosef Yekutieli in 1931 to the High Commissioner of Palestine, Sir Arthur “Andy” Wauchope, of Great Britain serving as protectorate of the land. The idea was accepted and the Games have continued to this day. In 1961 Rafer Johnson and John Thomas, two outstanding track individuals, both African Americans, were appointed US ambassadors to the team and so they accompanied the US team to Israel for the Games. Rafer had won the gold medal in decathalon in Rome 1960 as well as being an outstanding scholar and student at the University of Southern California. He has had a commendable life. But I remember just spending time talking with him and being enamoured with what a gentle soul he was. Both men were charming and handled this situation so well. I mean we were a bunch of American Jews and yet both men were able to relate to us as athletes, US sports representatives and human beings. Both were marvelous and stars in my eyes.
And the last person was Jesse Owens who was a gold medal star in the 1936 games in Berlin and who greatly irritated Adolf Hitler for showing the world that African Americans are fare individuals, fine athletes and incredible human beings. I met him again through a number of Olympics events in Arizona and as an adult I had come back to speak at a dinner to raise money for the Maccabiah Games. We were both at the airport waiting to fly out. We sat and talked for a long time and asked, “well what are you doing now?” I told him I was in graduate school and pursuing a PhD in Zoology and he remarked “that’s wonderful!” I didn’t know his story at the time. He had had a very difficult time after the Games. Avery Brundage, President of the International Olympic Committee, had treated him badly over some advertising that Jesse had been requested to do once the Games had finished. So Brundage saw that Jesse would lose his amateur status, deprived him of his scholarship to Ohio State because he was now deemed a professional. This imposed great hardship on Jesse and his family for many years. He spent his later years working with young athletes, telling them - it's fine to pursue your sport but you have got to develop other careers, you have to have a fall back, get your education, prepare yourself because you never know when you may slip or fall and your baseball career will be over. I just was so taken with this passion, to teach youth and prepare them for the future. I mean you know today how hard it is for young African American men and women in the United States and if they could only hear Jessie’s message all of us would be far better off. So it is these three individuals who have had an impact on my life. I think about them and I do try in some ways to model my life on what they have done and meant to me.
And rightly so. I mean what inspiring, courageous people to have known and to have met.
Oh I know. I know.
I’ll have to go back and do a bit more reading myself now and find out more about them.
Right, right. I think our public television station did a beautiful focus and I believe that program was the PBS American Masters on Jesse Owens. If you can try get hold of it it is so informative and with live footage from many points in his life.
Well thank you so much for such an amazing insightful conversation. It’s been an honour. I do have one last question that I like to end with. It’s pretty broad, but basically what would your advice be to other women who want to achieve a goal or success in their field? Do you have any words of wisdom that you would like to pass onto anybody else?
I like to tell young students… because when my girls were going through grade school and high school I tried to bring more biology into their experience and at one point John and I had funding to developed an ecology program. And so I had a lot of contact with these students, plus I helped coach the high school swim team and so I had contact with these kids as they went through the various grade levels. As they were going off to college I would tell them to find your passion. Find what it is you love. Because that will carry you forward and you will be happy. It won’t always be easy but if you can find what it is you love and then once you find it don’t hold back. Don’t just take the courses you think you need. Take some other courses. Build your dossier. Make it broad. I think I’ve been lucky because I’ve been around and in academic situations so long that I can draw on a variety of topics and issues and people appreciate the breadth. I’ve done a lot of teaching and it is difficult when you stay in one lab or one project for a long period of time. You may have the depth of knowledge but bringing in those sidelights - sometimes some of the greatest advancements are made when you are talking with someone from outside your field in an adjacent area where connections may not have previously existed. For example when you consider such developments as Crispr cas9, how that came to be. This molecular technique modifies and edits genes and came about when two women scientists - Emmanuelle Charpenone and Jennifer Douda – began comparing notes at an international conference realized that together they had the skills to manipulate genes and opened doors to a new age science for gene therapy. So one conversation with someone in another lab or field or country can lead to unbelievable collaborations. So take some courses outside your immediate area, enrol in workshops, talk to people, don’t just stay within your lab, and build breadth into your dossier.
I think once you get further along and you’re achieving, don’t just think about yourself. Put yourself in the shoes of your students or someone which seems to be struggling. It’s ok to be generous. Sometimes it’s not the easiest thing, but be generous. Give them ideas and support. If they seem to be slumping talk to them. Students particularly, you can tell when things aren’t going so well, if it's right interject yourself between them and you and find out what’s going on. I mean don’t be nosy. But they listen to what your experience has been. Encourage people, listen to what they have to say. Laboratory or small sized meetings with colleagues and students are valuable and provide a place to work together discuss ideas and inform students of how science gets done. Some of the most encouraging and exciting ideas come out of these networks of discussion where you presented your data and you didn’t see the hole and you didn’t see the insight that was there all along. That’s what makes science move forward and makes science work.
And that’s where a lot of the excitement is too, in those discussions, in that networking.
Yeah and I think if you’re just sitting and listening you’re not learning as much. I think some students just keep mum, but I think putting yourself out there…I mean don’t be a loud mouth! (laughs).
Yeah, no (laughs). But put your hand up and get involved. It’s easy to watch from the sidelines but it’s better to put your hand up and get involved. I think that’s wonderful advice and I will take that on board to. So thank you!
Thank you Vicky. This is marvelous. To draw people out. To allow people to think about things and what’s happened. It’s been wonderful for me.