Nobel Prize Winner Elinor Ostrom
Elinor Ostrom accepting the Nobel prize for economics in Stockholm,Sweden. (Photo: Sipa/NewsCom)
For Elinor Ostrom, working hard is nothing new. As a little girl growing up in Los Angeles, California, she worked in her family's garden growing fruits and vegetables to help put food on the table.
Now at the age of 76, Dr. Ostrom has become the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in economics. The award was presented in December in Stockholm, Sweden.
Winning this most prestigious award was quite a surprise, she told this reporter in a recent interview. Her first reaction was a modest, "Oh, my goodness gracious."
Ostrom works for the Center of Research for the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana University. Her husband, who is currently 90 and worked until he was 80, is her role model.
"We both love what we are doing," she said. "It's hard work, but if you love it you don't want to give it up."
In high school, Ostrom was on the swim and debate teams and participated in archery. Games that involved a ball such as basketball and volleyball were a different story and sometimes embarrassing.
"They argued about me on the school ground because I was the last person to be chosen," she said. "Both sides of the team would say, ‘you take her,' ‘no you take her.'"
The classroom was a different story. Ostrom excelled in geometry, receiving straight A's. She had a tough time with algebra, and her school would not let her take trigonometry. That prevented her from taking advanced math courses at the university level. She had to take those courses after she got her Ph.D. in political science and became an assistant professor.
Ostrom became interested in economics when she was studying how local people solved water resource issues and other local problems. Economics is important, says Ostrom, because "we are trying to understand some of the issues that people face so that we can understand why results are sometimes good or bad, and how we can change things to make more good things happen."
In her work, she is studying the role of institutions in enabling people to solve complex problems. She believes that her research and work can truly make a difference in people's lives.
"Many people's skills and knowledge have been ignored," she said. "If I can get more people to recognize indigenous knowledge (knowledge native to a region) and that talent that exists in many parts of the world, I will be very happy."
Ostrom recalled that many people discouraged her from going to graduate school, because women couldn't get good jobs.
"I did have some people tell me to keep going," she said. "I think all the good advice that urged me to continue on with my research program early on was very, very helpful."
Ostrom has some advice she for girls who are interested in math.
"Keep going, don't give up, and don't let people discourage you," she said. "There are so many things you can do. Math is not essential for all of the topics we are interested in in the world. Everyone has to pick the areas that they are really interested in and move ahead."
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Chloe Conway is a member of the Scholastic Kids Press Corps.