A Scientific Approach to Women’s Rights

She has learned that life is what death leaves behind. It is a gift that should have no boundaries, and it has guided Mirabelle Fernandes-Paul to a small blue building that feels like home on the Oregon State University campus.

She has studied life, cell by cell, for the purpose of all scientific research—to further understanding of cause and effect. It’s work that requires an astute sense of creativity, reasoning and method.

It’s a willingness to accept that discovery and solution are not synonymous in an inherent process of elimination but that microscopic truths lead to larger truths, which, in turn, build upon humanity.

It turns out that her work in cancer research in many ways parallels her duties now as director of Oregon State University’s Women’s Center. Her laboratory has become the campus, but her goals remain the same: discovery and utility.

“As a chemist, I know that the products of a chemical reaction depend on the starting ingredients—their quantities and qualities,” she says. “Every minute I devote to the students of this university is an investment for me, knowing that product will be their academic success and personal fulfillment.”

In 2008, Fernandes-Paul was hired at the Women’s Advancement and Gender Equity office. In 2011, she switched to her current position and has spent the past year doing what she knows best: gathering data through research.

After a year of conducting campus-wide surveys and interviews, researching national trends as well as effective practices, taking notes and, most important, listening, she and her staff have identified three of the fasting growing groups of women at OSU: those entering the university at age 25 and older, Latinas and international students.

As a result, Women Returning to Higher Education has been created to facilitate the needs of the growing population of women 25 and older. The program focuses on academic success, mentoring/networking and preparation for success in new careers, all while maintaining balance in their lives.

“We are still making changes as we determine: What are we here for, who we are and how the needs of woman have changed in the last 40 years, when the center opened. The needs are very different now. Our goal is to support women so that when they leave OSU, they feel confident about reaching their potential and preparing for citizenship in the world.”

In conjunction with other campus organizations, the center also is exploring ways to address the diverse needs of Latinas and international students, whose varying experiences and perspectives require a common language to explore feminism in a more universal way.

The three subgroups are included in an overarching population, she says, that of all women.

Mirabelle Fernandes-Paul“We did a survey, and there were a number of women who were afraid they weren’t feminist enough or not activist enough. The challenge is to retain our identity as a place that empowers women to break the glass ceiling but also to welcome students, no matter where they are. We are almost totally student funded, so we want to make sure that we are thoughtful stewards of every penny. We need to get to the point where all women feel welcome.”

The center is more than a resource, a place for empowerment, outreach and self-discovery. It is a place with couches—respite from the complexity of college life. They are soft and open to everyone, and Fernandes-Paul hopes students will use them.

Reaching the center’s mission will require change, something Fernandes-Paul has learned from her own life. In her native India, she was atypical in many ways. Her ancestors were from Goa, a small coastal region that was colonized by the Portuguese rather than the English. She was brought up Catholic in a country where more than 80 percent of the people are Hindu, and she did not face the poverty of one of the poorest nations in the world.

In large part, she has lived a life of twos: two nations, two cultures, two careers, two sons, two tragedies.

The day her father, Stan Fernandes, an engineer, suffered his first heart attack was the same day his wife discovered she was pregnant. One life was sacrificed for another as he refused costly bypass surgery out of concern that it might jeopardize the financial needs of his suddenly-expanding family.

At the same time, he worried—the way fathers often do--that he might fail to help his daughter develop a firm grip on life, that he may not live long enough or well enough to perform the responsibilities of parent, so he made a promise to himself and to his family that he would live at least until his daughter’s 18th birthday.

Her father saw life through an empirical lens and a fundamental belief in Newton’s Third Law of Action: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. To make good on his promise, he researched books, articles and studies and turned his life into an equation.

On one side of the equal sign were variables addressing nutrition, exercise and faith. On the other side was a life just long enough. He died seven months after Mirabelle turned 18.

In 18 years, he guided her to a place in life. His formulaic approach drew her to science, and after his death, she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biochemistry and molecular biology.

In 1997, she landed a fellowship to attend the University of Nebraska Medical Centerfor a doctorate. Upon completing her education, it was her intent to return to India, where a marriage would be arranged for her and she would begin a family of her own. She was fine with that.

“In my generation, it wasn’t like I had no choice at all. The families look for compatibility in terms of religion, education, background, language, but the final choice would be with the couple. Once they are matched, they decide whether there is chemistry between them.”

Once she arrived in America, however, Newton’s Third Law reappeared. As much as she intended to return to India, there was an equal reaction. She fell in love.

Fernandes-Paul familyIn 2000, she married Adam Paul, a pediatrician of Norwegian descent, a Methodist who grew up in Nebraska. How much more American can one get? She was faced with a difficult decision, and love won. She never returned to India except for visits.

Her father’s death was expected. The second death, however, was not. Her daughter, Celeste, named after her aunt, was stillborn.

She wonders now if her death was related to chemicals used in the laboratory. It was during her second pregnancy that she decided not to take a chance and ended her work in scientific research.

 “I was at a point in my career where I had to make a selfless choice for somebody who was way more important,” she says. “The stakes were too high. I questioned whether I lost my daughter because of the work I was doing. In some ways, some of the chemicals or radioactivity might have done something.”

It is speculation that comes not from research but from a broken heart, and it has resulted in a commitment to appreciate life and build better lives for OSU students.

It is Newton’s Third Law.


Women's Center, Benton Annex, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR 97331-2503 541-737-3186


Story and photos by Duane Noriyuki