Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Supporting Women in Science

During my blog hiatus, I was nominated for my program's Institutional Predoctoral Training Grant. Six students from the neuroscience program are nominated each year (as long as NIGMS keeps renewing our grant!). The funds provided by this grant will support me for the next academic year, providing my stipend (taking the financial burden off Emory) and fees (taking the financial burden off me) as well as funds for travel, research equipment, and hosting a guest speaker.

I'm thrilled to have been nominated for this grant, and I look forward to all of the exciting opportunities it has created for me. With these travel funds and my NextBio travel grant, along with support from my mentor, I will be attending the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting in the fall. Some classmates and I are registering for the conference and booking our hotel rooms today. We're psyched!

I've also been searching for a guest speaker to invite to our program seminar. My mentor made some suggestions based on people whose research would interest the department and who are known for giving engaging talks. I looked up the people on her list and did some searching on my own to narrow things down to a few candidates. And, during the course of my search, I decided that I want to invite a female speaker.

My graduate program, like most in the life sciences, has a predominantly female student body. It also has noticeably fewer female faculty (again, like most life science programs). While our seminar series has done a good job of bringing diverse guest speakers to Emory in the past, I felt that this was a rare opportunity for me to have direct influence on the gender balance of faculty who will interact with our students. Numerous research studies have shown that even people who strive for fairness when selecting candidates from a mixed gender pool will often bias themselves toward men. (See Prof. Virginia Valian's excellent slideshow tutorial on gender schemas, especially the bit in Tutorial #1 on gender bias in peer review, which begins at slide 15.) This is true whether men or women are evaluating the candidates.

To avoid this pitfall, I made a conscious effort to create a pool consisting entirely of female candidates. I joked about my "blatant sexism" with my adviser, but it's something that I take seriously. It did feel a bit strange and arbitrary to me as I removed speakers from my list simply because they are male, but I don't think a single missed opportunity to speak at our seminar series will have a large impact on their professional success. (All of the male speakers I was considering have already achieved professional success in the form of full professorship, selection by HHMI or NAS, etc.) I'm also sure that some other students on the training grant will end up inviting male speakers. But choosing to bring a female professor into my program for a talk could have a significant benefit, especially if students and postdocs who attend the talk are seeking a mentor for the next stage of their scientific training. Female role models in the sciences can be few and far between, so I think it's worth something to expose my classmates to more of them.

This is, ultimately, a small thing. But many small efforts can add up to larger achievements. When I was elected to a position within my program's executive committee, a classmate emailed to congratulate me. She also wrote, "I hope you plan on using your feminist powers for good." When I made this decision, I was thinking of her, and of the other amazing female graduate students who make my program great. (Our male graduate students are also great, I should add, but they don't often engage me about my feminist powers.) I'm doing what I can.


  1. This comment might be more appropriate as an email, given that it's not directly related to your post, but I couldn't find your email anywhere. As a fellow blogging graduate student (studying social psychology as opposed to neuroscience), I mostly wanted to say hello and express my appreciation for your blog. I also completely agree with your incremental approach to closing the gender gap in science; personally, I find the lack of diversity at my institution flat out embarrassing. It seems like my department talks a lot about improving diversity, but does very little to actually improve the situation.

    I look forward to reading your future posts!

  2. Hi schnarrd -- Thanks for your comment! I can't believe I hadn't listed my email address before now. In any case, if you'd like to email me in the future, the address is now posted in my Blogger profile at the top of this page.

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