There’s No Y in Science
The Challenges of Women in Science
June 5th, 2016
Photo: Cal Berkley
The field of genome manipulation has been at forefront of scientific research since the discovery of recombinant DNA applications, or the instance we first realized that we could alter DNA back in 1972. But for over 40 years the ability to actually manipulate the genome of a mammalian cell has eluded us. That’s all changed with Jennifer Doudna of Cal Berkeley’s discovery of the applications of clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR) and the CAS-9 protein. Unless you are molecular biologist, that string of words is about as meaningless as a Hallmark card. So let me break it down for you. CAS-9 is a protein used by bacteria to eliminate foreign or unwanted DNA. The protein reads a code of RNA that signals what DNA needs to go, and then it cuts it out like an annoying tag on your t-shirt. CRISPR is an approach that involves inserting the CAS-9 protein from bacteria along with RNA to select and destroy certain codes of DNA in multi-celled organisms. Long story short, CRISPR can be used to select and eliminate any code of DNA and then replace it if necessary. The applications are endless from complete removal of many genetic disorders like cystic fibrosis and sickle cell anemia to creating malaria resistant mosquitos. CRISPR is one of the most important scientific discoveries of the last 10 years. Doudna is a hero, she should be receiving a Nobel prize. Instead, she is embroiled in the most controversial patent battle in recent history. Why? While there are certainly many factors, disturbingly many people believe that a major reason is because she is a woman.
Doudna’s laboratory at Berkley applied in collaboration with scientist Emmanuelle Charpentier of the Max Plank Institut to patent the use of CRISPR in eukaryotic genomes in March of 2013. More than 6 months later, Feng Zhang of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard applied for a similar patent, but his request was fast-tracked, probably due to the credibility and influence of the Institute he is apart of. Zhang received the patent in April 2014 before Doudna’s had even been considered. Doudna followed by challenging the patent for being in conflict with her earlier application. Hopefully, Doudna will receive the rights to her intellectual property. But because of the power of the Broad Institute or an even more threatening issue, gender discrimination, this is no sure bet. To add insult to injury, Institute director and president Eric Lander published an article entitled “Heroes of CRISPR” in Cell, a revered scientific journal, that nearly disregarded Doudna and Charpentier’s work. Lander labeled their study of CRISPR technology as in vitro, or outside of the cell, which was incorrect, without the approval of Doudna. However, Lander did explain that Doudna refused to offer input on the article which suggests that his error could have been an honest mistake not some sort of scheme the patent war. However, he has not corrected the mistake and in addition neglected to acknowledge the conflict of interest that being director of the Broad posed considering one of his researches was at the center of patent warfare with Doudna. It could be an honest mistake by Lander, but it frightfully resembles a historical trend of gender discrimination.
Jennifer Doudna in her lab at the University of California Berkeley
Photo: Graeme Mitchell, NYT
Doudna’s story is not one unfamiliar to the female scientist. In science women face many challenges that make their job of doing research and making discoveries harder. Discrimination by gender is a sad reality that many women in science face. Although 51% of yearly PhDs are obtained by women, only 38% of yearly tenure track positions are offered to women. Some men in science consciously or unconsciously view women as less intelligent, less creative, or less able to direct a scientific research team.
Women can also be discriminated against in job selection because of their ability to have children. My mother, who is currently an Associate Dean and Professor, has told me the story of a time in her graduate school training when she was informed by a postdoctoral scholar that he would never accept a woman student unless she would guarantee that she would not get pregnant – and my mother was pregnant at the time he said this. The prejudice doesn’t end there but extends to even more areas. In science, everything is a team effort, microbiologists might have to work with bioengineers, statisticians, or a whole host of other STEM workers. However, usually one or two people will receive primary credit for the research, This credit is important for receiving government funding and maintaining a job as a researcher, and it is not uncommon for people to try to take more credit than they are due. Unfortunately, when a woman fights for her rightful credit, she is often viewed as a nag or worse. If a man does the same he will be viewed as strong-willed and ambitious. If a woman is presented with an unfair salary, she has two options and both are undesirable. She can grin and bear the offensive salary or she can fight for her rightful coin and risk being labeled unfairly, restricting her future opportunities. Women also are often viewed as needing to take care of the little things in the infrastructure, like committees and record keeping so that the men can carry on with research.
Women face other challenges too along with discrimination. Having children not only invites discrimination but also creates more work for women. Maintaining 3 kids and a lab is no easy task. Even today, women tend to do much more of the housework than men creating even more extra work. Even in so-called egalitarian households where both partners work, women are estimated to do 62% of the housework. Science funding, which you need to keep your job, is highly competitive and men often have more time to write grants and make connections to get their government grants than women.
While we’ve come a long way in women’s rights we need to continue to strive for improvement. As a society one of the best ways we can fight prejudice is by showing greater appreciation for the great women scientists of our day. Doudna and Charpentier should be every little girl’s, even every little boy’s role model. They have overcome challenges that Einstein and Darwin never could have comprehended to bring the world a wonderful gift. Until we devise solutions for the challenges females face, it’s time to start appreciating the contributions women in science not just for their practical value, but for their manifestation of the will of a determined scientist to overcome the different obstacles presented before her.