Friday, January 30, 2009

Women in Neuroscience

On Thursday I attended the first ever meeting of a new group called Emory Women in Neuroscience (E-WIN). Though the title sounds program-specific, it's meant to be an inclusive group for women in the life sciences who have similar interests. Some members of the more established Graduate Women in Psychology (GWIP) group were in attendance to mingle and help us brainstorm where we'd like our new organization to go.

Over the last few years, I've become more and more interested in women's issues as they relate to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (or "STEM," as the people in the know like to say). While life science is actually a female-dominated field at the graduate student level (there are three male students and nine female students in my cohort; this is not unusual), women in life science still suffer from discrimination. Additionally, there are more subtle factors that contribute to the large attrition rate or "leaky pipeline" that results in many female students but few female professors. It's clearly in my personal interest to figure out what's going on with that stuff as I plan my own career, and I know many other female scientists who share my dedication to exploring and improving women's issues in STEM. So, when I heard that this group was forming, I leapt at the opportunity to attend the first meeting and become part of a community working toward common goals.

Our meeting took place at the home of a fourth-year neuroscience student. While the group was mainly neuroscience graduate students, I also met students from other programs (pharmacology, nutrition...) and some postdocs. Perhaps most importantly, the group organizers also invited several female faculty to the event, so we were able to mingle and ask questions with a tenured professor, an assistant professor, and a lecturer. 

The group was informal and comfortable. There was food and drink a-plenty. When we arrived we were each given an index card with a question on it for an ice-breaking activity. The questions ranged from serious ("What are the top three problems that science should try to solve over the next few years?") to silly ("If you could have any superpower, what would it be?"). We were supposed to ask people our questions and report back the best answers during the more structured part of the meeting.

While many of the index card topics were worthy of in-depth discussion, the meeting developed a definite focus on work/life balance and family issues in academia. It was fascinating to hear the faculty share their experiences. Two were younger, with pre-elementary school aged children. The third professor at the meeting was older and more established, with a daughter now in college. The conversation covered the "perfect" time to have children (answer: there isn't one), issues involving age and fertility fears, how to team up with a partner to make family and career work, and more. It was wonderful to let these women hand down their wisdom and advice to us, and I found the conversation encouraging as I consider my own goals for career and family in the future.

The women faculty in attendance were amazingly open and honest about their career choices and personal lives, and the intersection between the two. I think the informal structure of the meeting (a circle of women sitting on comfy chairs, wine in hand) made it easier to have these conversations. Everyone seemed very comfortable with the arrangement and I got a distinct vibe of camaraderie, empathy, "sisterhood," whatever you'd like to call it, between different members of the group. It was almost like group therapy. Except therapy is done the goal of changing and improving the person in therapy -- we're trying to change the world. (Although, there is certainly room for further personal growth in most of us. I think an organization like this can help shape our individual strengths as well as institutional reform.)

After a few hours, it was time for us to all go home. We did go over some topics for future meetings and events before the evening ended. My own suggestion was perhaps one of the more detail-oriented ones -- I want to learn exactly what sorts of policies our university has in place to support working/studying women, and how we can improve upon them. I also want to know how the department is recruiting/hiring new faculty, and how we can make sure that women are fairly considered for faculty positions. After meeting with the faculty at our E-WIN group, I'm even more convinced that students need successful women role models and mentors. Like most universities, ours could stand to improve in that respect. 

After a very successful first meeting, I'm left feeling energized and optimistic about this organization. I really want to feel involved with the university at more than just the level of graduate student lab slave; I think it's important to do what I can to work for positive change. Happily, Emory seems fairly responsive to student concerns (at least, within my program). If we keep working at it, maybe we can change our world.

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