Anaida asked whether I would be willing to write a blog about something in my life or career that would be inspiring to other women.
I would like to think that something about my life has been inspirational, but it’s hard to know what would be encouraging about oneself to other people.
However, I am lucky enough to have had a mum who turns out to have been very inspirational – though I didn’t always appreciate it when I was younger. She was a bit different from the mums of my friends, but my sisters and I never realised until we were much older how special she was in terms of her career. Isn’t everyone’s mum a rocket scientist?
My mum, Frances Dunkle Coffin, was born in 1922 in a small town in central Pennsylvania in the United States. This was, and still is, coal mining country. She was an only child, and her father had wanted to have a son. So she got to wear dungarees rather than dresses when possible, and to play outdoors with toy cars and soldiers. She always told us that she was a “tomboy.”
She was the first person in her family to finish high school. She went on to study chemistry at undergraduate level and to complete a Ph.D. in physical chemistry in 1950. It is only now, as a lecturer myself, that I am able to comprehend what a challenging journey this must have been for her. And, even now, I am still not able to understand the topic of her Ph.D. All I know is that her supervisors were scientists who had worked on the Manhattan project.
In 1951, she joined NASA Glenn Research Centre in Cleveland, Ohio, a NASA facility that focused on jet and rocket propulsion. When I was born, she shifted from full-time to part-time hours for 10 years while raising my sisters and me. Later, she had to leave NASA during budget cutbacks after the moon landings and became a chemistry teacher at a local university.
Here is a link to a NASA blog about my mum: https://blogs.nasa.gov/womenatnasa/2013/08/28/coffin/
What did I learn from her? I learned that you don’t have to be like everyone else – that conventional identities are not the only ones possible. I also learned that you just get on with things no matter what stands in your way. I like to think that she would have been proud of US Senator Elizabeth Warren, who in 2017 was giving a speech in the Senate on civil rights and was silenced by a vote of the Senate. The US Senate Majority Leader said in justification of the vote that “Senator Warren was giving a lengthy speech. She had appeared to violate the rule. She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”
My sister’s friend Robin, who is a science educator, said in the NASA blog:
“… In that very straightforward way, Fran was part of the generation of women who blazed trails for girls and women who followed. That legacy of open doors is part of what she leaves behind. We are all the richer for it.”