Diversity Correlates With Success: Gender and Synthetic Biology

We knew when we started working on this subject, that many fields in science suffer from gender bias, but because synthetic biology is a new field we expected that historical biases would not apply and that we would not observe an important gender bias. However what we found out is that the bias we observe in synthetic biology is very representative of the bias in other fields of science.

[ via Scientific American ]

STEMinist Profile: Marguerite Evans-Galea, Scientist/Senior Research Officer

Maggie_TC3

Marguerite (Maggie) Evans-Galea

Scientist, Senior Research Officer, Team Leader

Murdoch Children’s Research Institute


What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
I had always been a curious child who loved animals and nature. My brother and I used to collect tadpoles from the local pond and watch them develop. I also relished (still do) Sir David Attenborough’s incredible documentaries, but really fell in love with ‘the molecular’ when I watched “Race for the Double Helix”.

But I had a double-love in science and music. I had considered being a music therapist, and this is initially why I did my double degree – B. Music and B. Science – but I was ultimately bitten by the science bug. After graduating, I went onto postgraduate studies in science and here I am.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
It is often the way that the coolest project is the one you are working on at the time. But I have finally found the ‘big picture’ topic I wish to pursue for the rest of my career. I am excited to be developing novel biomarkers and therapies for severely debilitating neurodegenerative disease. This work contains all of the most fascinating aspects of my scientific training – all meshed together!

Role models and heroes:
Role models/heroes in science: Charles Darwin, Gregor Mendel, Marie Curie, Rosalind Franklin, David Attenborough, Peter Doherty, Brian Schmidt and my husband – all are ‘true’ scientists, minus the ego.

Other role models/heroes: Maya Angelou, Ludwig van Beethoven, the Dalai Lama, Carrie Fisher, Nick Vijucic and my Mum – all extraordinary individuals who overcame immense challenges in their lives.

Why do you loving working in STEM?
I love helping people. Severely debilitating disease can rob an individual of their independence, their quality of life and sometimes even their dignity and hope. People whose lives are touch by serious disease never fail to inspire. Whether across the table or across borders – they are incredibly strong; always supporting each other, their families and themselves.

Scientific research is a lifeline. It is a glimmer on the horizon – an opportunity to restore belief in the impossible. Adding to our knowledge about a disease and exploring potential treatments that could go from bench-to-beside, makes me feel like I am doing something very ‘real’ and useful every single day. After all, the medicines prescribed by our doctors every day were first developed in the laboratory. It is extremely rewarding!

Advice for future STEMinists?
Do what you love to do. Recognise your talents, broaden your scope and look beyond what you see. Science is just one word that encompasses a universe of questions, knowledge, expertise, opportunities and professions! Dream big and go for it!

Favorite website or app:
Twitter – great online networking tool.

Twitter: @MVEG001

STEMinist Profile: Boo Lewis, Ph.D. Candidate, Biological Sciences

Boo Lewis

Boo Lewis

Ph.D. Candidate

University of Bristol



What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
Both of my parents have science degrees, although neither of them works in science anymore, and they never thought anything was too complicated to explain. I was eight the first time I asked about brown eyed parents and blue eyed children and my Dad started telling me about heterozygosity.

What really did it for me was an amazing biology teacher I had from when I was 14 until I left sixth form. She’d done a PhD in virology and was always throwing in interesting facts that weren’t on the syllabus. She hated teaching us things that were in the exam but fundamentally wrong so she’d always explain afterwards how they really worked. I kept thinking that if I just studied biology for a bit longer I’d eventually know the whole truth! Now, of course, I know that nobody knows the whole truth.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
I like to think that my PhD is really cool, although I’m not sure that anybody else would agree! I’m a geneticist and I look at a system called Mismatch Repair in bread wheat. It’s basically DNA proofreading and it prevents mutation. In humans, mutation is a bad thing: we know quite a lot about MMR because almost everyone with a certain kind of cancer has a broken MMR system. But in plants mutation isn’t always a bad thing: especially when you’re trying to breed new varieties.

Role models/heroes:
I don’t really have heroes, but there are a couple of women scientists who made me realise how much I was capable of achieving. Number 1 is Dr. Caroline Wilcox. She’s the teacher without whom I wouldn’t be a biologist. Number 2 is Prof. Jane Langdale who taught me genetics when I first started undergrad and is now the head of Plant Sciences at Oxford.

Why do you love working in STEM?
Every day is different. And nobody else in the world does exactly what I do. That’s a bit terrifying sometimes, but also really cool. Even when things don’t turn out the way you plan, you’re always learning something new.

Advice for future STEMinists?
Get used to telling yourself you can succeed, because nobody else is going to. That’s true for everyone, but especially as a woman in science. I wasn’t allowed to do A-level Physics because the teacher told me I wouldn’t cope, which is sort of ironic since I was always better at Maths and Physics than Biology!

Favorite website/app:
There’s a handful I use on virtually a daily basis: I’d be at a loss without Web of Science (for finding research papers) and CerealsDB (the BLAST-able database of the wheat genome).

For getting me through when nothing is working #WhatShouldWeCallGradSchool deserves a mention!

There’s also a heap of really good blogs like DoubleXScience and The Thesis Whisperer.

Website: bakingbiologist.wordpress.com
Twitter: @Boofimus

STEMinist Profile: Amanda Loftis, Asst. Professor of Infectious Diseases

Amanda Loftis

Asst. Professor of Infectious Diseases

Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine, St. Kitts (eastern Caribbean)



What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
As a child, I had teachers who believed I didn’t need to know math or science because I was a girl. Luckily, I had strong family support from parents who did not believe in gender roles. My parents supported my right to equal education and transferred me to another school district, where I had better opportunities to pursue math and science. I was fascinated by biology and wanted to be a veterinarian.

I was first introduced to research during an advanced biology course in high school, and I discovered the challenges and puzzle-solving involved in research. I still became a veterinarian, but I took my training a few steps further and added a research PhD. My specialty is emerging and zoonotic infectious diseases, working with pathogens that spread between species and affect both human and animal health.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
The coolest project I ever worked on was the discovery of a new tick-transmitted pathogen in the USA, “Panola Mountain Ehrlichia”. We found the bacterium by pure serendipity, an unexpected discovery. We showed that the disease is found throughout the eastern USA and that it infects people, as well as white-tailed deer and goats.

Now, a few years later, scientists at several institutions, including myself, are working to develop diagnostic tools and on research to better understand its impact on both human and animal health. In today’s world, discovering an unknown, endemic, pathogen in a developed country like the USA is pretty unusual.

Role models/heroes:
My research mentor throughout my undergraduate and professional programs, Dr. William Davis (Washington State University) is, to this day, my role model. He encouraged me to grow as a scientist, trained me out of my fear of public speaking, and taught me about both the strategy and the philosophy to manage a research program successfully. I did not understand the value of many of those lessons until years later, but they were critical elements of my professional development. I continually strive to be as good a mentor for the students who join my program.

Why do you love working in STEM?
I love the challenge of working on the edge of what we know about the world around us, and I feel that my work contributes meaningfully to our understanding of—and therefore our ability to improve—both human and animal health. I couldn’t do work like this in any other field except biomedical research.

Advice for future STEMinists?
Support from family, friends, and mentors can be incredibly important, especially when you are developing the training and skills you will need to succeed in your field. A good mentor will teach you skills that you are not even aware you need to learn. I don’t think your mentor necessarily has to be a woman, just someone who sees your potential, helps you identify opportunities for growth, and encourages you to go for them!

Favorite website/app:
Facebook is my main way to connect with friends, family, and colleagues. Living in a small island nation means being cut off from the world at large, and the ability to remain connected, follow friends’ life updates, and share pictures is vital to maintaining a healthy social network.

Twitter: @doclof

STEMinist Profile: Charlyn Partridge, Temporary Assistant Professor, Biology

Charlyn Patridge

Charlyn Partridge

Temporary Assistant Professor, Biology
University of South Alabama



What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
I have just always loved science. I remember being around 6 or 7 and my parents bought me a little play microscope. I would go out to our swimming pool during the fall and winter (when we were not cleaning it constantly) and dip out water and just stare at all of the microscopic life it contained. When I was 13 I decided that that was what I wanted to do forever.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
The coolest project thus far has probably been the main project from my dissertation. I looked at how a particular endocrine disruptor, EE2, impacted secondary trait expression in pipefish. Pipefish are sex-role reversed so sexual selection acts stronger on females than on males. Because of this, females have evolved both permanent and temporary bands that they display during courtship. We found out that when you expose males to EE2 for as little as 10 days they develop these secondary sex traits and that females tend to avoid mating with exposed males. Currently we are looking at how this may impact the strength of sexual selection on a population scale.

Role models/heroes:
As a scientist, I would have to say Barbara McClintock. She had a passion for science that I envy. Adam Jones and Ginger Carney: Adam was my PhD advisor and both he and his wife, Ginger, have an incredible ability to balance both their work and family life. As a mom, I have yet to discover how to excel in both areas at the same time.

Why do you love working in STEM?
I think the main reason why I love working in STEM is because I get the chance to answer questions that no one has ever asked. That is really a cool thing.

Advice for future STEMinists?
Do something that challenges you and always continue to learn. Once you become stagnant it is very hard to get back in the game.

Favorite website or app:
Evoldir. Love that site.

Twitter: @sciencegurlz0

STEMinist Profile: Catherine Pratt, Grad Student, Biochemistry/Developmental Biology

Catherine Pratt

Catherine Pratt

Graduate Student
Brown University



What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
When I was in high school I would bug my Mum all the time to let me come to work with her. As a veterinary surgeon she got to do some pretty cool things, and I loved watching her and the other vets do their job. I remember being very proud of myself for making it through a rather nasty orthopedic operation on a dog. The vet school student, on the other hand, fainted rather dramatically.

So a career in veterinary medicine seemed to be the direction I was headed in…until I visited my Aunt’s biochemistry lab. There was something about the smell of the lab, the ticking of the geiger counter, the humming of the fume hood. I was only 16 at the time, so there was very little I could actually do, but I had fallen in love. I applied to college to study biochemistry, spent every summer in some lab or other, and after spending the year after graduation as a lab technician, applied and was accepted to the graduate program in Molecular Biology, Cell Biology, and Biochemistry at Brown University.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
I should be honest here and explain the jadedness that can hit a grad student who has been working on the same project for 5 or 6 years. Things that seemed cool at the outset often morph into the stuff of nightmares. Hypotheses become twisted, experiments that worked last week fail this week, and your confidence takes beating after merciless beating. But I digress. When I began the project that I am currently writing up for publication, it was the coolest thing ever! I have been very lucky to have a P.I. who lets me do what I want to do, as long as she thinks it’s a reasonable idea.

So when I came to her with a list of predicted miRNA binding sites for the mRNA that we study, she let me take that project on and test whether these regulatory molecules were indeed causing the biological effects we see in our system. As the project grew there were these little blips of pure joy as our hypothesis was proved positive. These blips, at least for me, are too scarce, and in my memory the last couple of years have been extremely challenging. In that time, though, I discovered my passion for science communication and started my blog. In it’s own way, that website has been the coolest project I have ever worked on!

Role models/heroes:
My most influential role models over the last decade have been my Aunt and my advisor. In different ways they have each shown me how to be a great scientist and a great woman, and that those two things do not have to be mutually exclusive.

Why do you love working in STEM?
As someone who is leaving academia to focus on STEM communication, I often find myself contemplating what I will miss. I keep coming back to the conversations and the camaraderie. A lab is more than just a place where people in white coats churn out data for publication; it’s a family. We are all working towards a common goal, but as we chase that goal we need the odd pep talk, or to see the latest YouTube clip that went viral, or a beer at the end of the week. It’s that community of smart, fun, like-minded people that I will miss being around every day.

Advice for future STEMinists?
Do it. Don’t be intimidated. Ask questions. Make sure you have a support network, whether it be friends, family, colleagues, or all of the above. And don’t be afraid to ask for help (both in and out of the lab).

Favorite website or app:
Twitter. By a MILE!!! It’s a great place to meet other scientists, get help with experiments, and keep abreast of what’s going in other fields of research.

Twitter: @Katie_PhD
Website: www.katiephd.com

STEMinist Profile: Lesley Morrell, Lecturer in Evolutionary Biology

Lesley Morrell

Lesley Morrell

Lecturer in Evolutionary Biology
University of Hull, UK



What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
Although as a young child, I was always collecting things I found when out and about, I don’t remember having a particular love for the natural world. My mother tells me that she wasn’t surprised by my career choice, because I was always interested in nature (just as she wasn’t surprised that my sister became an accountant, because she was always playing with money). Biology was my favourite subject at school, closely followed by Geography (physical geography rather than human geography), and it seemed natural to me to follow these interests through to A-level and then into my degree in Ecology. As far as I could tell, Ecology combined the best bits of my two favourite subjects.

When I finished my degree, I wasn’t at all sure that I wanted to continue in science. I decided to take some time out, and investigate another option: conservation work. I volunteered with BTCV (British Trust for Conservation Volunteers) as a hedgerow campaign coordinator in Bristol for a while, running hedgelaying training events for volunteers. I then became involved in a European volunteering scheme, and went to Greece to help develop some environmental interpretation material for a river delta in the north-east of the country. At the same time, I devoured popular science books, and it became clear to me that I missed the intellectual stimulation of my degree course, and decided I wanted to return to academia and start studying for a PhD. I started my PhD in 2001, and it felt right.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
I’ve been lucky in that my career so far has taken me to some cool places: watching fiddler crabs fight on the mudflats of the Northern Territory in Australia, catching guppies in the rivers of Trinidad and rainbowfish in Western Australia, and a 4-week safari in Kenya in the name of teaching. My PhD and postdoctoral supervisors both gave me more-or-less free reign to choose my own research projects, which means it’s hard to pick out a ‘cool’ project, because if I didn’t think a project was interesting, I wouldn’t do it…

I’m going to choose my fiddler crab work (supervised by Pat Backwell from the Australian National University) as the coolest project I worked on. Why? Because I spent 6 weeks sitting under a beach umbrella on an Australian mudflat, watching cute little crabs fighting over access to burrows where they mate and hide from predators and the incoming tide. It was my first experience of a field experiment, it was my first successful, hypothesis driven, piece of experimental work (my PhD was half theoretical and half experimental failure), I met some lovely people, and I learned a lot. One of the key things I learned was that even when you have a permanent job as a university lecturer, you should try to keep some time aside to continue doing your OWN research projects, rather than only having postdocs and PhD students to do them for you. I also learnt that I can wear flipflops.

Role models and heroes:
I think my first science role model was probably my GCSE biology-and-physics teacher, Nicola Wilberforce, who admitted one week that she was only 3 weeks ahead of us on the physics curriculum. I’ve never been one for set-on-a- pedestal type heroes, but saying that, Jane Goodall has always amazed me for her determination and dedication, and I was lucky enough to get to hear her speak in Uganda (while travelling in Africa as a pre-PhD treat to myself).

Advice for future STEMinists?
Do what you want to do. Try to make sure you have a strong support network of people who believe in you and can push you to be the best you can be and do the things that you want to do. Be positive about your own choices and don’t let talk of inequalities put you off trying. You will feel at times, that someone, somewhere has made a mistake and didn’t mean to give you this job, but ignore it. Everyone feels like that (read Athene Donald’s blog post on impostor syndrome).

Favorite website or app:
Difficult one…

For Research: Dull, but I couldn’t be without Web of Science and Google Scholar.

For keeping up to date with the science world: I love Twitter for the range of websites and blogs that it leads me to. I always stop to read something by @thesiswhisperer, @researchwhisper, @AtheneDonald, @researchcounsel and @frootle. I’ve also learned a lot about science policy just from Twitter.

For keeping in touch: In addition to the friends and family that I rarely see, I have a good number of ‘virtual’ friends, who I met on a parenting forum when I was pregnant with my son. Facebook keeps me in touch with them all (Twitter too).

Personal Twitter: @BioScienceMum
The Evolutionary Biology research group at Hull: @EvoHull
Site: My Hull webpage

STEMinist Profile: Danielle Lee, Biologist, Oklahoma State Univ.

Danielle N. Lee

Danielle N. Lee

Biologist / Post-doctoral Research Associate
Department of Zoology, Oklahoma State University



What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
I actually fell into it. I’ve always loved being outside and watching animals. When I went off to college, I was a pre-veterinary medicine major. I loved my Animal Science classes and did well. However, I was not accepted to Veterinary School; and I applied 4 times!! But I continued to take classes and started in a Master’s program in Biology.

My intention was to beef up my GPA and improve my biology background; but I ended up doing research and loving it! I had no idea that Animal Behavior was a career track. I love being a science researcher. As a kid, I was always asking adults questions about nature and animals. I didn’t always get very satisfying answers, even from teachers. In research I learned how to answer my own questions, and I find that to be a very exciting and empowering thing.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
I think the project I’m scheduled to work on now might be my coolest project. I haven’t started the hard work, yet, but it is the coolest thing I’ve ever signed up to do: Studying bomb-sniffing rats from Africa. The African Giant Pouched rat, Cricetomys gambianus. A non-profit organization, APOPO, trains these rats to detect landmines and save lives. I’m part of project to learn more about the rats’ basic behavior. I am a biologist who studies animal behavior and I seem to have a specialty working with small mammals. The goal is to learn more about their natural history, such as their mating system, breeding biology, parenting behaviors and perhaps learn more about what makes some rats really great at detecting explosive materials.

Role models and heroes:
Dr. Charles Henry Turner – the first African-American Animal Behavior Scientist. Dr. Roger Arliner Young – 1st African American Woman to earn a Ph.D. in Zoology.

Advice for future STEMinists?
Don’t be afraid to get dirty. I especially love studying animals outside. Often girls are told to be still and demure and be neat. No good discovery was made wearing clean clothes; and that’s the part of the job I love the most. I take that same philosophy with me in the classroom. Don’t be afraid to be front and center of your own academic process.

In college, I was a very enthusiastic student. Maybe some professors thought I was pushy. I look back on it, and yeah, I think I’ll have to agree. But no one will be a bigger advocate for you than you. When I was uncertain or confused I didn’t hesitate to ask questions or seek help; and that’s exactly how I am in the field. I’m always ready to get animals in hand, even if it means getting dirty.

Favorite website or app:
I love Twitter. I get most of my news and updates from it. Especially since I don’t have a TV, it’s become my closed captioning device.

Twitter: @DNLee5

Sites:
I have a blog at the Scientific American Blog Network: The Urban Scientist – A hip hop maven blogs on urban ecology, evolutionary biology & diversity in the sciences.

My academic web profile for the Department of Zoology of Oklahoma State University is here.

STEMinist Profile: Karen James, Biologist

Karen James

Karen James

Visiting Staff Scientist, Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory
Consultant, International Barcode of Life Scientific Steering Committee
Co-founder and Director, The HMS Beagle Project

What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
Like every child, I was curious about the world. My mother tells me that at the age of four, I confidently theorized about such biological processes as the origin of cantaloupes (cantaloupe factories, of course) and from which body part the spider spins her web (her heart, apparently). I wondered why we don’t have skin between our fingers, since “it is so annoying to have to dry there every time we wash our hands” (I still get annoyed by that). I think in my case, that curiosity just never went away.

That said, I wasn’t always sure I wanted to be a scientist. I switched majors several times in college. I started out as a Pre-veterinary student but then a summer internship at a vet hospital made me realize that it is possible to love animals too much to be a vet. So, I switched to Engineering. As part of my first year of courses, I took honors Biology, and that was it. I loved it… the intricate, elegant world of the cell… the way that organisms make themselves. So I switched to Biology and never looked back.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
While I was a postdoctoral researcher at the Natural History Museum in London, I coordinated a program of science projects for the Museum’s Darwin200 campaign (a series of activities and events celebrating the bicentenary of Charles Darwin’s birth). As part of this role, I worked on a project in collaboration with Paquita Hoeck and Lukas Keller at the University of Zurich, and Rosemary Grant and Peter Grant (famous for their work with Darwin’s finches) at Princeton University. The project involved coordinating access to and taking a small tissue sample from the toe-pads of historical mockingbird specimens collected by Charles Darwin and Robert Fitzroy in Galapagos in 1835.

Dr. Hoeck and I extracted DNA from these toe-pads (she in Zurich and I in London, to minimize the possibility of contamination from other sources of DNA in one of our labs), and then carried out a genetic analysis to contribute to a conservation genetics study on modern populations of these birds, which are extremely rare in the wild today. The resulting paper can be found here. I’ll never forget how exciting it was to have the tubes with the toe-pad clippings on my lab bench… “these were on the Beagle!” I kept thinking.

Role models and heroes:
There have been many great explorer-naturalists, but only some of them were also great communicators: Charles Darwin, of course, but also Alexander Von Humboldt, John Muir and, today, David Attenborough. I also just recently learned about the botanist Jeanne Baret, who, disguised as a man, became the first woman to circumnavigate the globe.

Advice for future STEMinists?
Man or woman, the scientific career path isn’t always a bowl of cherries. It’s hard work, there’s a lot of unfairness in the system (more so if you’re a woman), it doesn’t pay particularly well, and stable academic jobs are scarce. But if you love science, you enjoy your work at each stage, and you keep an open mind about your next-step career options, it can be a whole lot of fun.

Don’t let senior academics brainwash you into thinking that getting an increasingly rare tenure-track position is the only way to consider yourself a “success” in science. Do it because you love it, not because you want to make a lot of money (ha!) or because you want to impress or make someone else proud.

Favorite website or app:
The TimeTree app lets you enter the names of two organisms and tells you how long it’s been since those two organisms shared a common ancestor. The answer is based on published molecular time estimates and it lets you follow links to the published papers that support that estimate. I’m also a little bit of a Words With Friends addict. Ahem.

Twitter: @kejames
Site: www.hmsbeagleproject.org