Wednesday, June 14, 2006

One small step for womankind

You've probably heard of the controversy sparked by Harvard University's soon to be ex-President Lawrence Summers last year over his comments at a session on the progress of women in academia organized by the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, Mass. In his speech, he mused that genetics might help explain why fewer women than men reach top scientific posts. Nancy Hopkins, a biology professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who listened to part of Summers's speech Friday, got up and left. You may recall Nancy was largely responsible for "encouraging" MIT to revisit some of it's hiring practices for women scientists. Public opinion went both ways on Dr. Summers comments although most believed them to to ill-placed. I think we've barely begun to address the social issues impacting women, to say anything about the "genetics" of their success in science.

Apparently in the wake of the uproar, Harvard University set aside $50 million to help women and minority employees. A report has just been issued detailing how the initial few millions will be spent by the new office of faculty development and diversity. As stated in the CNN report:
It includes a 53 percent increase in child-care scholarships, plus other steps such as funding for child-care grants when faculty and staff travel to professional conferences....Harvard also will create university-wide parental leave guidelines, increase by 50 percent its subsidy to six existing day-care centers, and provide more staff and equipment so junior professors can conduct research more efficiently en route to tenure.

By George, I think we're getting it. Finally some tangible progress. I can say from my own experience that having small children with both parents in the scientific field impacts greatly on each one's ability to work the long required hours as well as their ability to travel to important scientific conferences. I've missed seminars and special events because of my spouse's travel/work schedule, which because his position responsibilities often have to take precedent. I think it's encouraging that the new Office has clearly identified child-care as a major factor impacting a woman's ability to maintain competitiveness within her chosen field. Such support will also benefit male scientists as well. So something positive came out of that speech, which might not have garnered much attention had Nancy Hopkins and others not walked out in the middle of it. Will others follow suit?

Friday, June 09, 2006

Across the pond

I'm going to get on my "women in science" bandwagon and once again high five the European Life Sciences Organization (ELSO) for creating a Database of Expert Women in the Molecular Life Sciences to increase the visibility of European women from post-docs to senior group leaders. I came across this article via Pam Marino, Women in Cancer Research's Communication guru. In Karla Neugebauer's article in PLoS Biology, she brings up an interesting point.
Governments and scientific organizations are logically concerned about the failure of women to progress in science because they provide the resources for scientific education and training—from primary schooling to university education, to pre- and post-doctoral fellowships.
Their gamble is that this investment will provide returns in the form of discovery and technological innovation. If 50% of the beneficiaries do not advance within their fields, this is perceived as a waste of education and training. Clearly, not every post-graduate student of science can become a professor—there are simply not enough professorships to go around. However, we place faith in our merit-based system of hiring and funding as the means of selecting the best talent to lead science, technology, society, and our economies into the future. But unless something changes, much of our female talent will continue to be permanently lost to science.
Now call me crazy but this makes logical and financial sense to me but I don't believe this aspect of the attrition of women in science has hit American academic research on the head yet. (By the way, Karla M. Neugebauer is a group leader at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden, Germany, and a member of the Career Development Committee of ELSO. She currently manages ELSO's Database of Expert Women in the Molecular Life Sciences).

Intrigued by the database, I went to the ELSO Career Development Committee page. I was impressed. Clicking on the database brings you the names of 370 "expert women" whose pedigrees, areas of interest and pubmed publications can be researched by a single click of the mouse. What also caught my eye was the mentoring resources listed under the Women in Science link in the left column. These are resources specific to women. Even more links can be found under the Mentoring Resources link in the same left column.

This then prompted me to search the Women in Cancer Research part of the AACR website, which by the way is deftly hidden under the Membership tab. I was hard pressed to find the word "mentoring" except in Point 4 under the Mission and Purposes section. I did surprisingly find, under the WICR leadership link on the left bottom a description of several conferences held on professional career development with an emphasis on women in science. The last one was held in 2004. I follow this with two questions, 1) Why did these stop and 2) I'm on the WICR email list and a member of WICR. Why was I not aware that these had taken place?

Yes, I admit it. I'm a disgruntled WICR member. I have some experience with this organization and I think it's lost it's focus. The Council is now populated with high profile women at the advanced stages of their career, except for one lone Assistant Professor. I supported their move from independent entity to bonafide council within AACR. I'm revisiting that decision. When that occurred, it suddenly became of interest to more of the established women scientists who didn't give it much of a turn of the head before. Granted some amazing women started this council - like Leila Diamond and Bridgit Leventhal. I wonder what they would think of it now.

This all leads me back to a previous post which suggests that Europe seems to be way ahead of the curve in trying to better address women's issues as they relate to scientific careers. Maybe it's time to move across the pond....

Sunday, June 04, 2006

When to get out...

I've been thinking a lot these days about career changes. The situation with NIH is bleak. Even the most talented grant writers, of which I am not one, are having trouble getting funded. Star players are getting triaged. I recently had yet another grant declined - the payline was 6.8%!!! It was a small, one year award but I've come to realize that people are searching for whatever grant money they can find - so even the small grants are sought after by the big labs. There were almost 1700 applications for this very specific grant.

This experience makes me wonder if I can survive in the current climate. I was confident in my ability to be funded if the paylines stayed at 18-20% but less than 10%, I don't know. I find this depressing because such low paylines force reviewers to fund "what they know" and many interesting genes, pathways, concepts, etc. will never be investigated. This seems contradictory to what scientific research is all about. So when is it time to get out? And what's out there anyway? Once you get to a certain career point, you are most likely too specialized to move freely between academic, pharmaceutical and/or industry.

It's always seemed pretty clear to me in figure skating when it was the right time for some competitors to get out. Take Michelle Kwan for example. She should have "left" the sport a few years ago. She had not progressed technically for 4 years and she wasn't maintaining her status at the world level. I think much the same for Sasha Cohen. He chance for an Olympic Gold medal came and went. She won her Silver. She had everything to be an Olympic superstar - grace, athletic skill, the look - but lacked that competitive edge that holds you up under the pressure of such World competitions. I think she should join the ranks of the professionals and inspire us all with her spectacular presence on the ice. She's on the USFSA A team envelope for next season's competitions, maybe just to keep her options open to the last minute....but I hope she doesn't make a "Kwan" mistake.

It's so easy to see when others should move on. Why is it so hard to move on ourselves? Maybe if the options were there, it wouldn't be so hard.............