Yelena Mirtova, Anna Krol, Zinaida Epstein, Anna Yarkho, Stella Mirtova, and Irina Engelson


Thank you to Anna Englesone, who submitted this terrific post about her family.  She says

I am privileged to come from a long line of STEM grannies.

My great grandmother Anna Krol (1907 – 1990) was an engineer who helped design some of the first Soviet airplanes.

My great grandmother Zinaida Epstein (1910 – 1985) was a chemistry professor.

My great grandmother Anna Yarkho (nee Dushkina) (1898 – 1976) was a physician.

My great grandmother Esther Engelson (nee Muzikante) (1900 – 1969), the only one not in a STEM field, practiced law.

My grandmother Stella Mirtova (nee Epstein) (b. 1937) was a physics professor.

My grandmother Irina Engelson (nee Yarkho) (1928 – 1997) was a medical lab technician.

My daughter’s grandmother Yelena Mirtova (b. 1959) was 19 when she had me and 20 when she got her MS in mathematics. Her PhD project was a radar system to help planes land beyond the arctic circle. She spent the first few years of her career teaching calculus to engineering students from all over the Eastern Bloc, became a successful businesswoman in the 1990s, then moved to the States when I got accepted to college here. She now teaches math at a community college, and you won’t find another professor there who has higher standards, or more dedication to helping her disadvantaged students succeed. She always says that even though, like most immigrants, she arrived to this country with nothing, the impact of having a family history of education and achievement cannot be overestimated. So instead of feeling smug about one’s success, one should do as much as possible to help others less fortunate.

Soviet Union, the country where my mother, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers lived and practiced their chosen professions, was a place of contradictions. It was home to many sexist notions and outdated ideas, men who seldom helped around the house and, until recently, a near complete absence of modern conveniences that most of the developed world took for granted. After a full day of teaching physics, my grandmother would spend several hours standing in line to buy food. She would come home, wash the floors with a bucket and a rag, and cook a three-course meal for her husband and her husband’s parents. My mother washed diapers by hand, boiled them on the stove, then ran a hot iron over each one to kill the germs. And that was in the 1980s. What their lives were like in the 1960s, when they lived on a military base in Siberia with my grandfather, I have trouble even imagining.

On the other hand, neither my grandmother nor my mother ever doubted that they had the same capacity to learn math and physics as their male classmates. Long maternity leave, low-cost childcare, and support from extended family meant that they never had to choose between children and a career.  Most of my classmates’ grandmothers likewise had careers in STEM or other professional fields. If you ask us to explain it like we would to our grandma, we wonder if we should have included more differential equations. Sometimes talking to American women feels like they are the ones who have been held back for 70 years.

It is so encouraging to see projects like yours, and all kinds of support for girls who want to enter STEM fields in the United States, even as, in my home country, things seem to be taking on a reactionary turn. Russian women are tired of doing it all. They want a chance to be delicate and pretty, and a man who can take charge. I just hope that when my daughter’s children and their American classmates share stories of grandmothers who were astrophysicists and genetic engineers, their Russian counterparts won’t be talking about grandmothers who spent their life getting their hair done and pretending to be helpless.

I am including a picture of my mother playing in the snow with her granddaughter 3 years ago. The 2nd picture is from her wedding last summer, in which both her daughter and her granddaughter were maids of honor.


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