Yalow’s longtime collaborator at the VA Hospital, Solomon Berson, was both her competitor and her foil. Both were aggressive and pushed the other to do better, although their scientific skills were complementary—Berson the biochemist and Yalow the nuclear physicist were both key to the development of radioimmunoassay. In public Berson always took the lead, speaking on behalf of the team at conferences and with colleagues. Yalow, either out of genuine respect or mere necessity, went along with it; one of Yalow’s biographers noted: “at home, Yalow never conceded an argument, but in the lab, Berson was always right.” Regardless, the partnership worked, and in 1977 Yalow won the Nobel Prize for their mutual discovery. (Berson would have shared it with her, but he died five years before the Prize was awarded.)
Once they’d established their own careers, both women became mentors in their own right. Elion established a scholarship at Hunter College for women interested in graduate studies in chemistry or biochemistry. Yalow changed her own career path to help a talented up-and-coming scientist. “I stayed on at Hunter for an extra year because I had an outstanding student, Mildred Dresselhaus, whom I couldn’t abandon at that point in her career,” she told interviewer Susan Ambrose. “I wanted to teach her because she had so much potential.” Dresselhaus, now in her 80s, has been a professor of physics and electrical engineering at MIT since the 1960s. “Rosalyn's teaching style made you feel that the class was coming from someone who was personally involved in doing research,” she said. Through her connection with Yalow, Dresselhaus met many other scientific trailblazers, including Elion.
Today, more young, ambitious women have the advantage of female mentors working at at high levels—more than half of all biologists in 2008 were women, for example. The Obama administration has encouraged federal agencies to “increase mentorship of girls and women in STEM”; at least one of these agencies, the Department of Energy, features women in STEM on its website to “inspire others as they think about the future.”
But alliances with men who are well established in the field may still prove to be even more strategic, particularly in fields where female role models are harder to find. In the tech industry, for instance, women still struggle to score leadership positions, despite the presence of high-profile leaders like Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer. In such cases, “cross-gender mentoring may be the best way to go,” said Kandace Hinton, a professor of education at Indiana State University in Terre Haute. “If you can get men on board and supporting women, because men are already ingrained [in the field], those guys can move you forward.”
In almost all ways, today’s aspiring female scientists face better odds than Yalow and Elion encountered. Toys like Goldieblox get young girls interested in tinkering with engineering problems, not just playing make-believe. In high school, girls are earning more credits in math and science courses than their male peers—a trend that began in 1994 and has grown ever since. The number of degrees awarded to women in almost every scientific field has also steadily increased since 1991, most notably in the physical sciences.