Professor Ruth Muschel is Emeritus Professor of Molecular Pathology at the University of Oxford and has held the role of Deputy Director of the Oxford Institute of Radiation Oncology since 2005. She obtained a biochemistry degree from Cornell University before completing an MD-PhD at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York City. She then trained in internal medicine and pathology before becoming a postdoctoral fellow at the National Cancer Institute in Washington. Here she worked on cancer metastasis and later, at the University of Pennsylvania, in radiation biology. She became full Professor at UPenn before moving to Oxford in 2005. As the first of our interviews with women who successfully overcame gender barriers to reach the top, Ruth shared her insights from her life and career.
Born in 1950 as the only child of Jewish parents whose families had fled the pogroms in Poland and Lithuania to start new lives in the United States, Ruth was taught the importance of independence from an early age. Her father Louis Muschel was based in the Philippines with the US army during WW2 and was subsequently sponsored by the military to undertake a PhD in microbiology at Yale. He met and married Ruth’s mother, who was a science graduate and lab assistant in the New York State Public Health laboratories. Ruth’s father was based in Tokyo for three years to run the serology labs after the Korean war. The family was accommodated in a hotel with a beautiful garden, one of 6 year-old Ruth’s main memories of that time. Later, he was stationed in Washington DC and then in opposition to the Vietnam war, left the army and moved his family back to St Paul, Minnesota where she spent most of her early life. Her parents instilled in her a thirst for knowledge, and emphasised the value of education in gaining financial independence. At a time when the highest expectation for most women was to marry well, this was unusual.
As a grandchild of refugees, Ruth’s life began as it was to continue, moving from place to place, and learning to adapt to different environments and cultures as an outsider. Life in Minnesota was exciting, full of other children and imbibed with a creative culture. Here she became a life-long fan of Bob Dylan and developed a love of sport at her high school, excelling in basketball, volleyball and high jump. At that time, girls were not included in inter-school sporting tournaments; one of the first times that Ruth faced outright discrimination. It took Title IX, a federal civil rights law that was later passed as part of the Education Amendments of 1972, for sex-based discrimination in any federally-funded school to be outlawed. At this time her passion for science was ignited by an inspirational teacher, Mrs Schmitt. Ruth’s ability in maths and science set her apart from her peers and she found herself often a lone female in a predominantly male stronghold.
When Ruth started undergraduate studies at Cornell, there were very few women enrolled in the science disciplines with even fewer lecturers or professors. Nonetheless, Ruth was ranked joint first in her biochemistry degree, and moved on to a gruelling integrated MD/PhD at the Albert Einstein Medical School. The course was spread over 6 continuous years of study and it was during this time that she met two men whose positive influence affected the course of her future life. The first was Harry Eagle (of the eponymous Eagle’s medium) who directed her faculty from 1971. Harry was visionary in his choice of appointing five women to chair his departments. The second was her husband, Gillies McKenna. They married in 1974 when Ruth was 24. Ruth’s first internship as a resident in New York Hospital/Memorial Sloan Kettering followed, under the auspices of Jeremiah Barondess, now Professor of Clinical Epidemiology at Columbia. The female house staff had to meet a schedule of expectancies not placed upon their male counterparts, from their achievements to their standard of dress. There were no females in senior positions within the staff, and most clinicians were men. Although shocking now, at that time inappropriate sexual advances were usually tolerated by female staff for fear of losing future career opportunities. Ruth followed her internship with an academic position at the University of Pennsylvania, being appointed Professor before coming to Oxford in 2005.
In a scientific career, a mentor is invaluable. For Ruth, in addition to Harry Eagle, two others stand out. The first was Ora Mendelsohn Rosen a medical researcher and professor at the Einstein College of Medicine who became a close friend. Ora investigated the influence of hormones, particularly insulin, on the control of cell growth and tragically died of cancer aged 54. Another was Barbara McClintock, a maize cytogeneticist awarded the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. From their first meeting in a maize field when Ruth was 12, they continued to meet whenever possible. To Ruth, both Rosen and McClintock demonstrated profoundly the way to “lead a scientific life”. She feels that, to this day, gender bound and hierarchical institutions still exist and the way forward for women is not clear cut.
For women now embarking on a scientific career, Ruth’s advice is to put yourself forward through publications, presentations or on social media even if this goes against your natural instincts. Although Ruth has clearly loved her career, she feels that being female definitely set her back and she would have achieved more and been promoted more readily otherwise. Ruth’s discoveries around the biology of cancer metastasis speak for themselves – that she may have been able to gain even deeper insights is a sobering reminder of the end-goal of reaching equality in science. For today’s women in STEM, “it is important to keep trying, keep moving and be the best you can”.