It never occured to Irene Glowinski while growing up in Paramus, New Jersey, that science might be an inhospitable place for a woman. She simply loved organic chemistry—that complex study of the structure of life that has been known to bedevil even the most scientifically literate students. She was certain she would make a career of it.
“I was driven. I knew what I wanted to do,” she says. “A lot of that attitude comes from my time at American University in the chemistry department.” Glowinski graduated from AU with a BS in chemistry in 1975 and went on to get her PhD in pharmacology from the University of Michigan. Today, she is second in command of the Division of Microbiology and Infectious Diseases at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
NIAID, as it’s known, is the branch of the National Institutes of Health that takes the lead in times of pandemic, researching causes, diagnoses, treatments, and prevention of pathogenic diseases such as Ebola, HIV, influenza, tuberculosis, and malaria. Glowinski manages a $1.5 billion budget for research and clinical investigations involving more than a thousand projects and 200 staff members.
It all began in the AU chem lab.
“When I was an undergraduate, the chemistry department at AU was very small,” Glowinski recalls. She was one of perhaps five or six students in the freshman class of 1971. She immediately found mentors among the faculty. “I had complete access to every professor,” Glowinski says. “I could do whatever I wanted—work in a lab or work at the FDA.”
The department chair at the time, the late Leo Schubert, encouraged her to get an advanced degree in pharmacology, the study of drugs for human disease.
After Michigan, Glowinski spent five years as a post-doc at the National Cancer Institute, where she studied chemical carcinogenesis at the lab bench. She then landed on Capitol Hill with a congressional fellowship and spent two years gaining valuable skills in how to integrate science and legislative policy. “I realized there are so many places in Washington, DC, for someone like me to make valuable contributions.”
Glowinski returned to NIH on the grant-giving side of the agency, where she started small: putting together review panels for training grants and managing a small portfolio of research grants in chemistry. “I never turned down an assignment. Each one helped me get the next job.”
Glowinski has advice for today’s young scientists: “Include cross-training in your education, in interdisciplinary fields like writing, public speaking, bioinformatics, and biostatistics.” As for the prospects for women in science today, she says, “I hate the idea that we have to divide the world into men and women when speaking about careers. For someone like me, there is nothing to hold you back, if you are willing to work.”