Today’s the second Ada Lovelace Day, an international day of blogging to celebrate the achievements of women in science and technology. I wanted to take this opportunity to write about a woman who mentored and inspired me: Dr. Helen Tager-Flusberg.
Dr. Tager-Flusberg studies children with developmental disorders, trying to understand their cognitive development. The bulk of the discussions I’ve had with her focus on her work with language and autistic children, but in a broader sense, she looks at both language and social development across a spectrum of disorders. Her research is both theoretically important and thoroughly pragmatic: not only can we understand new things about how language and social skills develop, but those insights can be relatively easily applied to help struggling families.
I’ve known Dr. Tager-Flusberg for much of my life, but I first began to learn about her work as a scientist when I was a junior in high school. She agreed to help me design and develop a research project for the Intel Science Talent Search, at that time run by Westinghouse. She explained what it meant to conduct a controlled study, helped me define a research hypothesis, and demonstrated the black art of data analysis. I didn’t just learn how to do those things by rote, though. I learned why they mattered, and how they could help me answer questions of my own in any field.
I’d never seen myself as a scientist before working with Dr. Tager-Flusberg. It seemed boring, remote and pointless. Afterwards, though? Science was something I could do, and do well. Most of all, I didn’t have to do someone else’s science. I had the tools I needed to start doing my own. When I started working with her, I thought science was something you learned out of textbooks and parroted back on tests. She showed me that science is the art of finding things out. All of a sudden, there were lots of things I wanted to know.
That’s not to say I immediately raced off to become a researcher. I took lots of detours over the years. For a while I even wanted to be a poet! But in the end, here I am, fifteen years later, finishing my doctorate in cognitive psychology. I don’t work on autism, and I only sometimes work with kids, but I see Dr. Tager-Flusberg’s influence in my work every day. Each time I formulate a hypothesis, or read a research paper, or design an experiment, I build on what she taught me.
Coolest of all, I’m not the only one out there who works in science because of her mentoring and leadership!
So this is just to say: thanks, Helen. I’m dedicating this Ada Lovelace Day to you.