Ada Lovelace Day: Shirley Tilghman

Ada Lovelace Day is a annual celebration of women in the STEM fields: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The day was launched in 2009 as a way to bring attention to the many amazing women who have worked in the STEM fields. Ada Lovelace was an English mathematician who is often described as the world’s first computer programmer. 

Herstory is celebrating Ada Lovelace today with a profile from our 2013 issue of the calendar on Shirley Tilghman, a leader in the field of molecular biology.


Shirley Tilghman is the first female president of Princeton University and a champion of women in science. Her work has advanced public knowledge of human genetics and earned international recognition and respect.

Shirley was born in Toronto in 1946 to Shirley and Henry Caldwell. Her father’s work with a national bank took the family to various cities including Winnipeg, where she graduated high school. As a youngster, she loved mathematics and science. When a guidance counsellor suggested a career as an executive secretary, her father was outraged. “I got my feminism from my father,” she says.1

Shirley studied chemistry at Queen’s University—one of only two women in the class—and completed a PhD at Temple University in Pennsylvania. In between, she taught for two years with CUSO in Sierra Leone, where she met her husband Joseph Tilghman. They had two children, Rebecca and Alex, before divorcing in 1983. Shortly afterward, she joined the faculty at Princeton University, in part because it offered better options for schools and childcare.2

Early in her science career, Shirley was part of a team that isolated and cloned the first mammalian gene, from a mouse. Other ground-breaking discoveries followed, such as uncovering the mechanism of “genomic imprinting,” by which a gene is expressed differently depending on whether it is inherited from the female parent or the male parent. Since these genes can cause cancerous tumours and other inherited diseases, this work has opened doors to new discoveries in embryonic development and human health. Shirley has served on several scientific advisory boards, including the Human Genome Project.

As a single mother, she has worked hard to balance family life with a demanding career in a male-dominated field. She coped by “compartmentalizing” and focusing on the task at hand. “My goal has always been to do as good a job I can, where I am at that moment,”  she says. “It’s a tremendous coping skill.”3 When Shirley first entered university in the 1960s, Princeton was an all-male university. Today, as president of that institution, she is proud to foster a family-friendly environment that actively encourages female students and faculty in scientific disciplines.


Tilghman, Shirley. Interview with SWCC, 10 November 2011.

Greenwood, Kathryn Federici. “From the Lab to the Corner Office: Shirley Tilghman Takes Charge.” Princeton Alumni Weekly. Vol. 2, No 1. 12 Sept 2011.

Wiebe, Lindsay. “From Kelvin to Princeton University: First female prez once walked halls of city school.” Winnipeg Free Press, 17 February 2011, A2.

1. Greenwood.

2. Greenwood.

3. Tilghman.


About herstorycalendar

The official blog for Herstory: The Canadian Women's Calendar. An annual publication that celebrates notable Canadian women, Herstory is produced by the Saskatoon Women’s Calendar Collective (SWCC) and published by Coteau Books. Visit our website at
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