Sunday, February 26, 2017

Women in Science


For a while I've toyed with the idea of this blog, and I wasn't really short how to best approach it in a way that makes the message clear, because I want to include my personal experiences without making it about me... unfortunately, I can only address issues through the lens of my experience, and so I would ask that you take that limitation (and my own stupidity) into consideration when reading.

The thing is, I am where I am entirely on the strength of female role models. I have succeeded and progressed as a student and graduate student entirely on the strengths of amazing female scientists who served as mentors. I can attribute a measure of my success anywhere to my female peers, who have been an invaluable source of knowledge, support, and insight at various levels. Before I share why having women in science is important to me, I want to share why it is important in a global sense.

First of all, there is a long history of women achieving remarkable things in a field that is largely dominated by men, especially in a historical context. We have Marie Curie, a dual Nobel laureate. We have the fine women of early NASA, recently recognized in a movie, based on a book about their integral contributions to modern aerospace, in spite of facing roadblocks due to both gender and race. We have Rosalind Franklin, who is seemingly more well known for her clear X-ray crystallography of the structure of DNA (something for which I doubt she would have shared the Nobel if she had not died unfortunately young from cancer) and who SHOULD be more well-known for her crystal structure of the tobacco mosaic virus, which I do think could have gotten her Nobel recognition, again, if her untimely death hadn't interfered. You have the wealth of current researchers who have made amazing discoveries, among them Dr. Carol Greider, a Nobel laureate whom I had the distinct pleasure of being taught by during my masters. The list of exceptional female scientists and their accomplishments could essentially fill volumes, and I could probably write a blog about each individual. The contributions of women to all fields of science are really beyond any sense of doubt (just look at a list of female Nobel laureates in the sciences, or female winners of any prestigious science award), yet we still see clear biases in the scientific community when it comes to gender. Women are less likely to enter the sciences, less likely to stay, less likely to publish as many papers in their PhD education, less likely to be hired as faculty, and less likely to have their work praised highly by their peers. Women also tend to have fewer collaborators, and are less likely to be the Principle Investigator on published research. We can examine these issues from a variety of perspectives to determine why these things occur how we see them, and where those things initiate along the pathway of education to create this kind of disparity. For me, at least, it is easy to see that often girls are pushed out of science early on, based on a number of factors relating to perception of gender and gender roles in early education. It isn't as if women aren't contributing in major ways to the work when they do it (this holds true in basically every academic field I would hazard to guess, but since I'm not in those fields, I really won't comment more than just my semi-informed best guess).

The thing is, that we can talk about the benefits of women in science in regards to equality, but hardly ever in regards to the overall quality of a field. Multiple perspectives always helps science. Having a good researcher always benefits, regardless of that person's gender... but one can easily hypothesize a situation where someone who would have had a profound impact was excluded entirely, or never allowed to flourish.

For me, being a man in science, I get to see how some of these things play out around me, hearing the conversations from my female colleagues and seeing how interactions occur with female faculty and their peers, and also how students respond to female professors and PIs. At a recent event, I was talking with a post doc who told me how she came to be in biology: she was originally a theoretical physics graduate student, but her male advisor kept putting her on projects unrelated to that work. When confronted, he simply told her: "Women can't do theoretical physics." Soon after, she went to the biology department at her institution, told them she would catch up on the chemistry and biology within a year if they would give her a chance, and... well, she's a post doc now. Something must have gone right. That conversation would never go the other way, and we all know that. The thing is, I'm not sure I can fathom a world of science without contributions from women, both on a global level, and a personal level. My mother worked multiple jobs and always supported my dreams of education, even when (looking back) it really increased her own hardship. In my secondary education, it was a woman mentor who gave me academic confidence. It was women who gave me the tools to succeed, and spoke highly of me in recommendations to get into college, even though I was from a location where a college education was not expected, and certainly not in the sciences. As an undergrad, a biology professor took an interest in my success, and mentored me throughout all of the issues that come with being a college student. She encouraged my success, fostered my curiosity and interest, and still today is a sort of mentor/cheering section for me as I navigate the early stages of becoming an academic. She has been a constant source of support and the occasional reality check that I needed, and even speaking with her about her experiences has shown that her career was spent in the shadow of male colleagues, despite having amazing training and experience with renowned experts at prestigious institutions. Yet, again, I could not have succeeded without her and her insights and support. In my masters studies, in a cohort which was (quite amazingly, given global demographics) 70% women, there was a wonderful scientist and educator who helped me to struggle through an experience that was exacerbated by physical and mental health issues, and who was willing to speak on my behalf in recommendations in spite of what may have been a disappointing performance academically. It was at this time that I was also given opportunities I never would have imagined because of two faculty members who decided to take a group project and try to turn it into a real research project, giving me a real eye-opening experience into that world which I haven't forgotten. These wonderful researchers, both successful female academics, gave me a kind of renewed confidence in my abilities. I couldn't have survived my masters program without all of them. Now, as a PhD student, I have peers with whom I regularly interact in the fields of medicine and the life sciences, and that network is full of some of the most brilliant, hard-working, badass scientists and future doctors I know... and a large portion of them are women who are passionately dedicated to what they do, amazingly brilliant, and also great people to boot, and I would struggle without them. With an even wider net, there are scientists and researchers in fields who act as great communicators and role models in that regard, with whom I regularly engage and are great scientists, great educators and communicators, and super fun people! Taken together, all of these amazing women in the sciences are the reason for my ability to do what I love. Not because they are women, but because they are positive role models and amazing mentors who excel at what they do, and we need scientists of that quality everywhere, and those futures should not suffer because of criteria unrelated to their competency and passion.

Fields as diverse as science should thrive with diverse perspectives from those engaged in the disciplines. The necessity of this diversity is necessary not just to improve the overall quality of the field itself (which it totally does!). We know that women in science face struggles, and we know that the struggles are unrelated to the quality of their science. I don't want others to miss opportunities to follow their passions because of roadblocks based on their gender. I don't want female students to be discouraged because of the disparities they see occurring within science as a whole. There are great things being done, and the best way to change the direction is to see great researchers doing great work, and smashing the barriers being placed before them through their success and abilities. We need good scientists, competent mentors, and great teachers... and among those who perhaps face obstacles that push them away from science, there are many who could fill those roles with the passion, dedication, and diligence that would improve the field, and the experience of those in it, at nearly every level. The roadblocks that exist, to anyone, are detrimental to the whole of science. 

I hope this didn't get too off topic. Part of this, of course, was a thank you to the people whom I view as so directly responsible for me being where I am. Part of it is a nod to my friends who are going through the same struggles I am, only maybe more so because they are women in traditionally male-dominated fields. The personal flourish is because I have to address the issue through my own perspective, which is likely not just limited, but also poorly worded... I can only hope that the intent is clear through any bad approaches I have made, and that I see this issue of diversity includes many types of people from all sorts of backgrounds as well as the gender disparities mentioned.

In the end, I'm just glad that people... anyone at all... get involved in the thing I love so much. Women in science are the reason I've survived (and occasionally thrived) in science. Not because of (or in spite of) their gender, but because they were passionate and great at their jobs and really gave a shit about my success. We need more of that, for everyone.