A Science Symposium–for Women

By Katarzyna Nowak, Safina Center Fellow

Words women scientists use most often

It was last year that I attended the Wild and Scenic Film Festival in this very same room, the Lory Student Theatre at Colorado State University (CSU). The part of the festival that left a lasting impression was an all-male panel discussing fisheries and environmental change. I had wondered why no women or people of color were on the panel, and went away goaded. Straightaway, I contacted several members of 500 Women Scientists, a growing community of women in STEM fields committed to speaking up for science and for women, minorities, immigrants, people with disabilities, and LGBTQIA.

Upon expressing a desire to set up a public register of women scientists that could be used to seek women for panels, keynotes, outreach in general, I learned that two women were already brewing this very idea. So I teamed up with Jane Zelikova, cofounder of 500 Women Scientists, and Liz Langer, the technical brain, to establish Request a Woman Scientist, which we launched in January 2018 and which now contains entries from nearly 6,000 women STEM experts from around the world. Day-to-day, we are helped by AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow Maryam Zaringhalam, in managing the database and vetting new members.

Six months since the fisheries “manel”, Liz and I were at CSU to present a poster about the database at the 2nd Women in Science Symposium. The day started optimistically with the stage filling with elementary school girls expressing why they’re excited about science. Because of “discovery” and “invention” two said. “There’s no question limit,” said another. They were here to meet actual women scientists from CSU with whom they had been pen pals.

Liz Langer (right) and I (left) with our poster about Request a Woman Scientist

Elementary school girls express why they’re interested in science and meet
their CSU woman scientist pen pals

We then heard talks from three impressive female scientists.

Professor Kathleen Galvin of CSU’s Africa Center spoke about her East Africa-based research, borne out of an exciting grant that supported anthropologists and ecologists working together to understand how people cope with highly seasonal environments both behaviorally and biologically. Galvin described the challenges of people attempting to eek out a living in increasingly fragmented landscapes. As a conservation scientist, I thought to myself, “Landscape connectivity matters – not only for wildlife.” My own research in Tanzania suggests that negative interactions between people and wildlife escalate when habitats become fragmented and wildlife migration corridors are blocked leading often to revenge killings or “problem animal control” of large herbivores and carnivores, integral to functioning ecosystems.

“The links between biodiversity and human wellbeing are indisputable,” Galvin was saying.

Professor Galvin shares her research on human nutrition in East Africa

According to Galvin, community-based conservation efforts have not been a panacea and less than 50 percent of such programs have positive outcomes. Why is this? Many are place-based and some are challenged by elite capture, where benefits are accrued by “big wigs”, ministers, village chiefs, typically men. “We need to involve women in solving problems,” said Galvin. She also emphasized the importance of tapping into indigenous knowledge, as “indigenous people know what’s going on and have ideas for solutions.”

“We need all hands on deck. We need all knowledge systems. We need to bring together diverse ‘knowledges’.”

Doing this would help challenge and change the mental models to which we adhere.

In the Q&A, Galvin was asked, “How do we integrate marginalized ways of knowing, for example from indigenous women?” Her answer was, “Start out by talking to at least 30 such indigenous women.”

Next on was Kelsey Shaw, a doctor of veterinary medicine from Emory University. Her talk topic – outside of her discipline – was “implicit bias”. To illustrate what that means, she shared a 2-minute video demonstrating how early in life bias starts, at between 5 and 7 years of age.

Shaw encouraged members of the audience to watch the video and help “redraw the balance”, as well as to take an implicit association test online and see MTV’s “Look Different” campaign that is helping expose common biases including racial, gender, and anti-LGBT.

“Don’t say that you ‘don’t see color’,” she urged. “Don’t erase diversity, or identity. Embrace and recognize it and then ensure there’s equity.”

Veterinarian Kelsey Shaw demonstrates implicit bias by having us read the words for colors –
we do so with some delay as the words don’t match the colors we see

She likened equitable investment in students to royal jelly, a secretion used by honeybees to feed all the larvae in a hive irrespective of their caste or sex.

Her take-away was, “Live your life as if you’re in a diversity stock photo.”

Between Galvin’s and Shaw’s talks, one red thread was “diversity of knowledge systems is where it’s at.”

A panel followed these two talks to discuss the backlash effect associated with women promoting themselves. One woman, from Latin America, asked “Why do we have to show off when many of us have been brought up not to do that – are there other ways?” I could relate. With my Eastern European background, it’s generally culturally in bad taste for women to promote themselves and I too find it uncomfortable.

One man advised, “If cultural norms keep you from promoting yourself, promote your science.” A female member of the audience offered this, “Get women faculty to write CVs for each other. Women often have no qualms about promoting other women.”

A panel discusses how women avoid promoting themselves to avoid
possible backlash associated with self-promotion

The day’s final speaker was Professor of Global Health and Social Medicine, Megan Murray, of Harvard Medical School. Murray emphasized “family” in her talk; the first five years of her very early career were characterized by academic papers, including in the medical journal The Lancet, authored by Murray, Murray, Murray & Murray. These were based on medical work she conducted with her parents and brother in Africa.

Murray went on to point out the discrepancies in research funding for men and women. She also described the at times fanatical pace of her career with stories about darting out of the hospital during the third year of her residency to breastfeed her infant daughter in a car driven by her jazz musician husband. They’d drive round and round the block until the baby was fed and then she’d jump out of the car and get back to work.

Professor Murray points out the sex discrepancies in research funding

But, she says, “In the grand scheme of things, having children had a small impact on my career. Sure, it slowed me down sometimes, but not in the grand scheme.”

Don’t, she advised, compromise your own needs, your family.

Oh, and:

Final words of advice on work-life balance from Professor Murray

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