Video, podcast, and summary: “Women in Science”

 

Computational geneticist Pardis Sabeti and energy studies expert Jessika Trancik discuss their careers and the outlook for women in science in the 21st century. Sabeti, an associate professor at Harvard and a senior associate member of the Broad Institute, and Trancik, an assistant professor in MIT’s Engineering Systems Division, are both rising stars in the research world. They will be in discussion with Rosalind Williams, the Bern Dibner Professor of the History of Science and Technology at MIT.


Moderator Rosalind Williams opened the discussion by asking the panelists to introduce themselves and describe their backgrounds.

Jessika Trancik said that her primary interest has long been “uncovering patterns in the natural world and using design to try to make the world a better place." She earned her undergraduate and doctorate degrees in materials science, a field she liked for its focus on understanding basic elements and combining them into new, useful materials. After studying strong natural polymers like spider silk, Trancik decided to concentrate on improving the world. She turned her attention to global challenges in engineering, working for the United Nations in Geneva, and then studying energy technologies at Columbia University and the Santa Fe Institute.

Today, she said, she evaluates technologies in electricity and transportation, analyzing environmental impacts and uncovering design targets to accelerate scientific development. The men and women that make up her research group come from a variety of fields and backgrounds, and Trancik feels that this diversity improves the group’s ability to solve problems and “generate interesting, helpful research results.”

Pardis Sabeti spoke next. She opened by recounting her family’s move to Florida from Tehran, Iran, just before the country’s revolution. Despite the political strife that overshadowed the move, Sabeti remembers her childhood as “idyllic” and “motivating,” thanks in part to her encouraging parents. She attended MIT as an undergraduate, and said that there were times that she was the only woman in her classroom. Still, she noted that she didn’t experience negative gender bias while at MIT. Sabeti then studied at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, where she met Trancik, also a Rhodes Scholar. Oxford provided an interesting research experience, Sabeti said, but also exposed her to her first challenges as a woman in science. After getting her doctorate, Sabeti went to Harvard Medical School; today, her focus is “research at the interface of genetics and infectious disease.”

Sabeti also said she was excited for the evening’s discussion, and recalled a diversity program that she and Williams developed while she was an undergraduate at MIT. She added that inspiration from her mentors, including Williams and MIT Professor and Broad Institute founding director Eric Lander, has been key to her scientific career.

Williams briefly described her own background, explaining that studying history of science seemed like the best way to balance her interests in history and literature with her family’s focus on engineering and science. She then provided context for the evening’s discussion, showing slides with graphs of the number of female students and faculty at MIT over several decades. The slides were from a 2011 talk by MIT Professor Nancy Hopkins, whom Williams described as the “leader of the pack”: Hopkins was an influential voice when female professors at MIT spoke up about “systemic discrimination in the School of Science” in the 1990s. Williams recounted the story of Hopkins and her colleagues, displaying the images of the sixteen professors who went to Dean of Science Robert Birgeneau’s office in 1994 to complain about the unfair treatment of female faculty. The meeting led to a series of reports about gender discrimination at MIT as well as a widely publicized response at MIT and other universities. This series of events later led Birgeneau to claim, “Academia has not been the same since.” Williams asked the panelists if they had been aware of these events as they happened.

Trancik said that until she came to teach at MIT, she had few female colleagues or instructors. But one female mentor during her undergraduate years at Cornell, Mary Sansalone, did mention the transformation happening for women in science. Like Sabeti, Trancik said she didn’t have negative gender-related experiences at the time, even though she was often the only woman in the room. Such discrimination became clearer later, she said, when evaluations from colleagues became less quantitative and more subjective. She added that she has seen an encouraging change in the population of women in engineering and in mentorship roles.

Sabeti said that as an MIT alumna, she was aware of the reports. She commended the fact that MIT released the findings and “dug into their own problem,” saying that she’s been at universities where such problems are not discussed, which makes the situation worse. As a scientist, she also appreciated that MIT gathered metrics to properly analyze the problem. Sabeti said that Eric Lander has been “a top supporter of women” and a supporter of diversity. She emphasized the importance of finding a good mentor and being a good mentee.

Williams asked if choosing one’s mentor by gender was important. Trancik said that gender shouldn’t matter, mentioning the support of her undergraduate mentor, Stephen Sass. Sabeti agreed, saying that the mentor one chooses “shouldn’t be defined by gender or ethnicity.” Finding a mentor that inspires and guides you with integrity is important, she said. But she added that there “needs to be an option” for the mentor to be a woman if a student so chooses.

Trancik remarked that in laboratory groups, it’s important to consider diversity in personalities across both genders. She mentioned that she sees a difference on average in how confidently men and women present their work. She said she often works with female students to improve their self-assurance, encouraging them to focus on the content of their work and urging them not to be “too polite.”

Sabeti commented that she urges every member of her group, regardless of gender, to be assertive, but not aggressive. It is important for women in science to develop confidence and an “inner voice,” she said, and to learn how to be heard in a room full of people. It is also important, she added, for women scientists to be aware of the true complications and obstacles that they face.

Williams recalled a statement made by Nancy Hopkins that suggested that discrimination against women in science was “very age related” and became worse when students got older or began to compete. She asked the panelists if the point where this changes was related to age or a professional timeline.

Sabeti said that the “moral grade” of society isn’t judged by what happens when a person walks into a coffee shop, but when a person drops their coffee cup. In “a space where judgment is possible,” she said, “you see the true situation.” It can seem that a woman is unworthy of her elevated position, or too beaten down, she said. This is not prompted by a woman’s age but what she tries to do.

Trancik responded that students are evaluated in very clear terms: problems and exams are graded as right or wrong. But later in an academic career, judging the quality of work becomes subjective. It never occurred to her that how she spoke or what she wore was important, she said, before this subjectivity came into play. She then realized that she was “being perceived through the lens of gender to some extent.” Additionally, she remarked, when a female scientist becomes a peer as opposed to a student, she may have differing opinions from her colleagues. It’s important to make this transition without being too loud or too timid, she said, adding that it would be useful to mentor women through this shift in their environment.

Williams then asked the panelists what they wish they had known 15 years ago.

Sabeti said that she learned that “people were still sexist” while in graduate school. The “threat” of sexism in her environment was less obvious for her than it was for Williams, she noted, and she and her peers “didn’t think there was such a thing.” She had to work to understand why she felt that her ideas weren’t good enough. She asserted that if sexism is not articulated, it is internalized. Sabeti said she tells other women that sexism exists so they can recognize it; while gender bias isn’t always the problem in a female scientist’s career, it’s important to understand when it is. She then said that she wishes she had learned earlier to assert her inner voice. Trancik agreed that she wished she had not wasted time internalizing the sexism around her. In retrospect Trancik also would have liked to ease the transition from student to colleague. This is something she tries to help her students achieve, and having more senior women around could help this transition, she said.

Williams asked if the panelists felt that the culture at Oxford was significantly different for women in science.

Trancik replied that Oxford’s traditions and rituals are “male-dominated,” and that a student’s exposure to the faculty is lower, which “could be quite isolating” if a student encountered a problem in her environment. But Trancik said she wasn’t sure if gender issues would be better or worse in England. Sabeti agreed and stated that she believed it was hard to be a woman “in any country in the world,” but that the United States is one of the best places to be a woman. Other countries have less defined gender roles, and while sexism still exists in the United States, she believes that it is easier to speak up about it and be taken seriously in the US. Sabeti said that she had a wonderful time at Oxford, but noticed that the female graduate students she knew were “depressed” and “felt bad about themselves.” This is a deeply embedded problem, she said, but she thinks that the situation will continue to improve.

Williams then opened the discussion to questions from the audience.

An audience member who works in computer science related her experience of encountering sexism in her male-dominated field, specifically from MIT professors. She said that such incidents are better handled in industry environments, and she wished universities would follow that model. There is a “long way to go” in computer science, she added.

Sabeti sympathized with the “helpless” feeling of being in such a situation. Academia can be the “most backwards” environment, she said, and it is highly hierarchical. She emphasized again the importance of bringing transparency to the issue.

Williams suggested that the title of the Forum was not precise enough, because the discussion was specifically about women in academic science. Women in business face a different environment and often seem happier, she said.

Erik Stayton, a graduate student in MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program, said he had heard stories of female humanities professors who received more than their fair share of teaching assignments. He asked the panelists if they had experienced something similar in the sciences.

Trancik said that in her former position, she had been counseled to “say no to stuff” often. She said she thinks MIT is “pretty good” about protecting its junior faculty, but that the scenario Stayton presented probably happens at many universities, including MIT. She said there might be times that women are asked to do things for which they are overqualified, referencing a recent New York Times article.

Williams then brought up the issue of motherhood and family time, a major challenge for women in academia. She noted that MIT’s tenure policy had been changed to better accommodate motherhood. Trancik commended MIT’s policy to allow paternity leave.

Anna Nowogrodski, a Master’s candidate in MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing, wondered about the notion that the US was one of the best places for women, given that it is one of only a few countries without mandatory paid maternity and paternity leave. She wondered if there was a way to change this situation, and if there were structural changes that could be made beyond encouraging women to stand up for themselves.

Sabeti amended her previous statement and acknowledged that the US might not be the best country for women, but said that she is glad to have a career here. She agreed that family planning was “a major issue.” She said it would be important to encourage metrics, transparency, and accountability to address the problem. She added that the “bigger problem” is that “the culture of academic science is a little bit broken.” Academic scientists aren’t trained to become better people, advisors can be neglectful, and professors are overloaded with responsibilities and have poor quality of life, she said. Sabeti believes that solving the “systemic problems” for all academics will help women scientists as well.

Trancik emphasized the importance of a good advisor in influencing a student’s experience. Having public conversations about the issues facing women in science, she said, also has a positive impact.

Thomas Levenson, a Professor in the Graduate Program of Science Writing at MIT, brought up the issue of unconscious bias against women. He referenced a study at Yale University and a related article that discovered and discussed the problem. He asked if there was some action that could overcome this unconscious bias. He also wondered about the overproduction of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows and the resulting bottleneck in available academic positions, which could draw out gender bias.

Trancik agreed that the question of unconscious bias was important. It can manifest itself in women’s self-perceptions, she said. Trying to think about concepts and problems in one’s own way, as opposed to that of colleagues or instructors, she said, can help women progress.

Sabeti said that everybody has unconscious bias. She went on to say that women are often sexist toward other women. Making the problem “transparent” will help overcome this problem, she observed, but there is also a “lag” between action and result, and the unconscious response takes the longest to change. If we change our behavior, she said, our children might see that and be different themselves. As “more women go to the top,” she added, culture should change as well.

Sabeti then said that she wishes everyone had the training of a doctorate degree. Professorship isn’t necessarily a great job, she conceded, but professionals with PhDs could take their training into business and policy. Trancik agreed, saying that being able to “look into a problem in depth and come up with your own conclusions” is useful beyond academia. She noted that a PhD gives general skills in leadership that are useful in both industry and government.

Williams concluded by saying that the system is broken in many ways, for both men and women in science. A lot “needs to be better,” she said, and women in science would benefit if the system could be made better for everybody involved.

Sarah Schwartz

Sarah Schwartz

Ph.D student at MIT Microbiology Freelance science writer/fact checker