Thressa Stadtman

Women often suspend or upend their careers to follow their husbands to new jobs. In this case, however, he followed her! (And both went on to be incredibly successful scientists). The “mother of selenium biochemistry,” Thressa Stadtman was born in upstate New York in 1920. After graduating as valedictorian from her high school, she worked 4 hours a day as a waitress to supplement a scholarship to Cornell. She graduated with a BS in microbiology and, after trying industry work, realized that her passions aligned more with basic research, so she continued her studies at Cornell, obtaining a Master’s degree in bacteriology and nutrition. She went on to complete doctoral work at UC Berkeley, where she studied biochemical reactions in bacteria she found in local mud. Berkeley was also where she met her future husband, and fellow biochemist, Earl. When Thressa was offered a job at the NIH, Earl followed her there, where the two spent the rest of their long careers working, often in collaboration. Thressa is best known for her discovery of the 21st amino acid, selenocysteine, but she also made major contributions to knowledge about amino acid synthesis and B12-dependent enzymes. Her career spanned over half a decade and involved the publishing of 212 peer-reviewed articles. Wanting to enable others to have similarly successful careers, she established scholarships for women majoring in science at Cornell, stipulating that, once women had achieved equity, the scholarship should be opened up to people in other marginalized groups. Thressa died in December 2016, but her legacy lives on, as does her name – her rigorous but supportive mentorship style is lovingly referred to as “The Stadtman Way,” there are numerous awards given in her honor, and she even has a microorganism named after her: Methanospaera stadtmaniae.


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