Changing the Way That Science Is Done

Meera Modi

By Marlene Goldman

As a graduate student in reproductive neuroendocrinology in the late 1990s at the University of Toronto’s Institute of Medical Science, Deboleena Roy became politicized.

“There was activism all around me about reproductive rights, health issues, and control of women’s bodies,” she recalls. However, there were only two or three female faculty in the physiology department where her supervisor and thesis committee were housed. Clinical studies to determine if melatonin could be used as a contraceptive were starting, and Roy was assigned to a project that helped to show that melatonin could bind and alter the gene expression of neurons in the hypothalamus.

Roy observed that, for the most part, the people asking the questions weren’t the ones affected by the studies. She wondered why no one stepped back to ask if women really wanted more types of pills or to question the long-term effects of young women starting the pill at age sixteen and staying on it for the next twenty years or more. She knew that studies asking those questions weren’t the ones getting funded. Roy wanted to put her scientific knowledge into context and, as a feminist, to ask different questions.

Her doctoral work involved understanding the actions of hormones at the brain level. Her findings suggested that hormone-based contraceptives or hormone- replacement therapies may have broad neurological implications that could have far-reaching impact on women’s health and sexuality. Studies of hormone- replacement therapy use in certain women have shown increased rsks of developing breast cancer as well as memory loss.

With PhD in hand, Roy was about to go the traditional route for aspiring academics by signing up for postdoc work in a lab. An advertisement seeking a faculty member in a women’s studies program in San Diego changed her course. “They took a chance hiring a PhD in neurosciences. I was impressed that they wanted to bring together cultural analysis, historic analysis, and philosophic analysis of science, but also ground this analysis in the hard sciences.”

Today, as an associate professor at Emory, Roy has appointments in Women’s Studies as well as in Neurosciences and Behavioral Biology and teaches one neurosciences class a year. 

While not the road most taken by budding neuroscientists, Roy’s interdisciplinary career path has served her well and will advance knowledge in the neurosciences. As feminist science historian Londa Shiebinger observed, ”Feminism has changed science not only by inviting more women to enter into science and pointing out gender biases present in the language and paradigms of science but also by changing the ways in which science is ‘done’ . . . by motivating scientists to ask new questions.”

That’s one of the messages Roy shares with graduate students in the neurosciences at Emory through the new student group Emory Women in Neuroscience (E-WIN). 

One of the group’s founders is Meera Modi, a neurosciences graduate student at Emory who knew that meeting once a year with her peers on the national level wouldn’t be enough to help young women like herself advance. Together with fellow graduate students Rebecca Roffman and Vasiliki Michopoulos, she organized E-WIN last year with the goal of creating a strong network for PhD students, postdoc candidates, and faculty members. When some forty graduate students showed up for the organizing meeting, it became clear that she wasn’t alone in her struggle to survive in what traditionally has been a male-dominated profession.

  

Today, neuroscience is a profession with a steep drop-off in female representation between graduate student and faculty member. Women increasingly are going into the neurosciences, and more than 75 percent of the neuroscience graduate students at Emory are women. Yet less than 25 percent of the faculty is female.

 

That disparity is echoed nationwide. “Academia as a whole, particularly the sciences, consists of a rigid scheme of events necessary to move up the career ladder,” Modi says. “Getting academic positions and grants to fund research is highly competitive, a process that’s not very forgiving to those who want to take alternate routes or take time off to start a family or take care of aging parents. Female PhDs aspiring to an academic career in the neurosciences often drop out, sometimes because existing policies don’t support the demands women often face.” She notes, for example, that the James T. Laney School of Graduate Studies has no official policy on maternity benefits for graduate students or access to Emory childcare benefits. Nonetheless, one is in development, and a recent statement from the school indicates, “While the policy is being developed, we are committed to working with programs and students to support the needs and particular circumstances facing students who are becoming parents, whether by birth or adoption.”

Those and many other issues are shared at E-WIN gatherings. Since its first meeting a year ago, graduate students and female faculty have addressed topics ranging from networking to the top ten things to know as women in academia, from how to find your next position to how to make the most of a conference. The group addresses disparities and underlines how men and women do the same jobs equally well. “But there is a difference,” Modi notes, “between being a young women applying for a job and being interviewed by a panel of older men and a man being interviewed by the same group in terms of being members of the different peer group and not being able to relate in fields outside of science.”

 

Mentoring is key, and E-WIN is developing a mentorship program that matches graduates and undergraduates with similar interests who can ask questions one on one. Modi says E-WIN hopes eventually to create a mentoring program with faculty mentors for graduate students, but there are not enough women faculty at Emory to match with almost 100 female graduate students and postdocs.

Some hypothesize that lack of female promotion in academia can be attributed to the shortage of female role models and mentors, Modi and her colleague Rebecca Roffman recently wrote in Central Sulcrus, the newsletter of the Emory Neurosciences. “From professors, the students will learn how to deal with issues relevant to women in academia, like career advancement, balancing work and family commitments, and achieving success. We hope to provide young scientists with the tools to be successful and productive in their chosen field, whether it be academia, industry, teaching, or something else entirely.”


E-WIN recently sponsored the event “Families and Academia” and is planning several mini-symposiums, one of which will address the types of academic jobs that are available—for example, the differences in working for a major research university and a small college in terms of money and time, and the different types of academic positions available. Another symposium will address communications skills, including such topics as bargaining for salaries and how to make your voice heard in a male-dominated department.    

One message in particular strikes home for Modi—the importance of having a good support system while trying to balance a family and a career, “especially one in which you can’t have a lot of time off. Don’t be afraid to hire a house cleaner or a nanny—they are all tools that can help you succeed,” Modi says. “Pursuing an academic career can be a solitary process, and it’s easy to lose sight that there are a lot of people who can be resources to help you succeed.”

Modi derives support for her advocacy efforts from being a member of the Center for Women at Emory (CWE) Advisory Council and serving on its Women in Leadership committee. A number of the initiatives of E-WIN, such as the mini-symposiums, are made possible through CWE moral, organizational, and financial support.

Now in her sixth and final year, Modi will be looking soon for an academic postdoc position in autism research, and she plans to pursue her personal goals of marriage and family with the same fervor as her academic goals. “There’s never going to be a perfect time in your career to pursue both, so use the resources out there to do both.  You don’t have to limit yourself in any way.”

Roy says the climate for women scientists at Emory is “pretty good as compared to most other places where it’s easy to get lost.” She points out especially the University’s undergraduate Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology program as well as the University-wide Neurosciences Initiative that is encouraging communication between the neurosciences and the humanities. She’s optimistic about future opportunities. “There are systemic hurdles for women in academia, especially getting tenure, so I’m interested to see what happens next here.

“There’s good reason for wanting to see more women in neurosciences,” adds Roy. “It’s about good science, and I’d like to see both men and women think a little bit differently about it.” Studies of national importance will have positive impact by virtue of being led or influenced by women, such as the landmark 2002 and 2007 Women’s Health Initiative, which showed that the risks of long-term combination hormone therapy used by millions of postmenopausal women outweighed the benefits.

 For women graduate students in the neurosciences, Roy has this advice:

-Find mentors inside and outside your field.

-Find a lab with a supervisor who supports student growth. Look at that person’s publication record and see if he/she is putting students as first authors.

-Pick a topic of research that your conscience is not at odds with.

-Be edgy. Know the science, but find ways to stand out.

To find out more about E-WIN, email emorywin@gmail.com.

Marlene Goldman is the director of communications, International Association of National Public Health Institutes, US Secretariat, Global Health Institute.