Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Where are the women?

I read an interesting essay in Nature Reviews Molecular Cell Biology by Fiona Watt (Nature Reviews Molecular Cell Biology 7:287-290,2006), looking at the issues concerning the attrition of women as senior scientists. One issue Dr. Watt mentions is the process of "re-entry" into science for women (and men) who have had to step back for family, health or other reasons. She writes:
"In addition, to legislation that prevents discrimination on the grounds of sex, there have been various initiatives to encourage women to remain in science. A practical example is The Wellcome Trust's re-entry fellowships scheme in the UK, which was launched in 1994. This gives scientists the opportunity to re-embark on a scientific career after a break, and allows them to work part-time if they choose. Most people think of a break as lasting a year or two, but it is possible to re-establish a scientific career after a break of more than 10 years."

I say "Bravo" to the Wellcome Trust for their support of a non-traditional science career. Unfortunately, Dr. Watt does not mention that such programs do not exist in the United States. Many years ago, the NIH had such a re-entry grant which was very underpublized although I was aware of one person who received one, and this was a male faculty member! However, these, along with such funding mechanisms as the R29, have been discarded. Now one can check the box "New Investigator" on an R01 application. In my personal experience having sat on study sections for 15 years now, this makes little difference. The R01's get reviewed equally with R01s from "established investigators".

Why is this issue important to me? Because I'm one of those women who has had to take a "non-traditional" route to my science career, for the sake of my husband's scientific career. In our most recent move to BTCC (Big Time Cancer Center) in the Southwest, I took a non-tenure track, part-time position with no lab space and no start-up money to facilitate my husband's significant career move. I was not necessarily against this decision for a year or two, but now I realize how much I have put my scientific career in jeopardy - a lack of interest in my career from the department chair and the current diminishing NIH budget pretty much makes it impossible for me to succeed at the level of an R01. In addition, what I was not aware of was that this part-time position prevents me from competing for any of the internal funds which are available to other investigators. Why I ask is that? I want to add that my "part-time" status makes very little difference in the amount of time I spend in the lab and was taken in part for flexibility reasons to deal with health issues for one of our children.

It now makes me wonder why I worked so hard to obtain an Associate Professor level after obtaining a PhD at HPU (High Profile University) in New England and a postdoc with a world reknowned cancer biologist. I'm sure some will see this as complaining. However, I only wish to open up a dialogue to say that there are many routes to a successful science career and sometimes those careers can get derailed. Science should be more open to these issues and avenues, especially for women as they will almost always be the ones who have to deal with these situations. I couldn't forsee this future 10 years ago and my goal still remains to be a successful scientist, and add something important to the field of preventing and/or treating cancer. I end by asking the question: "Why don't such groups like the Women in Cancer Research group within AACR or the Avon Foundation and other private funders of cancer research, support such women's issues and offer such fellowships to help stop the attrition of good women scientists from the field of cancer research?"

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