Harvard University President Lawrence Summers incited an ideological riot earlier this year when he suggested that women may be innately unsuited for success in math and science. But Summers's remarks, for which he subsequently apologized, are a moot point to women like Donna O'Meara and Felicia Nutter. Their talents and interests led both women into careers in science: O'Meara as a globe-trotting volcano researcher and Nutter as a field veterinarian in Rwanda for a research project on mountain gorillas.
Their stories, as well as those of other curious and courageous women scientists, can be found in the pages of some splendid nonfiction books for children. Some of these books are newly published; others are older but still readily available. While boys also will enjoy them, these books convey a clear message: Science isn't just for males.
(From "gorilla Doctors")
Melting Sneakers and Sick Gorillas
O'Meara's Into the Volcano (KidsCan, $16.95; ages 9-12) shows how researching volcanoes has given her a unique view of Earth's most mysterious and dangerous places. her riveting first-person narrative describes the thrill of seeing an erupting volcano up close -- so close that the soles of her sneakers began to melt.
The intrepid O'Meara tells readers how she and her husband, Steve, also a volcanologist, have dodged bandits and anti-government guerrillas to get inside the "cone" at the summit of the Pacaya volcano in Guatemala. The couple also spent a freezing night perched on a ledge near the top of Italy's Stromboli volcano, stranded by a freak winter storm. Although she doesn't minimize the dangers, O'Meara obviously revels in her work. Risking her safety to learn more about volcanoes helps her to predict their eruptions, and thus save lives.
Into the Volcano is filled with stunning color photographs taken by O'Meara and her husband. The book also contains an abundance of basic volcano information, placed in easy-to-digest sidebars.
Like O'Meara, Felicia Nutter finds her work as a mountain-gorilla veterinarian in Rwanda utterly absorbing. But there are plenty of challenges as well, as author Pamela S. Turner makes clear in Gorilla Doctors: Saving Endangered Great Apes (Houghton Mifflin, $17; ages 8-12).
Because the mountain gorillas are treated in their natural habitat, Nutter and others involved with the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project often must hike for hours to reach their patients. Even a broken foot is no excuse, as Nutter found when she spent five hours limping up a mountainside on crutches to check on a gorilla thought to be desperately ill. Instead, the gorilla grumbled when he saw the exhausted Nutter -- a sign that he was in better-than-expected health.
Turner keeps readers interested by combining stories of Nutter and other "gorilla doctors" with information about these engaging animals. Readers will learn how poachers have preyed on the mountain gorillas, and how tourists interested in seeing the apes up close bring much-needed cash to the region but also carry diseases that could further threaten them.
Numerous color photographs, including some of Nutter playing with an orphaned baby gorilla, add interest. The book concludes with ways readers can learn more about these animals, such as scanning Internet updates from the gorilla doctors.
Gorilla Doctors is the latest book in Houghton Mifflin's "Scientists in the Field" series. Previous titles highlighting the work of women scientists include Digging for Bird-Dinosaurs, which depicts the work of paleontologist Cathy Forster; The Woods Scientist, featuring wildlife researcher Susan Morse; and Looking for Life in the Universe, about astrophysicist Jill Tarter's search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
Bear Hair and Other Encounters
Award-winning naturalist and writer Sy Montgomery has had some extraordinary experiences in her career: She was chased by a gorilla in Zaire and hunted by a tiger in India; she worked in a pit with 18,000 snakes in Manitoba. In her latest book for children, Search for the Golden Moon Bear (Houghton Mifflin, $17; ages 10-up), Montgomery writes about how she pulled hairs from bears in Cambodia and Thailand -- all in the name of science.
Armed with marshmallows for bear treats and tweezers for plucking, Montgomery was part of a scientific expedition to track the unusual golden moon bear and determine whether its existence had ever been scientifically documented. With humor and insight, she outlines the complex detective work involved in figuring out whether an animal is a new species or an as-yet-undiscovered part of a known species. The answer surprised her and her colleagues and will intrigue readers.
Those interested in such biology adventure stories might also enjoy another book by Montgomery, The Man-Eating Tigers of Sundarbans (Sandpiper, $6.95; ages 9-12).
Naturalist Sophie Webb also writes about her adventures in the wild. In Looking for Seabirds (Houghton Mifflin, $16; ages 9-12), she takes readers along on a month-long scientific voyage to Alaska's Aleutian Islands. Webb joins a crew of oceanographers studying several different marine subjects; her job is to do a census of the seabirds they encounter.