_sp17-women-scientists-diversity ("Q&A: Female Bench Scientists Talk Diversity")

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Q&A: Female Bench Scientists Talk Diversity

Four CNR faculty on creating inclusive environments in science

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Professor Taga preparing a petri dish for her research on microbe interaction.

Michi Taga is researching how microbes interact to form complex communities.

Michi Taga

Microbiologist

Associate Professor, Plant and Microbial Biology (PMB)

What is your area of research, and what is its potential impact?

My research focuses on understanding how microbes interact with each other to form complex communities. Bacteria and other microbes inhabit every corner of the planet, and they do incredible things like recycling organic matter, breaking down pollutants, and keeping us healthy. My research looks at a small part of the whole network of microbial interactions. We’re studying corrinoids—vitamin B12 and related cofactors—because they’re shared among different microbes. There’s interesting structural diversity in corrinoid molecules, and we’re figuring out how bacteria make and share these different forms.

In your lab, how do you create an environment that’s open and inclusive?

I try to create a culture where the lab is a safe space where people from diverse backgrounds can be themselves. Everyone should feel that they belong, that their contributions are valued, and that it’s OK to make mistakes, ask questions, and take risks. I also think it’s important to be humble in any leadership role. I feel like I’m still just beginning to learn how to be a good mentor, classroom teacher, and group leader.

What changes or improvements in diversity have you seen in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields?

Our department has come a long way in just a few years by prioritizing and opening up conversations about diversity and inclusiveness. It’s easier now to speak up about diversity-related issues since we know people care about it. And nationally, there’s been a move toward being more inclusive of younger scientists who come from more diverse backgrounds. For example, in the past, only established senior investigators gave talks at the American Society for Microbiology General Meeting, but in recent years, more young scientists are being included.

What’s your best advice for young scientists?

Research obviously has its high points—like when you discover something new, get a grant funded, or publish a paper. But those high points are few and far between. There are plenty of low points, too. You can pour your heart and soul into a project that doesn’t work out. Grants and papers get rejected. It’s important to acknowledge that science can be mentally and emotionally taxing and to have a way of dealing with it. I advise investing in friendships and having hobbies outside of the lab. Right now my favorite hobby is playing with my kids!

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Britt Glaunsinger

Virologist

Associate Professor, PMB and Investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute

What is your area of research, and what is its potential impact?

I study viruses—it fascinates me how such minute entities efficiently take over cells they infect. The genome size of a virus is generally more than a thousand times smaller than ours, but they’ve evolved to outwit us on a regular basis. My lab is focused on figuring out how viruses take over cells’ gene expression machinery and how they repurpose it to make viral genes and proteins. We work on a group of herpes viruses that can cause cancer in people with compromised immune systems, like AIDS patients. Viruses are excellent teachers of biology, so by studying them, we also learn a lot about how our own cells work.

Britt Glaunsinger standing by a projection of viruses. She is studying how they take over cell's gene expression machinery.

Britt Glaunsinger is learning how viruses take over cells’ gene expression machinery.

In your lab, how do you create an environment that’s open and inclusive?

If you’re considering only one perspective that’s synonymous with yours, you’re losing out on a whole spectrum of intellectual capital and creativity. In a diverse group of people, everyone must have the confidence to voice their ideas, so it’s important to create an environment in which everyone’s opinions are valued. We also must respect that everyone has different work styles and home commitments, so we need to move away from this bravado mentality that everyone must work 60 hours a week. The number of hours doesn’t necessarily equal better output. People do their best work when they’re happy.

What changes or improvements in diversity have you seen in STEM fields?

In my 10 years at Berkeley, I’ve seen an increased interest in recruiting diverse candidates and developing tools to identify and support those beyond the traditional demographics. It’s also becoming more of an issue at national conferences, where keynote speakers are often still predominantly white men. Now those events will get shamed on social media. People are working to diversify speaker lineups, and one way is to show hard data to scientists—that the program is consistently male-dominated. They can’t argue with it. The data doesn’t lie!

What’s your best advice for young scientists?

It’s impossible to overestimate the value of being a good communicator in science. Your discoveries will have more impact and you’ll get more recognition if you can convince others why your work is important. Strong oral and written communication is the single most important thing besides doing great science.

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Professor Chelsea Specht in a greenhouse to study the evolution of biological diversity

Chelsea Specht studies the evolution of biological diversity.
 

Chelsea Specht

Plant Organismal Biologist

Professor, PMB and Integrative Biology

What is your area of research, and what is its potential impact?

My lab focuses on the evolution of biological diversity, specifically how plants have evolved different forms and functions and how those differences in form have enabled them to diversify in space and time. With the inevitability of climate change, it’s becoming necessary for species to adapt to new environments. We can perhaps find ways to breed or engineer crops to adapt to a future of more stressful conditions.

In your lab, how do you create an environment that’s open and inclusive?

I’m convinced that true excellence only emerges with a fundamentally diverse research and academic team. People open up more, and explain themselves better, when they don’t fully expect to understand each other but are eager to learn from one another. There are no assumptions that you’re all coming from the same place and so have nothing new to offer. By creating a community built on developing new shared experiences, we can engage with one another and with each other’s science at a deeper level.

What changes or improvements in diversity have you seen in STEM fields?

In my 20-year career, the main change I’ve seen is that there do seem to be more senior women in science acting as role models. When I was younger, the senior women had worked so hard to get where they were, their attitude was, “Why should you have it any easier than I did?” We also see the same white men receiving the highest accolades from academic institutions and societies, and that sends the message that “you can be a successful student, but don’t expect to become a respected scholar.” Women and people of color are overlooked and underestimated, and we need to change that narrative in STEM.

What’s your best advice for young scientists?

My strongest piece of advice is that young scientists need to actively develop a network of advisers, mentors, peers, colleagues, and collaborators. Insist on developing that early on and use it throughout your career to navigate your desired trajectory. I also think it’s important to develop personal networks, families and communities outside of academia. Support from both is necessary to develop your personal passion as a scientist. And you can then take your success in science back to those communities, to be the role model who can inspire the next generation of diverse scholars to pursue scientific careers.

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Mary Wildermuth surrounded by many plants to study how reproduction of pathogens affect their host cells.

Mary Wildermuth is studying the growth and reproduction of a pathogen on its host plant.

Mary Wildermuth

Biochemist and Molecular Biologist

Associate Professor, PMB

What is your area of research, and what is its potential impact?

My lab explores factors that govern the extent of growth and reproduction of a pathogen on its host plant. One well-known and economically important pathogen we study is the powdery mildew fungus, which only grows and reproduces on living plants. Therefore, we’re figuring out what the powdery mildew requires from the plant at each phase of its colonization and growth and how it manipulates the plant to acquire the nutrients it needs while limiting plant defense. Our study of plant-microbe interactions also provides insights into fundamental biological processes of organisms. For example, our work on induced polyploidy, which results in increased cellular DNA content, relates to cancer cell persistence following chemotherapeutic treatment.

In your lab, how do you create an environment that’s open and inclusive?

I’m promoting our next generation of diverse scientists at every level: in K through 12, through the Be A Scientist program I founded; and in my laboratory, through recruitment, individualized mentoring, and support of diverse undergraduates, graduate students, and postdocs. Through the Biology Scholars Program, CNR’s Sponsored Projects for Undergraduate Research, and the campus-wide Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program, I recruit undergraduates to my lab, where they’re partnered with more senior lab members and mentored and supported to become independent scientists.

What changes or improvements in diversity have you seen in STEM fields?

Over the course of my academic career, I’ve seen a significant increase in the number of women in STEM fields and a smaller increase in the number from underrepresented groups. However, in recent years, the number of women among STEM faculty seems to have plateaued at levels below their numbers in PhD programs. More work is needed at every level of education to continue to make careers in STEM viable and attractive options for women and people of color.

What’s your best advice for young scientists?

Do what you love and are passionate about. In the end, it’s the scientific questions that should drive you. Choose laboratories with inclusive and positive work environments, which promote collaboration. Scientific research is both challenging and exhilarating—you never know what the outcome will be. When things aren’t working, passion and supportive colleagues can keep you from getting discouraged.