Posts (18)

Sat, Jun 1 10:36am · Book Review: The Autobiography of a Transgender Scientist by Ben A. Barres

By: Samantha M. Bouchal

I came upon Ben Barres’
autobiography completely by chance, while conducting a literature review on
glia. A paper published in Nature by
his laboratory, “Neurotoxic reactive astrocytes are induced by activated
microglia”, had been cited no less than 853 times, and I had wanted to learn
more about the exciting work this group was doing. To my chagrin, I learned
that Dr. Barres had passed away in December of 2017 of pancreatic cancer, at
age 63. Wanting to learn more about his life and legacy, I read Andrew
Huberman’s 2018 eulogy (https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-017-08964-1), which told a beautiful story. In addition to making
groundbreaking contributions to our understanding of glia in both normal
physiology and disease, Dr. Barres had been a lifelong advocate for women and
minorities in science. Using the power and prestige only a principal
investigator (PI) could wield, he convinced powerful people to make meaningful
change (such as changing the nomination and selection procedures for the NIH
Pioneer Award and Howard Hughes Medical Investigator appointments).

It was in reading about his advocacy that I stumbled across Dr. Barres’ book, The Autobiography of a Transgender Scientist. Born as Barbara in 1954, Dr. Barres knew from childhood that his biological (assigned) sex did not match his “brain sex”, or conception of gender. He details in the “Life” section of his memoir the shame he carried and suicidal ideation he experienced as a result of having to hide who he was, and the deep fear he felt when, at age 43, he made the decision to transition from female to male and come out to his Stanford colleagues.

Photo Credit: Amazon

Dr. Barres’ transition gave him
a unique perspective on the treatment of women in science and society. Having
completed scientific, medical, and postdoctoral training as Barbara, Dr. Barres
had experienced plenty of gender discrimination as a woman. Nancy Hopkins
writes in the Foreword: “As an MIT undergrad, Barbara was the only student in a
class to solve an unusually challenging math problem, but the professor refused
to give her credit. He accused her of cheating, saying her boyfriend must have
solved it.” The difference in the treatment of men and women in science became
truly unambiguous to Dr. Barres after transitioning. After giving a talk on his
world-renowned research on glia at a conference, Ben Barres overheard an
attendee remark that his work was clearly much better than that of his sister’s
(referring, of course, to Barbara!).

To the benefit of the scientific community, Dr. Barres would not stand for this nonsense. He wrote the withering “Does Gender Matter?” in 2006 (https://www.nature.com/articles/442133a) as a response to a speech given by Harvard president Larry Summers in 2005. Summers had asserted that few women were tenured in STEM at Harvard because they were innately inferior and chose family over careers in science. Dr. Barres dedicates an entire section of his autobiography to his advocacy work and visions for a truly egalitarian future in science. It should be noted too that his sensitivity to the great need for diversity in science extends beyond the challenges women and transgender folks face; he calls for greater efforts to tear down barriers faced by ethnic minorities as well as low-income and first-generation college students.

True to his roots as a great
scientist and deep thinker, Dr. Barres includes a review of the incredible
research his lab completed from his appointment at Stanford in 1993 until his
death in 2017. Following their journey – from finding a way to culture and
maintain pure CNS neurons to detailing the role of astrocytes and microglia in
synapse formation, maintenance, and loss in normal physiology and disease – is
riveting. Perhaps even more beautiful, however, is that Dr. Barres mentions
each trainee by name and contribution to the aforementioned science. He knew
where every trainee came from, what they were interested in, and where they
went after their time in his lab. He encouraged independent thought and allowed
his trainees to advance their own lines of inquiry. He writes, “I did not
realize when I started my own lab at Stanford that this was going to be, by
far, the most rewarding part of the job… it is even more exhilarating to watch
young people develop into independent scientists and to play some role in
guiding that process.”

Science is in sore need of more
people like Ben Barres – people who are willing to fight bigotry and
incompetence from positions of power while implementing ideas about diversity
in their own labs and lives. Undoubtedly we have come a long way since Barbara
Barres attended MIT in the early 1970s, but we have a long way to go. (For a
comprehensive report on the progress made by women, minorities, and persons
with disabilities in STEM until 2016, please visit https://ncses.nsf.gov/pubs/nsf19304/digest/field-of-degree-women#physical-sciences.)

I’ll close this review with my
favorite anecdote from the book, included in the Foreword as an example of the
tour de force that was Ben Barres. Having been asked to speak about advances in
“glioscience” at a university in the Netherlands with a particularly unsavory
record of excluding females, Dr. Barres responded to the invitation with the
following (again from Nancy Hopkins’ Foreword):

“Dear Sir,

You have a hell of a lot of
nerve inviting me after sending me that speaker list.

   it looks like out of your last 35 speakers,
only 1 has been a woman??!

   I wouldn’t visit your school if you were the
last school on earth. Do you think that women are not doing equally good
science? And what about the half of your trainees that are women (not to
mention the men)? Do you really mean to teach them that the only ones worthy of
inviting are men??

  I would suggest that if you want to hear a
really great talk about glia that you invite some of my previous women trainees
to come speak in my place … [here Ben names three women]. Any of them would
give a tremendously good talk. Looks like your faculty is not particularly diverse
either (1 woman out of 17?????!!!!). I always thought Netherlands was one of
the good places. Looks like I was wrong.

   I am going to decline your invitation but
perhaps in 5-10 years if you have cleaned up your act. I won’t be holding my
breath. Something is really rotten about your department.

  Please don’t invite me again

                                                                                                                                                Ben”

It is a mark of how well-known and respected an advocate Ben Barres was that the response he received was apologetic. With more advocates like Dr. Barres taking a stand in STEM, we will move further towards the diverse, inquisitive, and inclusive field we all deserve to work in.

About the author: Samantha Bouchal is a senior at Duke University and current summer student in Isobel Scarisbrick’s lab at Mayo Clinic. She loves neuroscience, and is especially excited about the biology of brain disease. When she’s not at the bench, Samantha enjoys playing the piano, spending time with dogs, and working on her artistic project, Seeing Science: Exploring Humanity in STEM.

Thu, Apr 11 4:48pm · Anonymous Science

By: Marina Walther-Antonio

THE PROBLEM: SCIENCE AS A PRIVATE CLUB

Science is an activity reserved to the intellectuals, the “smart ones”. This is the general perception, which let’s be honest, is reinforced, if not cherished by most scientists and the scientific establishment. And while the scientific profession certainly requires the understanding of what the scientific method is, and how to properly and ethically conduct scientific activities, none of those concepts are out of reach to any living human being. Formulating and testing a scientific hypothesis can be rigorously performed by a child, a plumber, a teacher, a physician, an astronaut. In fact, most of us formulate and test hypotheses on a daily basis: “Which of these knifes cuts this pineapple better?”, followed by “I wonder why this knife is better, perhaps because it is serrated?”, “Let me check if it is also the best one to cut bread?”. Simple questions like these are part of the inquisitive human nature, and reflect the foundations of scientific thinking and approaches. However, most people do not think of themselves as having a scientific mind, or of being capable of having one. Why is that?

The scientific profession, just like any other, protects their professional ranks and activities by necessitating training and degrees to prove competency. This is appropriate. But is it appropriate to alienate others from their activities? Why is the primary means of scientific communication (scientific journals) largely closed access?

The closed access is not only to non-professional scientists and general population, but also to other scientists in other scientific fields, to scientists working within Institutions not subscribing to those journals, scientists working for industry, and even retired scientists. Why should this information be so protected? Some will say that others would not understand those scientific articles anyway, because they are so specialized and filled with technical jargon. But if that is the case, why protect the content anyway? It seems like the content of those journals protects itself by the use of code vocabulary either way. Instead, the societal impact at large is that if it were not for journalists and a few scientists, no one knows what is actually happening in a specific scientific field, and it all starts to look like magic. With no information flow, locked documents, and no translation of the code words being used, science has become an enigma to most people. The enigma is such that the significance or relevance to our World becomes questionable, including to those people deciding what should happen to scientific activities.

So, there is a policy of restricted dissemination that the scientific establishment has created and enabled that has escalated through time with the increased sub-specialization of scientific fields. This in essence has transformed science into a private club that only certain paying members can access and belong to. The second layer to this problem relates to the legitimacy and authorization for science, which creates a second private club, which is the one that funds and supports scientific activities. Scientific activities at the governmental level are largely funded based on reputation. Only individuals belonging to reputable organizations, who have published in reputable journals, and who are connected to reputable scientists have the opportunity to achieve sizable scientific funding for their research proposals. All of these factors are openly scored and are part of the criteria for evaluation of the scientific proposal. Yet, should they? Why is a scientific approach and proposed solution to a problem being evaluated based on the reputation of the Institution, prior accomplishments, and the peers of said individual? Shouldn’t science be evaluated for exactly that, the science?

This has created and reinforced a culture of an “old boys club” where only those with connections to the establishment can gain entry. This second privatization of science further aggravates the rift between society and professional scientists and even between scientists, as it disenfranchises and delegitimizes scientific activities, alienating large portions of it. While the policies may have been put in place to protect scientific professionalism and lead to the development of science that builds upon a solid foundation, the negative and societal consequences of these policies are plentiful. These define 1) who belongs in a scientific career tract, 2) the types of agencies where science can be performed, and 3) what type of science can be conducted. This leads to 1) lack of background and thought diversity in the scientific workforce, 2) institutional hegemony and monopolization of resources for scientific activities, and 3) restricting the space of questions that can be asked and approaches that can be pursued, particularly if they conflict with past strategies or established body of knowledge. In essence, these represent barriers to scientific dissemination, and influx of innovative individuals, concepts, and approaches.

 

THE SOCIAL PROBLEM IN SCIENCE

As discussed in Oh et al. (2015) and Carli et al. (2016), the scientific field as a whole has marked discrimination against minorities and women. This is directly linked to the fact that the scientific establishment was 1) created by white men, 2) which took place at Institutions managed by white men, 3) who studied matters relevant to them. The policies put in place were never meant to accommodate anything different. And that has not changed. Furthermore, scientific education was historically a privilege of the upper classes, which also held the political and military power. Restricting the dissemination of knowledge that could result in the empowerment of lower classes was therefore desirable. And hence, the privatization of scientific activities and restricted dissemination took hold. Times changed meanwhile and the democratization of political life and dissemination of information became a norm of conduct. Institutions change slowly however. And the scientific establishment has been particularly resistant to change. While scientific dissemination is said to be a priority, and the scientific method is addressed in schools, only the students that perform the best, in the best schools, in standardized tests, are given the opportunity to pursue science as a scientific career. The underlying explicit or implicit implication is that average students are not capable of becoming scientists. This is in direct opposition to the known fact that some of the most revolutionary scientists in history were just average students, such as Albert Einstein and Charles Darwin. They were not great students, they were simply creative. And creativity often manifests itself in poor school performance because creative students can become bored and disengaged with topics that do not interest them, and that merely regurgitate established knowledge. Poor school performance is not a predictor of scientific ability. Interest and motivation to pursue solutions to problems is likely the best predictor of scientific aptitude. Compounding on this is the problem that minorities and women may be very motivated in pursuing solutions to problems, just different problems than the ones that the current scientific establishment considers important. This does not mean they are less important, it just means, they are less important to those making those decisions, which will also determine the next generation of important problems to continue to pursue. The lack of diversity in background and thought perpetuates itself. This is the first problem: who is and will continue to be allowed to do science.

This first problem merges into the second, which is the Institutions performing science. Because only the best students gain access to reputable Institutions, which are already part of the scientific establishment and “private club”, these Institutions are the ones that continue to propose the science that should be done. Of course, not only are these Institutions the ones proposing the science, they are also the ones who decide which science is funded, since the scientific review process is performed by peers. And so, an Institutional “brotherhood” emerges, and is openly acknowledged, scored, and factored into any proposal for funding. But is there evidence that the science performed at Ivy leagues is better than at other Institutions? No. There is evidence for more expensive science being performed at those Institutions, but transformative science often takes place at resource limited Institutions, despite that. One can wonder whether that happens because resource limited Institutions cannot compete with more reputable Institutions when proposing incremental knowledge and low-risk ideas that more reputable Institutions are perceived as being more competent to pursue. Because the reputable Institutions continually receive higher funding, they continue to be perceived as more competent, based largely on that self-created and maintained metric.

The third problem, what type of science is funded, is a direct result of the prior factors. Science being proposed that is too disruptive or conflictive with the current body of knowledge or approaches is inherently undesirable because it is detrimental to those in the scientific establishment whose careers and activities depend on the continuation of those paradigms. This type of science is deemed “high-risk”, “exploratory”, and “open-ended”. When did these adjectives become detrimental to the scientific endeavor? Shouldn’t all scientific pursuits be high-risk, and exploratory, and open-ended? Instead, what they represent is a threat to the scientific establishment, and those currently funded by it. So, in essence, these 3 pinnacles, 1) the who, 2) the where, and 3) the what, function as gatekeepers of the scientific establishment, and social structures that reinforce each other, preventing transformative change from occurring. Of notice, this takes place without any explicit policy that supports any of these directives. They represent the scientific culture, which is maintained by all who participate in it. Changing these social structures and their impact in the scientific establishment and society at large will require conscious collective effort to enforce change.

 

ANONYMIZING SCIENCE

While the problem at hand is complex, the solution may not have to be. The first and second problem which are who gets to do science and where, can be addressed by simply anonymizing scientific proposals. The current grant system is single blinded, meaning that the identity of the reviewers is unknown to the applicants. This is beneficial to allow an open review and protect the reviewers from retaliation, but it also opens the door to individual and institutional discrimination by the reviewers that is not scientifically based because they know the identities of the applicants and are protected from retaliation by that same anonymity. However, if the system were double-blind, they would be left with having to judge the science, and nothing but the science.

This system has been adopted by a few foundations, including The Gates Foundation, and high-risk proposals at the governmental level, by the Department of Defense. NIH and NSF, the major agencies providing government science funding to institutions claim that they are interested in solid science with high feasibility prospects and productivity outcomes, and to judge that the reviewers need to know who and where the individuals are. But if that is truly the reason for this system, then why not judge feasibility after the proposals receive a scientific score? That is the way The Gates Foundation operates. Once a proposal receives a fundable score, officials from the foundation will visit the applicant and verify whether the conditions to undertake the proposed work are in place. I do not know of a single case where that was not verified. If the scientific establishment is interested in the best science, as it should, then there is no real barrier to implementing this process. Through a double-blind review process, which should extend to the publication setting as well, the best science should be the one being funded and published.

The third problem of what type of science is funded is more difficult to solve, but a double-blind system will resolve it, given enough time. Once the individual and institutional diversity increase in the number of funded proposals, so will in the number of reviewers. This diversity of thought will generate reviewers that are more open-minded to transformative science and that do not have to protect the current scientific dogma. So, a larger percentage of high-risk, exploratory, and open-ended science will begin to receive funding, creating an influx of transformative science into the mix. Change may take some time, but in this scenario, as the makeup of the scientific establishment would change to reflect that of the current times, so would other policies that relate to scientific communication with non-professional scientists, and their open and active participation in scientific activities. For the sake of continued progress in the future generations, it is imperative that it becomes clear that science is for all. You do not have to be the best student in the class, you do not have to be a man, you do not have to be white, you do not have to agree with what others think. All you have to be is someone with a problem to solve and an idea to fix it.

Thu, Jan 17 4:09pm · Pathway to peace

By: Andrew M. Harrison, MD, PhD

P2P. Surely this acronym has not yet been claimed.

I met a clown recently. As Patch Adams was the only clown I knew of, also a physician on the side, I joined him for the recent holiday season in the backwoods of West Virginia at the Gesundheit! Institute for their annual Health Care Justice Celebration/Workshop. In a place with no cellular and (effectively) no internet reception, I learned at least as much in these few days as the past 17 years of Wikipedia (happy birthday) combined. More important, in a world of death and destruction, I discovered a beautiful vision of hope for the future of humanity. I am not a clown, or hippie, but can aspire, so here it goes:

The dacha (and some other stuff) at the Gesundheit! Institute. As a former photo tech, back when film was still a thing, I do not believe any photograph shall ever capture the beauty experienced by the human eye. In other words, see it for yourself. Of course, only if a transformational life experience is your sort of thing 🙂

Make love, not war. I live in a world where access to education is not a basic human right. In this same world, access to health care is also not a basic human right. This occurs at a time and place when the combined wealth of the four wealthiest men (emphasis on men) approximately equals the combined wealth the four billion poorest people on this small planet. This is wrong. Whether I shall present a solution here or not, it must first be stated this is wrong, and thus fundamentally rejected as an unacceptable state of affairs, for great power exists in the (seemingly simple) act of saying “no” (Beautiful Souls: The Courage and Conscience of Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times by Eyal Press, 2013).

Although less important than education and health care, privacy is also not a basic human right. Whether humanity is forced to confront some form of Terminator-style (and/or benevolent) technological singularity before global warming (politically correct vogue “climate change”), and/or nuclear holocaust, destroy society and civilization as it is currently known, the absence of this basic human right grows increasingly odd to me. At least, in the context of delusions ranging from colonizing Mars to fantasies such as human immortality. In my opinion, we should first focus our time, energy, and effort toward matters such as rape, murder, mass death by starvation, genocide, which I think only comes in a mass variety, etc.

I needed to swing by The Punchline Comedy Club in Atlanta (again) on my drive from Minnesota to West Virginia, a place riddled with humor, jokes, and comedy. If these experiences are not your sort of thing either, perhaps—from the safety of your cyber bubble house hopefully home—Patch Adams at Mayo Clinic (Transform 2010), or Patch Adams at TEDx (multiple).

One solution is to spend years to [however many decades humans have remaining] meticulously and individually arguing each of the matters above. Another option is the restoration of community. An end to mass isolation and loneliness. These factors are the drivers of the modern diseases of the modern (first/developed…) world, both individual and communal.

A special plea to physicians: Lead the movement to end titles. In a world of peace and love, there is no need or place for titles, or post-nominal letters. Also, LEAD. Stop studying yourselves. Stop “researching” your supposed burnout. Stop talking about imposter syndrome. When nature (literally) burns out, there occurs a simultaneously beautiful act of destruction and creation (rebirth). If you are concerned you are an imposter, try hugging a tree. As for unconscious bias, microaggression, and “constructive communication”, try swimming out as far as the ocean will permit you to go and feel what is present (and absent) there.

Anatomic Pathology headquarters at the Rochester MN campus of Mayo Clinic (Sept 2016). My condolences to Rochester physicians, but suits must go. The Mayo Brothers swapped white coats for suits to bring clinicians *closer* to patients (in the late 1800s). For anyone in this modern world more out of touch with it than me, the 1800s are over, you appear as corporate clowns. For the more concrete and/or practical minded: Standard 55 has been obsolete for decades (and sexist forever). Save the money (energy too). Also, ties are simply filthy. Not the good sort of whoopie cushion (fart bag) filthy. Note: Traditionally pathologists (and radiologists) are considered physicians but not clinicians; titles.

Wikipedia has popularized the concept of small monetary donations. The Gesundheit! Institute adopts a similar approach. Although I am not religious, this approach, at least here and now, has a feel to me of Natural Order, Natural Law (Mere Christianity by CS Lewis, 1952). If this approach seems too simple, it is not (The Simple Life by Ernst Wiechert, 1939). Wikipedia aims to continue making freely available all the [data/information but not necessarily knowledge] of the world. Patch Adams desires to reopen his visionary hospital, which has been closed since before my birth.

If I have failed to convince you to adopt peace via love, write a letter to Patch Adams. He really does respond to ALL letters, seriously. (Clowns do not joke.) His address can be found via Dr. Google, or me. One difference, I give free hugs. Alternatively, Dr. Google has the capacity to generate a more substantial electrical shock.

From The Cultivation of Christmas Trees by TS Elliot (1954):
The accumulated memories of annual emotion
May be concentrated into a great joy
Which shall be also a great fear, as on the occasion
When fear came upon every soul:
Because the beginning shall remind us of the end
And the first coming of the second coming.

About the author: Andrew M. Harrison is a graduate of the Medical Scientist Training Program at Mayo Clinic, former co-manager of Mayo Clinic’s Diversity in Education Blog, former Policy Chair of the American Physician Scientists Association, and current postdoc with Critical Care at Mayo Clinic.

Dec 11, 2018 · How do we improve the status of mental health in graduate school?

A recent article in The Atlantic covering the mental health disorders people suffer with in graduate school recently popped up on my suggested articles on Google, and on my Facebook timeline (I will give up Facebook, eventually). In the Facebook comments, and in the post sharing this article, people overwhelmingly agreed that this was nothing new. The overwhelming response was, “well, duh!”. The Atlantic, also published letters to the writer, Alia Wong, discussing the issues they have seen during their education regardless of the field of study.

This brings about a bigger problem seen in academia. I see at least one article every few months with new data concerning the mental health of students in graduate school published in Nature or Science, and indeed the data is concerning. It is a major issue that we do not really talk about. The Atlantic article references a Harvard-affiliated study that followed Ph.D. candidates at eight universities in the economics field where 18% of graduate students reported they experienced symptoms of moderate or severe depression and anxiety.

Source: Evans, et al, 2018. Nature Biotechnology.

Earlier this year, a Nature Biotechnology study called the mental health status of students in graduate schools a “crisis”, and called for possible interventions to help students suffering from these mental health issues. The data in this study surveyed 2279 individuals of which 90% of individuals were enrolled in Ph.D. and 10% enrolled in Master’s programs (these individuals represented 26 countries, and 234 institutions) based on clinically standardized surveys (GAD-07 for anxiety, and PHQ-9 for depression). The not-so shocking results of the study showed that 41% of individuals surveyed reported moderate to severe anxiety whereas 39% reported moderate to severe depression. To put this in perspective, and the authors pointed this out well, 6% of the general population reports moderate to severe depression. Transgender individuals (including gender non-conforming), and women, also showed higher rates of depression and anxiety, which mirrors rates of that seen amongst non-research cohorts. Work-life balance, and the mentor/mentee relationship also impacts rates of depression and anxiety among graduate students (supplementary information provided by the group).

Now, I have thought about this a lot since I read that original The Atlantic article, which was a few weeks ago at this point (this topic is particularly heavy for me, and it has taken me time to comb through the plethora of articles on this subject). Based on what I read, I noted that while there is a substantial amount of science on the numbers of students who suffer from mental illness, and there are other studies that are yet to be done that could give us more insight into particular institutions, and fields.  With the exception of the Nature Biotechnology article, not many of these articles point to a solution, which I admit is tricky to come up with an overarching solution for each person in every field.  So, what can we do as individuals to improve the situation of mental health in graduate school? 

Raise awareness. We recently had a graduate school mental health session campus provided by our Graduate Student Association in collaboration with Initiatives for Maximizing Student Development (IMSD) program. This experience, which I’ll discuss in a future blog post, brought awareness to students of what mental illnesses are, and what they aren’t. I think the most important part was the point of raising awareness to what depression and anxiety are, and how they can manifest in graduate school.

Fight the stigma and share your story. The articles I read on the status of mental health in graduate school not only include the staggering statistics of mental health-related conditions affecting graduate students, but touching personal stories from students sharing their own personal struggles. If your own institution does not offer resources for mental health support (or if they are limited), it may be helpful to read about someone else’s experiences to help you feel less alone. This avenue of sharing also helps fight the stigma that mental health disorders may make you seem weak, or lesser than others. They absolutely do not. Having a mental health disorder absolutely does not make you less of a person, scientist, friend, significant other, or any sort of identifier you can think of. By sharing our experiences, we can encourage each other to speak more openly about the issues we face as individuals.

Demand resources for graduate students and postdocs. Many institutions have taken note of the current situation concerning mental health of trainees, and have employed resources for graduate students to take advantage of if they are experiencing mental health issues. Our institution provides mental health clinicians to talk to, access to licensed counselors, and started a Wellness Program specifically for graduate students. Sharing the resources with others who may not know how to utilize them, is also beneficial, especially if someone is scared or concerned about confidentiality or concerned about the services offered at each institution.

Check on friends and create a supportive network. We all have the best intentions when wanting to keep up with all of our friends, but life and grad school can get in the way of that. Being kind to our friends, neighbors, lab mates, and peers could make a magnitude of difference when it comes to mental health. Making networks of people that lift each other up, help one another out when things get tough, and are just there for each other has drastically improved my mental health. Further than this, graduate schools can implement safe spaces for students to share their stories, personal struggles, and interact with potential mentors who can provide advice, or their own experiences.

If you have any comments on how we can improve the situation of mental health in graduate school, please let us know. We would love for this to be an open forum for discussion. What would you like to see in your institution?

About the author: Crystal Mendoza is a graduate student in the Virology and Gene Therapy program doing her thesis on the development of therapeutics for tickborne viral diseases. She enjoys traveling, reading, and spending time with her corgi, Chente.

Oct 19, 2018 · Book Review: Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

By: TL Jordan

Representation is incredibly important. Not just in our media, but in our everyday lives. When we are young we look up to people and dream about seeing ourselves in their shoes. Young children look to see themselves reflected in everyday life as teachers, astronauts, politicians, actors, artists, scientists, and so much more. It is also just as important that we continue to see representation as we get older.  Lab Girl is an extremely good example of the honest representation of a woman in science.

Courtesy of MPR and Knopf

Though we have moved forward in seeing more women in tenured research positions, but that portrayal is not always honest. We see these women, but we don’t see the struggle, the harassment, the pain. We don’t see the odds that they overcame, and the hard work they put in to keep their heads above water in a field that is dominated by white cishet men.

Hope Jahren, a Minnesota native, lays out her entire journey from child to tenured researcher in this memoir and interlaces every memory with eloquent narratives on trees and the life of a plant. Anyone who has ever had any aspirations of moving into science, particularly as a person assigned female at birth, will relate to Jahren’s recounting of being a young inquisitive scientist, as she learns from various people in her life and eventually grows into the scientist she is now. Her story recounts relationships that are difficult to not relate to people in your own life, and absurd scenarios that are so specific you wonder how they even happened to the author herself.

The most important part of this journey, in addition recounting her struggle becoming scientist as a woman, is becoming and continuing to be a scientist while battling mental illness. Jahren recounts her own experiences shadowboxing her invisible demons, and still trying to continue being productive and move her career forward. She does not make her experiences sound pretty, but gives you each difficult detail that truly depicts what it is like to live with mental illness. Mental illness is not talked about enough in science, despite awareness becoming more common place, and mental illness is certainly not talked enough amongst high ranking scientists. As students we hear article on article reminding us that graduate students are the most vulnerable population for depression and anxiety, but we see our mentors and superiors succeeding with no sign that any of them could possible carry the same internal pain. Lab Girl does a great job of smashing that barrier.

Hope Jahren is a very successful scientist, but that success was not handed to her. Her writing is as honest as it is inspiring, and anyone who is a minority in science will find this book to be relatable and important as they fight through their own battles in academia.

About the author: TL Jordan (They/Them) is a second year immunology graduate student working in the Ramirez-Alvarado lab. They passionate about science communication, science advocacy, and LGBTQ equality. In addition to their graduate studies they are the Social Media representative of the Graduate Student Association, the Chair of the LGBTI MERG Student Group, and the assistant goalkeeper coach at RCTC. They believe firmly that science should be accessible to everyone.

Oct 2, 2018 · Pronouns: The Minimum

By: Torri Jordan

Merriam Webster defines a pronoun as “any a small set of words in a language that are used as substitutes for nouns or noun phrases whose referents are named or understood in the context” Simpler, you could define a pronoun as a small set of words that replace a noun. Even simpler, they are words used to replace a name.

There’s an inherent amount of respect in a name, being that it is the thing by which we are referred to, part of our identity, and that we use to define ourselves differently from the people around us. (At least, when we are talking about identity on such a small level as a name.) A name can define a brand, a clan, a monarchy. We watch television shows all the time that have central themes focused around tarnishing the family name, living up to the family name, or being stripped of a name in disgrace. There is power in a name.

So, why is it that we do not give the same amount of respect to one’s pronouns, if they are being used to replace something as important as a name?

In our language classes (my education being based in English) we are taught a set of words that we can used when referring to other people: he, she, it, they, you, me, I, we, us. The third person set of pronouns are the ones where gender becomes important, and where many people fall short, in regards to properly referring to other people: he, she, they, it. We do not use ‘it’ as a pronoun to define other human beings, which leaves three classical pronouns: he, she, they.

When we meet new people, one of the first things we ask is their name. We want to be able to correctly identify them. It makes sense that we should also be asking the pronoun that person uses as well. If a name is important, so should be the words that we use to replace their name. Especially since those third person pronouns have an inherent gender behind them. We don’t make an assumption on what someone’s name is, so we should also not be making assumptions on what someone’s pronoun is. It’s a matter respecting the identity and autonomy of an individual.

 

Pronouns are the minimum amount you can do to be more inclusive in your everyday life.

Because referring to someone by their name is the lowest bar of respectful social interaction.

 

In the work I have done as an LGBTQ educator I have been met with slurs, yelling, and dehumanizing remarks when I bring up the concept of gender neutral pronouns and asking to take more care when addressing those we interact with. I have been told that how I want to be addressed is not worth their time, that to them, respecting my identity and autonomy is asking too much. Which in turn, diminishes the worth and validation that I hold of the identity that I use. There is a reason that blatant refusal to use someone’s correct pronouns is considered harassment.

So, how do we start making an impact on normalizing pronoun use among the general population? Well, it starts with simply asking. Ask everyone that you meet what their pronouns are, and make sure you use them in your every day. Don’t make assumptions on what pronouns someone might use, and don’t question someone’s decision to use the pronouns that they do. When you introduce yourself, make sure to identify your own pronouns. Make it more normal to ask and tell other about your pronouns.

There is tons more that you can do everyday to make your life more inclusive and work toward better advocacy in marginalized groups. Pronouns are the minimum. If you already pay attention to pronouns, that’s wonderful. If you don’t, it’s time to take the first step into living an inclusive life. We have a long way to go, but in order to go anywhere we must do the minimum.

 

TL Jordan is a second year immunology graduate student working in the Ramirez-Alvarado lab. Their pronouns are they/them. They passionate about science communication, science advocacy, and LGBTQ equality. In addition to their graduate studies they are the Social Media representative of the Graduate Student Association, the Chair of the LGBTI MERG Student Group, and the assistant goalkeeper coach at RCTC. They believe firmly that science should be accessible to everyone.

Apr 17, 2016 · Moving Towards Equity in Medicine

By: Domenic Fraboni and Crystal Mendoza

April 13th was Equal Pay Day. At a panel discussion, Women in Science and Medicine: Moving Toward Equity in Career and Professional Development sponsored by the Office for Diversity, we learned that Equal Pay Day represents the day that women needed to work until in 2016 (added to their 2015 salary) to earn what their male counterparts earned during the 2015 calendar year. This discussion, led by a panel of Mayo physician and scientists, was tackling this exact issue and its prominence in the medial and science fields.

Guest moderator, Sharonne Hayes, M.D., began the discussion by outlining concerning statistics that represent the current inequality in medical career advancement between sexes.  To begin, Dr. Hayes pointed out that no women were nominated in 2014 or 2015 for the Mayo Clinic Distinguished Investigator award.  Furthermore, the winners of the award since the 1980’s have been comprised of 96% men.  The familial status of those employees also varies greatly between men and women.  Of those employees seeking to further their career in medicine, 25% of women were single without children whereas only 9% of men shared that same status.  A much higher percentage of men were currently married with children, perhaps suggesting that men are easier able to “have it all.”  Dr. Hayes said that gone are the times when a man can work 60-70 hours a week in their medical profession while his wife stays home as the primary care-giver to their children.  At Mayo Clinic, what can we do to work toward equal opportunity in health profession careers?

The panel consisted of both physicians and scientists:

  • Karen Hedin, Ph.D.- Professor in Immunology
  • Kay Pepin, Ph.D. – Radiation Oncology
  • Jim Maher, Ph.D. – Dean of Mayo Graduate School/ Professor of Biochemistry
  • Sumedha Penheiter, Ph.D.  – Office of Health Disparities
  • Jay-Sheree Allen, M.D. – Family Medicine

Many seek the answer in the “career pipeline.”  This pipeline is supposed to help streamline motivated women into successful careers in medicine.  The pipeline method helps provide opportunities to deserving women to enter programs such as medical education, research, and leadership development.  Maybe most importantly, the pipeline is meant to help find good female mentors for young women looking to advance their career.  Shortly after outlining the pipeline, Dr. Hayes pointed out issues with relying on this strategy.  Women still are the ones that carry and give birth to our children.  Many women drop off the path to career success due to family prioritization and thus contribute to a leaky pipeline.

A common theme the panelists agreed on as an issue women face in career advancement is the simple culture that our society has developed around advanced careers in medicine and medical education.  Men have historically dominated the field.  Because of this, young women have difficulty finding established, female role models in their field of interest.  Many women also feel a lack of expectations and respect from their peers, potentially due to the male-dominated stigma that exists.  The panel then began to discuss what we could do to reduce this unfortunate societal stigma and repair some of the leaks in the career pipeline for women.

So, how can women “have it all”? Jim Maher, Ph.D., Dean of Mayo Graduate School, offered advice he gives many female graduate students: “You have to find a partnership to facilitate your career”. As far as women succeeding in the biomedical field, it all comes down to networking: actively seeking out a network of mentors, in particular strong, female mentors. Young female scientists in particular are faced with a lack of women in the research. For these women, incorporating mentors on committees that are more progressive is a necessity when it comes to success of women in the sciences and health care.

Diversity Discussion Panel (from left to right: Karen Hedin, Kay Pepin, Jim Maher, Sumedha Penheiter, Jay-Sheree Allen, and moderator Sharonne Hayes). Photo credit: Crystal Mendoza

Diversity Discussion Panel (from left to right: Karen Hedin, Kay Pepin, Jim Maher, Sumedha Penheiter, Jay-Sheree Allen, and moderator Sharonne Hayes). Photo credit: Crystal Mendoza

How are issues in gender disparities solved? First off, we have to solve the problem of many people not understanding or accepting that inequality exists in the first place. The panel offered a simple solution to this: education that there are gender disparities would be a starting point. Furthermore, women mentoring women to take control of their careers and help them help themselves succeed. It was mentioned by a member in the audience (actually, it was Domenic Fraboni) that the best way to move forward with this issue and work towards equality is to disrupt the status quo as it stands. Many audience members agreed with this.

Education is key, first off to encourage change, but perhaps the metrics we hold for success are also outdated. Dr. Hayes cited an article published in the Academic Medicine Journal, which reported that female physicians publish fewer papers than their male counterparts throughout their careers, however that gap was no longer existent after 27 years in their careers. This is seen over and over again; women publish less and hold fewer leadership positions than men; which the paper held as a threshold for academic success. The question then becomes, what other measurements do we have for career success? Are there new metrics we have yet to take into consideration? This becomes an interesting question and one that we do not have an answer for.

We left the panel discussions with more questions than answers. The discussion was fantastic and the panel had wonderful advice to give both men and women about gender disparities and how to move forward. Our goal now is to educate others and effect change.

If you wish to continue this discussion, please comment below!

Useful resources:

When Scientists Choose Motherhood- American Scientist

Women in Science and Engineering Research (Intranet site)

Jan 27, 2016 · Medical "Marriage" - Improving the Clinician-Patient Relationship

By: Thomas Mork

“What do you know about him?” inquired my clinical instructor. I was on my first rotation as a student at the University of Utah and, using only two hands, was still able to count the number of patients I had seen. I commenced listing my patient’s home environment, his physical capabilities, etc. My clinical instructor cut me off. “That’s great, Tom, but what do you know about him?” I pondered the question for a moment.

“Well, he was a high school teacher.” I replied, questioningly. My clinical instructor smiled. “That’s it”, he said. And he made my goal for the next four weeks to learn something about the lives of my patients.

By the end of my clinical experience, I had formed a bond with my patients and their families that could be described as more than just a therapeutic alliance. Patients who had arrived in wheelchairs gave me hugs as they walked out the door. Families thanked me for listening to their needs and truly caring about their significant other or son or daughter. Seeing the ways we had affected their lives actually brought tears to my eyes on a couple occasions (not something I usually admit). My understanding of providing care has shifted from treating the disease to treating the person. I gained more from patients after understanding something about their lives than I did from focusing solely on the disease. Further, I gained greater satisfaction with my time as a student. I enjoyed going to work every day. This was a novel concept for me, and it was made possible because of the relationships I had formed.

“You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.” – Dale Carnegie

In his book, How to win friends and influence people, Dale Carnegie said it right. As soon as I took my clinical instructor’s advice of learning about my patient’s, I instantly started receiving more positive feedback and had patients that were willing to work in therapy twice a day. Today, as I am in my third clinical experience, I still continue to work on learning about the lives of my patients to show that I care. I have found that taking the extra few minutes to ask about their family or hobbies can make the difference between whether they will work with me or decline therapy.

I had the amazing opportunity of taking a motivational interviewing class in December of 2015. The instructor was excellent at keeping us involved in the lecture by having us practice motivational interviewing. At the beginning of his talk, he tried to instill a spirit of “active listening” in us. Through practice and demonstration, the participants in this class reported that having a conversation with a person who asked probing questions augmented with personal stories was more enjoyable than talking to someone who did not say anything. While this is common sense, the process of taking a medical history mostly consists of a list of questions formulated to obtain the information we need to make decisions. If we do not augment these questions with a genuine interest in people’s lives, our patients will most likely find the conversation less pleasant and may be less likely to want to participate in therapy or healthcare. Thus, by becoming genuinely interested in people’s lives, we can encourage participation, make friends, and increase our own personal job satisfaction.

I was taught this as a student. There are multiple classes that tell you how creating a “therapeutic alliance” is beneficial to encourage participation in your patients, to improve outcomes, and to prevent lawsuits. I listened to my professors tell us this while thinking, “I am already good at talking to people.” Then, I returned my focus to things like the renin-angiotensin system to prepare for my next test. However, during the first few weeks of my clinical, I realized just how difficult it was to make my examination feel less like a list of questions and more like meeting a new friend. Creating a personal connection with someone you just met is a skill that requires practice and guidance. Developing this ability is something I have practiced continually since my clinical instructor’s advice. Now, if my patient had an accident while skiing, I ask them what hills they like. If a patient has shoulder pain while biking, I ask what trails they ride. I have vastly improved on my ability to make these personal connections. However, I wish I had learned more about it in school.

The ability to form a therapeutic alliance is an abstract science; it is a skill we cannot easily quantify with metrics or tests. Yet, I believe it is one of the most important skills that we can possess in the healthcare profession. The ability to create a bond with patients is something that comes naturally for some, but not all. The same goes for physics or anatomy. The problem is, while we have a multitude of classes for the latter, very little formal time is spent on the former; one could argue that creating a personal connection is just as, or more, important in healthcare and in life.

Thomas Mork - Photo Credit to Ryan Ledebuhr

Thomas Mork – Photo Credit to Ryan Ledebuhr

Our duty as a profession is to care for the person behind the patient. We can do this by becoming genuinely interested in the lives of our patients and tailoring our care to their needs. It takes the additional probing question and/or personal story to show that we care. Creating a therapeutic alliance is a skill that takes time to develop. It is something we can all return to when we find our history taking is looking more like a list of questions than a conversation. Hopefully, by forging these therapeutic alliances, the people we are helping will be friends rather than patients.

Thomas Mork was born and raised in North Branch, MN. He graduated from St. Olaf College with a BA in Biology and is currently in the third and final year of the Doctor of Physical Therapy program in the Mayo School of Health Sciences. He also currently serves as the Physical Therapy Student Assembly Vice-President

Contact Us · Privacy Policy