by Laura Romanovich, adjunct biology teaching professor
Thursday August 26th marks Women’s Equality Day, a holiday that commemorates the passage of the 19th Constitutional amendment, which gave US women the right to vote, as well as draw attention to the ongoing efforts to create an equal place for women in the workplace and society.
In the STEM fields, women have been historically underrepresented and there is a long standing gender bias against women in academia. See reviews in Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews (https://journals.asm.org/doi/full/10.1128/MMBR.00018-19) and Journal of Neuroscience Research (https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/jnr.24631). The JNR review is part of a special issue on Women in Neuroscience.
In honor of today’s holiday, I would like to bring recognition to three women scientists who inspire me both through their research and their dedication to equality.Laura Romanovich
Dr. Ruth Gates
(photo: Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology)
Dr. Ruth Gates was a pioneer in the field of coral biology and the idea of using assisted evolution to build coral reefs that would be resistant against heat-induced coral bleaching in the continually warming oceans. Her earliest research linked the loss of endosymbiotic algae in corals to local thermal stress, and throughout her career she worked on uncovering the mechanisms of bleaching and the physiology of endosymbiosis. Most recently she had been working on projects to design the most resilient corals through selective breeding of corals and artificial selection of hearty symbiont types.
Dr. Gates’s outspokenness and call for action against climate change NOW is a huge reason I looked up to her as an academic idol. Her feature in Netflix’s 2017 Documentary Chasing Coral solidified my choice to study coral symbioses myself as the right one. She became one of the first big-name women in the coral biology world, and became the first woman to serve as the president of the International Society for Reef Studies (ISRS) and took initiatives to diversify the ISRS staff. Until her passing in 2018, Dr. Gates served as the Director of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology. She is also remembered by students as an advocate for breaking gender and sexuality biases in academia. Her enthusiasm for research and passion and optimism for saving corals has been described as infectious, and is her legacy carried on by students, collaborators, and others inspired by her.
Dr. Sarah Davies
(photo: Boston University)
Dr. Sarah Davies is currently an Assistant Professor of Biology at Boston University. Her research involves understanding the acclimation and adaptation of corals and their algal symbionts to anthropogenic climate change from a population genomics perspective.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Davies became an outspoken leader for breaking the gender bias pervasive in STEM academia. In November 2020, Nature Communications published an article assessing mentorship in science, which claimed that male mentorship increased the success of women in STEM (10.1038/s41467-020-19723-8). Dr. Davies was part of the call to retract this paper, citing the metrics they use to assess success are already biased against women and other minority groups. With her social media presence, she organized a Google Sheet form on which people in academia could acknowledge the importance and impact that women mentors had on their education and career. When the paper in Nature Communications was ultimately retracted a month later, her form had received over 1500 signatories.
In 2021, Dr. Davies has been author on published two separate essays in PLOS Biology: the first on ways to “rebuild the academy” in light of the COVID-19 pandemic to create a more equitable environment for mothers in academia and the second on using a wider, less-biased set of metrics to determine academic success. The first essay outlines concrete suggestions for mentors, administrators, scientific societies, publishers, and funding agencies for how to support academic mothers who have “fallen behind” in academia during COVID-related shutdowns due to extended childcare duties (10.1371/journal.pbio.3001282).
The second essay points out the sexist and racial biases in using citations and impact factors as the main metrics for success in academia; she and her co-authors argue that this focus ignores the meaningful impacts that many scientists make through inclusion, mentorship, and outreach activities. In systematically broadening “academic success” to include these multifaceted metrics, we can build an inclusive scientific community and promote more equity and diversity for marginalized groups (10.1371/journal.pbio.3001100).
Dr. Davies continues to be vocal everyday about changing academia norms to promote gender equity on her Twitter page (@DaviesswPhD).
Dr. Janice Voltzow
(photo: The University of Scranton)
Dr. Janice Voltzow is currently Professor and Department Chair of Biology at the University of Scranton. She was the first woman to be appointed full professor and first woman chair of the biology department at her current institution. Her research is in biomechanics, gastropod morphology, and more recently, effects of climate change on marine invertebrates.
During her tenure, Dr. Voltzow has advocated for greater representation for women and minorities in STEM fields. In 2011, she was Co-Principal Investigator on an NSF grant to build a network of women STEM faculty at predominantly undergraduate institutions across the USA (1107034). This network was formed to help combat gender-bias in the STEM fields, especially at PUIs, and created a mentoring system for women STEM faculty at various career levels. Small Alliances of women in the same field at the same career stage at different institutions met monthly to network and provide mutual support. The larger network hosted regular virtual and in-person meetings where its 70 participants could share personal career path experiences and offer guidance to junior faculty on navigating systemic biases in academia.
In 2018, Voltzow was awarded another NSF grant (1741994) to provide scholarships to low-income students from the Scranton, PA area who wish to pursue degrees in STEM majors. The goal of this program is to help traditionally under-represented groups develop an identity in STEM fields.
Personally, Dr. Voltzow was my undergraduate research mentor. She encouraged and supported my project – which required setting up for work completely new to both her and the University! She treated me as both a student and a collaborator, which went a long way to build my confidence as a scientist and as a writer.
Gates Coral Lab Website : http://gatescorallab.com/
The Davies Marine Population Genomics Lab: https://sites.bu.edu/davieslab/
Now-retracted Nature Communications paper: 10.1038/s41467-020-19723-8
PLOS Essay on success metrics: 10.1371/journal.pbio.3001282
PLOS Essay on supporting academic mothers: 10.1371/journal.pbio.3001100
connect with sci comm blogger & scientist Laura Romanovich