Texas Biomed Plugs Holes in ‘Leaky Pipeline’ for Female Scientists

Why are women leaving science? More than half of life and biomedical sciences graduate students are women, yet the latest data from the National Academies reveal only 16 percent of women go on to become full professors in the life sciences, for example.

Texas Biomedical Research Institute (Texas Biomed) recognized this leaky pipeline for female scientists and is working to attract and retain more women in biomedical research. Workforce diversity is a core value in Texas Biomed’s new ten-year strategic plan which goes into effect in September. Texas Biomed is launching efforts to nearly double its workforce and position it as one of the world’s top scientific centers focused on infectious diseases, according to Texas Biomed assistant vice president of communications Lisa Cruz. Texas Biomed employs about 350 people and plans to focus on infectious diseases as part of its plan to expand its workforce to about 650 employees.

Immunologist and vice president for research at Texas Biomed Dr. Joanne Turner said the female scientists face challenges early in their careers, with many leaving life sciences research soon after graduate school as responsibilities for child or elder care tend to fall on women. Some choose to opt out of the scientific workforce for a position with more family-friendly schedules. Implicit bias also hinders many women at every career step – in hiring and promotion, grant funding, and publishing, “so everything is harder [for women],” Turner said.

The loss of female talent is a problem not just from the perspective of equity. Diversity in thought and experiences within a group has been proven to lead to better problem-solving with fewer blind spots. Turner used the example of a gendered blind-spot when researchers would only use male mice to avoid clinical data variation from the females’ fertility cycles in their experiments. This bias led researchers to exclude women of childbearing age from clinical trials, resulting in drugs coming to market that may not have been appropriate for women, Turner explained.

“When I came here, perhaps the most impactful thing I did, and it was not by coincidence, was to bring in a woman leader [Joanne Turner] as the vice president for research, as a strong statement for my commitment to leadership roles for women,” said president and chief executive officer of Texas Biomed, Dr. Larry Schlesinger.  “I think recruiting women to leadership roles in an organization is probably the most important thing anyone can do because they become role models so that others can feel good about their opportunities to advance.”

As the Institute seeks to hire more scientists, Turner stressed it is the environment, not the women that needs to change. Turner is planning to establish a new mentoring program to facilitate the career development of scientists at all stages, especially for postdoctoral researchers, staff scientists, and junior faculty.

“We have great women scientists,” Turner said. We don’t need to train them to be better at what they do – we need to make the environment better for them to function in.”

 

Dr. Patricia Carlisle, who coordinates activities for Texas Biomed’s National Institutes of Health and Biomedical Advanced Research Development Authority (BARDA) contracts to develop vaccines and therapeutics for Ebola viruses, has been working with Turner to establish this mentoring program. The Institute hosted an unconscious bias training in August and is including it in their staff scientist training program.

For Carlisle, having Turner as the first female vice president for research at the Institute is significant.

“Having a woman leader that we can look up to is very inspiring, and it makes us think that the tides can change,” Carlisle said.

Dr. Smita Kulkarni came to Texas Biomed in 2016 to study HIV and start her independent laboratory. Kulkarni has noticed a culture shift since Turner arrived at Texas Biomed last summer, including a “culture of celebration” in which new patents, awards, and grants are publicly recognized and celebrated, Kulkarni said. Turner has also encouraged Kulkarni and others like her to reach out to colleagues for more collaboration.

Turner’s role as described in the Institute’s new ten-year strategic plan is to engineer an organizational shift, so she is paying special attention to gender balance on hiring committees for better equity in hiring and promotions. Changes in the workplace could also include access to a lactation room for new mothers and more flexibility in work schedules to accommodate researchers who also have child- or elder-care responsibilities.

“If you have a search committee that is 50 percent women, you are more likely to hire a woman candidate,” Turner said. “And as the proportion of women faculty increases, the environment and culture will become increasingly supportive for women.”

In an informal survey of many microbiology, immunology, and infectious diseases departments across the country, Turner discovered female researchers received more grant money than the men in every department. Turner’s theory is that the women who remain in science are truly outstanding because they have had to overcome so many obstacles to advance.

“The women are actually better at making money for the Institute and doing good science, so that’s telling me we should be hiring more women,” Turner said.

Supporting women at Texas Biomed so that 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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