Texas Biomed Levels Playing Field for Female Scientists

By Iris Gonzalez
(From left) Scientists Eusondia Arnett, Jeanine Locke, Ariana Duffey, Chrissy Leopold Wager, Leonardo Aguilar, and Maria Montoya collaborate in a lab at Texas Biomed. Courtesy photo.

The Texas Biomedical Research Institute (Texas Biomed), a global leader in infectious disease research, is taking concrete steps to level the uneven playing field for female scientists.

Research has shown that diverse work teams lead to more impactful scientific studies. Yet, only one in three researchers in the world is a woman, according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics. Add in the COVID-19 pandemic impacts on female scientists that have undone gender-equity gains from the past few decades, and it’s clear there’s still work to be done to ensure a level playing field for women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) research.

The 2020 documentary “Picture a Scientist” depicted the “leaky pipeline” or significant drop in women holding post-doctoral research positions despite gender parity at the bachelor’s and master’s levels of study. Other roadblocks for women in science as measured in multiple studies include fewer award nominations and wins, fewer citations of studies led by women scientists, perceptions of lower quality of female-authored publications, and fewer collaboration opportunities.

Texas Biomed vice president for research and immunologist Dr. Joanne Turner said the 2020 documentary only scratched the surface of what women in science face.

“There’s a lack of perception in many male colleagues since they don’t experience it,” Turner said.  “It’s exhausting to be a woman in science, and as you move up the ranks, it’s even more so. It’s an extra layer of work. Women need to be much more competent just to be taken seriously.”

After coming to Texas Biomed in 2017, CEO and president Dr. Larry Schlesinger set workforce diversity as a core value in Texas Biomed’s ten-year strategic plan.

“When I came here, perhaps the most impactful thing I did, and it was not by coincidence, was to bring in Joanne Turner as vice president for research as a strong statement for my commitment to leadership roles for women,” Schlesinger told Startups San Antonio for our 2018 article on this subject.

Texas Biomed’s progress report shows the research organization has close to 50% women represented in positions across the Institute and its senior ranks. Texas Biomed has women in 54% of its workforce of about 370 employees.  Of the senior leadership roles at the Institute, women work in 4 out of 10, or 44%. Of the Institute’s 19 research faculty, six are women.

“We’re now reactivating our faculty search since people are getting vaccinated and beginning to travel to see our campus in person before making that decision,” Turner said.

As the Institute seeks to hire more scientists, Turner stressed that the environment, not the women, needs to change. Inclusion has become even more critical for all staff, not just the scientists.

“We’ve opened our seminars internally for everyone to present, not just the scientists,” Turner added. “It was open before, but we emphasized that we truly wanted everyone at the Institute to feel they could take advantage of the opportunity to present.”

Texas Biomed is also posting job openings beyond Science magazine by advertising with the Black Microbiologists Association and other professional organizations for underrepresented STEM research careers. The research organization is also applying for a National Institutes of Health grant to support hiring scientists from underrepresented groups.

“The funding would accelerate what we already plan to do,” Turner said.

Corinna Ross is the associate director for research at Texas Biomed’s Southwest National Primate Research Center. She joined the staff in a full-time position in December after working at the primate center since 2006. Her research focuses on the development of the marmoset as a model for human health and disease.

When Ross was interviewing for her position, Drs. Schlesinger and Turner were clear in their goal of supporting women. One example is in how Turner is ensuring equitable distribution and getting credit for the unpaid work scientists volunteer to do like serving on committees or peer-reviewing others’ work called “service burden.”

“We’ve still got a long way to go to address the leaky pipeline in science,” Ross said. “One of the reasons why I joined Texas Biomed full-time is because they are intentional with their leadership choices and support for women. I’m excited because of what the Institute does and the prospect of recruiting and mentoring the next generation of women in science.”

Rebecca Madere, Texas Biomed’s vice president for human resources, said their kindergarten to college student outreach programs reaches girls interested in science at a young age. The Institute’s summer internship program for early-career science professionals also targets women for participation.

“We believe in giving women the flexibility to balance their personal and professional lives to help us recruit more into our workforce,” Madere said. “We’ve established a DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion] committee and hired a learning and development specialist trained in DEI. Our ultimate goal is to increase the number of women at our Institute, especially in our faculty recruits.”

Shannan Hall-Ursone, associate professor and veterinarian, joined Texas Biomed in 2015. She has seen more communication between the primate center and the science groups. The collaboration in how the two groups work together at Texas Biomed was crucial during the early stages of the pandemic when researchers focused on developing animal models for testing Covid-19 vaccines.

“As a vet, I work with both sides. We do the work with the animals, but the science has to come to us,” Hall-Ursone said. “That connection is important for our staff both on the animal side and the scientists needing to use the animals for their studies.”

Before Dr. Schlesinger arrived, the veterinarians at the primate center were not considered faculty. Her dual roles as veterinarian and associate professor meant Hall-Ursone, who worked on the Pfizer vaccine study, was added to the authorship line once the study was published.

“Vets have become authors – Dr. Schlesinger has been adamant about that because we contribute so much to the success of the overall project, ” Hall-Ursone said. “Now, we’re considered collaborators and get to participate more in the development of how Texas Biomed is planning to grow. Being included in the strategic planning process helped incorporate the primate center into our programs whereas before, we were considered as support for the science being done.”

The decision to support women at Texas Biomed means they have the opportunity to be productive and competitive – not just at Texas Biomed, but on a national and international stage – “is really a business decision as much as it’s the right thing to do,” Schlesinger said.

Featured image shows (from left) scientists Eusondia Arnett, Jeanine Locke, Ariana Duffey, Chrissy Leopold Wager, Leonardo Aguilar, and Maria Montoya collaborating in a lab at Texas Biomed. Courtesy photo.

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