Lucy Comly Oral History

Lucy Comly Interview
Bethlehem Central High School- Mr. Reed’s AP Chemistry Class
Spring 2007

Liam Bowen: This is the interview with Dr. Lucy Comly. Today’s date is May 29th, 2007, and the time is 9:30 am. We’re going to introduce the people in the room. My name is Liam Bowen, I’m the audio-technician.

Amy Forando: I’m Amy Forando.

Adele Ricciardi: I’m Adele Ricciardi and I will be the interviewer.

Lucy Comly: Lucy Comly, the interviewee.

Janie Schwab: Janie Schwab

Sara Turner: Sara Turner

Robert Lyons: Robert Lyons

Liam: And now we will begin the interview.

Adele: How did you first become interested in science?

Lucy: That’s an easy answer for me. I grew up in a family that was all science. My mother was an M.D. [She was] actually a practicing psychoanalyst but she had a medical degree. My father was a physicist, and I have to tell you, if you ever looked his name up on the web, he’s a very famous one. No longer living, they’re both gone. But he was very instrumental in the Second World War, in the development of what’s called the proximity fuse. [It] was used in the defense of Britain actually, against the Germans. But that was only part of his career. He was called to do that during the Second World War. He set up what became the Applied Physics Lab of the Johns Hopkins University to do that, and that’s a well-known institution now. But his whole field was really physics with the Carnegie Institution of Washington. So I had science on both sides of me. My older brother ended up in the sciences. And it just surrounded me. I spent all of my youthful summers, from the time I was eight until I went off to college at 16, [touring] out West. But it wasn’t just touring, it was doing seismology studies, which were geological studies of the earth’s crust, because he worked for the Carnegie Institution in Washington, and that was one aspect of what they did. They were doing geological studies, but they also did astronomical studies. They did a whole range of things, biochemistry, the whole mix. So I spent my life surrounded with people who spoke and studied the sciences. That was easy.
My interest in biology, I think, came when I was very young. My mother’s microscope from medical school was in the house and my father decided to show me what lived in- well actually it wasn’t pond water but it was water in the vase of flowers. So he got a slide and put a little droplet of water [and] cover slip on it, and put it under the microscope, and it was full of living things. And I thought that was so fascinating. So I think that’s what got me started.
I also had a superb biology teacher in high school. And, in fact, I still see her [laughs]. I often looked for her, I don’t know where she had gone after she was around high school, because she’d gone back to get her masters degree and then disappeared after that. But I got a letter from my high school, one of these alumni newsletters about two and a half years ago, and there was a little squib in it saying anybody who knew Ann Forton, who was the teacher, there was going to be a secret 80th birthday celebration for her down in Delaware. And so I said “Ah-hah!” I got a hold of this person and I did go and I did in fact speak at her birthday celebration. We were just down there in April for her 82nd birthday. So, that’s good friendship- lasts a lifetime. People who really make a difference to you. Uh, she was one of those individuals who demanded discipline from her students, all students, demanded excellence of them, and, I think between her and my family life, it was a given. I’m still interested in the sciences even though I do other things, but it was easy.

Adele: Who inspired you, and how?

Lucy: Well basically, my folks certainly did. And my high school biology teacher certainly, certainly did. Beyond that, I guess I’ve spent a lifetime really surrounded with people who are scientists, scientists and engineers of all different types. And they are inspirational every day. They make a difference to your life, they don’t just make a difference to your career. And, I would say that beyond my own family experience- maybe a couple of friends of my folks that I knew, and my high school biology teacher. They were instrumental. Absolutely instrumental in that. Setting the standards, getting excited about things, you know, if you spend your summers, every summer growing up around rocks and mountains and you get pretty interested in the world around you [laughs].

Adele: Was there any other specific research that inspired you?

Lucy: Yeah, actually the research that I did, um, actually fresh out of college [laughs]. [I] didn’t really know what I was doing, or much about anything at that point. And, I did research actually at my dad’s research lab, for the summer, and actually was that- I’m trying to remember when that was- maybe that was right out of high school. That was out of high school because I got married right after college, so, that was right out of high school. But, the other thing that was really interesting was right after I got married, and I went to work with one of the leading [high-lives] in the early research of RNA studies, published a paper with him, and that was very inspirational. That continues to be a wonderfully inspiring kind of field of knowledge. I mean, biology is an exciting subject area, for me. Not for everybody else, but for me it is.

Adele: What is your family and husband like?

Lucy: My husband?

Adele: And your family.

Lucy: Ah, we have one son, and he is actually out in California, married with two children. We have two grandchildren. He is running- well I guess you would call it a start-up. It’s an internet printing company. He works night and day [laughs] It is not an easy life if you’re involved with start-up. He’s done many things. He has a PhD in electrical engineering from Stanford. And, he basically has done a number of different things, as you do in the current world I think, if you don’t go to work for a major corporation and have a lifetime job with them anymore, it seems. But California is the site of entrepreneurship, and he has done a number of different things including running a start-up company which, if, you know, you have venture capital money and [if] it doesn’t pay off in two and a half years, you’re done. And then [he] set up his own consulting business. And he’s now helping run one of the companies that was purchased by a person who’d been a colleague of his. They were a group of buddies from Stanford as graduate students, and one of them went into the business of buying up companies, fixing them up, and selling them. And this is one of those companies [laughs]. The guy’s been doing it for many years, and so, Andy is taking it over. They just recently installed a second $2 million printing press and, the description I heard of how that’s done is pretty interesting [laughs] but, that’s what they do. It’s one of these night and day jobs, you know, runs all the time, you can’t have failures in that. I think the hope is, the expectation is, that online printing is the way it goes these days. It’s a lot cheaper to do that then to run to your local Kinko’s, if you have a big job, and that company will in the next two years be bought by somebody else, because it’s growing 40% a year- not bad.
My husband is- I’ve lived with a scientist. He’s an electrical engineer too but did physics at Harvard for his graduate work, and he’s essentially spent his life working for GE’s Research and Development Center, where I worked later on, and did many other things. That’s an interesting story in itself, that I actually did get to be there. I couldn’t [work there] because he was there, originally. When I got out of graduate school here at SUNY, he’s actually one of our neighbors but he’s a well-known biochemist, wanted to hire me there, and personnel said, “No way, her husband’s in the management.” This was the day of nepotism rules. Two people from a family can’t work in the same organization. And so I did other things for a while, until I finally got there [laughs]. But, it’s-you- people are coming into a different world thanks to the generations that went before you. Every one is different. And, I think a lot of the women who actually did work for corporations actually paved the way to make it a lot easier for you.

Adele: This question kind of goes along with you not being able to work in the same organization, but, was it difficult for you to become a female scientist?

Lucy: Yeah, I basically never did [laughs]. It was a very interesting experience. This is kind of a small town area. When I graduated from SUNY looking for a job I got offered to be a lab tech, which I had done before. At essentially the same salary as I’d done about eight years before, over at Albany Med. That’s a very exclusive organization, and so that was why, you know, trying to find a job after I got out with a PhD around here was very difficult, very difficult. There aren’t that many opportunities. And I really didn’t have an interest in going to a university to teach. So I bided my time and finally I essentially got in the back door, if you will, at GE. I ended up teaching for two years. And then I went to a fun kind-of-a job, that not had so much to do with science, but I spent all my life dealing with engineers so, that I went into a small hydroelectric venture development was nothing different [laughs]. And finally I got into the research, which is now called GE’s Global Research I guess, but [was] the Research and Development Center. That was really pretty much science all day, all around, in many different ways. Both the beginning of my job there- I did many jobs in between- and the last job [there], were ones that were very broad. You had to be able to write grant applications, you had to understand the research that people were doing, work with them to develop proposals, and so on. Things of that sort. And the bench science that I did was really more computer science. They sent me back to school to get a master’s degree [laughs], at RPI in computer science. And I worked in that for a bunch of years. And then back to-really I ended up in the environmental group, which was abolished finally because PCBs had essentially been taken over by the government. We were going to dredge the river, that was that, and there [were] no more legal battles that GE could pursue. So…

Adele: Tell us about when your husband got his PhD. Was it hard for you to stop doing your work?

Lucy: Ah, basically I had quit working when our son was born, which was… [asking herself] what? We’d been married for a year and a half, and Jim was a graduate student at Harvard and we were living on borrowed money and an NSF fellowship [laughs]. I wasn’t working then for a couple of years, except for typing his thesis. Then we went to England for a year. And so I didn’t work until I really came back. I got my PhD after we came back. And that was an interesting struggle. You know, when your husband’s working full time, it was before the day of daycares and a lot of people available to take care of kids. So, here I was commuting and trying to be home when the kid was sick, and various things, but it worked. I got a degree. And it was never, I mean, my son was, what? 10, by the time I was through with that…[correcting herself] 12! So going to work at that point, for me, was a lot easier, you know, he wasn’t young anymore. It was much easier to deal. My husband was already working at GE- that was when I ran into the conflict of trying to get a job there. So it was a long process of getting into GE. But once you work for a major corporation, your life isn’t your own [laughs]. You’ve got to have someone else help raise the kids.

Adele: Do you wish you had studied at Stanford?

Lucy: Yes and no. I would not have married the man I loved, and had the chance to be with him for the rest of my life. If I had done that, on the other hand, Stanford is a first-class institution. I would have undoubtedly stayed in the discipline I was going into and had a career in it, I think. But getting married as young as I did, that just changed the options really. So, it would have been a totally different life. In this day in age, yeah, I would certainly choose going to Stanford. I wouldn’t marry until a lot later [laughs]. It’s just, you have to make a lot of trade-offs. Well you did then- whether you do now I don’t know. I think it’s going to be a very different experience for the women today. I think you’ll have a lot more opportunities. The doors open. And you won’t have to make the kind of choices that basically I did.

Adele: Now, did you have an influence on your son going to Stanford?

Lucy: I don’t know. That’s an interesting question… I didn’t talk about it a lot. On the other hand, he had done, probably very little… When Andy was at Cornell he did one of these co-op programs where you spend, I’m trying to remember, I guess it was a semester of junior year elsewhere, working essentially. Then you come back and make up your courses in the summer. He went out to Hughes Aircraft, got a job there, simply because the guy that came to interview at Cornell was a Cornell grad. So it was kind of automatic, and they had some other connection with one of the faculty and so on. But they hit it off very well in the interviews, and so he got invited to do his summer co-op out there. And that kind of opened the door to California, you know. Once people see California [laughs] they’re gone from New York! It’s a different environment, and it’s very invigorating for young people. I don’t think I had much influence on Stanford. I think it was really the experiences he had, the people he met through Cornell and then in his co-op program. Because he did go out there for the co-op program, and then the same guy invited him back for, I’m just trying to think, for his summer work. When he went out, he got accepted at Stanford, and then his summer work was at Hughes too. So it was kind of a given that he’d be staying, he still lives there, of course.

Adele: Was your goal to get a job in biology?

Lucy: Well that’s what I started out doing. I actually had an offer to do a post-doc in Philadelphia, and that wasn’t going to work when you have a young son and a husband living in Schenectady [laughs]. So, I had hoped to. That was the first job application actually where I couldn’t work, because my husband was there. And then I got working for other opportunities in the area and it’s slim pickings [laughs] in this area. It was, I don’t know what it is now, but back then [it was], and I think I would have been happy to do that, but it was not to be! Essentially. GE doesn’t- well GE now does, much more in the medical sciences, than it did then. And I think there might be some opportunities there now, but there was a long period when they… They bought Amersham, which was a medical company, and there was a long period where they would have nothing to do with things like that because it would be too much risk, too much lawsuit risk.

Adele: What was the hardest part of your career?

Lucy: Hardest part… Constantly shifting, I guess [laughs]. When you… [at] least within GE there’s a lot of moving people from one job to another. And I had a lot of different assignments at GE. I guess I was in work for a lab manager for two years, I worked in an electronics lab for a couple years, worked in the controls lab for a couple years [laughs], you know, it was… and I started off teaching them the small hydro things. So I had a lot of different positions. And I think, probably the hardest thing is starting up with a whole new group of people in a discipline you know nothing about [laughs]. But it’s exciting. It’s a major challenge, it’s one you’re gonna have to face all your life because the world changes so fast now. And to that extent, that was good training. But if you stick with chemistry and you do nothing but chemistry or nuclear physics, your life is going to be different. And if you’re lucky [enough] to find a job in that position where you can stick with it- either you’re a professor or you’re a leader in your field and running your own business, that’s different. But for me, having to change all the time… I mean, actually, when I got out I worked for the State Education Department, and that was… one, two, at least two different assignments in the four and a half years I was there- and that was a different world. Work in the world of educators. So for me, in the past environment already trained- having lived a life of science, having come from the background, getting a PhD and all of a sudden you’re thrown into the cold, cruel world [laughs], and you have to do all these different things and be good at ‘em, in order to survive. That was hard. It would have been much easier to focus singlely on a subject, and an area, in that discipline and stick with it, and become the expert in it. That would have been ideal.

Adele: Which of your achievements are you most proud of?

Lucy: … [Laughs] Um, a son, for one! [Laughs] Oh, golly! In terms of work? That’s hard to say. I’ve done a lot of funny different things. Probably work- probably the work [I’ve] done with Mahlon Hoagland, in the early parts of the messenger RNA studies. I’d like to forget a lot of the stuff at GE [laughs]. I’m not an engineer! And, it, you know, it just doesn’t hold the excitement for me. [It’s] hard to say. I don’t have a lot of career accomplishments, because it was so many diversified assignments and positions. And as much as I wish I had, to be honest, I don’t! That’s life! You know? You live your life and enjoy it because of your family. If you don’t have the career, it’s family, and community is the other thing.
Actually, now that I mention that, and something I would even encourage all of you, when you finally are out there in the big world settled down, is to be part of your community, because I have done a lot of that in town, in Niskayuna basically. And I’ve been on the Tree Council, as funny as that sounds to people, we’ve planted well over 600 trees through Niskayuna. It’s tree city, USA. [I] served on the Comprehensive Plan Committee, been at town meetings and planning board meetings, and on the Planning Committee. It’s 15 plus years of quote “spare time commitment.” But you get to know your town, you get to know the character of it, the variety of people in it, the commitments of what people care about. You are part of a living larger community than just your work or just your family. And it’s important to have something like that to care about, I think. I don’t know whether, you certainly don’t at this point because you have an exciting world opening up in front of you, you’re going off to new places, you’re gonna learn a whole lot of new stuff, and it isn’t until later on when you really settle down, you have a place that you live. I don’t know what it’s like living in an apartment in New York City, but if you’re living in a town somewhere, take the time to be part of [it]- go to the town meetings. Go find out what it’s like. Because it also broadens your exposure, your thoughts about things. We all tend to get pretty narrow in our opinions, and our experience is narrow, and this is a very, sometimes rewarding, sometimes maddening experience [laughs]. Local town politics can be difficult at best. But needless to say, it’s a great discipline for people. You’re living your own individual lives so intensely right now. And later on, you think you are it, and you get out there and discover there are other opinions. There are other people who are equally good at different things, and you have to learn how to get along with them too [laughs]. And it’s interesting; a community is a very living, breathing, interesting experience worth partaking in.

Sarah: This is Sarah Turner. I was just wondering, was there anyone specifically who challenged your opinions that you butted heads with when you were working?

Lucy: Oh yeah! Actually, it was in my PhD. It was my thesis advisor. He’s no longer living, but he was a very opinionated individual and he was on my thesis committee. I guess he was my chief advisor at the time, but he had two students, two male students, that I guess wanted the results that I had. And I was getting close to the end of my road, time to start writing, and he insisted that I give the results to them, pictures and all. And I said, “No, no way, this is mine, okay?” And I was also supposed to be writing a paper for presentation. We went to loggerheads on that, and he tried to get me fired, as a graduate student, for insubordination [laughs]. Fortunately another faculty member, that was a good friend, stood up for me.
Another one who was on my committee also stood up for me. And, you know, I don’t think it- this guy was also a chairman of the biology department of the time- I don’t think it was any skin off his back, but it was a burning experience for me. And it was also, you know, you’re being- you’re brought up in a time where you’re allowed to be more independent, and think independent thoughts, behave independently. That was not so much the case when I was in- even though I was an older student going through graduate school, women were expected to behave and be a little bit more in the background. And I don’t come from a family like that, I have to tell you [laughs]. I guess I just stuck to my guns, but it was a very painful experience.
I’ve had other [frustrating experiences], even in work. When I was in GE I got disinvited from a luncheon because it was the Mohawk Club in downtown Schenectady, and that was a men’s club. Women were not allowed in the dining room for lunchtime, and they had neglected to work that out [laughs]. All the rest of the people of course were men, so, I got disinvited from lunch! There were various things that happened along the way to women in my epic that I don’t think you’ll run into. I would be surprised if you did. But it did teach me a lesson about sticking to my guns, [laughs] standing up for myself!

Adele: What did you do during your time at GE, and what is a hydroelectric plant?

Lucy: What is a hydroelectric plant! Oh! [Laughs] And you live in the northeast! Well, we get our power from Canada! From hydroelectric plants. Hydroelectric plants, they are all over the west. You dam up a river and let the water, not trickle, but run down through turbines, which when they spin generate power, okay? Effectively. The engineers could tell you all the translation process. But the water is used as a source of power. And in fact, out in Gilboa there is a pump storage plant, which isn’t a dam on a river, but they take the water and use some power to pump it uphill to a lake during hours when power isn’t being used. Then when you need to generate power, they let the water flow down through the tubes and through turbines, and it generates power during the peak loads during the daytime. There are big ones and little ones, you know, out West the Grand Cooley Dam and things of this sort are huge. They’re worth visiting; actually it’s really interesting to go to those. Actually down in Tennessee, the Tennessee Valley Authority has a lot of dammed up rivers to generate. It was an early project in the 30s when they were generating power off the rivers down there. But you can go into the occasional dam there and go down inside and go see the turbines- they usually have tours of them. And that’s the kind of thing that GE would do big scale, you know.
I was working with a group that was small, small hydroelectric power. And this means that for the farmers out in Idaho, who have a little stream, you literally can dam that up and have a very small turbine. And generate, it’s like having a small wind turbine, you have a small hydroelectric generator there. You’ve dammed up your creek, and you let it run through that and generate power, and store batteries or use it or whatever, for a small part of the day. Creeks run dry in Idaho, so this doesn’t work all year round [laughs]. Um, and the other problem you have out there is the fishers- the salmon fishers. There are only certain streams that you can dam up and others not, because of the fish, who have to get up the streams. But small- or hydroelectric power in general is a very major source of power in this country. I don’t know what percentage, maybe you guys do, but it is certainly a critical part of the power all over this country. And certainly all over Europe. So, worth exploring! [Laughs] And I, and I would say it’s really worth finding a place, if you’re ever on a trip, or go to Canada, find a place where you can tour. And go into one of these. You will be mightily impressed [laughs]. I don’t know if Gilboa has a tour, probably does. It has a visitor’s site, but I don’t know how much you can see of the turbines and things there.

Adele: How did you go about designing the firefighting exhibit for the New York State Museum?

Lucy: That was interesting, and that was, of course, well before the 9/11 exhibit was there. This was back in the 70s. And this was a job… I’d already had my degree, right, and I ended up working for the State Ed Department. I’m trying to think how that came about. I could have been… Actually, [at] the State Ed Department I had two different assignments. One was temporary assignments; writing papers and stuff over in the actual State Ed building. The other was [when] the State Museum got built [and] was opened. I actually moved over to that building, ran the children’s ed program, and so on, over there, and it may have been when I was over there, meeting all the exhibit designers and things. It was an educational exhibit, if you will. Because the Cohoes area- that’s one of the early- well for New York State, it’s one of the early firefighting sites, and they have one of these pump wagons that are historical pieces which they wanted to exhibit, and so we decided to do a whole explanatory, somewhat hands-on display for that. But it was related to the fact that I was involved with the education program. They wanted things in the museum for that, and it was kind of early in their existence. Now they have a whole huge room which is hands-on. But not back then. [Laughs]

Adele: You first got your degree from Cornell in Art History- did you find a connection with art and science in your life?

Lucy: I guess I’ve always done both. I did piano too; I grew up surrounded with a lot of art. I did art at Cornell, both painting and art history. I certainly did in biology courses, the drawing aspects [laughs]. And, interestingly enough, the connection of art and science, I mean, I just, I don’t find a disconnect. You know, between the way people think. It’s a broadening experience; let me put it that way. Science tends to be very focused, or at least the part I was in was, and chemistry is very memory oriented. But so was art history, you know. So, the talents were not different.
Actually last night my husband and I were talking about a potential exhibit for Union College, we’re both somewhat involved with the adult UCALL, the adult learning, lifelong learning program over there which includes Union College faculty, but the new president is very interested in bringing, what was the original source of Union College- the arts and the sciences- together. The engineering and the liberal arts. And we were talking about an artwork up in Vermont in one of the town halls, done by an artist I’m taking classes from. He’s a pastel artist, and it is a geological history of the U.S. that he did as a display, and did a lot of research to do it. Normally he’s painting landscapes and flowers and people and so on, but this is a really interesting exhibit for the town. And we were talking [about]- I have just run this geology program for UCALL, and it involved these two faculty members from Union, and we were talking about [getting] the artist we know, and maybe replicas of the work he did, on the geological history, and the people from Union who the geology department with real examples and stuff, and put these together as an exhibit. So, I don’t see the world as segregated, I think when you’re a student and you’re studying, you see the world in little, little units, in your discipline. I don’t see them that way anymore [laughs]. So, did they ever go together for me when I was a student? In biology for drawing, yes. Otherwise, probably not.

Adele: What is your connection to Dudley?

Lucy: It’s long [laughs]. I think I joined in ’84, something like that. And, actually, when I was at the state museum, I was approached by a member of the Dudley board who I knew personally because he worked at GE’s R&D center. They suggested the idea of working with the museum on an exhibit, and we took that and ran with it. There were items from Dudley’s own collection that were put on exhibit and that was the program- a very successful program of lectures and films and so on that I did public stuff, at the state museum. I think it was because of that later on, that Roy Anderson, who- I don’t know whether you specifically, but some of your colleagues did, interviewed- Roy invited me to join the Dudley board. And I basically, in the early stages of that, actually worked on the Education Committee. And worked with the RPI Junior Museum, and things of that sort. So my connection with Dudley…
Well the other connection is, in fact, through my dad’s Carnegie Institution lab, department of the terrestrial magnetism. They did radio astronomy work for awhile, and then when they got rid of that they gave the radio astronomy dish to Dudley to install at a site that SUNY had given them property up on Lake George. And they ran some studies up there for a number of years. So, I’m connected through Dudley by that, and by the fact I’ve been, did stuff with them back in the 70s, and then been on the board since somewhere in the early 80s, and that’s a long connection [laughs]. I tend to spend a long time at things. With the town, 15 years, with Dudley, 20-whatever. So…

Sarah: This is Sarah Turner again. How did you become involved in so many education committees with Dudley and with the museum?

Lucy: Partly it’s happenstance, partly it’s interest, partly it’s a thing the women tend to do more than the men, certainly in my epic. And I guess because I think it’s interesting. I mean it’s, interesting and important, I would say. I think it really is a fact that, you know, the women tend to do more of that than the men do. They have an inclination towards it. The men have a much greater desire to succeed and be known out in the big world, and there’s no glory about being involved with education [laughs]. I think that’s probably, you know, in general measure it’s an interest, something you care about, you wouldn’t do it if you didn’t care about it, so…

Adele: You first said you didn’t want to get involved in education, right?

Lucy: I didn’t want to go teach at a local university. And the reason for that has to do with my experience as a graduate student at SUNY. I did actually service as a student rep to some of the faculty boards meetings whatever they were. And I really got tired of the politics [laughs]. It was a lot of back-biting stuff, and I just really couldn’t tolerate it. So I didn’t want to get, you know, junior faculty always gets assigned things like these faculty committees. And I just didn’t want to be part of the politics! Not my nature! So, oddly enough, I then go off and get very involved in local community politics [laughs], but that was a little bit different. That was because I think you could be more independent in a community situation. In a university you can’t, and you’re still fighting for your career and there’s a track record, and you [have] got to have everybody behind you. And it was not a pleasant environment for me. At least at SUNY. And I assumed it would be everywhere else.

Adele: Have you heard of the Dudley curse?

Lucy: No, I haven’t. Tell me! [laughs]. What is it?

Janie: Okay, how about if I tell you and you come up with examples. Dudley Observatory has a very long and unfortunate history of having people who have been associated with it walking out the door, pissed off, and never looking back.

Lucy: Oh yeah. But that’s true of any organization.

Janie: It is, but I have been really surprised at how strongly people feel that they will never come back. Do you have any experience in that?

Lucy: I would say that… we had some recent experiences [laughs]. I would say one of whom is more pronounced than the others. We’ve had three people leave in the last few years that were kind of abrupt. Two were really, just didn’t want to get involved. This was not an animosity situation. But one was a person who was wildly dedicated to what he was doing, I would say. And he just is so identified- it’s true not just of what he was doing with Dudley, but everything else- He’s so personally identified with what he does that all he can do is react in a flash of, you know [pounds the table], the extreme. I don’t know, I know there have been a couple of other people actually before I was on the board, not long before, who left, and I think again this was a case of feeling mistreated, being a young scientist, being at loggerheads with some of the older scientists who could be tough. I don’t know the real history there, but I know it goes back then, I mean, there are always examples in any organization. Somebody’s gonna get mad and leave. And they’re gonna hold a grudge [laughs]. People get passionate about what they do, and they run into other passionate people, and unless you have the experience of saying “Whoa, wait a minute, I have to get along with these individuals, I don’t want to burn all my bridges”. I mean, you burn a lot of bridges when you do that. You really, you really burn other peoples’ feelings. There’s one that we felt rather close to and left in a hurry, but it was only after we understood the surrounding circumstances that it was… That person was just under extreme pressure. You know, I mean, there were health problems in the family, and it goes on and on. And it was only after we sat around and thought ourselves and talked about it that we reopened the door to communicate with this individual.
The other one? Yeah, we communicated with, but you feel very definitely standoffish. You don’t feel, as generous to an individual who’s burned you that way. It’s like a divorce! [laughs] It’s kind of a permanent burned feeling. I don’t encourage you to get that passionate. There are always ways around problems. And you just don’t have to be personally loud about it. Um, Dudley, I wouldn’t say it’s Dudley’s curse. There have been many people who left GE who took some high and powerful and some, you know, lower down. People act that way. I don’t think there’s a curse on Dudley. Although, Dudley is small, you know, you would like to have a bigger place that you can kick against, but Dudley is pretty small. It’s a pretty limited group of people, and those things hurt when they happen. I think that by and large, Dudley has had some pretty serious minded scientists involved with it, and pretty dedicated to what they’re doing, and they’re going to stand pretty firm about things. You’ll run into them. Believe me, you’ll run into them [laughs]. They’re out there. Sometimes I hope that you don’t run into them as faculty members, cause they can be pretty discouraging about your own research and studies. But they’re certainly out there in the public world. And you will be able to say there’s that kind of curse about GE or some other small company you run into. You know, museums have that problem. You hear more about it from the smaller, kind of not-for-profits, the museums. They tend to have personalities involved. And when there are personalities, there are problems [laughs]. There’s going to be.

Adele: What work are you currently doing?

Lucy: Oh, golly, let’s see. Just finished a fairly major commitment putting on this, [To herself] what is it? Five weeks, UCol program. UCol has a Fall semester and Spring semester and they run six different programs, if you will, and they [each] run for five weeks. And what I put together was a group of six different lecturers. Most of those programs are an individual giving it or somebody who’s in the field bringing a couple of his buddies in to give lectures. This was for me new. I mean, it was geology which was a pet subject of mine. But it was pulling speakers from Union College, from the state museum, and one actually who’s retired from GE. So, there’s a lot of coordination, there’s a lot of hanging by the nails wondering if they’re gonna show up, or how are they going to be when they speak. You know, it’s putting a public program together. And, so that’s one thing that I’ve been committed to.
I dropped the… I had a confrontation with the supervisor, who’s now not going to re-run, which I’m glad to hear, in Niskayuna, and left the Tree Council and my activities there. It was… it was a political thing he did, and I just finally said, “Sorry, I am done with politics” [laughs], and I left. And that’s when I picked up going back to art. And so now I serve on the board, Colonie Art League. And, not doing wildly different many things for them, but every little thing helps for the volunteer organization like that. Oh! What else do we do? In terms of public stuff. Hm, did I list anything else? [Laughter] You know, I get involved in so many things. Every day is chaos for me. We’re thinking of putting an addition on the house. I’m the one who’s doing that and working with the design people to make all the decisions about it. We travel. We’re headed for Norway. There’re just… when you retire you finally say, I don’t want any more obligations to other people! [laughs] And you still end up being obliged by the community activities that you get into. So, you cut some off and pick up some others. There’s always something to fill the time. And I may, you know, when the supervisor departs, I have to admit, I may start to go back to town meetings again. He, he was a bad act. He reminded me of my university faculty person that I ran in with. There are certain types of people, there’s a certain style that I just finally- I just know enough to clear out, not deal with. It’s not worth the fight, actually.

Adele: What did you do for the Tree Council?

Lucy: Many things… I chose not to run it; I had the opportunity to do that on several occasions. The Tree Council was strictly volunteer, and basically we did actually get monies from the town budget. Not a lot, but we got monies to buy trees with. And our task was to, I’m gonna say survey, now I don’t really mean survey, but to review the sites as suitable or not suitable for planting trees, to work with the individuals who had requested them. These are town trees. This is on the town property that’s on the front of your property. Your house only goes to a certain amount out before it gets to the road, but that last 15 feet belongs to the town or the county. And all these trees get planted in that space. They have to be planted so they are not sitting right over your utility lines. They have to be at least 10 feet from a driveway. There are all kinds of restrictions you have to follow. And so, when someone wanted a town tree, and we did this Spring and Fall, we took the list and we broke it up amongst the six of us or seven of us, however many would be there, and divided the sites up. We usually had 70 to 80 sites. And go visit them, talk individually with a person, help them select an appropriate tree for the site, and then work out with the Town Highway Department what was gonna go in. We actually gave them directions on where to purchase these trees. Sometimes we’d go select the trees from Northern Nursery’s or wherever. And, I mean, we were instrumental. We’d put a stake in the ground where the tree was gonna go. So we were an integral part of what the whole planning process was. And I have to say we put, well, in the last couple years it was reduced to only Fall planting, but, in the prior years we were, Spring and Fall, we were putting in 60 trees? At a time. So, this is a lot of trees for a community where the trees are all aging in many ways, coming down, have to be taken down. So we’re replenishing the forest canopy, if you will.
The other thing I did was to go to all of the Planning Board meetings, where all site development was reviewed and ultimately approved. And our committee had the responsibility of walking to these sites where the development was going to go and tagging the trees we felt ought to be preserved. Now, there’s many a slip betwixt (indistinguishable). We tagged a lot of trees and they were all cut down [laughs]. I hate to tell you because all of that depends on the willingness of the town to supervise the builder and the builder’s willingness to protect those trees. And I hate to say it, but the town didn’t care. So that was kind of a lost effort. I think we would probably be much more instrumental, we were never allowed to use paint in those days until the very end. Somebody said, “Why don’t you spray orange paint?” and I said “Great!” And I don’t know that they are doing that yet, but in any case, developers come in and clear cut the land. That’s the way they operate and they will always operate that way, unless you’re in a really fancy community. And, that’s it. So, that part of it was a discouragement for me. But, by going to the planning committees, you knew a whole lot, you learned a lot about your town, what was going on, what was being developed. I got to sit on what’s called the Planning Committee, which was the heads of all the different departments in the town hall, and they met once a month so you knew what was coming up. In a way you didn’t have to go to the town meetings because you knew what was on it. The town takes care of standard business, besides the planning committee stuff.

Liam: The interview will be continued on the opposite side of the tape.

(New Tape)

Liam: The time is now 10:20AM, and the interview will be continued with Dr. Comly.

Lucy: There was an opportunity by being on the Tree Council to sit in a lot of different operational meetings and things that were, and you learn a lot about your town. The town supervisor decided he didn’t like me [laughs] at one point and he razzed me one day and apologized to me the next, and it went from bad to worse. And he finally assigned his own person who was the Comptroller, who also was on the Tree Council, to represent the Tree Council, and said I couldn’t. This is a volunteer position! You know, you don’t do that to volunteers! Anyway, I said, enough’s enough. And left at that point. But it was a rewarding thing to do. It was kind of fun, you know, go planting trees all around the town. But getting further involved, and that, it was from that that I got onto the Comprehensive Plan Committee, which, you know, in effect lays out the things that are going to be major issues of concern over the next ten years for the town. This was done on a shoestring, it should have had outside advisors and consultants come in, there were a lot of things not covered in that plan. But, that’s part of what happens in the town.

Adele: Why did you decide to join the Tree Council?

Lucy: Partly it was biology background, partly I also was out gardening, which I do, one day, and a whole bunch of people came walking down the street and stood in front of one of the street trees in front of our house, so I went up and asked what they were doing, and they were doing a survey of all the trees in the town [laughs]. Well, not all of them. They were taking old Niskyuna, which was a limited portion of the town. And looking at the types and the status of the trees there. So I said, “Gee that would be kind of fun.” And I got invited to the next meeting, and I went from there. It was early on in the software development for establishing that kind of a list. We never did get that on a computer. Too bad. But, the town keeps pretty good track of the state of its trees. It doesn’t pay a lot of attention. One of the things the Tree Council did do was introduce a lot of tree diversity in the tree plantings. Which is important because if something hits one tree and the whole street is all that tree, they’re all gonna be gone. So, we have done a lot of tree diversity. But it was happenstance; somebody came down the street, they were working on the trees, and I just invited myself in, if you will. And with a real interest in gardening and biology, it was a natural.

Adele: Could you give a brief description of ribosome synthesis during unbalanced growth?

Lucy: Oh golly, no! [laughter]. That’s too long ago. Um, basically that was really too long ago. But the point of studying, you know this was, there is so much more known in the world of protein synthesis now, than was known then. And these were early studies. This was the Hogelyn paper. These were the early studies on what was going on. How did proteins get synthesized? And so, the fact that there was a thing called, then, was called messenger RNA- I don’t know what they call it now, it’s got another name. But ribosomal RNA, messenger RNA, the fact that you made a copy of the chromosomes in the nucleus and this little thing came out of the cytoplasm and stuff lined up it to make the protein was a wholly new and novel idea. And to invent the, if you will, the biochemical studies to prove that was what Hogelyn was working on. There were lots and lots and lots of papers published on that subject, out of Harvard. But it really sat the basis of it, and the whole world exploded in studies from that. Essentially to prove it. But, essentially unbalanced growth is a way of driving the system to produce what you want it to produce. You force it to do a certain thing.

Adele: How do you do that?

Lucy: …By what you feed it or don’t feed it [laughs]. Essentially.

Amy: This is Amy Forando. If you could have any super power you wanted, what would it be and why?

Lucy: Super power. Meaning, if I were really good in something?

Amy: You could do anything you could possibly imagine.

Lucy: Oh my goodness. I guess I’m not used to thinking that big. Um… I would travel more. Hm… what would I do? I don’t think I’d go back to the lab, interestingly enough. I certainly would pursue- I probably would pursue geology, I don’t know [laughs]. I would do something outdoors. I’ve had my experiences in the lab, I’ve had my experiences with big corporations. I would choose to do something different, and I’m not sure I would work in a third world. I consider the world a much more dangerous place than when we started off. And I would choose probably to- I wouldn’t mind working with some disadvantaged people where I felt I could contribute. That would be key. If you can do nothing about a situation, that’s really discouraging. But if you were and an MD, for instance, or if I were… I think I wouldn’t mind volunteering my services where I felt it could really be an honest help to people. And I’m not sure where that would be. It might be a third world, it might be parts of this country.
There is, in fact, something in downtown Schenectady, you’ve probably read about cause they were desperate for getting additional financing but, in fact, one of the doctors, its run- it’s a volunteer clinic, run once or twice a week by several doctors in Schenectady. One of them is retired, and was our family physician for many years. But they do volunteer clinic work for people who don’t have health insurance coverage, the poor in downtown Schenectady. It’s the only health coverage they get, and it’s the only free medicine they get. You know, that, to me, is- these are people who come in because they care, they’re concerned about their health. You’ve already got someone who’s going to pay attention to you when you try to give them some help [laughs]. I’d give them all I got. And that’s valuable. That’s a very valuable thing to do.
Um… super powers. I might do research on some kind of plants. If I were to be back in a lab I’d be in a greenhouse lab [laughs]. And I would take some time off to travel. I think that’s one of the most valuable things you can do. I was very fortunate in traveling all over the US as a kid. And, this country is full of very different scenery as well as very different people, and I think that’s just an enormously broadening experience. You’ll learn a lot about yourself and about other people. I would like to have had the opportunity to travel in more foreign countries, than I think I would want to right now- just because it’s too risky. There are parts of the world where I’m not keen about going. That I would have happily gone to 20 years ago. But travel, again, is one of those things. I mean, the world is so full of different perspectives. And you’re going to need every bit of that when you get out there.
So I don’t know about super powers. I guess I’m not inclined to want to be a super power star [laughter]. I’d rather work with a team of people, and I’d rather work for the good of other people rather than just being the stellar individual. I could not do the job that my son is doing. Which is- and he is wonderful at it, but being the person who’s totally, totally responsible for getting that business to work. That’s more of a challenge [laughs] than I’d want to take on. There are more interesting things to do for me, I think. And there may not be whirl beating role, but that’s okay. [Laughs]… That’s an interesting question, interesting challenge.

Liam: This is Liam, Bowen. Having been exposed to all different kinds of disciplines of science and engineering, do you have any wisdom for younger scientists that want to go into fields of science or engineering?

Lucy: I would say, find something you love doing, and pursue it with complete passion and abandon. Because if you do, one, you’re going to be successful, two, you’re going to enjoy it, and three, you know, the things you love doing rub off on other people. And they end up caring about it too! So, I don’t have the feeling that there is any one scientific discipline that is better than any other, or more important than any other, because those, you know, those things change with time. They’re all valuable. And they all contribute to the benefit of our society. But the most important thing is doing what you really love doing. You will never fail if you do that. Honestly, you never will. A lot of my life is filled with things I really enjoyed doing! And I’ve never given up. I still pick up rocks, you know. I go hiking on the beach and boy I pick up rocks, and I say, “Oh, I think that’s this kind of rock,” and we have a neighbor, who’s one of the Union College geologists, he’s promised I can bring a couple over and he can verify what I think they are [laughs]. Life is full of fun. And if you’ve got to work in something and make a living at it, by all means, do something you really like doing. And, go somewhere else if you can’t do it here. I mean, a married woman’s kind of committed to living with her husband and her family. I wasn’t really free to move. But go where the work is that you really want to do. Or the person you want to work with, until you feel confident enough to be on your own feet. Or can get the door opened for you somewhere. But, nuclear physics is- there’s certainly a lot unknown in that world. If you want to do computer science, great. Economics- there are many things to be done in that field. And all the way from working with countries that are poor and need help, to making your wealth on Wall Street. Whatever suits you. But do it with passion. And you will be a winner, there’s no question about it. And that’s true if you look at anybody you know who’s successful today. Or the histories of successful people. They did what they really loved doing. And they did it completely. I don’t think there’s any field of science that isn’t worthwhile. I think some are likely to have better funding, but that in the end isn’t the decision factor [laughs].

Robert: This is Robert Lyons. Do you have any regrets in your life?

Lucy: Do I have any regrets… I think a person my age has probably lots of regrets! [laughs] I don’t dwell on them. But I’m sure there are a lot. There’s probably a string of things that I’ve said or done to people, but I just apologize- you apologize for it and go on with your life [laughs]. Am I sorry I didn’t go to Stanford instead of getting married? I’ll never know [laughs]! So, I can’t feel regretful about that. I certainly don’t feel regretful about being married to a wonderful guy. And having a wonderful son. Those are treasures, and you’re just lucky that your life ends up that way. And I’ve had a very rich life living with him. So, do I miss the fact that I’m not a super power or, in what I was going to study in Stanford? [Sighs] Maybe yes, maybe no. Maybe yes because my parents were super powers. It’s very difficult being raised in a family like that. I have to tell you. But, I think I’ve had a more balanced life in the end. You know, being a psychoanalyst who got a life full of stress, everybody else’s problems, [or] being a physicist during the war years, that was really tough. We still have a lead box. You probably heard; a little square box on the table. Of course, my brother and I were pretty young during the war years, and my father would come home from the stresses of working with the navy and what have you, and the development program, and he would cuss a blue streak [laughs] at everyone. You know, it depended on the level of the language- It was a nickel or a dime or a quarter! I collected a lot of money during those war years from the swear box. That’s the kind of job you don’t want [laughs, sighs]. That’s the kind of stress. You want to enjoy what you’re doing. There will be stressful times, there always are. And you may even regret [that] you’re working with certain people or for certain people, but don’t base your life on regrets. Base your life on the rewarding parts. And the things that are yet to come. You know? There’s still a lot of good stuff, certainly for you people, but even… [indistinguishable]. I don’t like to harbor regrets, because [they’re] not something you can do anything about. Think about the things you can change or develop. And, that would be the way to go.

Adele: Did you ever question your decision to go into science?

Lucy: No, I think I was too young to question it [laughs]. And actually I really enjoyed lots of stuff. I really still enjoy lots of things. There [are] still lots of things in the scientific world I’d like to know. Part of the interest now is going to lectures on global warming. I’m trying to understand, is this a real issue or not a real issue, and if it’s real, why and how. You know, what’s actually happening. That’s a world of science, more general science that you can get into now. But, do I regret being in any sense labeled a scientist? No. Not at all. Some of the more broad scale people you will run into are scientists just because they’re inquisitors, and rather than having to stand up and [give] an opinion on something and being a single person in a field, [whose who] identify [themselves] a scientists tend to be a lot more exploratory. I think. I grew up with them, what can I say. It’s a personal bias. So no, I don’t regret it.
I, in ways, wish I had done lots more in other things in science. There are many options in the sciences. And chemistry; It’d be interesting to learn from you what the world of chemistry is going to hold for you. Where you would go, what you would do, are you going to develop products for a medical company, um… What the opportunities are. I have no idea. I think working with a medical company would probably be the most interesting for me just because that’s my inclination, but… You could work for somebody making fertilizer, [laughs] you can do lots of things.

Adele: Do you have any words of wisdom for young female scientists?

Lucy: [Sighs]. That’s a challenging question. Because, partly because I didn’t get to pursue… I think if I had gone to a university and done science research there I would have been more independent in the field of sciences and better able to help you. As it was, working for an engineering corporation, one just learned to tow the line. But you always need to do that. And, again, whether you’re male or female, follow the thing you really like doing, because you’ll be successful at it. As I say, if you want to work in a third world and, teach them agriculture, I don’t know… I don’t know where your chemistry interests are gonna take you. Certainly working for a large corporation is a good thing, because you get your health benefits and all those nice things that are good to have. But that isn’t necessarily the only place to go. Working at a university is certainly a great thing to do. You will find it a struggle. There are many parts of the world that are still male dominated. Forgive me guys. But many universities still tend to, you know… Witness the uproar at Harvard in the last two years, when Larry Summers said, “Why aren’t there more women in science or in engineering?” The fact is true! The men, certainly in corporations, the men earned positions of decision and power. And, if anything, be nice to them [laughs]. But, don’t give yourself up, either. You know, be your own independent self without being too abrasive about it. Abrasive people are uncomfortable for everyone. And you don’t have to be, you don’t really have to be. You can be yourself. And I think you will run into- I don’t think the world has changed 100%. It’s changed a lot. You will have opportunities that were not there for my generation, but I don’t think the door is completely wide open yet, either. So, you have to prove your own skills and talents. And, judging from the fact you’re all AP Chemistry students, you won’t have a problem. It’s going to come to you automatically. You’re gonna pursue-you’re already pursuing in a fashion to be successful at what you do, and that will carry with you. That will stand you in very good standing. That’s probably all you need, to be good at what you do, and be nice about it [laughs]. But don’t be surprised if you run into some brick walls. It’s just a fact of life. And it’s still a world where the men are the breadwinners in the end. Unless you choose to be single or a breadwinner or a super power in your field. But don’t be surprised if people are upset by your presence [laughs]. It’s just a fact of life [laughs].
So I can’t give you a lot of good advice, other than, do what you’re doing. Which is, be excellent at what you’re doing, and continue on that track. I’ve answered all your worldly questions, haven’t I [laughter]. Such an easy place to go! But you’re all excellent students here, I gather. Certainly if you’re in AP Chemistry you’re working hard. Is this your senior year?

Adele: Yep

Lucy: Oh, so you all have, you’re going to…

Adele: UNC

Amy: Lehigh

Lucy: Lehigh! That’s interesting. And you’re going to Williams, right? And RPI, and Providence. So you’re all set. Are they all your first choice places? Great. Super. No? Oh, you’re going to love it down there. You really are.

Janie: Where’d you like to go Adele?

Adele: I don’t know where I wanted to go. Originally I wanted to go to Duke.

Lucy: Well UNC’s not so bad.

Adele: I know. I’m excited about it.

Lucy: Yeah, oh yeah, it’s an excellent school. I’m trying to remember where it was… the campuses are all so close together down there, but one of them has a huge medical complex and medical research going on. Which chemistry could easily lead you into, and it would be a very interesting subject. Do you know what you want to do in chemistry?

Amy: I’m not sure yet. Well I was going to ask you, anyways, because I can’t really decide between like being a scientist or going into engineering. So I was just wondering what you thought major differences were between scientists and engineers. You said you didn’t like working with engineers, and I was just wondering.

Lucy: Oh I do! No, I do, I’m sorry that you got that impression. My whole life, my whole life has been spent with engineers. And, [sigh] that depends on, I guess, your level of curiosity and whether you like to really do a lot of research. If you go into the chemistry, biology, that realm of science, you’re more likely to do basic research. Because, now, GE’s R&D center does a lot of basic research, but that’s one in a million places. You know, that’s a very limited environment, a very narrow environment. There aren’t very many research labs for major corporations. If you want to do engineering, there are lots of places to work, but I don’t think you’re going to be doing as much in the way of basic research. You’re doing a lot of projects. Which I love to do! Got projects, get ‘em done and you have a result. It’s much harder to do the research because you’re never quite sure you got the result, but you can argue this is the right result and it really is working that way. It depends on your working style, and your life style. And if you like to do projects and see things accomplished and get done, by all means, do engineering, if you have the math skills, the math and the physics area. That would be my sense of things. Engineers are infinitely creative people, too. They built the bridges around this world, they built those hydro-dams! [Laughs] You know, you have to know a lot to be able to do that and not have it fall down on you! So it depends on the kinds of things you like to do. If you want to do basic science and be in a lab, you go more into the chemistry and biology end of things. The medical world. And if you would rather be working with engineers and be building things, chance to travel around the world! Do engineering.
But I assume you would have an opportunity to test the waters when you go to college- that you have a couple of years to explore some things. And a lot of people who are in the field can give you a lot more comment than I can about what it’s like, [and] where to go. You know, if you were an engineer, where would you be working, what would you be doing. I have more comfort level with biological sciences, or geological, or chemical. I am a little bit more comfortable [with those]. You can go into- there are chemical physicists, there are chemical industrial engineers. You could combine it. You could build great big, cracking towers [laughs]. But there are lots of those people around too; you could have both, merge both careers… Can I help you in any other way? Good set of questions.

Janie: I have a question. Did you work with other women?

Lucy: [Sighs] Not very many, because there weren’t very many. At GE there were a couple in the chemistry group that I knew, we were friends. There was, there were a couple in the information sciences lab. There weren’t very many. I had a few good friends from the lab, but [laughs]… gee, I think of 1500 people who worked there, probably 400 were female and, of that, most of them were the administrative secretaries. Maybe 60 were female PhDs, out of 1500 people. That was a pretty small group! So, there weren’t very many to work with. I had friends when I was in SUNY in biology, but the world was a different place. Chances are you will have many more opportunities to have female friends wherever you go, because that’s changed. I mean, they had to change [laughs] so… that’s where a lot of their talented laborers are coming from these days- educated women.

Liam: Thank you Dr. Comly. The time is now 10:45AM