RFS Briefings/Meeting Summaries - January 29, 2020

Dear Colleagues,

For those of you who were fortunate enough to be with us for our recent Board Meeting & Colloquium at the Wistar Institute, I am delighted to provide a short summary of the presentations and a link to each video. For those of you unable to attend, you will now see what you missed!

If you would like to access all Colloquium presentations, click here.

The presentations were both personal and professional, and help to document the challenges and victories for women in science. The scientific work presented provided a glimpse of exciting new research, some already recognized with awards including the Breakthrough Prize, and some creating new disciplines combining science and engineering, biology and technology.  Although several talks bemoan how long we have worked to address the underrepresentation of women and minorities in science, many could showcase the leadership the Rosalind Franklin Society has brought to increase the number, level, and visibility of impressive women in science.

With representation of men who have worked tirelessly on this challenge as well, we are not done, but we are not discouraged!

With our thanks to the speakers and the participants-

Karla Signature
Karla Shepard Rubinger
Executive Director
Rosalind Franklin Society 

 Below are the highlights from each presentation.

A testament to its name, the Rosalind Franklin Society meeting held in November at The Wistar Institute in Philadelphia took a deep dive into the issues that surround women in STEM. The meeting drew roughly 100 women and men together to discuss a wide range of topics that surround women in STEM and offer some solutions to common challenges. The all-star lineup of speakers reached a breadth and depth of issues that is hard to find elsewhere. Here, we have highlighted each talk—from an employer’s program that allows parents to bring their infants to the office, to a national initiative addressing sexual harassment—following a continuous thread that emphasized the hurdles and biases women in STEM face every day.  And we were privy to some cutting-edge science!

The meeting started with a welcome from the organization’s founder, Mary Ann Liebert, and president Dr. Rita Colwell. Below are the highlights from each presentation.

Tracy Richmond McKnight, PhD
Director, Tobacco-Related Disease Research Program at University of California Office of the President
Translating Science and Skill Sets into a Career of Purpose

The meeting kicked off with a talk by McKnight, taking the audience along the path she followed in her winding career. That path included both corporate and academic engagements. Along the way, she found it difficult to abide by the idea that the lack of diversity in STEM was due to a lack of ability. Recognizing that it was a lack of opportunity, McKnight made her lab a place marked by its diversity following her belief that labs are where the best work on diversity can be achieved – one lab at a time. She stressed the importance for each person to discover their passion and embody that passion to develop skills and apply them. Making the point that continuing to be a student makes you a better teacher, McKnight mentioned embracing new lessons in life, such as her adult dance lessons.

McNulty Foundation Panel Discussion
Panel: April Age, Paul Angiolillo, PhD, Teresa Boyer, EdD, and Kelle Cruz, PhD
Catalyzing Women's Leadership in STEM: What We’ve Learned

The McNulty Foundation presented a panel discussion with leaders from three of their college programs that promote and support women on campus. Representatives from St. Joseph’s University, Villanova University, and Hunter College highlighted the various programs they have implemented to support women students in the STEM to further their career and education. Some of the programs addressed skill development and leadership, scholarships and counseling. They emphasized the importance of access to quality programs and advisors. Boyer noted that, “Young people need to understand the history here. We need to make sure that they know that Rosalind Franklin's story happened and that it was horrible.”

Jennifer Shieh, PhD
Chief Scientist & Policy Advisor, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy; now at SBA.
How Your Science Can Save the World

Shieh offered an overview on how the government is working to promote women in the sciences while ensuring that the United States is the world leader in science and technology, pointing out important government funds for R&D at small businesses through SIBR grants. And, on a personal note, she emphasized the importance of obtaining a science policy fellowship during her postdoctoral career, and the influence that had on her career trajectory from a researcher into policy.

Ann Merchant
Deputy Executive Director, Science & Entertainment Exchange, National Academies of Sciences
More Than Just Journals

Merchant spoke about the Science & Entertainment Exchange, an organization of the National Academy of Sciences, that increases the understanding of science by supporting the entertainment industry when they include scientific programming. Partnering with Hollywood and a range of entertainment industries, the Exchange relies on experts volunteering their time to help clarify the science used in storytelling in TV, movies, and more. Whether an Oscar winner is talking about the spread of a virus on the NYC subway or making mutants with CRISPR gene editing technology, the Exchange may have played a role in keeping the science accurate. It also helps to nurture new ideas in developing projects.

Susan Hockfield, PhD
President Emerita, MIT
The Age of Living Machines: How Biology Will Build the Next Technology Revolution

Susan Hockfield has been driving progress in neuroscience research and university leadership for decades. Hockfield’s unique perspective on what drives innovation, both at MIT and around the world, has culminated in her first book (2019), The Age of Living Machines: How Biology Will Build the Next Technology Revolution, which she encapsulated for the RFS audience. The book describes Convergence 2.0—how engineering disciplines are converging with biology to transform elements of the natural world to create “living” solutions to humankind’s most pressing challenges such as energy, healthcare, water and food insufficiency and security.

Sam Smith
Global Vice President, Life Science & Healthcare, Kelly OCG
These Women Can: What’s Next for Women in the STEM Workplace

Smith provided sobering statistics about the status of women in the workplace with a focus on STEM. For example, 50% of women in STEM have experienced gender discrimination, still face the highest rate of sexual harassment outside of the military and many switch fields, leave the workforce, or transition into part time work after becoming a parent. She contrasted these points with what women report they want in their workplace; to be treated with fairness and respect, to have a sense of value, to have a culture of collaboration, a flexible work environment, and the opportunity to learn and grow.

Susan Solomon
Founder and CEO, New York Stem Cell Foundation (NYSCF)
Getting to Even: Achieving Gender Parity in STEM in Our Lifetime

Solomon has been committed to create, implement, and promote actionable strategies to achieve gender equality at the NYSCF. To that end, the NYSCF has implemented programs that have resulted in cultural changes. For example, they include an implicit bias statement that grant reviewers must read and sign. They also instituted a “report card” for applicants on gender breakdown of invited speakers, faculty appointments, promotions, and awards. This report card is mandatory for anyone who applies for their funding. Solomon noted that this does two things: 1) it shines a light on potential problems, and 2) encourages institutions to combat the glaring underrepresentation of women. She says that women must "stand up, cut the line, and speak loudly.”

Seema Kumar
VP, Innovation, Global Health and Policy Communication, Johnson & Johnson
Out of the Shadows - Honoring Hidden Heroes of Science

Kumar spoke about the power of storytelling in science and how it has historically been about the “pale male scientists.”  Her question is ‘What about stories about women scientists?’. She went on to talk about how J&J has been cultivating women scientists into leadership roles.   She emphasized that along with cultural and policy changes, storytelling plays a huge role in transforming cultural stereotypes resulting in the empowerment of women across the globe. She spoke about the role of the next generation in shattering these stereotypes and how powerful storytelling can help here. 

Chris Dwan
Independent Consultant in the Life Sciences
Advocacy and Inclusion in the Enterprise: What Helps, What Hurts

As an independent consultant who works closely with research institutes, universities, biotech, pharmaceutical companies and the government, Dwan shared the concept that “there is a point in your leadership journey where culture becomes part of the job.”  He showed data on the lack of female representation in the top management of biotech when compared to law and other disciplines. Dwan said, “I believe that each of us, regardless of the role we play in our organization, has an opportunity to make an impact on safety, inclusion, equity, and diversity."

Erin O’Shea, PhD
President, Howard Hughes Medical Institute
Fix the Environment: Culture Change in the Life Sciences

O’ Shea notes, “diversity doesn’t drive inclusion. Inclusion drives diversity.”  HHMI, as a prestigious private research funding institution in the US, is a big player in driving inclusion and diversity in science and medicine.  O’Shea has been instrumental in spearheading HHMI’s diversity initiative to bring about positive changes at an institutional level rather than just on the scale of a “student”. 

Margaret Foti, PhD, MD (hc)
CEO, American Association for Cancer Research
Opportunities and Challenges in Cancer Research and the Important Contributions of Women to the Field

Dr. Foti spoke about various recent advances in cancer research emphasizing the collaboration of different disciplines to improve diagnosis, prognosis and therapy and the role of AACR as a multidisciplinary organization.  This has led to the development of new drugs for cancer treatment and faster FDA approvals.  She then emphasized the essential role of women scientists and physicians in cancer research and went on to talk about how there is still discrimination against women scientists and how a lack of work-life balance and family obligations drove many women to leave science.

Rachel Green, PhD
Distinguished Professor, Department of Biology, Johns Hopkins University
Colliding Ribosomes as an Integrator of Cytoplasmic Stress Responses

Green spoke about the role of ribosomes in the molecular mechanism of cytoplasmic stress response and elaborated on the ribosomal enzymes involved in the process. She is dedicated to unraveling the molecular mechanisms at the heart of protein synthesis, a fundamental evolutionary step in determining life on earth. Comparing translation to the physics of a traffic jam, she notes that initiation and elongation rates of ribosomes have evolved for flow—and to keep traffic jams at a minimum.

Shirley Malcom, PhD
Head of Education & Human Resources Programs at AAAS; SEA Change
Women into STEM: Time to fix the System!

Malcom emphasized that it is time to fix the system. She pointed out that doing “a little of this and a little of that” which is what has been going on for a long time, does not move the needle or the system and, she adds, it is exhausting for the people who are doing it. She was quick to point out that the initial funding for Johns Hopkins was barrier-breaking - from 3 heiresses under the condition that the school be coeducational. She encouraged women to be proactive in helping other women and bringing about a change.

Rhonda Davis
Head, Office of Diversity and Inclusion, and Office of the Director, NSF
NSF's Role in Addressing Barriers that Impact the Entire Scientific Research Ecosystem

Davis laid out the initiatives that NSF has implemented to ensure a diverse, inclusive and discrimination-free environment for STEM professionals. From workforce diversity to cultivating a culture that encourages collaboration, flexibility, and fairness, the NSF takes diversity and inclusion initiatives seriously.

Deanna Church, PhD
Senior Director of Applications, Inscripta
The Impact of Technology on our View of Biology

As one of the scientists who worked on the original human reference genome project, Church knows a lot about two things (at least) – genomics and being a woman in STEM. Sporting a Photograph 51 t-shirt, she spoke about the various strides made in genome biology. Noting that if there is one thing that she has learned in science all these years, it is “we really don’t know anything,” Church took the audience on a walk through genomics from past to present and, she hopes —in her latest role at a genome engineering company working with CRIPSR gene editing – into the future.

Steve Ekker, PhD
Dean, Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, Mayo Clinic
Leader Launch at Mayo Clinic

Ekker outlined the various women’s leadership programs implemented at Mayo Clinic for advancement of women in STEM. He specifically spoke about Leader Launch—their women’s leadership initiative program. The Leader Launch program is designed to enhance women leaders’ confidence and effectiveness.  He also reminded the audience that Mayo was founded by women, though a male has always been president…

Virginia M. Y. Lee, PhD
Professor, Center for Neurodegenerative Disease, University of Pennsylvania
Transmission of Misfolded Proteins in Neurodegenerative Disorders: A Common Mechanism of Disease Progression

When Lee recently received her $3.0 million Breakthrough Prize Award, with the other 10 recipients, she was the only woman on the stage. A leading Alzheimer’s researcher, Lee followed this story describing the decades of pioneering research her lab has done on the disease. She focused on the role of unique misfolded proteins in forming the inclusions that result in the progression of neurodegenerative diseases.

Beth Shelton
Executive Director Girl Scouts of Greater Iowa
Innovative Benefits, Amazing Results

Wearing a “Future STEMinist” t-shirt, Shelton outlined the initiatives she has implemented to improve work-life balance for her employees. A manager who “walks the walk”, she knows that treating employees better increases productivity, with benefits such as 24 days of PTO and paid bereavement leave. One innovative program she has implemented allows new parents to bring their infant to work (full time) for up to six months—a program that has been shared with 100 other organizations, 8 of which have implemented it. When she showed her organization chart, Shelton is at the bottom in an inverted pyramid, her job is to lift and empower the team.  In addition, she is a visible role model for thousands of Girl Scouts, many of whom pursue a prestige badge in STEM!

George Thibault, MD
Past President, Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation
Women in Academic Medicine

Thibault presented a thorough summary of many of the different issues brought up during the meeting, helping the participants focus on key points. With an illustrious career in medical education and clinical affairs Harvard Medical School, Brigham & Women’s, MGH, and continues to serve on the Board of the NY Academy of Medicine and the IOM. He bemoaned the fact that representation of women is still an issue.

Alex Helman, PhD
Associate Program Officer, National Academies of Sciences
Working to Prevent Sexual Harassment in Higher Education

The last (but certainly not least) speaker at the meeting was Helman, detailing the work going on at the National Academies of Science on the state of sexual harassment. They are currently working on implementation and promotion of the recent report “Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.” She shared the "iceberg image" which explains the different types of sexual and gender harassment and how much of it occurs beneath the surface.

In addition to the talks listed above, another highlight of the meeting were the 3 award winners who are inspirational role models for women in STEM. Reshma Shetty, Ritu Raman and Ellen Foxman shared their work, along with stories from their scientific journeys.

Ellen Foxman, PhD MD, assistant professor at Yale University and winner of the Levine Lab Laureate Award studied medicine while starting a family. After jumping off the treadmill, and “hitting pause” for 7 years, she shared how she managed to pick up where she left off.

Reshma Shetty, PhD, co-founder of Ginkgo Bioworks, a synthetic biology company, is the winner of the 2019 Rosalind Franklin Award for Leadership in Industrial Biotechnology—sponsored by the Rosalind Franklin Society and presented each year at the Biotechnology Innovation Organization’s World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology and Agtech. Ginkgo, which started in 2008 in an apartment in Cambridge, MA, has roughly 250 employees today. The company uses genetic engineering to produce microbes with industrial applications and, in doing so, is pioneering the field of synthetic biology while integrating their expertise into multiple, varied, cutting-edge industries.

Ritu Raman, PhD, is the winner of the Sartorius & Science Prize for Regenerative Medicine & Cell Therapy. Raman builds responsive implantable devices in the Langer Lab at MIT, teaches girls how to build their own 3D printers, is an If/Then ambassador and has started WiSDM – a women in STEM database at MIT. She notes that “we need diverse voices; we make those voices easy to find.”

The meeting touched on many challenges that are still present today, and programs and initiatives that are designed to promote equality. One theme that was heard throughout the meeting was how women need help not just from other women but also from their male colleagues for change in policies and the workplace environment.

Another theme was the predominant stereotype of scientists as “stale, pale and male”, and ways to disrupt it.  In spite of these challenges, one left the meeting with energy and optimism, and awe for many of these speakers – for their achievements and for their continued efforts to support women in science.