Many awards and mementos, collected over decades in science and academia, line the office shelves of Carolyn W. Slayman, Ph.D., but one stands out: a certificate from the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving for excellence in skid control.
Slayman visited the Arizona school on a corporate field trip, donning a full-body racing suit and taking the wheel of some seriously powerful automobiles. In most of the day’s activities—threading a car through traffic cones at speed, for example—Slayman was an average performer. But when it came to pulling out of a skid, she nailed it.
An impressed instructor surmised that Slayman honed this skill on snowy roads in her home state of Maine. But it couldn’t have hurt that Slayman’s demeanor is almost preternaturally calm, an unflappability that serves her well in the demanding, unpredictable role of Deputy Dean for Academic and Scientific Affairs at the School of Medicine. “No two days are alike,” she says. “And you never know what’s coming when an e-mail pops up or the telephone rings.”
In 1995, Slayman became the first woman appointed as a deputy dean at the medical school, and she came well-prepared, having also been the first woman to head a department when she was named chair of the Department of Human Genetics (now Genetics) in 1984.
Slayman has witnessed a sea change in the status of women in science and medicine since the late 1950s, when she enrolled at The Rockefeller University for doctoral studies. In those days, each entering class at Rockefeller, hand-picked by Detlev Bronk, Ph.D., the University’s president, had 14 men and one woman. When asked at a question-and-answer session for new students why this 14:1 ratio persisted, Bronk coolly replied, “Because that’s the right number.” At Yale today, women make up a third of the total medical faculty, and since 1998, there have been more women than men in each entering medical school class.
The changes in biomedical science have been no less dramatic. Having graduated from Swarthmore College just five years after Watson and Crick’s landmark paper on the structure of DNA, Slayman, also Sterling Professor of Genetics and professor of cellular and molecular physiology, has enjoyed helping to create a gene-sequencing facility at Yale’s West Campus that can generate the equivalent of 300 complete human genomes per month, “opening up thinking in ways people couldn’t have begun to imagine even a few years ago.” Imaging techniques, from microscopes that bring a cell’s individual proteins into view to scanners that map out functions in the living human brain, have transformed the scientific landscape. And through it all, once-impenetrable walls between fields and departments have tumbled down, as research became an increasingly multidisciplinary endeavor, “driven,” Slayman emphasizes, “by the science itself, not declared from above.”
But for all the momentum toward “big science,” Slayman believes that scientists will always form working units on a human scale, never relinquishing “the ability to talk around a table.” She sees her role as one of “balancing resources and possibilities,” providing individual teams with the wherewithal to succeed while also playing matchmaker, urging researchers to “reach out, interact, communicate, collaborate,” to make an academic whole bigger than the sum of its parts.
“There are 1,212 really smart people on our faculty doing important things, so there are bound to be problems,” Slayman says. “But there’s also a constant, positive ferment—good things coming from all directions.”