Eva J. Pell
Smithsonian Institution Archives Oral History Collection, SIA009640
Eva J. Pell (1948- ), Smithsonian Undersecretary for Science from 2010 to 2014, cracked a glass ceiling by becoming the highest-ranking woman to serve as a science manager at the Smithsonian. She was born in New York City to immigrant parents who, from the start, encouraged her to pursue and value education. That early emphasis prompted Pell to attend City College of New York, where she earned a B.S. in biology followed by a Ph.D. in plant biology from Rutgers University. Pell’s love for science led her to a professional path with both the meaningful support of female mentors and great resistance from the male-dominated field of plant pathology in the early 1970s. Pell’s resilience and expertise in the face of gender bias led to an accomplished career as a scientist and administrator at Penn State University, which named a major laboratory in her honor.
Pell’s interview covers her early life, including how her educational path was influenced by her parent’s escape from Nazi Germany during World War II, her entry into academia in the early 1970s, and her trajectory to the Smithsonian. Read Pell’s interview for an all-too-familiar story of academic and professional adversity experienced by women, particularly female scientists. She shares invaluable insights into what the working world looked like for a young, female scientist seeking equitable treatment and what one can achieve with persistence and devotion to the work you love.
“Love what you do every day”
Session 1-1 00:04:15 – 00:04:47
My father always said the most wonderful thing in the world would have been to have an education. My parents were middle-class people in Germany before then, and they were on a track to go to college. And then, of course, that all fell apart. So, they were very intelligent and very self-taught. And my father always said what all immigrants say, you know, the only thing you can’t take away from someone is what’s in their head. So, you better stick a lot in there [LAUGHTER] and find something so that when you go to work, you will love what you do every day. And I always say that was the greatest gift he ever gave us. . .
“I had never even considered it.”
Session 1-1 00:21:18 – 00:22:50
I was 20 years old and I graduated from college. And I had lived at home with my parents in this very warm, nuclear family. Now, all of a sudden, I’m on my own and somebody’s letting me do my own thing. I probably wasn’t the most brilliant classroom student, but I was really—geometry was my best subject in high school, and organic chemistry was maybe one of my best subjects in college, because I think I’m pretty good at connecting dots and seeing patterns, which is what research is all about.
And that first summer, it was like my heart filled. Just thinking about it today, it was like I couldn’t wait for the next day to see what happened with the experiment, to try the next thing. And this marvelous person was encouraging me and so interested in me. So at the end of my first year, my committee said to me, “You can get a master’s. You’ve done enough work for a master’s, but if you would like to, we would like you to stay for a Ph.D.” And I had never even considered it.
My husband at the time was in dental school. Our plan was I would get a master’s. I’d get a job. I’d make some money. We would, you know, be able to [LAUGHTER] survive. And I remember going home that night and I said, “Oh, my god, Ira. They said I could stay for a Ph.D. It’s not what we planned. What do you think?” And I always said he really changed the course of our lives because, without thinking, which is how my husband answers many questions, [LAUGHTER] he said, “It’s your life. Do what you want.”
“Meet me in the greenhouse and we’ll get you started.”
Session 1-1 00:18:56 – 00:21:13
PELL: I was interested in plant disease, but from the plant point of view. And what I discovered was I was very ignorant about the field. What I discovered was that many plant pathologists are totally focused on the pathogen. So most of the faculty in that department were mycologists. They were working on the fungi, but a lot of it was in petri dishes, or viruses, or bacteria, but very little interest in how the plant was responding. And there were two people—there were three people, I guess. One did it part of the time and then he worked on diseases the other. So there were a few people that were working on the effects of air pollution on vegetation. One of them was a woman named Eileen Brennan, and this is a very strange story.
She and the other woman, Ida [A.] Leone, both were both Catholic. Eileen was Irish and Ida was from an Italian family. They had gone to Douglass College together, and then they’d gone and gotten master’s degrees together in plant physiology. And then they were hired by a senior faculty member in the department named Robert [H.] Daines with the master’s degrees when he started the Air Pollution Program. And they definitely took it over.
They had privileges in the graduate school. I had come for a master’s, and Eileen was ready to take on a student. Everyone else I met, it was, “Oh, go have one of the graduate students teach you how to make potato dextrose agar in the lab.” I came to see her. She handed me a recently-published paper. And she said, “Read this and come back in the morning and we’ll talk about it.”
PELL: So, I came back in the morning and I was full of ideas, because I really had been pretty well trained at City College to think and to write. And so I came back and I was full of ideas, you know, I wonder what would happen if this or that. And she said, “you have some great ideas. Tomorrow morning, meet me in the greenhouse and we’ll get you started.” So then I was her master’s student, and at the end of the first year—I mean, that year was seminal in my life.
“Would you have done that if all you wanted as a job for a couple of years?”
Session 1-1 00:362:4 – 00:38:02
So I applied, and it was either the assistant or the associate level, and they interviewed me. My department had a rule that they would never hire anyone if they didn’t think they were good in the classroom. I was always pretty good as a speaker and I had a very successful interview and a very successful seminar. My department—well, Penn State, the College of Ag[riculture] had one woman. She was in Agricultural Economics—Rural Sociology, and so certainly no women had ever been in my department. And this group of people were not sure about this girl.
When I had my interview—I’ve told this story many times—eight o’clock in the morning, first session was with the department chair and the search committee in his office. So five men, me. And keep in mind I’m now twenty-four. My hair’s down to my waist, granny glasses, the whole thing. [LAUGHTER] You know? And these men.
The department chair says to me, “Are you interested in a career?” “We’re going to begin by saying we’re all male chauvinists, and we want to know if you’re interested in a career or just a job for a couple of years.” I’ve just spent four years at that point with Eileen Brennan, and I’m thinking in my head, that’s the stupidest thing anybody ever asked me. And I blurt out without thinking—I wasn’t very mature and said, “Gentleman, you’ve all gone through the agonies of getting a Ph.D. Would you have done that if all you wanted was a job for a couple of years?” At which point they [LAUGHTER] all started stirring their coffee. But that was the climate.
“Somebody to try to break some of the barriers down here.”
Session 1-3 00:23:13 – 00:25:52
PELL: So one day, this announcement comes about the undersecretary job, and I start typing the usual thank you very much but, and then I go, wait a minute. Read that again.
PELL: I sent it to my husband, and I said, “I think this is it.” And he writes back, and he goes, “What are you saying?” [LAUGHTER] So I said, “All right, I agree to go on an interview.” So first, they just interviewed me at Spencer Stuart, and then the committee said they’d like to meet me, and I came down. I think I told this story at my retirement party. I just celebrated my forty-eighth wedding anniversary actually a month ago. And so, a few years ago, it was forty-five years, whatever, and I said, on the way down here, I was thinking we’ve been married forty-something years and you’ve been faithful the whole time. It felt like I was having an affair.
PELL: Because the whole time down here, for the first interview, I go, all right. You’ll go in the interview, but you know you could never leave Penn State. You know, I was there like thirty-six years. I went on the interview and it was so interesting and exciting. I just felt the chemistry with the people around the table. And so, going home, and I’m going, oh, my god, you could! [LAUGHTER] And I said this is what an affair must feel like.
PELL: And then I came for the second interview. That went very well, and then I told my president. I said, “You know, I think this could really happen.” And then Wayne [Clough] invited me to come in for an interview. And Wayne was looking for somebody to try to break some of the barriers down here and build the interdisciplinary elements of the institution. And the fact that there was so much natural science in the undersecretary job.
HENSON: Oh, yes.
PELL: So from a content point of view, it was really interesting to me, and Wayne’s vision was really interesting. In my vice-president role, I had come here a lot to Washington, and I found it was, despite the [LAUGHTER] problems over there, it’s a very interesting place, especially at this stage of my career. So when Wayne offered me the job, you know, we decided, all right. And I didn’t really know how long I would do it based on the timing.
But it was hard to leave. I don’t feel like I was completely finished. And I really fell in love with the place so fast and I got sucked in so fast. My husband teases me to this day. He said, “You know, you said nothing could ever be as hard as your Vice President and Graduate Dean job and this was going to be much easier to manage.” And it didn’t take long before I was working just as hard [LAUGHTER] if not harder.