BioPerspectives

Dec 2, 2009

3rd Annual Rosalind Franklin Society Meeting

  • This year, the scientific community celebrated the (certainly long over-due) recognition of female scientists by the Nobel committee. Dr. Ada E. Yonath shared the prize for chemistry, the first woman to win a chemistry Nobel Prize since 1964. Drs. Elizabeth H. Blackburn and Carol W. Greider were two of the three Nobel Laureates for physiology or medicine. This was the first year that two women shared the prize in medicine, with only ten women ever winning it since the first award in 1901. However, as we rejoice the fact that the status of women in science continues to improve, members of the scientific community need to recognize that there is still much work that needs to be done before gender equality in scientific disciplines can be claimed.

    There are many organizations that exist to promote women in science. The Rosalind Franklin Society plays a particularly active role in recognizing the achievements of female scientists, fostering public awareness of gender inequalities in science, and encouraging women who are looking to excel in their scientific aspirations. In November, the Society held its third annual board meeting in New York City. With an agenda featuring speakers spanning academia, biotech, nonprofits, and marketing, members reviewed current Society initiatives and discussed various aspects of careers in science. In addition to addressing the status of women in academic science, there was also a focus on “non-traditional” career paths in science outside of academia.

    It is well known that a career in academia presents a wide range of obstacles to those aspiring to tenured positions. All professor hopefuls must face the pressure to publish and longer and longer postdoc positions, all while trying to achieve a balance between a career in research and family life (or, as one Society member opined, “There is no such thing as balance – just different priorities at different times in your life.”) In summarizing the findings of the National Research Council’s recent report entitled, “Gender Differences at Critical Transitions in the Careers of Science, Engineering and Mathematics Faculty,” study committee co-chair Claude Canizares, PhD, of Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggested that the “nature of the profession” may be driving both men and women away from academic science, just differentially more women.

    The NRC’s report encapsulated the findings from two national surveys in 2004 and 2005, which provided a “snapshot in time” of the eighty-nine R-I institutions surveyed. The six disciplines included in the surveys were biology, chemistry, civil/electrical engineering, mathematics, and physics, with a focus on critical transitions in academic careers, such as hiring and promotions. Dr. Canizares emphasized two major findings of the surveys: while women continue to be underrepresented in science and engineering, gender does not appear to be a significant factor in career transitions and outcomes, as men and women have enjoyed comparable opportunities within the university. Yet, as institutions are addressing many of the factors under their control, such as hiring processes, there is still an inequality between men and women in academic science. As women are underrepresented in the applicant pools and among those considered for tenured positions, Dr. Canizares may be correct in postulating that the “nature of the profession” may be keeping women from entering academic science or pursuing tenure-track positions.

    Academia is of course not the only career choice for women interested in a career in science, as highlighted by various speakers at the board meeting. Elizabeth Donley, JD, MBA, founder and CEO of Stemina Biomarker Discovery, Inc. and Christine Gulbranson, PhD, MBA, a senior fellow with the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, spoke of the opportunities available for female entrepreneurs in science, using their own stories as examples of success. The women also offered advice on how to avoid some common pitfalls in the venture capital industry.

    In her talk, Ms. Donley discussed the gender disparity with regards to patents. A thirty-year survey of scientists in the biological sciences co-authored by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley Haas School of Business, the MIT Sloan School of Management, and Harvard Business School found that women are forty percent less likely to file patents than men. Ms. Donley posed a number of reasons why this disparity might exist, all of which suggest differences in mentality between male and female scientists. Women may, for example, view filing a patent as “one more thing on the to-do list,” an additional item on the agenda that gets sacrificed in favor of publications or grant-writing. Additionally, male and female principal investigators may have different attitudes towards patents. For instance, it has been suggested that women are more concerned with collegiality and consensus building – a “we all did this” attitude, in favor of an “I did this” attitude. Awareness of these differences in tendencies between male and female scientists is an important step towards correcting the disproportion, although Ms. Donley also offered some other advice. Make connections in industry, she said, because within university technology transfer offices, reputation and industry connections will give you an edge when it comes to patents.

    The themes of making connections and networking were echoed by Dr. Gulbranson, who addressed some of the hurdles facing women in the venture capital industry. According to a report published by the Kauffman Foundation, women comprised only nine percent of management-track venture capitalists in the year 2000. Additionally, sixty-four percent of women who were in venture capital in 1995 were no longer in the industry in 2000 (compared to a thirty-three percent loss for men). To navigate these obstacles, Dr. Gulbranson emphasized the importance of not only social networks, but also mentorships. She provided two examples of programs designed to assist women in science. The National Science Foundation’s ADVANCE program assigns mentors to new female faculty members, and the ACTIVATE program in Maryland is a one-year program to train women to be entrepreneurs. Programs like these are assisting women to succeed in their professional endeavors, be it in academia, venture capital, or biotech.

    Rita Colwell, PhD, University of Maryland College Park and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and Linda Powers, JD, Toucan Capital Corporation, opened the discussion on biotech with their talk entitled, “Biotech Here and Abroad.” Dr. Colwell illustrated the importance of biotechnology applications, using examples from marine biotech. Many examples in research science today – including the vent Taq polymerase used in routine Polymerase Chain Reactions and the giant squid axon used to study conduction in the nervous system – originated from the sea. Thus, whether one looks to purify toxins from coneshells to use as pain medication in opioid-resistant patients, or use furanones to treat cystic fibrosis-associated infections, there are many opportunities to bridge basic science research and biotechnology.

    As for the best way to construct that bridge, Ms. Powers reminded members of the Board that the biotech industry does not solely exist within the United States. A number of countries around the world are becoming major players in biotech, and are doing so through the inclusion of women. Ms. Powers spoke of meeting with members of the female-run Chinese Biopharma Corp., as well as seeing many Iranian women presenting posters at a recent stem cell conference. A number of trends are catalyzing the internationalization of biotech business, including an increase in capital markets and government funding for biotech outside of the US, a growing number of high-impact scientific publications by non-US scientists, and the development of services infrastructure and proliferation of clinical trials outside of the US. Thus, Ms. Powers encourages women to take advantage of the fact that biotech is no longer US-centric by looking around the world to find the best resources before building a biotech company.

    As attested by Victoria Hale, PhD, of Medicines360, the international stage offers not only funding opportunities, but opportunities for non-profit medical endeavors. Dr. Hale is a social entrepreneur, having founded two non-profit pharmaceutical companies. She passionately spoke about the lack of pharmaceutical infrastructure in this country to develop drugs for people who live different lives than us – people around the world who die each year from ailments that are treatable in the US. She described her efforts to address this issue, including the exhaustive process of soliciting donations for her non-profit organizations. Thus far, Dr. Hale has been able to facilitate the distribution of medicine to treat visceral leishmaniasis and diarrhea, with an inexpensive malaria medication expected to get to patients in 2010.

    All of the speakers at the third annual board meeting of the Rosalind Franklin Society provided insight into the various career paths female scientists may pursue, both in this country and abroad, as well as obstacles facing women and tactics to overcome them. As a scientific community, we can be hopeful for the continually improving status of women in science, as organizations like the Rosalind Franklin Society continue to rally for equality. Much work still remains, but as more women blaze the trails into biotech, venture capital, and academia, an infrastructure for mentoring, networking, and achieving success is being constructed.


Add a comment

  • You must be signed in to perform this action.
    Click here to Login or Register for free.
    You will be taken back to your selected item after Login/Registration.

Related content