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Admirables: Nancy Lowry (Part 1)

Nancy playing with molecules (her office was always filled with fun science toys)!

The day I met Nancy Lowry she stood up in the front of the class, wearing jeans, a t-shirt and converse sneakers, and I could tell that she played by her own rules. She was a petite woman in her 60’s that had a playful and compassionate spunk about her as well as a dedication to teaching that benefited me tremendously. Nancy made science fun, a subject I had never enjoyed before taking her class, Plants and Human Health my first semester in College.

I’ve always admired Nancy’s soft spoken strength and confidence. She was my advisor in College and in my time working with her I got to know a little bit of her story. I was always intrigued by the trail that Nancy blazed. In the late 1950’s, upon finishing her undergraduate work at Smith College, she decided to pursue an advanced degree in Organic Chemistry.

At that time discrimination against women in science was accepted as common practice. I always wondered where her courage and dedication to defy gender roles and overcome the oppression that has held so many women back came from. Lucky for me, I had the opportunity to learn much more of her story when I interviewed her for Admirables.


From the time she was very young Nancy couldn’t understand why girls were not allowed to do the same things as boys like play little league or be priests. Nancy was an exceptionally talented athlete, as a kid she played with her older brother and the other boys in her neighborhood. She could hit a baseball further then any of the other neighborhood boys and yet when little league started, she was not allowed to play on the team.

But rather then be dismayed by the rejection, Nancy simply shifted her focus and took up tennis. Throughout her childhood, Nancy had teachers and coaches that encouraged her to be herself rather then directing her to do the things a girl should do.

Nancy Lowry Teaching Girls Day in the Lab (note the converse sneakers)!

Nancy reflected that “There were people who quietly let me do what I was good at and not try to channel me to do something else. The education and church influence made me…know that I was going to do something different then what I was expected to do.”

Sometimes the actions of our role models show us what not to do. Nancy’s parents provided an example of the kind of life she did not want for herself. They were very traditional.

“I knew from watching my family that I never wanted to be dependent on my husband’s salary. My father kept my mother on a very tight string…Both my parent’s were extremely negative [and] my brother and I from an early age, recognized that this was not the way to go. That we wanted the opposite of what our parent’s practiced.” Nancy blazed her own trail in life despite the fact that her parent’s did not support her professional pursuits!

Trail Blazing

Nancy started graduate school at Harvard but was having “a crisis of not knowing how I fit…[The] guys that led research groups were openly prejudice to women joining their groups. It was terribly confusing to me and I wasn’t quite happy.” So she transferred to MIT to work with researcher, Fred Green. He proved to be a very supportive mentor.

Nancy met her husband, Tom, at Harvard and they were married In her first year at MIT. “I got pregnant at the end of my first year in graduate school [at MIT]. And I thought I would probably quit because I didn’t know what else I would do. I told my research director I was pregnant and he beamed and said, ‘Isn’t that wonderful.’ He was so supportive I just can’t get over how he helped me out.” And so Nancy and Tom both completed their graduate degrees in organic chemistry as they started their family.

To be continued in Part 2……..

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