Breaking through barriers
A young childhood spent just outside of Munich, in then Nazi-controlled Germany, impressed upon Harriet Ammann ’61 that some things are worth fighting for.
“My parents sheltered a Jewish woman and her sister off and on, which was extremely dangerous,” Ammann said. “That really shaped me and helped me understand right and wrong.”
Ammann, who moved with her family to Dayton when she was 8 years old, took those lessons to heart. Now 80, she has spent a lifetime holding firm to her convictions — a task that wasn’t always easy. Initially accepted into the physics program at UD, Ammann was often the only female student in her engineering classes.
“In the late 1950s, women were not made to feel very welcome in the science classes; it was pretty clear,” she said.
In an academic career that began with a bachelor’s of science from UD and included a master’s degree in natural science from New Mexico Highlands University and a doctorate in zoology and biochemistry from North Carolina State University, Ammann vividly remembers comments like “you’re not as stupid as you look” or a suggestion that she change her major to home economics.
“I think it’s gotten a lot better for women in the sciences, but those attitudes are still there in society and we need to continue to show that women can do this and any other kind of work,” she said. “To speak out strongly is considered assertive for one gender and aggressive for another, so I think it’s definitely an ongoing struggle.”
The struggle, however, did not extinguish her passion. Ammann worked for the Environmental Protection Agency and, more recently, as the senior toxicologist for the Air Quality Program for the Washington State Department of Ecology. Upon retiring in 2006, she continued her work as a self-employed toxicology consultant and associate professor at the University of Washington.