Scientists With Two X Chromosomes

I am a scientist. More specifically, I am a female scientist. Three days ago, women like myself received a bit more attention than usual when the world celebrated International Women’s Day 2012. The contributions that women have made for science and medicine were widely recognized through events, in all forms of social media, and also in an article which appeared that day in The Lancet, a highly prominent medical journal. The Lancet article highlighted the struggles of female scientists through the story of Utako Okamoto, a Japanese scientist (now 93 years old), who experienced a great deal of gender discrimination over the course of her research career. Although overt bias against women in science is relatively rare (or at least well-disguised) today, the article proclaims that something must be done to boost the number of women who make it to the top ranks of scientific research and medical practice, arguing that women can make meaningful contributions to research and should be given greater opportunities to further their career goals.

The disappointing 2009 European statistics cited by the Lancet article (females constitute 59% of university graduates but only 18% of full professors in the European Union) are echoed within my own observations at Canadian institutions. During my undergraduate years in Ottawa, I was enrolled in a Bachelor of Science program in Neuroscience. As far as I could tell, the gender stereotypes for course of study certainly appeared to be accurate: those who enrolled in the life sciences and arts were typically female, whereas those who studied computer science, mathematics, or engineering tended to be male. In spite of the fact that female students dominated programs in the life sciences, the number of female professors working in life sciences departments was startlingly low. While I was a student at this school from 2006-2010, there were 9 male (82%) professors but only 2 (18%) female professors in the neuroscience department. Of course, the gender balance discrepancy between the student body and the science faculty was not unique to my undergraduate university. After moving to Halifax and starting graduate school in 2010, I found myself in a department that had only a slightly higher proportion of female faculty members, with 4 (33.3%) female professors, one of whom was the head of the department, and 8 (66.7%) male professors. Overall, these numbers are consistent with the idea that even though many women are studying science, few make it up to more senior academic positions.

What is the state of equality for women in science? Do the statistics hint at a subversive movement to suppress the careers of women? Or could the relative scarceness of women at the higher levels of academia be attributed to other factors, such as lifestyle priorities and the nature of the academic job?

Within my own life, I don’t perceive gender discrimination to be an issue. I grew up in a middle-class, suburban neighbourhood in Ottawa, and throughout my childhood in the 1990s, was taught that women are equal to men. Asides from the occasional sexist beer or men’s razor advertisement on TV, I never really noticed any major discrimination against women, at least in North American society. With respect to employment, I have never been paid less than a male counterpart. Especially given the success of many females who are prominent in scientific research, I have never seen any compelling evidence that there are reduced funding or publishing opportunities for women. Therefore, I am skeptical of the idea that women are being pushed away from academia on the basis of gender.

However, there is no doubt in my mind that lifestyle priorities play a massive part in a woman’s decision to continue with a scientific career. Within my social circle in Halifax, I count several fellow female MSc and PhD students as my close friends. All of us are in our 20s and started graduate school at the same time. Together, we face similar issues relating to career goals and lifestyle decisions; most of us are rapidly approaching graduation and are worried about the next step. Some of us wish to start a family in the near future, while others (myself included) are inclined to devote all available energy to pursuing particular career ambitions. Regardless of our individual aspirations, whether it is possible to attain the perfect balance between a career and a family has been a constant source of debate between us. All that can be agreed upon, realistically, is that female scientists are presented with a unique set of challenges in life. The following is a somewhat wordy quote from a 2010 paper entitled “Sex Differences in Math-Intensive Fields”, but it sums up the conflict well:

“The tenure structure in academe demands that women having children make their greatest intellectual contributions contemporaneously with their greatest physical and emotional achievements, a feat not expected of men. When women opt out of full-time careers to have and rear children, this is a choice—constrained by biology—that men are not required to make.”

— Stephen J. Ceci and Wendy M. Williams (2010)

Academic job prospects for MSc- and PhD-level graduates in science are currently dismal for males and females alike. With an extraordinarily number of highly qualified scientists flooding the job market, competition is intense and will inevitably prevent many women from ever reaching their full potential as scientists. Part of the reason is that, compared to men, women will have more trouble balancing intense careers with family duties. It has been suggested that universities could create part-time tenure-track jobs (transitioning later to full-time positions), which may be more accommodating to the lifestyles of female professors who are intent on starting a family. Logistical issues and the poor state of the global economy will create complex barriers to creating this so-called “alternative lifecourse” to a very male-centric career, but if gender equality is truly a priority for science (as the response to this year’s International Women’s Day might imply), some aspect of how research is presently conducted will certainly need to change.

Recommended reading:

Ceci, S. J. & Williams, W. M. (2010). Sex Differences in Math-Intensive Fields. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 19, 275-79.

Ceci, S. J. & Williams, W. M. (2011). Understanding current causes of women’s underrepresentation in science. PNAS, 108, 3157-62.

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Shh! Don’t Mention the Lab

“Muzzle” may very well be the word of the year in Canadian science journalism. Several weeks ago, the Canadian Science Writers’ Association (CSWA) and other related organizations held a symposium entitled “Unmuzzling Government Scientists: How to Re-open the Debate” at the 2012 Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Vancouver. During this symposium, attendees from all over the world learned an embarrassing fact about Canada: scientists who are employed by the Canadian federal government are not permitted to discuss their work with journalists without obtaining prior consent from media-relations officers. The CSWA, which says that requests to interview federal scientists are frequently denied or delayed, argues that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government (which came to power in 2006) has imposed a stranglehold on its researchers’ interactions with the media, thereby preventing adequate engagement of the general public with taxpayer-funded research.

After the symposium, the “muzzling” issue was re-opened with a vengeance. Newspapers from across the globe were buzzing about the topic. The Canadian television comedy show Rick Mercer Report aired a brilliant satirical advertisement for “PMO [Prime Minister’s Office] Scientist Pest Control” (see the video clip below). Even Nature, one of the world’s most influential peer-reviewed scientific journals, stepped into the conversation. The high-profile Nature editorial (published on February 29, 2012) attacked the Harper government’s dismal track record in scientific transparency with the media, stating that “it is time for the Canadian government to set its scientists free.”

The main issue seems to arise from conflicting interests. The media wishes to report to the public about scientific work that is being conducted within government agencies, but the government wants to guard its research in the interest of its political agenda. In many ways, private firms in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries hold just as firm a grip on their research activities, albeit for financial reasons. While the government’s media-relations policy seems to have forcibly isolated federal scientists from journalists for now, those who work in Canadian universities are thankfully not subjected to the same kinds of restrictions. Most people in academia would probably agree that communicating research findings to the public is absolutely necessary, whether the deed is done through an article in a scientific journal or an interview with a local newspaper. As a graduate student, it’s difficult to imagine having any university-imposed barriers that would actually prevent me from speaking to the media or to the public. Apparently this type of scientific freedom of speech is a luxury, though.

Any scientist who is supported by public funding should be allowed to report honestly about how the money has been used. As scientists, if our progress in research is not communicated back to the people who are supporting us, then why should we expect anybody to want to fund our work? Back in 2010, when I began my Master’s degree in Pharmacology and Neuroscience, I received a scholarship from the Molly Appeal for Medical Research, a fund that was started over 30 years ago by a Haligonian named Molly Moore. Molly was not a scientist; she was a woman who just wished to give something to medical research in the community. People who contribute to the fund are interested in advancing medical research, and knowingly support students like myself. The substantial monetary award went a long way to support me when I was just starting out in pain research. Now that I am approaching the end of my degree, I am working on getting my research published in a scientific journal. While this would allow my work to be formally recognized within the scientific community, it would also be an opportunity for me to indicate that I have used public money well. Since a divide always exists between scientific journals and non-scientists, it is critical for science communicators to bridge the gap. And whether research is being conducted in academia, industry, or government, everyone deserves to know what kind of scientific progress is being made in Canada.

Over the next few weeks, it will be interesting to follow the growing global discussion of the “muzzling” issue, as well as to watch the Canadian government’s reaction to mounting criticism of its science media-relations protocol. Hopefully, the recent steps taken by the US National Science Foundation (NSF) and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to promote federal scientific transparency with the media will also prompt the Canadian government to implement similar policy changes.

Recommended reading:

O’Hara, K. (2010). Canada must free scientists to talk to journalists. Nature, 467. Retrieved from http://www.nature.com/news/2010/100929/full/467501a.html

Open letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper from representatives of journalists and federal scientists (February 16, 2012)

Songs and Synapses

You wouldn’t expect a relatively unknown film to draw much of a crowd on a Saturday morning, but there I was, sitting in darkness inside the Oxford Theatre with a decent-sized group of people. As Halifax’s only single-screen cinema, the Oxford Theatre is known for showing films that don’t necessarily qualify as blockbusters. Today, we had come to see the first Canadian theatrical screening of Jim Kohlberg’s 2011 film The Music Never Stopped, as part of a public outreach event hosted by the Atlantic Association for Music Therapy (AAMT). (Notably, this was to be the last 35 mm film reel that would ever be projected at the Oxford, as the theatre has decided to go digital.)

Adapted from “The Last Hippie”, a case study written by the famous neurologist Oliver Sacks (also my favourite author), The Music Never Stopped is set in the late 1980s and tells the story of Gabriel Sawyer (Lou Taylor Pucci), a man who is debilitated by his inability to form new memories following the removal of a massive brain tumour. Gabriel, a musician and passionate music lover, cannot recall details of his life after the late 1960s, and can only retrieve past memories while hearing music with which he has an established emotional connection. With the aid of a music therapist (Julia Ormond), as well as the discographies of the Grateful Dead, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and other prominent artists from the 1960s, Gabriel is able to use music to retrieve old memories and communicate with others again. Central to the story of Gabriel’s recovery is the healing of his fractured relationship with his estranged father (J.K. Simmons), who slowly reconciles with his son through a shared love for music.

Play me a song from the 1960s, please...

The film certainly does not emphasize the science behind music therapy, nor does it touch upon the wider applicability of such treatment for other neurological and psychiatric disorders. Still, the film presents neuroscience concepts well, particularly in the way that the roles of brain regions involved in memory are explained. (I just love it when the word “hippocampus” shows up in movies!) The film also effectively shows music therapy as a powerful way to reach out to patients who have fallen beyond the ordinary modes of communication. Gabriel’s love for music oozes out of his every pore, and manages to convey the feeling of how one can be immediately transported back in time to a particular place, person, or emotion encoded in memory, just from listening to the first notes of a song. The film’s unabashedly sentimental portrayal of Gabriel and his interactions with others places the impact of memory disorders in a very personal social context. Even so, with a healthy dose of humour, the storyline never becomes overwhelmingly sappy.

An open-ended question and answer session was held by several music therapists from the AAMT after the film screening, and the ensuing discussion covered topics ranging from the injured brain’s potential for neuroplasticity to public advocacy for greater availability of music therapy in conventional care. The music therapists who fielded the public’s questions did a fantastic job of situating the film within the field of music therapy as a whole. One therapist mentioned that the case presented in The Music Never Stopped (and in “The Last Hippie”) was particularly remarkable, and that most people who receive music therapy (usually children or the elderly) may not be quite as emotionally bonded to music as Gabriel was in the film. As such, music therapists aim to tap into any kind of existing relationship that a patient has with music, regardless of whether they are a musician or just a casual listener. Without any negative side effects to speak of, music therapy is a cost-effective, holistic approach that could likely be helpful for managing a variety of conditions.

It’s arguable that the amount of benefit that someone can receive from music therapy could depend directly on how important music has been in their life. This makes an interesting case for promoting early musical education for health reasons. Perhaps we could “prime” our brains to be able to respond well to music therapy (which we may require later in life) just by listening to and learning to play music. Of course, learning an instrument for “preventive” reasons may seem a little over-the-top, but there are likely to be many other general health benefits from studying music. Although there is limited evidence which suggests that cognitive functioning may improve with musical education, music is normally played for enjoyment and not for health. Realistically, the fun of playing a musical instrument is usually a good enough benefit by itself.

Today’s event was a nice example of the science outreach activities that are taking place in Halifax. Although the city is quite small, it seems that public engagement of science is alive and well, especially through local universities, hospitals, and professional societies. The AAMT should definitely be praised for picking a good film to provoke some discussion and thought about music therapy within the community.

Recommended reading:

Sacks, O. (1995). An Anthropologist on Mars. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

Sacks, O. (1997). Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

Trainor, L. J., Shahin, A. J., & Roberts, L. E. (2009). Understanding the Benefits of Musical Training. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1169, 133-142.

On Pyramids, Brains, & Being Human

As a kid, I used to tell everybody that I wanted to be an archaeologist when I grew up. After reading a semi-fictional book based on the life of Augustus, I had become obsessed with ancient history. I was addicted to stories about the romantic heroism of Rome, the crushing defeat of Carthage, and the exotic power of Palmyra. I later developed an insatiable hunger for the mysteries of Ancient Egypt. My interest in Egyptology was so strong that the mere thought of mummified corpses surviving across the millenia basically gave me heart palpitations. I dreamed of discovering secret pathways and uncovering deeply-hidden artifacts in the Valley of the Kings.

But one day, my mother teasingly remarked that I was such a picky eater and whiny traveler that I wouldn’t last a minute at a sweltering, uncomfortable dig site in the desert. Unfortunately, she was right about me (at the time). The practical limitations of my dreams had never crossed my mind before, and suddenly this career idea didn’t seem very appealing. Even though I was still passionate about antiquities, I decided to re-evaluate my life goals.

It wasn’t until I was nearly finished high school that I came across something that instilled the same level of excitement in me as I had felt while reading about ancient history. In the March 2005 issue of National Geographic, I read a short article (part of a special feature on the brain) which described a simple sensory experiment. A false rubber hand was placed on a table in front of a human subject, who was asked to watch it and keep his own hand out of view. The experimenter proceeded to tickle the false hand with a feather, while tickling the subject’s real hand in the same manner. Despite receiving similar stimulation, the subject was still aware that this fake hand was not his own. Yet when the experimenter wielded a hammer and hit the rubber hand, the subject flinched. It was as if the subject’s brain had confused its perception of the body’s limbs and formed an empathetic connection with the false hand. The subject responded to the hammer as if he had expected his own hand to be injured. (View a video of this experiment in action.)

I was intrigued. How could the brain’s perception of the world be so easily manipulated? As I continued to read the magazine’s special feature, I began to appreciate how marvelous the brain was in terms of its complexity. We are who we are because of the brain. We are kept alive and capable of doing everything we wish to do because of the brain. But there is a fragile divide between health and pathology, and even the slightest physiological disruption in the brain’s normal processes can cause a cascade of events that may lead to a devastating neurological disease. Even more frightening is the fact that many of these disorders are still untreatable and incurable.

Over the past 200 years, our understanding of the nervous system has grown exponentially. Even so, we have only scratched the surface, for there are many things in all branches of neuroscience that remain unknown. I was drawn to neuroscience because it is comprised of puzzles, with mysteries built upon mysteries that are just waiting to be solved. Neuroscience aims to heal disorders of the nervous system, but what I think it ultimately seeks (and perhaps the same can be said of archaeology) is an answer to the question “What is humanity?” Shaped over millions of years of evolution, we possess a sophisticated organ that holds the secret to everything that makes us human: how we are able to think, make art, use language, remember, move, feel, see, hear, taste, and love.

And so, this is how I first fell in love with neuroscience. Seven years after reading that fateful issue of National Geographic, I am a neuroscientist in training with a particular interest in chronic pain and pain pharmacology. And really, I didn’t stray too far from my childhood aspirations: I am, in essence, discovering secret (neural) pathways and uncovering deeply-hidden phenomena.

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