August SOTM: Nancy Schwartz

by Aurelie Desgardin

Dr. Nancy Schwartz often sits quietly, listening to scientists of all levels as though she is no different from the others in the room. Humility, a characteristic often attributed to womanhood, is partially why she is so successful. She listens, processes information, thinks about what to say so no word is left unweighted. She does not need to command respect with a loud voice and broad shoulders, she does it naturally and with a dash of class.

Growing up 70 miles from Pittsburgh Pennsylvania in a household that valued education, Nancy has always been attracted to science but did not wish to follow in the footsteps of her older sister and go to medical school. Nancy had a thing for Mathematics. She loved it and was great at it. Wanting more than high school math, she sought out college summer classes which led to a full scholarship, an early college graduation, and a great yet undetermined future.

Nancy did not waste time pursuing Math after graduation. She was told bluntly that pursuing graduate studies in Mathematics as a woman was pointless – there would be few job prospects. So, she turned towards chemistry, also not a very popular subject of study among women at the time and then, biochemistry. As she puts it lightly “it has chemistry in the name, it must be interesting”.

A lot has changed since the days Dr. Schwartz joined academia. However, some things have not changed much. At the time, moving up the ranks was considered the default pathway. While this model is still vibrant in the minds of new graduate students and young postdocs, it no longer holds true. Women are still not drawn to chemistry and other STEM fields; and, while women are no longer a minority in biological sciences they are underrepresented in leadership positions. Somehow Dr. Schwartz found her place. She came with her husband to Chicago and joined the University of Chicago as a postdoctoral fellow because she thought this was the best place for her to be. Her choice was undeniably the right one. She has climbed the ladder to become the professor of Pediatrics and Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in addition to being the director of the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center. With each new position, she took on more responsibilities, applying her efforts to bridging the gap of inequalities.

A Lifetime of Achievements

Dr. Schwartz’ accomplishments as a scientist and a mentor would make quite a list. She is a successful investigator with a lengthy track record of mentoring and efforts towards the development and support of scientists as well as diversity within the sciences.

Looking at Dr. Schwartz today, one would not picture an activist beneath the veneer of a poised professor. Dr. Schwartz says “growing up in the late 60s and 70s, in a time of change, was exciting”. She marched for equal rights, for women, voting rights, and against the war in Vietnam. She developed a taste for large group efforts with a purpose for progress. Could it be because there is chemistry in group chemistry?

In regards to building her career, she confesses that it was about “putting together areas that I like to do. I have interests in big group efforts and training”. This led to her development of multiple projects such as a PostBac and Initiative for Maximizing Student Development programs (IMSD), in the National Research Mentoring Network Committee on Institutional Cooperation Academic Network and much more. Some of her more impressive endeavors include directing for 35 years a multi-investigator, P01 Program Project and a P30 center grant for the Developmental Disabilities Research Center at UChicago. Dr. Schwartz is the director of this center and her lab researches skeletal and brain development. She also has directed a T32 MD/Ph.D. training development program that has been continually funded for 35 years.

Dr. Schwartz stands for all scientists. She joined the GRE board where she advocated for the GRE to be more appropriate for scientists. She emphasizes the importance of outreach efforts and helped to start and chaired a Graduate Deans group and Postdoc Leaders group through the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). Dr. Schwartz feels strongly about diversity in the Sciences. She recognizes that private institutions are not compelled to participate in such efforts but that demonstrating efforts and affecting cultural change is beneficial to the University. While Dean of the Biological Sciences Division Graduate School, Dr. Schwartz established the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs where she serves as Dean and Director.

In 2016, Dr. Schwartz received one of her most moving recognitions, the NPA Distinguished Service Award. The National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) was created by a group of 7 postdoctoral scholars who, with the support of an advisory board including Dr. Schwartz, succeeded in establishing what is today an invaluable resource for postdoctoral trainees across the nation. She is proud that this nascent project grew to be sustainable despite the transient nature of the postdoc population. Dr. Schwartz is a proponent of institutional involvement and shares that “Universities do not take responsibility for their postdocs in the same way they do with their graduate students because they want to see them walk away with a degree.”

Dr. Nancy Schwartz is a role model and mentor to many women in science – to follow what naturally feels right to oneself, unapologetically embrace femininity and succeed by combining things one cares about with the things one loves to do that benefits many. She admits that her humble perspective may be a characteristic classically associated with women but nevertheless “I don’t portray myself as a leader but I like to think that I enhance”. I happen to think that maybe her training as a chemist organically transformed Dr. Nancy Schwartz into the catalyst of the many groups and the range of successes she has achieved.