Professors Celebrate Women's History Month

Thirty years ago, in response to the organizing efforts of the Women’s History Project, the U.S. Congress designated March “Women’s History Month." In honor of this milestone, Barnard is commemorating the hard work achieved by women everywhere who raise the bar by turning to Barnard faculty members who are experts in their fields. Here, they reflect on what inspired them to enter and excel at their career.

Rachel Austin, the Diana T. and P. Roy Vagelos Professor of Chemistry, focuses her research on the mechanisms of metalloproteins. When she’s not working in the eponymous Austin Laboratory or collaborating with students on research, she sits on the editorial board of the Journal of Inorganic Biochemistry, as well as the editorial review board of the Frontiers in Microbiological Chemistry journal. She shares how she fell for chemistry.

“Though the study of chemistry didn't come easily to me––I had setbacks in the lab and didn't feel ‘destined’ to be a chemist––I found it rewarding to work at something that wasn't easy. So the successes, when they came, felt much more fulfilling, and I think it is critical that students recognize they can be good at things that don't come easily.

“I was inspired to pursue a career in chemistry because I love the way that molecular-level explanations of phenomena make sense of the world, such as how all that affects us as humans have, at their core, a molecular explanation. Excited about the way you feel after a nice cappuccino?  That can be explained by the interactions of molecules.

“Trying to make meaningful contributions to science running a research lab with limited student-researchers and resources is a daily challenge. Yet these challenges are offset by real accomplishments as seen in every single paper I’ve published with student co-authors. We had a really nice paper come out in the American Chemical Society's journal, ACS Catalysis, last year and two papers for the journal Metallomics on lead biochemistry. All of these papers rely on the efforts of undergraduate students and every solid result we get and publish is a memorable success.”

Reshmi Mukherjee, a Helen Goodhart Altschul Physics and Astronomy Professor, focuses her research on high-energy astrophysics and astroparticle physics. Currently, she is working on a major ground-based gamma-ray observatory that enhances the study of extragalactic and galactic high energy gamma-ray sources. Prof. Mukherjee reflects on how experimental astrophysics became her calling.

“I was fortunate to come from a family where education and academic excellence were the most important things. I was always encouraged to go one step further and to reach for one step higher. My biggest champion was my Dad. He was an academic at heart, but circumstances in his life forced him to work for a living and to support his family right after high school. He never had a college education. I felt that he wanted me to get the chances he never had and showed me how to dream big and aim high.

“My interest in physics came from my Dad. He showed me how it is the most fundamental and basic of the natural sciences and that it is crucial to understanding the world in and around us, from microscopic scales in the atom to the cosmic scales of the Universe. In high school, I was a strong math student but did not get much exposure to advanced physics. With my Dad's encouragement, I went on to one of the most prestigious undergraduate schools in India, Presidency College, and I found myself with peers who were constantly asking questions about the natural world.

“My career in physics was largely motivated by the ‘energy’ and enthusiasm of the students in my undergraduate years, and because I had the privilege to be taught by a leader in the field of general relativity and cosmology. For me, these were the golden years. Physics has personally always challenged me. There is much to discover, and I am passionate about making the journey towards these answers, both for myself, and with my students at Barnard and Columbia.”

Related: Listen to Prof. Kimberly Johnson and Prof. Anupama Rao discuss their passions at last year's “Raising the Bar” event during the 2016 Women's History Month.


Claire Tow Professor of Professional Practice and Department of Architecture Chair Karen Fairbanks teaches design studios and courses on architecture and technology. Prof. Fairbanks is also partner at the architectural firm Marble Fairbanks. Her projects include the Glen Oaks Branch Library in Queens, the Toni Stabile Student Center for the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, and renovations and an addition to The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. She received the 2015 Educator Award from the American Institute of Architects and currently chairs the American Library Association’s national committee on Buildings for College and University Libraries. Prof. Fairbanks recalls the spark that led to her interest in designing cultural and institutional projects.

“There were many small things that together led to my pursuit of architecture—they all happened because I was a liberal arts student taking a range of courses. First was a class on our relationship to our environment, taught by the brilliant botanist William Niering. At the same time, I was taking visual arts classes. Then there was an urban studies course team––taught by an architect, an environmental psychologist, and a planner. Finally, I took the one architecture course offered on campus and after finding another student who was designing her own architecture major decided I wanted to do something similar. Ultimately, I transferred from Connecticut College to the University of Michigan to study architecture.

“A memorable challenge that ultimately turned into an opportunity came when we were trying to establish our firm during an economic downturn and instead of spending a summer trying to get by in New York City, we closed shop, rented out our studio, and spent the summer traveling. We spent six weeks in Japan, four weeks in Thailand, and one week in Hong Kong before returning to Vancouver and then back to New York City.

“As a young firm in 1991, one of my most memorable successes is when we were selected as finalists in an international design competition for the Nara Convention Center in Japan. We actually competed for the design competition in Nara where we also met the other finalists (five teams out of more than 600 entries in the open phase and an additional five, well-known, invited architects for the final competition). While the project was awarded to one of the most renowned Japanese architects at the time, Arata Isozaki, we were thrilled to be part of a competition that was exhibited around the world, including as a major show in 1992 at the Museum of Modern Art.”

As an Assistant Professor of Economics, Belinda Archibong investigates the causes and effects of unequal access to public services like infrastructure, education, and health. She is also an affiliate faculty member at the Columbia University Center for Development Economics and Policy (CDEP) and The Earth Institute at Columbia University. Understanding the interconnection between a country’s economic development and its impact on the lives of individual citizens is what attracted Prof. Archibong to economics.

“I come from a country [Nigeria] that, despite vast quantities of both natural and human capital, is beset by high rates of poverty and inequality. I decided to pursue a career in economics because I felt it was a great field to study issues of economic development and how to improve the wellbeing of individuals living in countries like mine.

“A number of my colleagues have studied and highlighted the importance of identity for shaping preferences, opportunity sets, constraints, and choices of various groups. Representation of women in economics is extremely important because it’s essential that women’s diverse preferences and choices be represented in the study of issues of development and inequality that concern much of the field, both on the academic side and in terms of framing appropriate public policy to solve these problems. This is especially necessary given that many of these issues are concerned with how to close significant gender gaps that disadvantage women in access to many resources that exist around the world today.”