Ada Lovelace, My Mom, and Aunt Ginny

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, a day dedicated to women who have worked or currently work in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math. I myself am not one of those women, although I love and appreciate science. There are quite a few women in my family who are. Here are two of them.

Virgina Conway Littau was an ethnobotanist and research biologist. She and my uncle married not long after he passed his state bar exam and right after she received her doctorate in biology. Ginny worked with plant viruses, how eating diseased plants affected insects, and plant tumors. She and my uncle joked that it gave them an excuse to go around the world on adventures. She never talked much about her work when I was growing up. They were both much more interested in talking about their travels. Frankly, at the time my sister and I were far more interested in hearing about their adventures than how things went in the lab or with the grant writing that month. Ginny shared that with my mom and dad, who worked in the same sort of environment. She worked at a couple of large non-profit research laboratories near their NY home. We never heard about the work she was doing at the time she did it; but Ginny’s enthusiasm about the world around us, especially the plant world – that came through loud and clear.

Sara Bennett Littau was interested in science as a young girl. Lots of visits to her parents’ house in rural PA involved playing with my mom’s chemistry set. She grew up on a farm; her family were subsistence farmers, and my grandfather also worked as an electrician for a nearby mining company. Mom was the first person in her family to go to a 4-year college, majoring in chemistry. In fact, my mom and dad met while she was at school – he was one of the teaching assistants while she was an undergrad. She went and got a masters, got married and had me. And later on, my sister. That was it for a while.

Once my sister was in 1st grade and we were both at school all day, she found that she was bored. Very bored. Bored enough to go down to the local hospital, head to their analytical lab, and offer to volunteer as a medical technologist. The department head let her volunteer for a couple of weeks. Then he offered her a job.

She worked at that hospital for the next 5 or 6 years, moved back to her parents’ home to help take care of them, and found work – both she and my dad – at an analytical lab. She also worked as a medical supply salesperson. Her clients loved her because she knew how to develop testing methods and was willing to work through testing issues with them.

My mom and dad both inspired my sister to pursue a career in chemistry. She doesn’t enjoy the politics around her work, but she loves what she does.

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