Marie Curie: Which Path Will You Choose?

Last month I happened to watch a couple of pieces of the TV series Genius on Albert Einstein and ended up learning something about Marie Curie.

Born Marie Sklodowska in Poland 1867, both of Curie’s parents were teachers, and she excelled at school in her formative years. Though she graduated near the top of her class, she couldn’t attend the University of Warsaw because of her gender. She instead attended what was known as the “floating university” – more informal classes held in secret that admitted women – and received some scientific training from her father. Curie and her sister also worked out a deal so that they could study abroad and receive a real degree – she would work and help pay for her sister’s schooling and then they would switch. Curie worked for five years as a governess and a tutor, and then travelled to meet her sister in Paris.

It was here in Paris, at the Sorbonne, that Curie immersed herself in the sciences – first completing a master’s degree in physics and another degree in mathematics after that. She was introduced to Pierre Curie when she was in need of a laboratory, and a romance developed.  They were married in 1895, and their work together unearthed some of history’s greatest scientific discoveries. Together they pioneered the research on radioactivity, and discovered two elements (polonium and radium). At the age of 36, Curie was the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Physics, along with her husband. A few years later, her husband died tragically, and Marie Curie continued her scientific research on her own, later earning a Nobel Prize in chemistry.

You cannot hope to build a better world without improving the individuals. To that end, each of us must work for our own improvement and, at the same time, share a general responsibility for all humanity, our particular duty being to aid those to whom we think can be most useful.

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Whenever I read about Marie Curie, and women pioneers like her, I find myself overwhelmed by the what ifs. What if she hadn’t gone to the floating university? What if she hadn’t made that deal with her sister? What if her studies hadn’t brought her and Pierre Curie together?  What if she had given up just a little bit earlier?  Increasingly, these questions bring me back to our own work.  There are countless potential pathways that each of the lives of our 2,300 students could travel along.  Which ones will matter? What decision points are along the way?  What can we do to improve their odds?  How do we teach them to persevere, as Marie Curie did?