Visualizing Women in Science, Mathematics and Engineering
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  • Judith Lengyel

    Judith Lengyel is a professor in the Department of Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Her research on the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster involves studying genes at the molecular level and making mutants, in order to shed light on the way that the development of a particular organ--the gut--is controlled by its genes. Understanding the way that genes control the formation of organs in a relatively simple organism, such as Drosophila, will help scientists to understand embryonic development in human beings, which, in turn, should lead to a greater understanding of birth defects and of metastasis, the spreading of cancerous cells.

    Lengyel finds it difficult to isolate one aspect of her work that is most appealing: she loves peering through the microscope at embryos, finding a new mutant defect, or describing a new pattern of gene expression that will help us to understand how organs form in the developing embryo. But as much as she relishes her time in the laboratory, Lengyel has also been pleasantly surprised by the sociality of science: her daily life is punctuated by meaningful interactions with her students, her colleagues at UCLA, and scientists around the world who are working on related problems in biology and medicine.

    Lengyel's interest in science started at home: her father was a physicist and mathematician. It was also important to Lengyel to learn that she had an aunt in Hungary who was a biochemist--demonstrating to her that being a woman and a scientist were not necessarily incompatible. Growing up in Los Angeles, Lengyel used to visit the tide pools with a girlfriend and collect marine animals that they would dissect. She had the benefit of several excellent teachers at Palisades High School, including physics teacher Bill Layton, who took her to a science symposium for potential girl scientists in 1961: "He was perhaps the first teacher to give me the idea I could have science as a career," Lengyel recalls.

    Lengyel would encounter her share of opposition as a woman in a man's field. While she was a graduate student at UC Berkeley, at least one faculty member expressed his opinion to her that women could not be good scientists. Compounding this active discouragement was the lack of encouragement that resulted from women in the field not having senior mentors. For these reasons, Lengyel has endeavored as she has become more senior to mentor younger scientists, particularly women and minorities. In addition to her work as an academic and a scientist, Lengyel enjoys such activities as gardening, traveling, and rollerblading.