Radioactive beacon to future achievement

At a time in America where intellectualism has come under assault, there is a paradoxical current arising in education. Many educators have come to recognize the United States’ palpable lag in so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. To address this paucity, schools across the nation are embarking on new programs that emphasize STEM courses.

Politicians have even gotten into the act. The White House issued a statement about the need for this refocused program of studies, saying “the United States is falling behind our foreign competitors in STEM subjects. According to one study, American 15-year-olds ranked 21st in science and 25th in math compared to other countries.”

In remarks at the inauguration of Change the Equation, a CEO-led effort to dramatically improve education in STEM curriculum, President Barack Obama stated: “Everybody in this room understands that our nation’s success depends on strengthening America’s role as the world’s engine of discovery and innovation. And all the CEOs who are here today understand that their company’s future depends on their ability to harness the creativity and dynamism and insight of a new generation.”

The renewed zeal for STEM education signals a recognition that Americans cannot rest on past glories. We must be innovators as well as leaders in research and scholarship.

History is rich with examples of people driven by intellectual curiosity whose work changed the world. One such notable was Marie Curie.

This week (November 7) marks the 145th anniversary of Marie Curie’s birth. Anyone who has ever taken a science class has probably heard her name. A top student in her secondary school, Curie could not attend the men-only University of Warsaw. She instead continued her education in Warsaw’s “floating university,” a set of underground, informal classes held in secret. Both Curie and her sister Bronya dreamed of going abroad to earn an official degree, but their poverty prevented it. The determined sisters worked in concert to send each other to school.

Within the decade, she had traveled to Paris, earned a master’s degree in physics and another in mathematics — often surviving on a diet of buttered bread and weak tea. There she met future husband and research colleague Pierre Curie.

The Curies conducted groundbreaking research on radioactivity. Their work earned them the Noble Prize in 1903. Marie Curie was the first woman to be so honored.

In 1906, Pierre was killed after accidentally stepping in front of a horse-drawn wagon. Despite inconsolable grief, she took over his teaching post at the Sorbonne, becoming the institution’s first female professor.

Curie was once again honored in 1911, winning her second Nobel Prize, this time in chemistry. She was selected for her discovery of radium and polonium, and became the first scientist to win two Nobels.

Most people also know that Curie’s work also proved her undoing. She was known to carry around test tubes of radium in the pocket of her lab coat. In 1934, Curie went to the Sancellemoz Sanatorium in Passy, France, to recuperate. She died there on July 4, 1934, of aplastic anemia, which can be caused by prolonged exposure to radiation.

In addition the great legacy of research that Curie left behind, she served (and still serves) as an important inspiration to future scientists. Most notably, she inspired her own daughter, Irène Joliot-Curie. Like her mother, Joliot-Curie won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935. Joliot-Curie shared the honor with her husband Frédéric Joliot for their work on their synthesis of new radioactive elements.

Perhaps we need not aspire to win Nobel Prizes, but women such as these remind us of the possibility. They demonstrate the power of determination. They point the way toward more enlightened and secure futures.