Inside Iowa State
April 5, 1996
A woman of science
by Jennifer Henrich
Lois Tiffany has said she is "almost a fixture" on this campus.
After earning three degrees from Iowa State and staying on to teach for more than 45 years, she definitely is here to stay.
The distinguished professor and chair of the botany department arrived on campus in 1941 as a freshman in science. She went on to earn an undergraduate degree in botany and a graduate degree and doctorate in botany and plant pathology. She became a member of the ISU faculty in 1950.
Tiffany is best known for her expertise in mushrooms. But she also actively encourages young women to pursue careers in science through her involvement with the Women in Science and Engineering program -- a concept that was nonexistent when she started college.
As one of the few (and often the only) women in her field of study, Tiffany admits she encountered attitudes that she considered "limiting or prejudiced." For example, when Tiffany was a graduate student, a professor told her she wouldn't get an "A" in his class because it probably wouldn't be necessary.
Tiffany says she simply did not waste energy on those kinds of things. "If you look for reasons to be frustrated," she said, "you will find them."
Tiffany's major professor and mentor, J.C. Gilman, helped her stay confident. "He paid no attention to the fact that I was a woman and encouraged me to do anything I wanted to do," Tiffany said. "He just never doubted me."
Tiffany's favorite story that illustrates how far women have come in science happened a couple of years after she received her Ph.D. She was sitting in her office when an older gentleman kept passing by the doorway. As he passed by the fourth time, Tiffany asked if she could help him. He said he was looking for a Dr. Tiffany. When she told him she was Dr. Tiffany, he responded, "Are you sure?"
"I wasn't what he expected," Tiffany said. "Now people don't raise that question."
Tiffany has earned numerous awards and honors, including being the first woman president of the Iowa Academy of Science (1978), the first recipient of the Governor's Science Medal for Science Teaching (1982) and an Iowa Women's Hall of Fame inductee in 1991. In 1993, she received a Distinguished Faculty Award from the Iowa chapter of the American Association of University Women.
"I've enjoyed all aspects of teaching," she said, adding that she will continue to teach until it gets to be work or she feels like she isn't communicating effectively.
"It is delightful to watch young people develop and grow over four years," she said, "and to be able to help a little along the way."
Tiffany got a little help along the way, too.
As a first-year graduate assistant, Tiffany found herself teaching GIs just back from the service. Most were 10 years older than she, felt they had lost time while in the service and were impatient to get on with their lives. For them, that meant learning and finishing their educations. They demanded much information from their young instructor, and Tiffany said she worked hard to keep them supplied with answers.
"It was a very good introduction to teaching," she said, "but I didn't think so at the time."
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