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This kind of lifelong questioning began, in a way, with a butterfly net in a field behind Fuchs's childhood home in Illinois.
“Early on, my mother made a butterfly net for my sister and me,” recalls Fuchs. Her sister Jannon is four years older, and the two girls spent long afternoons in the fields behind their house in Downers Grove. Soon they were catching butterflies, insects, pollywogs, and the occasional crayfish from a nearby swamp. “We had butterfly nets and strainers and old kitchen utensils, and we started to ask for science books for Christmas,” she says.
When she was about eight years old, Fuchs read about using thyroid hormone to accelerate metamorphosis in pollywogs. She pleaded with her father, a geochemist at Argonne National Laboratory, to get her some so she could try it for herself. “I had no concept of nanomolar concentration,” she says with a smile. “I just wanted to speed things up. So I dumped the entire contents into the water—and killed all of my tadpoles. That was my first real science experiment”—pretty much a complete failure.
It was Jannon who seemed destined to be a scientist, she says; Jannon was “the smart one” and Elaine was “the fun one.” Elaine admired her big sister, but Jannon Fuchs remembers it from a slightly different vantage point. “If given the choice,” Jannon told me by phone from her home in Denton, Texas, where she is a professor of neuroscience at the University of North Texas, “I would have preferred to be the social one!”
Fuchs's father assumed Elaine would become a teacher—it was Jannon whom he urged to go into science—and so Elaine headed down that path. When she entered the University of Illinois in 1968, she enrolled in chemistry, physics, and mathematics classes, but she still didn't think of herself as an especially good student—until she looked around her.
In her science classes, Fuchs was one of just three women of some 200 students. She knew that meant a particular kind of scrutiny.
“I remember being in the physics class thinking, ‘If I were to get an A, the professor would think I cheated. But if I get the best grade in the class, the professor couldn't think I cheated, since I would be doing better than everyone else.’ Boy, that really motivated me.” She made straight As in college, often at the top of her class.
But Fuchs wasn't a total grind. She joked around with the science geeks, hung out with the graduate students, and in one class asked the TA to teach her how to juggle tennis balls. She intended to join the Peace Corps after graduation—a plan that changed when she was assigned to work in Uganda, then under the bloody rule of Idi Amin. She chose graduate school at Princeton University instead.
At Princeton, in 1972, Fuchs again felt the sting of being a woman in a man's world. Fuchs recalls her advisor, Charles Gilvarg, saying on more than one occasion that he didn't think there was a place for women in science. Fuchs took his dismissive attitude as a challenge. She worked hard, often staying in the lab until 10 p.m., studying spore formation in bacteria as she sought to acquire the skills of a bench scientist. But she also played hard, beginning what would become a lifelong love affair with travel. Even on a paltry $3,000 a year stipend, Fuchs managed to travel to India, Nepal, Guatemala, Mexico, Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Turkey, Greece, and Egypt during her five years at Princeton.