Science and gender inequality still pressing issue

The issue about gender inequality in science has been an ongoing topic of discussion both in industry and academia. It seems ironic that this field, where objectivity is more often sought over subjectivity, apparently suffers from a gender-biased culture. In line with this, I recently read this blog that featured a number of female scientists and their stories behind how “being a woman” influenced their careers. It’s quite long, but I think the details are quite substantial so I’d say it is worth reading.

At the beginning of Pollack’s article, she mentioned a study conducted just this summer showing how there is still some preference for men (over women) in academic job offerings. I wish she could have included a reference to the paper so that people could see how this study was conducted or how reliable the results are. Overall, her article articulates how these collection of anecdotes from the female scientists she interviewed shows that there are still some stereotypes and social constructs that can potentially be hindrances to females pursuing this field. It’s quite bothering how, from Marie Curie’s time until now, we still haven’t achieved a gender balance—men still outnumbers women in this field.

curie

Marie Curie is in the bottom row, third from left. The only female who attended the Solvay Conference on Physics, 1927. Taken from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/06/magazine/why-are-there-still-so-few-women-in-science.html?_r=0.

I’d say that in this article, the most striking statement for me is: “And yet, as I listened to these four young women laugh at the stereotypes and fears that had discouraged so many others, I was heartened that even these few had made this far, that theirs will be the faces the next generation grows up imagining when they think of a female scientist.” I’m sure there’s more modern female scientists with interesting stories of success than the list that Pollack gave in her article; there should be.

Another interesting article, released earlier this year in Nature magazine, touched on some of the reasons behind this gender imbalance. To note, the article is entitled ‘Science for all’, which I think is more politically correct rather than specifically saying ‘women for science.’ Childcare, political influences and institutional support are some of the issues that the author touched upon.

In the end, the article boils down to showing how women themselves should find ways and implement things on how their ‘status and profile’ can be uplifted in this very competitive field. By looking at more articles/blogs regarding these topics, everything says the gender issue is definitely still present and that the biases still negatively affect females. Different point of views are given, I’d say my fellow female scientists should take some time to look at these and ponder on them.

At this point, I don’t think I am credible enough to throw in my insights about this topic. I haven’t arrived at that point yet in my career that I needed to apply and compete with a pool of male and female applicants for a real job. I guess I feel like I do not have enough experience yet to give a stand about this issue. However, I keep on seeing articles like this for almost a year and a half of my stay here in this institution and from a student’s point of view, I’d say it is somehow discouraging. I suspect other female graduate students feel the same way, at some point.

Having said that, I am writing this not to discourage further but rather to put up a challenge. Statistics are very clear in showing how females are a minority in the field of science. But, I think the initiative to promote balance should come from the female members of this field themselves. This should be the challenge—starting to uplift the status of women in science in an active way and not just passively waiting for opportunities or help to come. These are just some of my thoughts that I hope would be able to stimulate the thoughts of the readers to not just ponder on it, but to provide an action on this issue.

Herdeline Ann Ardoña is a second year graduate student in the Department of Chemistry under Professor J.D. Tovar, co-advised by Professor Hai-Quan Mao.

 

Vrendenburg Scholarship offers international research experience to engineering undergrads

SykesTeamDue to a rigid Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering curriculum, I never had the opportunity to study abroad during the normal academic year. I always felt left out, because many of my friends and peers had left school to spend their semesters in fabulous places like Amsterdam and London. Even worse, I studied French for many years in middle and high school and always longed to spend a semester in France.

 

 

One day, however, I happened to stumble across the Vredenburg Scholarship, the solution to all my woes.

Paris

Paris.

Each summer, the Vredenburg Scholarship funds 13 undergraduates to apply their engineering skills and training in international research, internships and service projects. I was fortunate enough to use my Vredenburg Scholarship to fulfill my dreams and spend this past summer researching in Paris.

I conducted researched at the historic Institut Curie, which is located in the beautiful fifth arrondissement of Paris. I was paired with a postdoctoral researcher, Dr. Kévin Carvalho, in the Sykes Lab. My project focused on the physics of myosin 1c, a molecular motor that plays important roles in endocytosis, membrane trafficking and transcription of DNA in the nucleus. Rather than working with complex systems like cells, I reconstituted actin gels in a controlled system on the exterior of liposomes. Then, in order to characterize myosin 1c, I would add the molecular motor and quantify the effects on the gel.

RollerBlading

Rollerblading.

Having been a part-time undergraduate researcher in the Denis Wirtz Lab at Hopkins over the past few years, it was so nice to have a full-time research position. With no classes taking up my time, I was finally able to immerse myself in research. I participated in a weekly journal club, attend seminars and listened to PhD Defenses (sometimes in French!).

When not researching in the lab, I spent my free time falling in love with Paris. The city is so alive during the summer, and there were always fun things to do. Whether walking through the Versailles Gardens or spending hours in Louvre, I was able to immerse myself in the French culture. One of my favorite days was when I rollerbladed with my friend Jane and thousands of other Parisians on a 12 mile course through Paris.

My summer was a truly incredibly experience. I was able to follow my passion of research to a wonderful, foreign city. How else would anyone want to spend their summer?

Learn more about the Vredenburg Scholarship.

Shaun McGovern, a senior in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, researches the viscoelastic properties of pancreatic cancer in the Wirtz Lab.

Work-life balance and the new baby

My wife is a second year oncology fellow and I am an MD who, in my goal of being a life-long student, has decided to get my PhD as well. My first two years as a graduate student in the Denis Wirtz lab were relatively uncomplicated in terms of devoting ample time to research. My wife worked long hours at the hospital, allowing me to work long hours at the lab. But I guess you could say that the work-life balance changes dramatically when you add a child to the scales.

Young lab assistant at work.

Young lab assistant at work.

Suddenly, the demands of life become significantly greater and more pressing and gone was the ability to work long hours in the lab. I remember the days of not lamenting my wife having to work the weekend because it meant I also got to go into lab and get some work done. Now, my wife working on the weekend means I am responsible for our little one and it is difficult to get work done when you are looking after a rambunctious 1 year old. The same holds true when my daughter is sick. While I envisioned a quiet day at home as she slept off her virus, instead I am chasing a rambunctious, fussy 1 year old.

I have often found that as I add more demands to my schedule, I respond by becoming more efficient with my time. That certainly has been the case in getting work accomplished now. Often having to pick my daughter up from daycare means I can no longer stay late in lab. And weekends are often devoted to family time. This has required me to take extra care in planning experiments and allocating time for data analysis. I am still able to get the work done but I can no longer blindly set up multi-day experiments. Instead, each week is planned out more thoroughly in advance, coordinating schedules with my wife.>

But in the end, all of the extra effort, coordinating, and busy times are well worth it. Having a daughter reminds me of the goals in life to accomplish. Even though my priorities have shifted and work is no longer at the top, it is still an important facet of life. It just now has some company.

Zev Binder is an MD and a third-year graduate student in the laboratory of Denis Wirtz, working on a new model system for the study of brain tumor cell motility.

Science Britannica ‘Clear Blue Skies’ screening Nov. 22

Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology will present a screening of an episode of the Science Britannica show “Clear Blue Skies,” whichaired on the BBC earlier this year. This episode discusses the importance of funding for basic and translational research.

Brian Cox is the host of Clear Blue Skies on the BBC.

Brian Cox is the host of Clear Blue Skies on the BBC.

The video (about 50 mins long) is hosted by Brian Cox, a physicist from the University of Manchester, who describes the history of funding for scientific research and highlights some key discoveries from Britain. Since it is incumbent on the scientific community to ensure that the general public and politicians understand the importance of science funding, this video provides an important perspective on this topic.

The screening will be Friday, November 22 at 5 p.m. in Shaffer 3 on the Homewood Campus. This screening is free and open to the entire Johns Hopkins Community, but seating is limited. Afterward, there will be an informal discussion about the importance of science funding with INBT director Peter Searson, professor of materials science and engineering at JHU.

‘Best’ places to work matter of perspective

I spend a lot of time talking to INBT students about careers and companies. A question that comes up often concerns “is that a good place to work?”.

top employers logoAll employers, (companies, universities, non-profits, even government) contrary to articles in the popular press as a rule want to be “good places to work”. During the recruiting and hiring process they will all emphasize their commitment to their employees. Much of this is self-serving blather and should be taken with a grain of salt, but clearly no organization sets out be a workplace where people are dissatisfied.

In particular, employers do try to be cognizant of the needs of specialized talent such as highly trained scientists and engineers who may be critical to corporate success. None of this, of course, means that factors such as profitability, market conditions, competitive realities and goal achievement don’t matter or occasionally overwhelm other factors. It also doesn’t mean that there are no bosses or co-workers who are jerks, places where expectations are unrealistic or situations where work pressures appear too high. Science–focused companies do, for very logical reasons, recognize the importance of scientists.

There are innumerable “best places to work” surveys: in local papers, chamber of commerce type magazines, the business press and on websites. Knowledge–based industries tend to do well on these. Also, for logical reasons, there is a correlation between profitable, growing enterprises and high rankings in workplace conditions.

Science magazine conducts an annual survey of “best employers”. A link to the 2013 results for the biotech-pharma research industry is below. The top 20 read like a Who’s Who of these companies. The key ingredients appear to be innovation, treating employees with respect, social responsibility, vision and high quality of work. The survey doesn’t mention issues like salary, job security and benefits (probably because it assumes the industry is very competitive on those areas).

Here is my personal view: take it all with a grain of salt, but consider the factors mentioned. Additionally, before making a career decision, if possible get a good sense of what employees say about the company and the specific organization.

Annual Top Employers Survey

 

Seizing serendipity during a European internship

Studying abroad is a popular experience for undergraduates and many students try to take advantage of this opportunity. Being an international student at heart, I was also interested in exploring the world; however, my coursework made it practically impossible to go abroad with the study programs that my college offered. I did not just want to go traveling though, I wanted to invest my time while creating new experiences for myself, and so it occurred to me to independently seek an international research internship abroad. I started searching for the opportunities and with some luck involved I discovered the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL). The institute actually consists of a large number of member states in Europe including Germany, France, UK, and even, somehow, Australia.

We were completely soaked, but we had to get back. Much to our surprise we got a ride back up to the castle.

We were completely soaked, but we had to get back. Much to our surprise we got a ride back up to the castle.

After a series of e-mails and a phone interview I ended up joining the group of Dr. Christian Haering whose lab is studying the condensin protein complex in yeast. Condensin protein complex does pretty much what you would expect; it condenses and organizes chromosomes together but also has other roles, like regulating gene expression. The project seemed exciting to me, and it also meant that I would be able to spend my summer in Heidelberg, Germany, while learning something new. One of my best college friends also applied to the institute and ended up being accepted to a different lab.

The campus was located in a serene location on top of the hill, which required a healthy hike through the forest in the morning. A lot of things about this place were special: there was a building with two floors spiraling upwards in a double helix, a cafeteria chef with a mustache in a style of a Prussian soldier singing and greeting with “Bonjour!” beer Fridays organized by different labs, journal clubs and coffee breaks with a beautiful spectrum of accents discussing science.

In my research, I worked with fission yeast and tried to isolate condensin and other proteins that might interact with it on some level. I learned new techniques of growing yeast, isolating protein with magnetic nanobeads, and performing Western blots to mention a few. Although I did end up working very long hours during the week, Friday nights meant one thing: my friend and I were literally running to catch a train. We would come to work with packed backpacks and a vague idea of where we wanted to go. Very often we were in the hands of serendipity, which provided opportunities that would be difficult to plan out.

IMG_3695_stitch cc sat60 us. Hohenzollern in thunderstormTo give an overview of one weekend, we were able to visit Frankfurt, Cologne, Bonn, and a tiny city St. Goar on the Rhine River. Almost nearly missing a series of trains but always making it with half-a-minute to spare, we finally missed the connecting train in Frankfurt by 20 seconds and got stuck there. As a result, we arrived in Cologne at 6 a.m., with a stunning view of Cologne’s gothic cathedral filling most of the huge window of the train station. By midday we moved on to Bonn because it was a birthplace of Beethoven. If you ask me how we ended up in the tiny city of St. Goar, I do not know. In St. Goar, by chance we learned that they had closed the road along the Rhine to give bicycles free reign, and so we rented bikes to participate in the procession with other bicyclists. On the way, we climbed up to three castles overlooking the Rhine, and arrived back to our town late at night to get some sleep before work. In a similar manner, we traveled to Switzerland, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and various cities in Germany.

The experience in Europe was rich with emotions and stories: from the Foreigner performance in Mannheim to the Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” in St. Chapelle in Paris, from sleeping at the train station to being soaked under rain in the attempt to climb a mountain with a castle on top.

I advise undergraduates to actively seek such research and travel opportunities because very few things make you feel so alive like learning and traveling.

Alex Komin, a first-year PhD student in Kalina Hristova’s lab in Materials Science and Engineering Department, is working on new methods to deliver drugs to the brain.

Q & A: Nanopaprika, the social network for nanoscience

About the same time that Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology (INBT) came into existence, which was May 2006, a network was established online for people interested in all things nano. The International NanoScience Community, or TINC for short, wasn’t some government agency initiative or research center based website, but a social network, much like Facebook, that specialized in helping connect people across the globe interested in reading about, working in, studying or otherwise investing their time in all things nanoscience-related.

nanopaprika-logoI joined TINC in the fall of 2007, shortly after coming to work at INBT. Since I was new to nanotechnology, I thought it might be a good way for me to find out about things going on in the field in a less structured way than reading the journal articles published by the faculty I was writing about. I wasn’t actively conducting research in nanotechnology, but it was interesting to read about what other people were doing across the globe. It helped gain perspective on where Johns Hopkins was in the global nanotech environment. I also thought it would be a good way to get the word out about some of the work INBT researchers were doing.

Over time, I have occasionally posted items and connected with people on TINC. Both TINC and I celebrated six years in nano in 2013, so I thought it would be fun to catch up with András Paszternák, creator and editor of The International NanoScience Community. Here is a short Q&A. Since the URL of TINC is Nanopaprika.eu, Paszternák sometimes just refers to it as Nanopaprika. The site’s tag line says it all “the spicy world of NanoScience,”  and paprika is an important Hungarian spice. Read on!

András Paszternák creator and editor of The International NanoScience Community.

András Paszternák
creator and editor of The International NanoScience Community.

When exactly did TINC start?

On 27th of November 2007, it will be six years old in this month.

What is your goal with TINC?

The main idea was to create something more personal than the other nano networks already on the Internet, something open for students as well as for senior researchers. I was asked by my supervisor Prof. Erika Kalman at the Chemical Research Center of Hungarian Academy of Sciences (Budapest, Hungary) to edit an existing Hungarian nanotech site, but I came up with the idea to create a scientific social network, which could be so much bigger, spreading like a tree and connecting nano scientists across the globe. I have been editing the webpage in my free time along with my professional work as a chemist since the beginning.

Over the last six years, how has TINC attained these goals?

We have today 6,641 members coming from more than 80 countries. Thanks to Nanopaprika, several students have found PhD and postdoctoral positions and found information about new nanotech developments. Senior researchers have met talented students; shared news about their results and found new collaboration partners. Nanopaprika is like an open source to connect nano addicted people and share the latest news in our scientific field.

Why do you think this sort of network is important?

As we can see from Facebook, social networking can really bring people, families and friends closer to each other. I think, next to LinkedIN or ResearchGate (big specific networks with millions of users) small professional networks (like Nanopaprika ) can bring the opportunity to create bonds on a personal level between scientist and students. There is a competition between scientific networks – most researchers don’t like to be registered into several social networks– only the most interesting and most scientific will survive this war. Hopefully, Nanopaprika will be among these.

What do you value most about contributors?

Any news, information is welcome. Some members start just forum topics, others share the abstracts of fresh papers, write blog posts about nanosafety, nanotech education and so forth. A scientific social network is like a LEGO game, everybody can bring their bricks. Just some numbers:  we have 5,090 blog posts, 668 discussions topics, 382 shared nanoevents, 2,208 photos and 387 videos – so Nanopaprika is really a spicy world of nanoscience.

Why should someone join this network?

The door is open for everybody, there is no registration fee, just check www.nanopaprika.eu and if you like it, click on sign In.

By Mary Spiro, INBT science writer.

Picture this: alumni meet up at AIChE annual

From left, Denis Wirtz, Christopher Hale and Terrence Dobrowsky

From left, Denis Wirtz, Christopher Hale and Terrence Dobrowsky

Two alumni of Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology. Dr. Chris Hale and Dr. Terrence Dobrowsky, recently met up with INBT co-Director Denis Wirtz at the annual meeting of the AIChE, held Nov. 3-8 in San Francisco. Chris and Terrence are currently work at Amgen and Biogen, respectively.

Chris and Terrence were both PhD students in Wirtz’s laboratory in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.

Nanotech collaboration between Johns Hopkins and Belgium had INBT roots

Johns Hopkins Medicine recently announced exciting news of a joint collaborative agreement with IMEC, a leading nano-electronics research center based in Belgium. The objective of the partnership is to advance applications of silicon nanotechnology in health care, beginning with development of a point-of-care device to enable a broad range of clinical tests to be performed outside the laboratory. This unique venture will combine Johns Hopkins clinical and research expertise with IMEC’s technical and engineering capabilities.

TIMEC clean roomhe two organizations plan to forge strategic ties with additional collaborators across the value chain in the health care and technology sectors. Development of a next generation ”lab-on-a-chip”, making diagnostic testing faster and easier for applications such as disease monitoring and management, disease surveillance, rural health care and clinical trials, will form the initial focus of the partnership. Denis Wirtz, Associate Director of INBT, will serve on the Advisory Board for the collaboration.

The roots of the new Hopkins-IMEC partnership were initiated over five years ago when Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology (INBT) established a collaborative relationship with IMEC. Since its inception in 2009, the INBT-IMEC partnership has blossomed into a number of collaborative projects, which enabled both graduate and undergraduate students from Hopkins to broaden their research experience with internships at IMEC’s state-of-the-art laboratories in Leuven, Belgium (with some students from IMEC also interning at Hopkins).

These projects were built around Hopkins/INBT research interests in nanobiotechnology such as controlled drug delivery, microfluidics, stem cell platforms and neural networks to mention a few. IMEC’s massive expertise in nanofabrication, darkfield and lens-free microscopy, neuro-electronics and lithography provides a huge opportunity for JHU researchers to evaluate translational pathways for basic discoveries.

Initial discussions about a broader relationship between the two institutions originated with an INBT-IMEC team exploring possible additional opportunities building on our existing partnership. A visit to Hopkins by senior IMEC management in August 2012 was organized by INBT, and laid the groundwork for subsequent next steps which included a University-wide team. We are delighted to have identified an opportunity for Hopkins to create a collaborative model to develop potentially revolutionary new techniques combining the unique advantages of silicon technology to a new generation of diagnostics and cures.

Separate from this recent collaboration, INBT has hosted students to conduct research at IMEC since 2009. Funding to support students abroad has come from INBT and the National Science Foundation International Research Experience for Students (IRES) program.

Read the official announcement from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine here.

Check out the INBT/IMEC blog.

Read about the INBT/IMEC IRES program here.

By Tom Fekete, INBT director of corporate partnerships.

 

Learning How to Take a Product from Lab to Market

One of the most helpful courses that I’d ever taken as an undergraduate student was a course called, “Engineering Entrepreneurship”. This was an intense course designed to simulate the actual process of developing a startup company based on an original technology. I spent long hours with a team of students working to draw up financial reports for our pseudo company, outlining an operations plan for development and putting together a business proposal at the end. A course like this is so important because many groups in biotechnology, energy, and other industries feel that nanotechnology is on the cusp of being an industry in and of itself if not for a few very impactful ideas.

Ttech-transfer-illohere are many ways for nanotech applications to make it to the marketplace. Indeed, there are various drugs such as Doxil which have been around for years and were “nano” before it became a buzzword.(1)  Nanotechnology has become a part of other industrial processes, giving antimicrobial properties to surfaces or improving microfab processes.  We should look, however, not only to how nanotechnology can be used to supplement existing products or how to reliable existing products as nanotechnology but also how to cultivate a new industry based on nanotechnology.

How exactly can a nanotech industry be created?  I think that is something much too involved to discuss in a single blog post.  What I can suggest is that all engineering students look into taking business courses along with their other requirements.  I believe that if engineers with a background in nanotechnology can become involved in the process of developing startups that then nanotechnology will be as recognized of an industry as biotechnology has become.

1. Doxil Home Page. Accessed 10/24/2013 <http://www.doxil.com>.

By Gregory Wiedman, a graduate student from the Materials Science Department who is altering natural peptides from Bee Honey venom to improve drug delivery.