Why academia is still hemorrhaging women in this day and age

(by chemicalbilology) Feb 09 2013

I just read a comment from an anonymous person on this post at Academic Jungle:

"This post really hit home for me. I am an early career PI (3 yrs in) at a soft money institution and am currently facing the (very real) prospect of having to close my lab, due to a combination of a major institutional financial crisis and the horrific federal funding situation. I have a young (<1 yr) baby and work 90 min from home. I rent a small apt in the town where I work and during the week I am a single parent to my daughter so deal with absolutely everything related to her needs, daycare, doctors, etc etc. I also manage our "real" household and do all the finances and other boring organizational crap. Meanwhile I am desperately trying to salvage my career, get papers out, apply for jobs elsewhere, write as many grants as possible, try not to drop the ball for people in my lab. Husband is also working very hard and is sensitive to any criticism that he's not doing his part because he feels like working hard is what he can do to provide for our daughter's future. What's happening though is that his career is doing OK while mine is collapsing. I have the academic pedigree but now I'm getting the lack of productivity critiques...gee...I wonder why that might be considering birth and 3 mo of maternity leave. No body cares why the papers haven't come out, just that they haven't. I absolutely feel like I've failed to live up to both what I expected and what other people expected of me."

This--this is why it's such a struggle to keep women in the leadership ranks of academia. This is very similar to my experience in many ways, although my husband made a career change recently, so that he could move to the town where I work and was living with our daughter, to make this easier for me. These situations are the practical reality for many women at assistant professor age, and disproportionately, the women end up taking the career hit because of so many social pressures (direct, indirect, conscious, unconscious, from spouse, from family, from friends, from wider culture) while colleagues look on disappointedly as if they can't do anything about it.

Well, we as colleagues CAN do something about it. We can actively work on changing our mindset about what "counts" as productivity in a given amount of time based on extenuating factors. We can start putting our attitude money where our policy mouths are regarding flexibility in the tenure clock--get out of the rut of thinking that the productivity allowance ONLY counts at the year you're supposed to come up for tenure, and actively recognize that it is a continuous process of a slower rate (driven by the higher activation energy of producing without the catalyst of an "easy" lifestyle with either no family involved or a spouse who organizes it all). It's going to take all of us (including BOTH the oldsters AND youngsters) changing our perceptions, dialogue and defensive reactions when challenged about it.

The current model of how academic performance is evaluated is a construct of what our own internal culture has decided is important, and it is based on a system that grew out of the old Victorian model of the footloose and fancy-free affluent young man trying to "make his way in the world" by spending years and years at the university putzing around. The values of that system were defined by that dude's ability to live and breathe the lab, the pub, and his smoking lounge. Let's get over it, wake up to our different culture, and work on adjusting the way we measure success to take a whole picture into account.

WE (us all scientists and faculty) are the only ones who can start this, and it's our responsibility to change the way we think.

11 responses so far

Two-way anonymized NIH peer review? Best comment evar!

(by chemicalbilology) Dec 13 2012

LULZ, the first comment on this article about potentially making applicants anonymous for certain levels of NIH review is so stereotypically hilarious. He even named HIMSELF "oldguy!"

"This moves reviews exactly in the wrong direction.  It rewards creative writing and disregards training and accomplishments.  The current short grant format does not allow enough preliminary data to provide assurances tot he reviewer that the applicant can do the work now.  At least now when an X-ray crystallographer says they will do a structure you can check and see if they have done a structure.  Without a track record anyone can propose to do anything as long as its published that someone has done it.

Having worked in Europe and the US the lab based funding is much better fro young scientists.  While they can't grow and empire, they can work.  Here in the US we are willing to through away years of training.

Larry Tabek gave us 12 pages and no A2.  His track record is not so good."

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Myriad, Mayo and Prometheus: the line between "law of nature" and invention

(by chemicalbilology) Aug 22 2012

Some very interesting litigation has been going down this year, somewhat under the radar for most of us, regarding the patentability of biological products and processes that could have huge implications for both the biotech industry and academic research labs hoping to commercialize their findings.

Earlier this spring, what would look to most people (and even most scientists) as a very dry case made its way up to the Supreme Court. The case was brought by Mayo Clinic (via their laboratory group Mayo Collaborative Services) against Prometheus, a medical diagnostics company. Prometheus own(ed?)(s?) the patent on a certain test offered by the laboratory. This test involved detecting the levels of a certain drug metabolite in order to monitor dosage/predict side effects/etc., and correlate those levels to the health of the patient (i.e. efficacy). Basic pharmacokinetics/pharmacodynamics (PK/PD) type information--thousands upon thousands of people get a similar kind of testing for their coumadin/warfarin levels all the time, This is mainly because there are certain polymorphisms in a couple of enzymes (VKORC1 and CYP2C9) that affect the metabolism and thus blood levels of warfarin in some patients, and if the balance isn't right (and the effective dose ends up too high) the patient's blood won't be able to clot at all, which is a bad thing, obviously. If it's the other way around, the patient won't get enough of the thinning effect and will not get the intended benefit. So everyone who starts on warfarin has to get their prothrombin time and "international normalized ratio" (PT/INR i.e. measures of clotting) regularly checked to make sure the dose is having the intended effect; doctors adjust based on the outcomes of these tests as necessary.

So, Prometheus developed a test for a certain drug metabolite in a certain disease (unrelated to warfarin, that was just a handy example) that was a little more direct: it measured the actual level of the metabolite in the blood rather than a downstream effect of that level. (you could do this for warfarin too, but it's probably a lot cheaper to do the PT/INR test) They also established a correlation between those levels and the outcomes, and patented the whole system. They sold a kit, that made this test simple, to the Mayo labs, and Mayo Labs bought it and used it regularly. Then at some point, somebody at Mayo Labs said, "Hang on, if this is just measuring the level of this metabolite using a machine we already have, let's just put together our own reagents off the shelf and run it without paying all this money for this expensive kit." (something research labs may or may not do all the time... ahem...) As you might expect, Prometheus wasn't very happy about this and it all culminated in some intellectual property litigation. You know, just a little argument that ended up... before the Supreme Court.

Teh SCOTUS' decision ruled, in way-shortened summary, that because a drug metabolite is produced by the body, it is a "law of nature" and is thus unpatentable. This result sent waves through the intellectual property law community because if a diagnostic for drug levels is considered a "law of nature," WHAT ELSE is now going to be challenged as unpatentable?? The entire freaking biotech industry??!

Think, in particular, the ongoing fight about Myriad Genetics' test for BRCA1/BRCA2 mutations. Someone else certainly did. Last week, in an update to this law of nature drama, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled in favor of Myriad, that because the DNA constructs covered under their patents are cDNAs and other pieces of cloned out material, they are not "natural" and thus don't fall under the "law of nature" definition. This is a key result: it means that the issue isn't necessarily so sweeping and cut and dried as it looked from the opinion that came out of ye olde SCOTUS... and may ultimately end up back there via this Myriad case.

But overall, this whole discussion may end up having the effect that was speculated to be part of the SCOTUS' plan for their dramatic ruling: to better define what constitutes "natural" in the 21st century, where modern biotechnology can generate whole artificial genomes, and exome sequencing (heck, even the cheap kind of sequencing, or good old fashioned GC/MS metabolomics) can help predict who is at risk of a given disease and/or will benefit from a given drug; and to force the biotech world to figure out which and how molecular parts are owned by the individual who produced them (either in their body or from their mind). And us in academia, we better pay attention--because these are our discoveries out there, too, and if we want them to ever see the light of day, somebody is going to have to help us make products out of them. That's pretty hard to make happen without viable intellectual property in place.

8 responses so far

United Airlines loses an unaccompanied minor and doesn't give a crap

(by chemicalbilology) Aug 14 2012

Whoa, this is so whacked out I had to post about it. United Airlines basically lost and ignored a 10 year old for whom they were responsible as an unaccompanied minor traveling with them. The only way it got figured out was through some of their employees breaking the corporate "rules" to do things they weren't supposed to do and help her. You really need to read the full story here:

United Airlines lost my friends' 10 year old daughter and didn't care (Bob Sutton)

One response so far

Clarifobfuscation?

(by chemicalbilology) Aug 04 2012

Maybe I am just feeling obtuse today, but this clarification RE: the time limit on resubmitting applications to NIH does not at all clarify the issue for me. I am more confused now! Before reading this, my understanding was that it was A1 and done, and that the 37 month thing just meant you better get that A1 in within that time frame. But by this statement:

"After thirty-seven months, NIH views a submission as a new application, regardless of whether an unsuccessful resubmission (A1) was submitted during the thirty-seven month time period"

...do they mean that if your A1 doesn't get funded, you can just wait a couple of years and submit it again? I haz a confyuz.

5 responses so far

Annoying Google gaming

(by chemicalbilology) Jul 25 2012

ZOMG, this is really ridiculous: I'm trying to Google multiple reaction monitoring (MRM) proteomics to gather resources and references for a workshop talk I'm giving in a couple of weeks. Searching for "mrm proteomics" brings up a neverending list of permutations of this ONE company's information (including every page on their website individually, as well as two different blogs, one Blogspot and one WordPress, that have the same entries) (I refuse to link to them since that'll just feed their Google beast). You don't even get to the freaking Wikipedia page for it until, like, the third page of the Google results! Sheesh people, I know it's important to get your company's information about there, but that's just obvious game of the Google search algorithm. They must have hired some "get your website in the top of search results!" service. It's just kinda lame.

One response so far

Notes from the NIH Regional Grant Seminar

(by chemicalbilology) Apr 18 2012

I spent the day at the NIH Regional Grant Seminar in Indianapolis, and it has been a mix of useful stuff and other things that are too beginner-y for me. Not like I am some kind of NIH expert, but because of the great public service provided by the blogworld via e.g. Drugmonkey and Physioprof and the mentorship of my senior colleagues and advocates, I am already pretty clued in to the basics of the NIH operational model, so sessions describing how peer review happens and what is the job of a PO vs. an SRO aren't all that useful to me in particular. The most interesting part for me is to get to ask questions of the people who are usually just names on policy documents or the internet, and see what kind of a response they have to my and others' questions. Dr. Sally Rockey has had some good sessions and engages fully in each answer she gives.

Something I hope to probe more about tomorrow is the NIH's projected path towards putting their "money where their mouth is" about improving the pipeline issues created by our country's current model for grad school and postdoctoral training, something that this blogosphere is very familiar with. It's clear that they can tell there is a problem, and the data illustrate the problems in various ways:

  • abysmal representation of African Americans in the investigator pool, both as applicants and as funded
  • loss of women PIs at the R01 renewal stage (as described in this paper by Pohlhaus et al)
  • huge reliance on postdoctoral "trainees"--who aren't really getting a training experience towards becoming independent--as research staff on R grants

A dissatisfying element is a tendency to invoke the "well, we can't mandate that institutions do X or Y" about things that it would be HARD to do (like, politically or financially hard)--even though, clearly, NIH and government policy DO mandate plenty of things about how institutions need to operate in order to get their money (ORI, IRB, IACUC). I totally understand that it is their job to toe the line and keep on message; but it seems like a very convenient reason why some things "can't" be changed in ways that might address the diversity issues.

For example, employee-style benefits including family coverage health insurance and family leave for graduate students and postdocs are "allowable costs" on F and T grants; but NIH's official position is that it can only be covered by these grants IF other graduate students and postdocs at the institution get the same options. I know there are plenty of institutions that do NOT provide adequate coverage of these things for any of their grad students or postdocs. At my own institution, I know that the family coverage purchasable by grad students is so expensive, and so poor with respect to cost-coverage ratio, that graduate students often have to put their children on Medicaid (which they easily qualify for!!). This is terrible! And what a barrier this puts up to anyone considering having children while in graduate school--especially women. It's not reasonable to assume that everyone in graduate school or postdoctoral training will have a partner who has a "better" job with "real" insurance. It really should be the responsibility of the training program to provide reasonable, livable coverage for cost-of-living, which in this country, includes health insurance. For postdocs, at many institutions (including mine) they get dropped from their benefits programs as soon as they obtain independent funding through e.g. a K99 or F32 award. What a disincentive to apply, yet putting trainees between a rock and a hard place since independent funding is their currency towards a faculty position, and it has a strong likelihood, again, of affecting trainees (especially women) with families who need to maintain their family insurance coverage.

These kinds of situations seem like a perfect opportunity for NIH to connect the dots between some of the various problems with the training process in the biomedical workforce, to not just allow but provide this coverage to any trainee who obtains funding regardless of what their institution does for others. For one, this would have an immediate impact on and incentive for graduate and postdoc trainees to apply for funding (and for PIs who care about this kind of thing to apply for training grants). For two, NIH could make it a part of the review criteria (either merit review or programmatic decision-making review) to evaluate trainee support at the institution (e.g. insurance subsidies, availability of family leave and benefits), and that institutions that provide poor support for their grad students and postdocs will get dinged for Environment and that this will factor into funding decisions. In principle, it would be cost-neutral, since those costs are already allowed to be budgeted into the "institutional allowance" amount (although, that amount isn't actually enough to cover 'real' insurance either; but it's closer than nothing). Maybe it would provide the nudge that institutions need to make them realize that these things actually do matter, both to the trainees and to NIH. NIH has the power to shift this paradigm, just like it did with new investigator funding rates--they just need to take it on.

 

4 responses so far

Maybe it would help to wear a "man" suit with an elbow-patch jacket or something...

(by chemicalbilology) Feb 10 2012

AAAAAGGGGHHHHHH!!!!!

I'm currently lecturing in introductory organic chemistry; the head of the course is a very experienced outstanding teacher who (literally) wrote the book, and has won many awards for his excellent teaching. He started the course for the first few weeks of lecture. I'm covering lecture for now, and he will pick it up again later in the course (about a month and a half from now).

I messed up carbocation rearrangement today, right at the beginning of lecture. I lost 'em; they were VERY restless and chattery and obviously like "This lady does not know what she is talking about!" It actually turned out that the mistake I made was a very instructive example of a common misconception about the topic that students have, and the ensuing discussion of where I had gone wrong cleared up a lot of questions they had and got everybody to a much better understanding of the topic than if I'd just gotten it right the first time through.

BUT I am pretty sure that it is still going to kill their perception of me as someone they can trust to teach them. Every time I get anything wrong it's like another nail in my "I'm a younger female who doesn't really 'look' like a professor" coffin. I don't have any room to make mistakes, because I'm already having to prove to them in the first place that I can teach them about chemistry.

It's like a Catch-22; I end up sacrificing my dignity in a way that helps them LEARN more, but it might end up adversely affecting their learning overall if it makes them think I can't help them understand things. And it also shows up in their memories as a huge looming perception, so when it comes to instructor evaluation time... what do YOU think happens?

6 responses so far

#iwanttoliveinaworldwhere...

(by chemicalbilology) Feb 08 2012

...postdocs who are pregnant do not have to live in fear of letting anyone know until it's unavoidably obvious. And then don't have to have their jobs held over their heads once it is. Where recent PhD grads never have to feel anxiety about whether their offers for postdoc or other positions will dissolve if they let it slip that they are, or would like to soon become, pregnant (a fear my sister recently experienced). Where postdocs on the TT market (or any other job market for that matter) don't have to feel fear, stress and hopelessness about it, either.

THAT is one thing that could help improve the diversity of the biomedical research workforce. But what will/could the NIH do about it? I know what each and every one of us can do individually about it: work on our inbuilt and resource-motivated biases. But systemically? Hell if I know--brainstorming here...

19 responses so far

My awesome student!

(by chemicalbilology) Oct 27 2011

I am so proud of my visiting high school student (who joined us through a cooperation with Project Exploration and GERI during the summers of 2009 and 2010) Genesis Galan, who won a $25,000 college scholarship!!! Way to go Genesis!

4 responses so far

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