On Thursday Elinor Ostrom will become the first woman and the first non-economist to accepts the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in Stockholm. Here's her fascination story.

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When Elinor Ostrom accepts the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences Thursday in Stockholm, Sweden, she will become the first woman ever to win what Indiana University President Michael A. McRobbie termed "the highest honor her profession bestows."

Firsts are nothing new to the 76-year-old political science professor at IU. She also is the first non-economist to win the Nobel in economics, which she will share with co-winner Oliver Williamson, of the University of California at Berkeley. And she was the first woman to chair the political science department at IU, as well as the first woman to be elected president of the American Political Science Association.

Last week at the White House, she met with President Barack Obama and senior government officials to discuss how to increase opportunities and incentives for women in the sciences.

The gregarious Ostrom laughed and raised her right arm in good-natured affirmation when the "first woman" theme was emphasized at a campus reception in her honor last week. She said in a recent interview that she absolutely takes pride in breaking through gender barriers.

But, as with most things, Ostrom steers clear of being pigeonholed and typically finds a way to turn practically every topic back toward problem-solving, the common theme in her life.

Childhood
Ostrom was born Aug. 7, 1933, in Los Angeles, Calif., the daughter of Adrian and Leah Awan. Her father was a set designer for the Hollywood Bowl and Civic Light Opera. She recalls tagging along with him on Saturdays, watching set construction and musical rehearsals and wishing she could become a ballerina. Having flat feet dashed that early goal, she said.

Her mother was a musical prodigy from South Dakota with perfect pitch, who attended the Boston School of Music in high school and later went on to manage the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.

Neither of her parents was particularly religious, but she attended a Protestant church as a child, and often spent weekends staying with the sister of her Jewish father, who kept a kosher home.

"That was a wonderful experience for me, the Friday night discussions they had," she recalled. "It was a serious kosher home, and the Friday night discussions were very serious."

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They were the Ostrom's first encounters with the respectful but earnest debates she now characterizes as "contestation."

Her parents separated and divorced, and Elinor, or "Lin," as she is known, remained with her mother, scratching out a living during the Great Depression and World War II era, growing their own food in their backyard Victory Garden. She graduated from Beverly Hills High School, a fact that amuses friends and acquaintances. "Technically, we lived in Los Angeles, but the high school was literally across the street," she said.

"I'm very grateful for that opportunity, because 90 percent of the kids who went to Beverly Hills High School went on to college. I don't think I would have gone to college if not for being in that environment."

It was not always a nurturing place, however, especially in her younger childhood years. Although she attended a Protestant Sunday school, her peers linked her to her father's religious and cultural heritage. "I got circled in the schoolroom, out on the playground."

'You Jew! You Jew!'" she recalled, her voice rising, imitating the taunts.

"Having that experience as a kid and being a woman, and having that challenge as it has been at different times to be a woman, I've got pretty good sympathy for people who are not necessarily at the center of civic appreciation," she said with a wry chuckle.

Early adulthood
Ostrom earned a bachelor's degree with honors in political science from UCLA in 1954 and married a classmate, Charles Scott. The couple moved to Boston, where Scott enrolled in Harvard's law school. Lin found work at General Radio, one of the first electronics firms in Cambridge.

"I had a college degree but everyone asked me if I could take shorthand and typing," she said. "I didn't know shorthand, of course, but I took it through mail order."

She moved through personnel at the electronics company to a similar job at a Boston law firm. "Basically I put my husband through law school and he entered a corporate law firm," she said. "I was thinking of doing a Ph.D., and he was not too enthusiastic."

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The couple wound up divorcing, relatively amicably. "That's problem solving, too," she observed. "Sometimes, with couples, it's OK to say it's not working and it's not going to work and you move on."

She returned to Los Angeles and earned a master's and Ph.D in political science from UCLA. And as fate would have it, a seminar paper on the problem of ocean water encroaching on the fresh groundwater under the city turned into a dissertation and serious work in helping pull numerous municipalities, commercial interests and government together in solving the problem.

That laid the foundation for what would become Ostrom's life's work -- bringing together people from multiple disciplines and sometimes competing interests to solve complex problems.

Hello IU
Lin married political and economic scientist Vincent Ostrom in 1963, and the couple moved to Bloomington in 1964-65. She often has said it was a good thing that IU did not have a nepotism policy, as UCLA did, but her excellent research history and new Ph.D. didn't exactly land her a plum job at IU. She enjoys recalling that her first position at IU was as "bottom of the totem pole" as one could get, teaching American government at 7:30 a.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

In 1973, the Ostroms founded the institution that will, at least in part, define their legacy: the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis. From the beginning, the workshop intrigued and attracted researchers from various disciplines because of its methodology in pulling together a wide range of expertise and opinions with the goal of investigating the inner workings of human institutions -- structures of rules used to govern people and resources -- in order to better understand what works and what does not.

Why workshop?
"Vincent and I used to go on Thursday nights and all day Saturdays to (Unionville carpenter) Paul Goodman's," she recalled. "Yes, we made furniture there. Our dining room table. Cabinets. Pretty much everything in our house except the padded chairs."

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The collaborative experience, especially making large furniture items, played into both Vincent and Lin's already-held beliefs about working together to solve problems. "One of the reasons we called this place a workshop instead of a center was because of working with Paul and understanding what artisanship was.

"You might be working on something like a cabinet and thinking about the design of it, and thinking this idea versus that idea, and then Paul could pick up a board and say, oh, you shouldn't use this one because it will split. He could see things in wood that we couldn't. So the whole idea of artisans and apprentices and the structure of a good workshop really made an impression on us.

"It was Vincent's idea to call it a workshop in political theory and policy analysis. There's a real philosophical reason for it. And to this day, the people who have come through or are currently working there refer to themselves as workshoppers."

Problem solving
Over the years, the Ostroms have collected numerous honors and awards, individually and together through the workshop. She has conducted in-depth and long-term studies on subjects ranging from community policing to water resource management to communal property management including the May Creek collective south of Bloomington.

There have been offers -- very attractive offers -- to lure the Ostroms and the workshop away from IU, from universities including Harvard and Duke. "I have immense respect for Duke and Harvard and those were very tough decisions," Ostom allowed. "But my sense has been that you don't build something like this and just move it. Part of the staff are not movable. They understand the enterprise and they make a difference. We've had faculty colleagues who were just great. We have a team and you don't pick up and move a whole team."

While both Lin and Vincent Ostrom have taken on various appointments and associations with other universities over the years, they've remained grounded in Bloomington, and happy to do so. Their heavily windowed home sits on six acres of woods southeast of the city and provides respite from the busy campus life each has led.

Vincent, at 90, has difficulty hearing and gets around more slowly than his wife, 14 years his junior. They still subscribe to a handful of newspapers, including The Herald-Times. But Vincent got so frustrated with the declining quality of television news and programming he told Lin to get rid of the television several years ago.

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Associates sometimes tease Ostrom about her lack of knowledge of current cultural phenomena, particularly when it comes to programs that tend to appeal to workshoppers, such as "The Daily Show."

She said she doesn't miss what she's never seen. "Has anybody mentioned that I'm a bit of a workaholic?" she asked.

The Nobel
People who meet Ostrom, and even people who have known her a long time, say her formidable intellect is tempered by her innate kindness and quick-to-laugh personality.

Jacqui Bauer, assistant director of the workshop, said Ostrom is "sort of an internal contradiction. She is personally unforgiving, meaning, with herself. But she's endlessly forgiving of others."

Like all achievers, however, Ostrom doesn't abide slackers. "When she sees someone who she thinks hasn't put enough thought or work into bringing something into a colloquium or other setting, I've seen her get fairly harsh with a few people. She's always serious about work."

That's the exception to the rule, however, for a woman who practically always wears brightly colored, casual outfits and characteristically uses her hands when she talks. The palms reach out and the arms fly when she's speaking about big concepts, and she works down to her fingers when she ticks off the finer points.

Bauer said the big, awkward old house that serves as the workshop office makes for an interesting dynamic to work in, especially concerning Ostrom. "My office is on the second floor, tucked back under a stairwell," she explained. "Often, with Lin, because her schedule is so packed, we on the staff have a hard time grabbing her when we need something signed or something we need to ask her.

"The common technique we use among the workshop staff is The Lurk," Bauer said with a chuckle. "We lurk around, waiting for the opportunity to intercept Lin. One method of detecting her is her big laugh and exuberant hellos."

Amos Sawyer, the former president of Liberia, has been a workshopper on and off for nearly 25 years, and counts the Ostroms among the finest people he's ever known. "They're not just good scholars," he said recently. "They're exceptionally good human beings."

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IU President McRobbie noted at the university's reception for Ostrom last week that the Ostroms also have been generous benefactors to the university, having contributed more than $2 million received from various prizes and awards back to the school and pledging an estate gift of $1.5 million. Ostrom also said she'll donate half of the $700,000 that accompanies her Nobel Prize back to the workshop and the university.

With the university's help, she's come to realize that her 2010 agenda is already filled and that she can't accept any more speaking engagements or publishing offers. She also has refused to bump any engagements she accepted prior to the Nobel. "That wouldn't be moral," she explained.

Has she been surprised at the level of celebrity she's attained? "Well," she said with characteristic analysis, "when you don't dream something like that would ever happen, why would you even think about it?"

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To see more of the Herald-Times or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.heraldtimesonline.com/. Copyright (c) 2009, Herald-Times, Bloomington, Ind. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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Last Updated (Wednesday, 09 December 2009 08:21)