Thursday, February 22, 2007

Olufunmilayo Olopade: Breast Cancer Genetics and Race

The February 2 edition of Science profiles the research of University of Chicago oncologist Olufunmilayo "Funmi" Olopade. As a medical resident at Cook County Hospital in Chicago, she noticed that many of her breast cancer patients were black, poor and unusually young, just as her patients had been in her native Nigeria. Statistics show that African American women not only tend to get breast cancer at an earlier age than Caucasian women, but their survival rate is lower. Recent studies suggest that this is due, at least in part, to genetic differences between the tumors carried by African American women.

Last June, for example, a team of U.S. and Canadian researchers published results in The Journal of the American Medical Association from the Carolina Breast Cancer Study, which examined the prevalence of different breast cancer subtypes among 496 breast cancer patients. The researchers were particularly interested in a high-risk "basal-like subtype." These "triple-negative" tumors--negative for estrogen receptors, progesterone receptors, and human epidermal growth factor receptor-2 (HER2)--tend to spread quickly. And because they don't respond to targeted new drugs, they can be hit only with traditional chemotherapy.

Triple-negative tumors, it turns out, are also unusually prevalent in young African-American women. Of the 97 premenopausal African Americans in the Carolina Breast Cancer study, 39% had this subtype. Among postmenopausal African Americans, the number was 14%, whereas in the 300 non-African Americans, regardless of age, it held steady at 16%.
Olopade has turned to studying breast cancer in African women to try to understand the racial disparities in breast cancer tumor genetics and prognosis.
After confirming that fewer than 10% of the women in a group of patients from Nigeria had inherited a BRCA mutation, Olopade found that a startling 77% of 378 samples from Nigeria and Senegal were ER-negative. This contrasts with 39% in African Americans and 23% in Caucasians. Although many of the African women were young, and younger breast cancer patients are more prone to have ER-negative tumors, the numbers were still off the charts. "This just blew us away," she says. Those results, which Olopade and her colleagues presented at a cancer meeting in 2005 and are readying for publication, led her to believe that aggressive breast cancers in blacks are driven by an interplay of genes and environment.
Some critics are concerned that Olopade's research could lead to racial stereotyping and draw attention away from disparities in access to medical treatment.
Olopade the straight talker responds forcefully to such criticisms, arguing that the aggressive disease she so often sees is not due only to poverty and lack of access to care. And she has strong defenders, especially among colleagues such as Rebbeck, who has collaborated with her for many years. "She's very outspoken and forceful and direct in a good way," he says.
In 2005, she won a MacArthur foundation "genius" grant for her work "translating findings on the molecular genetics of breast cancer in African and African-American women into innovative clinical practices in the United States and abroad". Her lab also studies the potential role of stress and other environmental factors on breast cancer susceptibility.

Article (subscription required): Probing the Roots of Race and Cancer, Science 315 (5812): 592-594 (2007)

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Scientiae: The Women in STEM Blog Carnival

Scientiae is the brand-spanking-new blog carnival about women in science, engineering and technology.

This is a blog carnival that compiles posts written about the broad topic of "women in STEM," (STEM=science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and may include:

# stories about being a woman in STEM

# posts exploring gender and STEM academia

# living the scientific academic life as well as the rest of life

# feminist perspectives on science and technology

# exploring feminist science and technology studies

Both men and women (and anyone in-between) are welcome to contribute to the carnival as long as the topics are relevant and respectful.
The first carnival will be hosted by skookumchick at Rants of a Feminist Engineer.

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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

National Engineering Week

February 18-24 is National Engineering Week. Friday, February 22, is set aside as Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day. Companies such as Google are participating with tours and other events this Friday.

The eweek site has suggestions and resources for parents, teachers and Girl Scout leaders for ways to encourage girls interested in engineering.


Women and Science: Around the Blogs

I've gotten way behind on my posting, so this blog overview will be a long one.

Annika, at Rants of a Feminist Engineer has a list of journal links for them interested in exploring feminist engineering and technology studies.

The Female CS Grad Student points to the disconnect between the diversity of the scientific community depicted on posters and reality.

Incoherently Scattered Ponderings lays out the cold facts: there are far more PhDs than academic positions:

Therefore, I find it somewhat disingenuous when people start talking about how to encourage certain underrepresented groups enter graduate schools in sciences. We should encourage interest in science, but should we encourage more bright and talented people to follow the career path that has 95% chance of leading nowhere (after 6-7 years of living on Raman noodles through grad school and relocating a few times for a couple of 3 year postdoc stints that quickly become the norm)? I am not so sure... (via She's Such a Geek)
She's Such a Geek talks about 3-D Sex and the Computer Scientist and a real-life example of a woman discouraged from pursing a computer science career because of assumptions about the required aptitudes needed.

She's Such a Geek also points out that Girl Scouts Teach Technophilia. Much more interesting than the lanyard-making of my Girl Scout days!

Marketing to Women Online has an interesting post on Male vs. Female Communication Style and Project Management.
Now - from a male communication style - if you are dealing with a senior executive or a company owner, it is good to convey confidence. I can see senior executives and managers hearing "you suck" and thinking -

"well, if we're that bad, then there must be huge potential to the upside. We can make all sorts of money if our previous efforts were that bad and did OK."

There is this whole male hierarchical thing. I see guys posturing for dominance. It's interesting to watch. And, in many cases, it seems to be effective.

But here's where the problem comes in. Project management and teamwork often requires more of a female communication style. A "let's work together, support each other, all pitch in to be successful" line of reasoning.
It's about the advertising industry, but I think much of it could apply to science and engineering teams as well.

Last, but definitely not least, it looks like there is going to be a blog carnival on women in science and technology. Feminist Engineer is asking for name suggestions, so head over and comment.


Can Scientists Cry?

There has been an interesting discussion around the blogs on whether women can cry in a professional setting.

Jenny F. Scientist began with her post A Natural Scientist - Only (Weak Unprofessional Emotional) Gurrrls Cry

But here's the thing: I could not under any circumstances cry in front of my advisor, or any of the male professors; they would never take me seriously again. This is true of some of the female professors, but on the whole, I would expect it to be less career-destroying.
She then goes on to discuss why that might be so (and asks for comments).

Am I a Woman Scientist then added her experiences with That little sucker just saved your life. She points out that, in her case, crying was an emotional release of anger.
I have cried once in a professional setting, and come close to crying twice. All three times, it was a stress release, because I was quite close to punching someone in the mouth.
I suspect that a man in the same situation would express his rage by punching a wall (or something else inanimate).

Tara at Aetiology points out that There's no crying in academia.
I don't have any answers here, alas. I do think it's a problem that these displays of emotion are looked upon so poorly and feared by so many, especially with stories like Eleanor's, where she was too afraid to even mention her miscarriage because she thought she'd break down and cry when discussing it. Academia (and other high-pressure,high-stress jobs) is enough of a pressure cooker as it is; punishment shouldn't be feared when we release some of that steam in a healthy way.
Jenny F. Scientist followed up with Men Mustn't Cry? Down With The Dominant Paradigm!
Crying reinforces one's sterotypical femininity and, therefore, associates one more strongly with the feminine category. Feminine traits are dismissed as unscientific, because the pardigm is polarized. That is: by displaying traits other than the stereotypically masculine emotionless-analytical-scientist, we as either women or men remove ourselves from the categorization of good scientists. There is no paradigm of lacy-skirt-wearing kick-ass female scientists. And there is no paradigm of male scientists who come home early to cook dinner.
She points out the current stereotype of a "masculine" scientist ends up hurting men as well as women.

Be sure to read the comments too!


Friday, February 16, 2007

Week 1 of Feminist Theory and the Joy of Science

The first week of Suzanne Franks' (Zuska's) course on Feminist Theory and the Joy of
Science went up this week. Be sure to do the reading before you start comment!

Week 2 will begin February 28th.


"Role Models at JPL" Webcast

In 2002, the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) convened a a panel of female scientists and engineers to "discuss the paths they pursued to achieve careers in science-related fields". They also fielded questions from students. The audio from those discussions is available as the "Role Models at JPL" webcast.

JoAnne AlanoAndrea DonellenAyanna Howard
Jennifer MindockTracy WilliamsShonte Wright
The panelists:
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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

She's Such a Geek Photo Contest

Inkling is running a "girl-geek photo competition. All you need to do is submit a photo that best fits the caption “OMG she’s such a geek!” to Inkling before midnight, February 28th. They'll post the photos as they are received.

The prize: a lovely poster of Ada Byron King, Countess of Lovelace. Cool!

ETA: there are already some geek photo entries up - have a look!


Ask Jane McGonigal

WIRED Science "Ask a Scientist" wants to know your questions for game designer and game researcher Jane McGonigal, one of the architects of the popular "I Love Bees" (and other games). McGonical will be speaking at this week's AAAS meeting on "Experimental Gameplay: Creating a Virtual Scientific Culture".

McGonigal was named a 2006 Young Innovator by MIT's Technology Review. She will also be the first woman keynote speaker at the 2007 Game Developers' Conference.

If you want to ask McGonigal a question, just leave a comment on the WIRED science blog by February 18.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Women in Space

With all the attention drawn to the sad case of Lisa Nowak, I thought it was a good time to point out the many contributions of women to the exploration of space.

There are several sites with biographies:
There are many women (and men) who trained, but never made it into space. Anyone thinking of joining NASA should read Homer Hickam's column "What makes an astronaut crack?" (free registration or bugmenot required).

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Friday, February 09, 2007

The Adventures of Meg A. Mole

The American Chemical Society has a chemistry portal for kids called "The Adventures of Meg A. Mole, Future Chemist. The site isn't specifically targeted to girls, but they do have "visits" to several women who work in different branches of the chemical sciences described with kids in mind (all are pdf files):

Go to the main page for links to the profiles in Spanish.

Meg A. Mole's adventures are part of the ACS kids portal, which also includes WonderNet and Celebrating Chemistry, sites with games and science activities for elementary-school age kids.


Tuesday, February 06, 2007


GirlStart is an Austin, Texas based organization founded to "empower girls in math, science, engineering and technology."

Girlstart provides hands-on learning in math, science, technology and engineering concepts to a diverse group of girls and their parents. Girlstart has served over 10,000 girls and families with after-school clubs, free Saturday camps, science nights, family math nights, summer camps and more!
They want profiles of women working in science and technology It looks like most of their current profiles appear to be artists, designers and entrepreneurs, so if you are woman who is a scientist or engineer, why not share some information about yourself?

If you know a girl in the 4th through 8th grades who is interested in math or science, you might want to point her (or her parents or teachers) towards some of the GirlStart programs:

Saturday, February 03, 2007

View of Marie Curie in 1927

Jenny F. Scientist has an interesting post on the profile of Marie Curie in Benjamin Harrow's Eminent Chemists of our Time, published in 1927. As she points out, the biography starts out positively, pointing out that Curie was not receiving the recognition she deserved:

The foremost scientist of France, and the greatest woman scientist in the history of mankind, [Curie] counts politically less than many a man fit for the lunatic asylum. And as if to encourage that conception of women to which so many men cling tenaciously, the French Academy, numbering among its members the élite of French intellect, decide [sic] that woman, be she ever so much a genius, cannot be admitted into their sanctum. If further proof were needed that intellect often runs counter to freedom, and that scientists who work so strenuously for an enlargement of their scientific horizon often belong to the most reactionary group in politics, the case of Madame Curie affords an excellent example.
As it goes on, it's clear that Curie is held out as an exception - a woman "as good as a man" at science. Not only that, but there is a whole paragraph reassuring the reader that Curie hasn't let her feminine duties lapse:
Mme. Curie may be the great scientist, but she has many of the traits of femininity and motherhood which most men of all ages have admired. Aside from her work, her attention is devoted almost exclusively to the welfare of her two daughters... When the two children were younger Mme. Curie made all their dresses, and washed and ironed the more delicate pieces of lingerie.
As Jenny points out, this really isn't "history".
This wouldn't be quite so distressing if these attitudes were, y'know, gone. Women have to work twice as hard to get recognition? Check. Given lesser positions for equal work? Excluded from Old Boys' Club? Check. It's tradition? Check. 'Don't worry, science doesn't make her completely unwomanly, she still cooks and cleans and dresses pretty'? CHECK.
Looking at profiles of current women scientists, I've noticed many that make a point of including personal tidbits that demonstrate "typical" femininity - time spent with the children, hobbies such as cooking or sewing, and the like. While none of those things are bad - even scientists have interests outside of their work - it's annoying that such facts are typically omitted from the profiles of male scientists. It simply reinforces the attitude that science is an inherently non-feminine activity and that women in science need to demonstrate that they have feminine "credentials" by their activities outside the workplace. I'm hoping that 80 years from now profiles of male and female scientists won't be noticeably different in their content.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Feminist Theory and the Joy of Science

Engineer and science blogger Suzanne Franks (Zuska) will be running an online course on "Feminist Theory and the Joy of Science" beginning February 12. Here is the description:

This course explores the existence of pleasure, intellectual excitement, and desire as an important component of theorizing and doing science and engineering. We will examine the presence and/or absence of accounts of pleasure/desire in feminist theories of science, and in mainstream science and engineering texts and pedagogy. We will also examine feminist accounts of what might be termed the diversity challenge in engineering, and how feminist theories of science and pleasure can inform this issue. The implications for an adequate feminist theory of science, and for attracting members of underrepresented groups to science and engineering, will be a focus of the course.
If you are interested in participating, start with these posts:

Blogging about Women in Science

Here's a roundup of recent blog posts from women in the sciences:

At Cosmic Variance, astronomer Julianne Dalcanton explains what it's like to be a woman in a mostly male profession using a simple analogy in "Knitting is a Guy Thing".

Female Science Professor describes what it feels like to be an Invisible Woman within her department when older male Distinguished Visitor comes to visit.

Technology and venture capital news site Venture Beat has a two-part essay by co-founder of Renkoo, Joyce Park, The Hidden Engineering Gender Gap and A Modest Proposal:

With all love and respect to our sisters in product management, marketing, sales, finance, HR, and G&A, 50 years of Silicon Valley history strongly suggest that technology companies will ever continue to be founded by entrepreneurs from engineering backgrounds; and if women never become engineers in sufficient numbers, they will disproportionately fail to experience the upper end of the range of Silicon Valley outcomes.
Read the essays for Park's proposed solutions.

On the Fairer Science weblog is an article explaining "What is stereotype threat and why do researchers care?"
Stereotype threat is the fear that one's behavior will support an existing group stereotype, and the result of that fear is that the subject will unconsciously underperform as a result of the threat. That is to say, if I am in a group that is stereotyped to be less good at something, for example, being a woman in mathematics, if that stereotype is triggered just before I take a challenging math test, I will perform less well than I would if that stereotype were not activated.
Finally, at the Science Creative Quarterly, Peter Eugster has an article about the Perception of Scientists, and stereotypical scientists shown on television and in the movies.

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Thursday, February 01, 2007

Women's Adventures in Science

The National Academies has put together a website, I Was Wondering, which is "a curious look at Women's Adventures in Science".

The Web site is a project of the National Academy of Sciences intended to showcase the accomplishments of contemporary women in science and to highlight for young people the varied and intriguing careers of some of today's most prominent scientists. The site draws from and accompanies the publication of a ten-volume series of biographies entitled Women's Adventures in Science, co-published by the Joseph Henry Press (an imprint of the National Academies Press) and Scholastic Library Publishing.
There is a "home page for each of "10 cool scientists", with videos, interactive comic books, games and science labs for kids.

The profilees:
It looks like a fun site for curious kids.