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Motivated by the challenges she faced in establishing her career as a female mechanical engineer in the 1950s and 1960s, Brit d'Arbeloff continues to be a positive force for gender equality in the sciences.
Almost six decades after she became the first woman to graduate from Stanford University’s mechanical engineering program, Brit d’Arbeloff is still breaking down barriers for female scientists.
From her philanthropic support for scientists through the Massachusetts General Hospital Research Scholars program, to the summer program she established at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to introduce female high school students to engineering careers, d’Arbeloff has been a constant, positive and encouraging force for gender equality.
Brit d'Arbeloff (foreground) visits the lab of Caroline Burns, PhD, one of two d'Arbeloff MGH Research Scholars.
“We have to get the word out that science is a really good career for women, because they get a lot out of it,” she says.
Through her philanthropy, d’Arbeloff also hopes to raise awareness about the Mass General’s vast research enterprise. “Everybody thinks of Mass General as the top clinical hospital in the world,” she says, “but nobody knows about the research, which I think is the most exciting part.”
In a recent interview, d’Arbeloff said her interest in engineering dates back to her childhood in Chicago. Her father, Ivar Jepson, worked for the Chicago Flexible Shaft Company, which later became the Sunbeam Corporation. An engineer with over 500 patents, Jepson played a key role in developing the consumer goods industry in America during the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Among the items he patented were Mixmaster blenders, electric hair clippers, can openers and shavers.
The prototypes her father brought home not only helped spark d’Arbeloff’s interest in engineering, they often provided literal sparks as well. “You had to be careful because the leakage currents were awesome,” she recalls. “You wanted to handle most of them with rubber gloves. And you never wanted to sit on top of the electric blanket.”
While choosing her career path was easy, the journey was anything but. As a student at Stanford in the mid 1950s, d’Arbeloff had to overcome the skeptical attitudes of faculty advisors, follow a gender-specific dress code that meant hiding her jeans under her lab coat, and prove to her classmates that she could handle the coursework before they would accept her as a peer. She did just that, graduating at the top of her class.
After enrolling as a graduate student at MIT in the early 1960s, d’Arbeloff faced more institutional opposition. While engineering courses at the time were primarily hands-on, none of the MIT faculty members would agree to take on a female student in their lab. So she had to base her thesis on theory, rather than practice.
The world outside of academia proved no easier to crack. Even with her impeccable academic resume, d’Arbeloff found it difficult to find work. She eventually found a job working on the design of the Redstone ballistic missile system. Even then, some areas of the lab were off limits to her as a woman.
Exasperated, d’Arbeloff was ready to leave Boston to pursue her PhD at Stanford when she met her future husband, Alexander, at a party. The connection was immediate and the couple married several months later.
Alex, the co-founder of the Boston-based technology giant Teradyne, was a fellow MIT graduate and a key player in the local science and technology community. Through him, Brit reconnected with MIT and grew to love the institution as it evolved into a more open and welcoming community.
She also became connected to Mass General after Alex served as a trustee for both Mass General and Partners HealthCare.
Brit has remained supportive and involved with Mass General since Alex’s death in 2008. She is a member of the Research Institute Advisory Council, a team of volunteer leaders who help to promote and support hospital’s research efforts through their philanthropy and strategic connections.
She also provides philanthropic support for the MGH Research Scholars Program. Donors to the program are offered a naming opportunity whereby they may be matched with an MGH Research Scholar awardee, who will carry that named title for five years.
Although the program is open to researchers of both genders, the d’Arbeloff scholars are both women: Cammie Lesser, MD, PhD, is working on new strategies to reengineer harmful bacteria to help patients, and Caroline Burns, PhD, is using zebrafish models to study heart attacks.
Though much work remains to achieve true gender equality in the sciences, d’Arbeloff encourages women who are interested in the field to stick with it. “It’s worth forging ahead because it’s very satisfying. Boy, when you discover something in the lab, it’s exciting.”
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