Images of women in science

An idle Google image search of ‘women in science’ throws up some interesting results. Cue reams of pictures of girls in labcoats brandishing pipettes… all very nice and politically correct but, why is it only young women who’re portrayed as doing science?

women3women4women1In the majority of these images, women are featured in trainee-type or educative settings; clustered around a microscope learning the ropes or listening with rapt attention to a (probably male, let’s face it) lecturer. Are women only involved in science as students or trainees?  The images we use certainly portray this; they’re not just rife in a Google Images search but are found all over well-meaning sources.

Unfortunately this is an image which is also backed up by statistics. In the biosciences, the undergraduate, PhD and postdoc communities present an approximately 50:50 gender split. However, as soon as more senior roles are considered, this balance erodes until we are left with only 15% female bioscience professors in the UK.(1)

While it’s definitely a great thing that the bioscience student population reflects the gender balance – something which is not seen with other scientific disciplines – it remains a concern that this does not pervade right to the top of the career ladder. The possible reasons for this are many and varied.(2)

In order to change this, we need to alter the perception that women in science are generally young and involved as learners rather than as leaders. Changing the images we use is obviously only a small part of the process required to change this but it’s a step. Anything that could have an influence on the perception of women in science, especially that of young women and men considering a career in science, can only be a good thing.

So let’s champion (and create!) images of women in senior roles and of senior ages.  When selecting images to accompany articles, marketing materials or reports think about the age and role of the female scientists portrayed. It’s a small change, but one that could get us a little closer to a more gender balanced community.

(1) 2011/2012 HESA data
(2) For an analysis, see the Society of Biology’s response to the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee’s inquiry into women in academic STEM careers

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My General Travel Grant Experience – Member Guest Blog

Guest Blog by Katie Grayson – 4th year PhD student working in photosynthesis research and synthetic biology, in the lab of Professor C. Neil Hunter, FRS at the University of Sheffield

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k grayson

Gordon Research Conferences (GRCs) provide an international forum for the discussion of frontier research. I recently attended the August 2013 GRC on Photosynthesis. This was the first international conference I have been to and it came at an ideal time as I was just finishing the 3rd year of my PhD. The conference was held at Mount Snow in Vermont, with rolling hills and trees as far as the eye could see; the remote location really fostered a sense of community. Despite the fact that the conference was intense in terms of science, the beauty of the location helped create a relaxed atmosphere.

GRCs are intended to be small and create plenty of opportunities to interact with other attendees. The atmosphere was not cliquish – people, including the senior scientists, were approachable and everyone had a voice. Formal networking opportunities came in the form of discussions after talks and poster sessions, but there were also 3 hours of free time in the afternoon to form social connections with other people. Even during these informal periods, we had stimulating scientific discussions in a more relaxed environment than during the scheduled formal discussions, encouraging everyone to speak freely.

The talks were diverse and covered the latest developments in my field. My research involves just one small area in the wide field of photosynthesis, so it’s important to keep in touch with what other work is being done. Poster sessions were held for a couple of hours each day, and provided a chance to meet people whose research was relevant to mine, to share ideas and discuss experiments. I came away from the meeting inspired to try many new things in the lab, and with new ideas for directions to take my research. By having the chance to talk to scientists from other stages in their career, I learned about the possible career paths I could take, and what sort of area I would like to continue research in after my PhD. I also gained tips and tricks for when it comes to looking for postdoctoral positions, especially internationally as there were attendees from all over the world.

Traveling to America for a conference was a great cultural experience. I made new friends and have formed many new contacts, who I hope to see and possibly work with in the future. I now have contacts should I need inputs on science, possible collaborations and jobs. I also met people from the USA with whom I have existing collaborations; it was invaluable to be able to meet face-to-face rather than exchanging emails across time zones.

I am extremely grateful to the Biochemical Society for awarding me a travel grant to help fund my attendance at the GRC. The travel grant application process was a useful exercise in focusing my goals for what I wanted to get out of the conference, and I would encourage anyone to apply. I would recommend anyone who has the chance to attend a conference to seize the opportunity as, for me, it was a rewarding and inspiring experience. GRCs are especially good for anyone who is attending an international scientific meeting for the first time due to the sense of community and non-intimidating atmosphere.

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Have you been a member of the Biochemical Society for over a year? You can apply for a General Travel Grant to support your attendance at a conference.

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Summer School in Shanghai

Kyle on Great WallAs part of our new International Associate Membership agreement with the Chinese Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (CSBMB), we helped four of our postgraduate members  attend  the  CSBMB’s Summer  School  in  Shanghai  in  July,  with  our  Society paying for travel and CSBMB covering registration and accommodation costs.

Kyle Fowler (University of Sheffield, UK) was one of the four, and reports on his experience:

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“The 5th International Advanced Summer School was held in the Shanghai Institute of Biochemistry and Cell Biology, and this year the theme of the meeting was RNA biology. The success of the Institute is highlighted by two key achievements: the total synthesis of crystalline bovine insulin in 1965 and the total synthesis of yeast alanine tRNA in 1981.

During my flight to Shanghai I was slightly apprehensive about finding my way from Shanghai Pu-Dong Airport to the hotel; however all signs in the metro and railway stations had English translations allowing me to easily travel anywhere in Shanghai for around 40 pence.

Each day began with a lecture from a renowned researcher from either the University of Toronto or the University of Leuven. Topics such as: alternative splicing, RNAi, RNA binding motifs and computational biology were discussed. I particularly enjoyed the talk on Thursday morning by Dr. Quaid Morris, in which he discussed the application of computational biology to both predict RNA secondary structure and to model the binding of RNA binding proteins to their RNA target. Following his talk I was enlightened to the current challenges faced by the field, and especially the need to model the change in RNA secondary structure that occurs during the binding of an RNA binding protein.

After the lunch break PhD students and post docs were given the opportunity to present their work and receive expert advice from the guest speakers. The day was concluded with a detailed group discussion within small groups. The discussion tended to cover questions about the presented lecture material and personal issues with one’s project, however other topics such as the qualities required to become a professor were often brought up.

During one of the afternoons we were taken on a tour of the laboratories and it became clear to me that in addition to all of the facilities on site, across the river (Pudong area) in The National Centre for Protein Science Shanghai there has been a huge amount of money invested in equipment such as the TitanKrios, which is the most powerful electron microscope in the world.

Following the Summer School I travelled to Beijing with two other students, where we visited sites such as the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. We also did a 6 kilometre hike along the Great Wall.

Overall, the Summer School was very well organised and covered a range of topics in the field of RNA biology. This was my first trip to China, and it most certainly was one that I will never forget. I am extremely grateful to the Biochemical Society and Chinese Society of Biochemistry and Molecular for generously funding my flights, accommodation and meals for the entire week.”

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Are you postgraduate student studying the molecular or cellular biosciences? Join the Biochemical Society and take advantage of our grants to help you attend conferences, both in the United Kingdom and abroad.

Already a postgraduate member? The International Union of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and the Brazilian Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology will jointly host the 23rd IUBMB and 44th SBBq Congress in Brazil, 24–28 August 2015. A satellite IUBMB-SBBq Young Scientists Program will be held in the days preceding. Our postgraduate members are eligible to apply for free registration and shared accommodation for both events. Visit the Congress website for more information and to apply. The deadline is 15 October 2014. Biochemical Society members who are successful will also have the opportunity to apply for a Travel Grant of up to £650.

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Eisenthal Prize selected from record number of studentship applications

Sarah Pearsall (University of Leeds, UK) was today announced as the 2014 Eisenthal Prize winner, awarded to the highest quality student applicant for the Biochemical Society’s Summer Vacation Studentships. 

Sarah Pearsall, University of Leeds

Sarah Pearsall, University of Leeds

Sarah recently completed her eight-week placement at the University of Leeds under the supervision of Dr Roman Tuma, working on a project entitled “Engineering of hexameric helicases to translocate specific RNA molecules”.

She was alongside a record 195 other students and supervisors who applied for the Summer Vacation Studentships, a Biochemical Society scheme to benefit students with valuable lab experience and supervisors, who gain an extra pair of hands for the summer and can play a part in introducing a future scientist to research.

Dr Roman Tuma said: “I enjoyed working as a laboratory helper in a research institute from my early days at the university and had opportunity to contribute to research projects, including writing reports and presenting results at lab meetings. Such hands-on experience played an essential role in my training.

“Now as a supervisor I enjoy giving such opportunity to motivated undergraduates like Sarah. In her project she was able to engineer a viral molecular motor into an RNA-processing molecular machine which has potential applications in fighting viral infections. The project ventures into the realm of synthetic biology and builds upon our research into virus structure and replication.

“The Biochemical Society funding gave us opportunity to quickly capitalise on our basic research and demonstrate potential use of our discoveries.”

Sarah Pearsall, the undergraduate, said the studentship was an excellent and exciting opportunity, as she had not worked alongside professional scientists before.

“This experience will help me to refine my laboratory skills and provide me with insight into innovative, cutting-edge research. I am passionate about working in the lab and aspire to be a research scientist in the future, this internship will … be incredibly rewarding to me and support my extensive third year project. “

The Eisenthal Prize is awarded in memory of Professor Robert Eisenthal, formerly of the Biology and Biochemistry Department at the University of Bath, who was a long standing and active member of the Biochemical Society. The Society instituted the Eisenthal Prize to honour his commitment to science education and wishes this prize to be a lasting mark of respect for a colleague who did so much to make the Studentship scheme so successful.

Apply for a 2015 Summer Vacation Studentship

Grants are available for stipends of £200 per week for 6 – 8 weeks, and up to £1,600 in total, to support an undergraduate student to carry out a summer lab placement. This scheme not only benefits the student as they get valuable research experience, but the supervisor also gains an extra pair of hands in the lab.

Interested students must pair up with a potential supervisor, develop a project together, and then apply for funding. Applicants (supervisors) must be members of the Biochemical Society working in a university or research institute, and apply for the grant on behalf of the student.

The deadline for the 2014 applications has now passed. The deadline for the 2015 Studentships is 11 February 2015.

Visit our website for more information and to apply.

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Epigenetics – Why You Don’t Have Teeth in Your Eyeballs

In the last century, the question of how much nature vs nurture influences our development from embryo to adult has been debated furiously. Is our development driven solely by our genetic code, or is it influenced by environmental pressures? This is the question epigenetics seeks to answer.

Imagine the genetic code as a script, outlining which genes we should express.  Epigenetics is the study of how this gene expression is regulated by environmental factors.

The environmental factors can range from the signals produced by neighbouring cells in a developing embryo to pollutants in the atmosphere.  The importance of epigenetics can be demonstrated by the ways in which it influences health and disease.  Scientists working in epigenetics have revealed that gene regulation via epigenetics can contribute towards mental health conditions, the likelihood of developing various cancers, drug addiction and respiratory diseases, to name just a few. Epigenetics allows for our genetic script to be interpreted in many different ways.  This happens because of modifications that are placed on our genes. 

These modifications coat the genes and act as epigenetic tags, labelling genes which need to be turned “on” or “off”. This means different genes can be expressed without affecting the genetic code.

It is not fully understood how or why epigenetic changes occur. Studies are starting to show that interactions with our environment are a contributing factor. For example, your food intake, the amount of exercise you do, if you smoke and what kind of toxins and chemicals you are exposed to can all result in epigenetic changes to our genetic material, and can thereby influence how our cells and ultimately our bodies behave.

Epigenetic variation is all around us. When a caterpillar changes into a butterfly, its genetic code remains the same but an entirely different set of genes are expressed. Male and female crocodiles are genetically identical, yet they look completely different. One way scientists have been trying to understand and monitor epigenetics, is by observing identical twins. Identical twins are conceived from a single egg, so they have the same genome. This makes them ideal candidates for genetic and epigenetic studies.  By studying the epigenetic variation between twins, scientists are hoping to answer a question that has puzzled us for centuries.  Since twins have identical DNA, why do we frequently find that only one twin in a pair develops a disorder such as cancer or schizophrenia, even when the two people have been raised in a really similar environment? 

These studies have raised further questions, such as how heritable are epigenetic modifications? Are they reversible? Currently, researchers are working towards developing DNA demethylating agents such as Azacitidine as anti-cancer drugs, amongst other treatments in an attempt to reverse epigenetic modifications. The potential impact of this treatment is astonishing.

Large scale projects such as the Human Epigenome Project aim to “identify, catalogue and interpret genome-wide DNA methylation patterns of all human genes in all major tissues.” In doing this, scientists hope to uncover how genetics, the environment and disease are linked to further our understanding and diagnosis of human disease.

In celebration of this fascinating topic, we are holding a free public lecture “Epigenetics – Why You Don’t Have Teeth In Your Eyeballs” as part of the British Science Festival in Birmingham 2014. The session will be chaired by Professor Alice Roberts (University of Birmingham, UK) and will feature talks from Nessa Carey (Pfizer) and Bryan Turner (University of Birmingham, UK). After the talks, the audience will have the opportunity to ask questions and debate issues raised with our speakers.  

Visit www.britishsciencefestival.org for more details of the programme.

 

When: Monday 8 September 2014, 15.30-17.00

Where: Lecture Theatre S02, Poynting Physics Building, University of Birmingham

Registration: Click here

 

The event is to celebrate 50 years of FEBS, is the British Biology Sections presidential address, and is jointly organized with the University of Birmingham.

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Diversity and the Evidence Base

dataIf there’s one thing I’ve learnt in my role as Policy Officer at the Biochemical Society, it’s the importance of a solid evidence base. The question ‘where’s the evidence for that?’ is a bit of a mantra to those in the science policy community.

This passion for evidence-based approaches makes it confusing when an issue presents itself where there isn’t a solid evidence base, and what’s more, it’s arguable that there shouldn’t need to be one. I’m talking about issues of diversity in science, set to be a focus for the Biochemical Society in the next 5 years.

Most people inherently believe that diversity is a good thing. Initiatives to make science open to all and to remove barriers so that the science community can reflect the make-up of UK society would seem like no-brainers. Do we need evidence to show that this should be the case? This evidence would likely be based on economic considerations: would a more diverse scientific workforce be more productive? Would it foster better science and lead to increased return on investment?

This leads me to a further, and more fundamental, question; when it comes to issues of diversity, should moral arguments take precedent over scientific arguments? Do moral and ethical considerations trump the scientific and economic argument here; is inclusivity more important than scientific productivity? Thus should we even be seeking to evidence statements surrounding diversity in science? I’m aware that’s a lot of questions and I certainly don’t have all the answers.

The Royal Society recently published a report entitled ‘Diversity in STEMM: establishing a business case’. In this the authors attempted to outline the evidence for why diversity in science is good from a non-emotive perspective, setting moral and ethical considerations aside. In the process of doing this they received a great deal of criticism from commentators who found it inappropriate that anyone should seek to do more than accept the moral position that equality should be a given. Many firmly stated that they felt that diversity should not be argued on economic grounds and appeared to find it offensive that the Royal Society would even consider doing so. They believed that this amounted to a trivialisation of the moral case.

However I think the point of the Royal Society’s report was lost; it was seeking evidence to demonstrate that there is a business as well as a moral case to support a diverse workforce. It’s the ‘as well as’ here that’s key; clearly, and unfortunately, the moral and ethical considerations have only got us so far. We need to use all the tools on our armory to argue and fight to increase diversity in science.

So, in an attempt to answer a few of my own questions, I think that the moral imperative for diversity does stand-alone without the need for it to be ‘backed-up’ by economic figures. However, I think any additional ammunition we can garner is vital in order to address and tackle the problem, especially when facing those for whom numbers can matter more than ethics.    

As the Biochemical Society develops its 5 year equality and diversity strategy, commissioning research into diversity topics and issues will be considered. Applications for the Society’s diversity in science grants which  seek to kick-off research proposals would be very welcome; applications for catalytic funding will be considered as long as evidence of future funding to ensure project sustainability is provided.

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