Women We Laud

By Christina Verigan

Alison Malmon

Executive Director and Founder, Active Minds
One spring day in March 2000, college freshman Alison Malmon’s world collapsed. Her older brother Brian, also a college student, had committed suicide while on academic leave from Columbia University. Brian had been outgoing, a stellar student, a cappella singer, and campus newspaper editor. His family had only recently learned that he was struggling with schizophrenia and depression. While coping with her brother’s death was extraordinarily painful, Ms. Malmon was also pained to think that for three years he hid his illness from everyone, suffering alone.

By the time Ms. Malmon returned to the University of Pennsylvania, her sadness had sparked an urgent passion—and she founded Active Minds (then called Open Minds), a nonprofit campus organization dedicated to supporting students whose lives had been touched by mental illness. “Regardless of who you are and what your experiences are, you need a network of advocates—a community,” says Ms. Malmon. That goes for those who sufferer from mental illness themselves, as well as those like Ms. Malmon, who are crucial to the support structure, and also need support themselves.

Attendance at meetings grew, and so did Ms. Malmon’s message: Stigma is one of the toughest barriers to wellness for those suffering from mental illness. She says, “Anecdotally, I have seen in our parents’ and grandparents’ generation, the idea that anything in the brain is seen as a character flaw, something not to be talked about. We want to open the dialogue, and be able to start a conversation about how we are all affected.” Active Minds’ tagline is “Changing the conversation about mental health,” and equipping students with the right language and a comfortable support forum is a key part of the mission.

Today, there are more than 340 campus chapters of Active Minds. Ms. Malmon, executive director, also sits on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Consumer/Survivor Subcommitee, the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law Leadership21 Committee, and others; she has been recognized as Washingtonian of the Year by Washington magazine. So how does Ms. Malmon unwind after a long day? Ever fearless and graceful, she loves soaring through the air at the Trapeze School in Washington, DC, where she teaches others how to reach new heights.

Anna Deavere Smith

Writer and Actor
For Anna Deavere Smith, theater can be a powerful tool. While Ms. Smith got her start acting in soap operas, she has always worked towards using acting to promote social change. Her most notable works are her one-woman shows, for which she is researcher, writer, director, and actor. Her performances have been described as “magical,” as she fully embodies each character—all of them real people—some famous and familiar, and others unknown. Ms. Smith has pioneered a new form of art, blending theater, oral history, and journalism, to create an emotional audience experience that challenges our limited perspective on the world. She has earned a MacArthur Award, an Obie, a Drama Desk Award, two Tony nominations, and many other honors.

In the 1980s she began a long-term project to create a series of one-woman shows called “On the Road: A Search for American Character.” In the early 1990s she wrote “Fires in the Mirror” and “Twilight: Los Angeles,” the first major works of her career. “Fires in the Mirror” examined the impact of the 1991 Crown Heights Riot, which was started by a traffic accident in which a Orthodox Jewish man hit and killed an African-American boy. The incident pitted the two groups against one another and tore the Crown Heights community apart. In “Twilight: Los Angeles,” Ms. Smith explored the experiences of those impacted by the 1992 L.A. riots that broke out after the verdict in the Rodney King case was announced. For both works, Ms. Smith interviewed dozens of witnesses and community members, and each play acts as a multi-faceted crystal, with each monologue reflecting a different perspective.

Her 2009 play, “Let Me Down Easy,” delves into the experiences of illness, death, and mortality. On stage, she is a shapeshifter, physically changing her posture, voice, and facial expressions to assume the roles of bull rider Brent Williams, supermodel Lauren Hutton, and movie critic Joel Siegel, among others. Hilarious one moment, and devastatingly moving the next, her performances careen through a range of human experience. They force us to see our society in ways we recognize, in ways that are new, and in ways that push us out of our comfort zone.

Ms. Smith is also an educator. She teaches theater at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and is the founder of Anna Deavere Smith Works, a nonprofit dedicated to art that promotes social change.

Classic Heroine (1920 – 1958)
Rosalind Franklin
Biophysicist, Chemist

Most people have heard of James Watson and Francis Crick, the duo that coined the genetics catchphrase the “double helix” to describe the physical shape of DNA. But few know that Rosalind Franklin, a British scientist, was an integral part of their discovery. According to biographer Brenda Maddox, Dr. Franklin had “a particular genius … She could take photographs of crystals … and interpret the patterns.” That was her specialty.

While Drs. Watson and Crick were working at Cambridge, Dr. Franklin was working at Kings College in London with her colleague Maurice Wilkins. Dr. Franklin took the first photographs of the double helix—the twisted ladder shape of DNA—and shed light on one of the greatest mysteries in science: how DNA replicated to create new cells. She wrote two papers on her findings.

Meanwhile, Dr. Watson was frustrated, so he traveled to Cambridge to speak with Drs. Franklin and Wilkins. That fateful day, Dr. Wilkins showed Dr. Watson the best photo of DNA to date—taken, of course, by Dr. Franklin. When he saw the image he said, “My jaw fell open and my pulse began to race.” And race the two scientific teams did, until they reached the finish line simultaneously, both publishing articles in the April 1953 issue of Nature magazine.

Over the next few years, Dr. Franklin dedicated her life to studying viruses, including polio, one of the deadliest diseases of her day. It was considered dangerous research due to the risk of infection, but she was fearless, dedicating the final years of her life to her work. In 1958, Dr. Franklin died, but not from any of the dangerous viruses she was studying. She succumbed to ovarian cancer at the age of 37 years.

Four years later, in 1962, Drs. Watson, Crick, and Wilkins were honored for their DNA research with the Nobel Prize. The Nobel Committee does not award posthumous prizes, so Dr. Franklin was not named as a recipient, but her work will be remembered.

Originally published March 2012
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