Barnard ranks ninth of all U.S. colleges and universities in graduating women who later earn doctorates in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM). The distinction, among those celebrated during the Barnard Year of Science, grows out of a deep tradition of superior instruction and high expectations for its students. Among the many extraordinary educators to lead Barnard science, one name often surfaces: Bernice Segal.
The late chemistry professor earned her A.B. at Radcliffe and a Ph.D. at Harvard. She was a decorated educator, having won Barnard’s Emily Gregory Award in 1981. The award honors outstanding faculty members for excellence in teaching and devotion and service to the students of Barnard College.
When Segal first came to teach chemistry in 1958, gasoline cost 25 cents per gallon and the average home in the U.S. went for just under $2,400. Dwight D. Eisenhower was in the White House, Auntie Mame was in movie theaters, and Oklahoma! was selling out on Broadway. It was a very different time — one in which few women were pursuing careers in science.
However, Segal conveyed a strong belief that a woman’s place could and perhaps should be in the sciences.
“[To Professor Segal], women weren’t [at Barnard] just to learn something and leave. They were going to create and do something in the world,” said Eva Gans ’62.
Gans — now 81 years old and a computer consultant — arrived at Barnard in 1960, having transferred from Mount Holyoke College. Gans was 19 and newly married when she first had a course taught by Professor Segal. “She had a formidable, commanding presence, and [I remember thinking] she was probably the best teacher that ever lived,” said Gans. “She was explaining things with such clarity. Physical chemistry is a difficult subject, but she made it all so easy for me to understand.”
During her second year at Barnard, Gans was expecting her first child. However, during winter break, Gans’ pregnancy ended in miscarriage. When she returned for the spring semester, she was devastated by grief and couldn’t bear to talk about her loss with her classmates who had been excited about the baby. So Gans went to Segal and asked for her help. “She was so sympathetic and wonderful,” said Gans. “It was a rough time; she took care of me. I knew then that she was both a great teacher and a wonderful human being.”
Gans would return to Barnard after graduating to help Segal by teaching basic algebra to a class of nursing students to prepare them to learn college-level chemistry. Once back on campus, Gans decided to audit computer science classes — leading to her career path in the field.
Many Barnard alumnae echoed Gans’ description of Segal’s impact.
Dr. Babette Horn ’72 recalled Segal as a mighty influence and motivator. At Barnard, Horn became fascinated with chemistry and decided that would be her major. “There weren’t many chemistry majors at the time,” she said.
Horn was in her third year when she took Segal’s thermodynamics and inorganic chemistry course. It was a tough, complicated subject. “I found her very imposing. She was a tall woman and large, had a very commanding voice, and instantly knew our names. She made me want to work really hard to try to understand the material and to do well in it. I felt the need to fulfill her expectations for us,” said Horn, an anesthesiologist practicing in Chicago. “She always encouraged us in our career plans and never said, ‘Well, it’s going to be kind of hard to succeed in that area because you’re a woman.’”
Segal also had a lasting impact on the career of renowned chemical scientist Karen Goldberg ’83.
“Bernice Segal was extraordinary,” recalled Goldberg. “I actually kept some of my exam blue books. Professor Segal filled a whole page with comments like, ‘Your reasoning is excellent, but you need to learn how to write [more clearly]. Scientists need to know how to write.’ Imagine a chemistry professor taking the time to comment on the writing! It was a physical chemistry exam where the answers were full of equations, and Professor Segal was telling me how I need to improve my written explanations. She was amazing, and moreover, she was absolutely correct about science and writing!”
Being one of few women in her postgraduate chemistry program was, at times, daunting, but Segal’s influence during her undergraduate career grounded Goldberg.
“I had a lot of insecurities about my potential. I still remember Professor Segal telling me that I was really good at this. It wasn’t that I just worked harder than other students. Her belief in me and my abilities was really important,” said Goldberg, who is now a Barnard Board of Trustees member, the Vagelos Professor of Energy Research, and the inaugural director of the Vagelos Institute of Energy Science and Technology (VIEST) at the University of Pennsylvania.
Jacqueline Barton ’74, another leading chemist, also praised Segal. In 2015, when Barton became the third woman to receive the Priestly Medal — the highest award given by the American Chemical Society — she credited her Barnard professors, particularly Segal, with encouraging her to work hard. “She had enormously high expectations, and you would rise to meet them,” said Barton.
Structural biologist Helen Berman ’64 also cites Segal as among her most influential mentors. “Bernice was a very, very rigorous chemist [and] very strict, but she was very encouraging,” Berman recalled.
Segal, who served as chairwoman of the department from 1973 to 1983, and again from 1986 to 1987, died in 1989 after a long battle with breast cancer. A colleague, Professor Sally Chapman, wrote in her tribute to Segal, “She was an extraordinary woman: strong, direct, deeply caring. ... She always had time for students.”
—MARIE DeNOIA ARONSOHN