Feminist Biology Post Doc/Sabbatical!

Here is a new posting for that Feminist Biology postdoc/sabbatical position at the University of Wisconsin-Madison! This is the second year, and it seems like a great opportunity. Here is the link! Wittig Postdoc ad 09 15

Some details: “The Wittig Postdoctoral Fellows Program in Feminist Biology offers the opportunity to combine research in a Fellow’s specific area of interest with teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. We seek a highly motivated new or recent Ph.D. in one of the biological sciences or public health or MD, who wants to develop research skills in an area of biology related to gender and teaching skills in feminist approaches to biology. The position is also open to a mid-career or senior scholar, for example on sabbatical.” But look at the attachment for more info!

Wisconsin Symposium on Feminist Biology!

Wisconsin Symposium on Feminist Biology

Join us October 10 – 11 as we consider how to uncover and reverse gender bias in biology

Keynote speakers:

Anne Fausto-Sterling, Brown University

Sari van Anders, University of Michigan

Featured speaker:

Caroline VanSickle, Wittig Postdoctoral Fellow in Feminist Biology, University of Wisconsin—Madison

Open to faculty from all disciplines, researchers, and graduate students!

The Center for Research on Gender and Women at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is pleased to announce the Wisconsin Symposium on Feminist Biology to deliberately examine creating new research, new topics, new methods, new theories that remove the gender bias in biological research.

Click for complete conference details including directions on how to submit a poster

At a glance:

When: Fri-Sat, Oct 10-11

Where: Red Gym, Madison, WI

Cost: Full symposium early bird $55 until Oct 1st, $70 after. Students $10.

Register online» | Details»

Questions? Contact Janet Shibley Hyde: jshyde@wisc.edu 608-262-9522

Made possible through the Gertraude Wittig Endowment

Co-sponsored by the Departments of Anthropology, Medical History and Bioethics, and the Women in Science and Engineering Leadership Institute

Supported, in part, by the University Lectures Committee

Even the cows are male: Impacts of gender/sex policy on grant apps

What happens when grant institutes ask applicants whether they are considering gender and sex? Joy Johnson, Zena Sharman, Bilkis Vissandjee, and Donna E. Stewart found out. But they’re not just your everyday run-of-the-mill finder-outers: Dr. Johnson is the Scientific Director of the Institute of Gender and Health (IGH, one of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, CIHR), Dr. Sharman is its Assistant Director, Dr. Vissandjee is a Professor at the University of Montreal, and Donna E. Stewart is a Professor at the University of Toronto. You can see the article here. Long introduction short: in December 2010, CIHR instituted a requirement that all applicants had to indicate whether their grant accounted for sex or gender. These authors wanted to see what happened. I feel like it wouldn’t be inappropriate to insert those Law and Order doink-doink sounds here, from when they start off their show, in case you were wondering.

These are the questions: definitely not an onerous burden! And, they provided online links to applicants for help about gender and sex.

Why did CIHR use these questions? Basically, to solve this problem: that scientists generally study only men/males and aren’t really changing. The authors looked at all successfully funded applications (not just a sample). They couldn’t look at unfunded applications because of CIHR privacy laws, which is too bad because it would be interesting to see whether gender/sex attention differed according to funding status. Anyway, the policy made a difference: the purple line shows that relatively fewer applicants did not incorporate sex and gender over time, and the other lines show that relatively more applicants did incorporate especially sex but also gender over time.

Take-home: Over time, more applicants attended to sex and gender, and fewer applicants didn’t.

Also cool: the authors were able to look at fields: clinical research applicants were the most likely to take sex into account, and population health applicants the most likely to address gender. Biomedical applicants were, um, a bit behind: they were the least likely to take gender or sex into account – with over 80% initially saying no to both and ending up with 60% saying no to both (better, but I don’t need my swooning couch anytime soon).

You might be thinking: what about the applicants themselves? We know that ‘gender’ is often code for ‘women,’ which has the corollary that women are way more likely to think about gender than men are. That held true here: men applicants were less likely to involve sex or gender in their project than women applicants. Perusing the figures, it seems to me that the difference between disciplines is more marked than the difference between women and men applicants, though I didn’t run any stats on this.

Also very interesting: some panels were more likely to have applicants focusing on gender and/or sex. These high achievers included:

  • Aboriginal Peoples’ Health
  • Biochemistry and Molecular Biology -B (I don’t think this means it’s the B Team, though, just to be clear)
  • Social and Developmental Aspects of Children’s and Youth’s Health
  • Gender, Sex and Health (it would have been really embarrassing if this category wasn’t on this list.)
  • Psychosocial, Sociocultural and Behavioural Determinants of Health (1 and 2, whatever that means)
  • Public, Community and Population Health -1

I think we can all agree that the first thing anyone would notice on this list is the lack of the Oxford comma for a commonwealth country. AM I RIGHT?! The second thing is that this is actually a bit of a mixed bag but also kind of not. If you excluded the thematic outlier (biochemistry and molecular biology) (and don’t forget the “-B”!!!), all the other titles invoke culture somehow. So gender and sex = culture?

Of course, some panels were more likely to focus on sex, and some on gender. Some were also more likely to not focus on gender or sex, with gender especially absent (usually present ZERO times):

  • Biochemistry & Molecular Biology -A (in stark contrast to its sibling panel, B, above, which must make for some really tense family reunions)
  • Cell Biology & Mechanisms of Disease
  • Cell Physiology
  • Basically any panel that had an “-ology” in it (e.g. Cell Biology & Mechanisms of Disease, Immunology & Transplantation, Developmental Biology, etc.)
  • Basically any panel that has a new fancy way of not saying “-ology” but kind of really meaning it but saying neuroscience or behavioural sciences instead (e.g., Systems & Clinical Neuroscience, Cardiovascular System, Pharmaceutical Sciences, etc.)

Based on this and some other analyses, the authors note, and I like their language:

These results suggest that the integration of sex and gender is divided upon disciplinary lines, with the behavioural and public health communities having adopted the integration sex/gender and those panels based on cellular processes having apparently resisted voluntary incorporation of these considerations (bold mine, ALL MINE!).

I, personally, would have done a very loud tsk tsk and given cellular processes a very stern look, but these authors perhaps took a less volatile approach.

The authors did some qualitative analyses on the applicants’ text answers and found that applicants often conflated sex with gender, using “gender” in animal studies and studies of biological differences. The reverse wasn’t true: people didn’t use sex when they meant gender. And, as I wrote above, women = gender, so the authors note that applicants who were studying women OR who were studying women and men saw themselves as studying gender. Ha ha cry cry. Though some applicants talked about using gender and/or sex as a covariate, disconcertingly people would talk about recruiting equal numbers of women and men but:

… the descriptions of the methods did not specify a plan for analyzing these data by sex and/or gender.

Well, that sounds good. Willy nilly is definitely the best part of science, right? Right? What did people say when they did not integrate sex or gender? Get ready:

This is a basic science research project.

Because gender/sex = not science, as everyone knows. They also said:

No human subjects used in this study.

Because, as even our nations’ preschoolers know, animals come in only one flavor: male. Seriously, try to get someone to call any animal (especially a big, strong, scary, or ugly one) ‘she’ and watch their mouth stop working.

Even daycare-aged kids know that all animals are male. Even the cows are male.

There were other problematic responses, including that because the issue was “equally important” to men and women, gender/sex didn’t need to be accounted for. That is philosophy of logic right there, in action. Or, if applicants were studying only women or only men, then gender/sex was irrelevant. My undergraduate students sometimes struggle with this, to be fair: we live in a culture where gender = gender difference, and sex = sex difference. So if difference isn’t being studied, then a surprising number of people (including, apparently, PhDs and MDs who are studying gender/sex) will think that gender and sex aren’t being studied. Are you studying pregnancy? Well, as everyone knows, that has nothing to do with sex or gender because only women (and of course some trans men) do pregnancy. Are you studying semen? That has nothing to do with sex or gender, since only men (and of course some trans women) do semen. If you studied pregnancy in women and men, or if you studied semen in men and women, well, there you’d be all over gender/sex fer sher.

There was one excuse-I-mean-justification that was very striking and worrisome:

… lack of evidence – for example, no prior evidence of sex or gender-based differences.

Because science, obviously, only studies what’s already known. I mean, that’s what science does, right?! It’s not like we scientists are about producing new knowledge, asking unasked questions. That’s for amateurs!

Anyway, being snarky here is just like shooting fish in a barrel, which I have never done but sounds intriguing. So, moving on, the authors conclude (among other things):

…funding agencies have a key role to play in enabling this shift [38]. For example, the design and implementation of funding agency-level changes such as extending sex-based inclusion requirements to preclinical animal studies, providing applicants with clear instructions on sex and gender, educating applicants, peer reviewers and agency staff on the importance of sex and gender, and engaging in regular measurement and monitoring of progress [15], [39]. … knowledge gaps suggested by the results of the qualitative analysis presented here – for example, the persistent conflation of sex and gender by health researchers, the assumption that gender applies only to women, and the perception that sex is not relevant to research on animal or cell models.

I think the part of this paper that makes my heart glad is that the authors use science and scholarship to understand what is going on with grant applications. The part that makes my heart less glad is how much – I’m going to say it! – ignorance there is about the most basics around gender and sex even among a progressive nation’s most high-achieving scientists (um, full disclosure: I’m from Canada, but I think all those indices always put Canada pretty high on a progressive scale). But epistemology of ignorance or agnatology – the study of what we don’t know and why we don’t know it – is critical to moving forward and understanding where we are. The part that makes my heart sweat in a bad way is: can we do the work? That part that makes my heart sweat in a good way is: obviously, and this helps us know where to start. (My heart does a lot, sometimes.)

Men sent to Mars and women sent to Venus: A thought experiment in honor of the NIH’s upcoming policies on incorporating sex in basic research

Guest post by Stacey Ritz

Imagine if you will…

Editor’s note: this is my favorite drawing ever.

It’s the year 2075. After a worldwide search for the hardiest human beings, one man and one woman are selected to colonize other planets: Bob (a chemist from Finland) is sent to Mars, and Flo (a rice farmer from Thailand) is sent to Venus.

Editor’s note: These are skeptical clones (see the eyebrow??).

Each of them is placed in a large spacecraft provisioned with a laboratory for human cloning, 6 months’ worth of basic food and water rations along with oxygen, and space to house 5000 people; the World Space Organization will send additional rations for the populations every 6 months, and once the colonies are at maximum capacity, the WSO will conduct scientific tests of a variety of parameters on the colony.

After a lengthy journey, Bob and Flo arrive on their respective planets, set up their laboratories, and begin producing clones of themselves. They are very successful: by 2125 they are at maximum capacity, and the WSO sends scientists to study the populations.

In the first battery of tests, the scientists make the following measurements:

Editor’s note: WHO IS THIS GUY?! I definitely don’t trust his results.

  • Assay serum levels of LDL cholesterol
  • Administer the “Verbal Reasoning” section of the MCAT
  • Determine the ED50 (effective dose in 50% of the population) for the anaesthetic drug propofol
  • Evaluate leg strength by determining the maximum amount of weight the subjects can leg press
  • Measure height

Their findings are as follows:

Editor’s note: bar graphs!!

Excited by these data, the WSO scientists send the following report back to earth:


Our initial testing of the inhabitants of Mars and Venus revealed stark differences between men and women for a variety of parameters. Men had significantly higher serum LDL cholesterol than women, which may explain the higher prevalence of cardiovascular disease in men. As expected, women had a much stronger aptitude for verbal reasoning than men, which is in line with the body of literature documenting that women have stronger communication skills than men. Women also required a 44% lower dose of propofol to achieve anaesthesia; anaesthesiologists should adjust their dosages of propofol accordingly for male and female patients. Just like on Earth, men were taller than women, but surprisingly there were no significant differences in lower body strength.

It is probably instantly obvious to most people that this experiment has a whole whack of problems that invalidate the scientists’ conclusions. Given the way this was set up, it is OBVIOUSLY completely unreasonable to ascribe the differences observed in these tests to the sex of the populations. The results could reflect any number of other differences between the two populations that have nothing to do with their sex, for example:

  • Genetically-inherited tendencies:
    • Turns out that Bob has a family history of genetic hypercholesterolemia and tall stature, and his allele for CYP2B6 is a variant that is very efficient in breaking down propofol. On the other hand, Flo comes from a somewhat short family with normal cholesterol, and her allele for CYP2B6 is a variant that has moderate efficiency in metabolizing propofol.
  • Socio-cultural factors:
    • The MCAT verbal reasoning test was administered in English. Flo speaks fluent English and Thai, and so the clones on Venus learned both languages from her and are fluently bilingual. Bob speaks Finnish and broken English, and so the clones on Mars are not very proficient in English.
  • Environmental influences:
    • The specific gravity is 0.376g on Mars, and 0.904g on Venus. Thus, gravity exerted less downward force on the bodies of the inhabitants of Mars, which would tend to allow them to grow taller than those living on Venus.
  • Interactions between genetics and environment:
    • The genetic tendency to tallness of the Bob clones that was magnified by the lower gravity on Mars; although their bodies were larger, the lower gravity on Mars meant that their leg muscles did not have to be as well developed in order to support their (higher) body weight. In contrast, the genetic tendency to shortness of the Flo clones was magnified by the higher gravity; although their bodies were smaller, the higher gravity on Venus meant that their leg muscles had to be relatively more developed to support their (lower) body weight. Thus the net effect of these genetic and environmental influences resulted in similar lower body strength between the groups.
    • Radiation exposure on the space journey to Venus caused a mutation in the CYP2B6 allele in the cell that Flo happened to use in her cloning; the mutation caused a 50% decrease in the activity of the enzyme, so propofol was metabolized more slowly in the clones than in Flo herself.
  • Researcher bias and over-extrapolation:
    • The findings on verbal reasoning fit with the researchers’ pre-existing perception that women are better communicators, so they didn’t consider whether there might be other factors that confounded their findings (ie. language).
    • The researchers are stretching their conclusions pretty far to argue that the difference seen in LDL cholesterol in a genetically homogeneous population under tightly controlled conditions explains a difference in the prevalence of a complex disease in a genetically heterogeneous population with little control over conditions.

You might be saying “well this is OBVIOUSLY a TOTALLY RIDICULOUS scenario and scientists would NEVER make these kinds of mistakes in interpretation.” Well, actually, what I’m suggesting is that people make these kinds of mistakes all the time when interpreting data from cell and animal studies (and also from human studies) that make crude comparisons of male vs. female.

Let me unpack my tortured analogy a bit to make the parallels more explicit:

The hardiest humans are chosen to colonize another planet. Normal people aren’t chosen because they probably wouldn’t survive. Most cells grown in vitro for laboratory use are ‘cell lines’: cells of the type we’re interested in that have a nearly limitless ability to proliferate. These are usually cancer cells, or cells that have been genetically modified to permit ongoing proliferation. They are NOT normal. Most animals used in experiments are inbred, and have been adapted to laboratory conditions over many generations. They are NOT human and differ from humans in substantial ways.
The colonizers live in an atypical environment with the bare essentials they need to survive. This does not reflect the conditions in which humans live. Cells are grown in a plastic flask, fed by culture media. This does not reflect the conditions in which normal cells live. Experimental animals live in cages under highly controlled conditions. This does not reflect the conditions in which humans live.
Instead of living in a complex, dynamic human society made up of many different people, the colonizers live in a relatively static environment surrounded by others exactly like them. This does not reflect the conditions in which humans normally live. Instead of living in a complex, dynamic body made up of many kinds of cells, the cells live in a relatively static culture environment surrounded by other cells exactly like them. This does not reflect the conditions in which cells normally live. Instead of living in natural social groups and engaging in natural behaviour, animals are segregated into groups based on the convenience of the scientist, and live only with other animals of the same sex. This does not reflect the conditions in which mice or humans normally live.
The living conditions of the residents of Mars are different from those of the residents of Venus. The culture medium and conditions used for different cell lines are often different. In mice (the most commonly used experimental mammal), males are usually housed at lower density than females because of the males’ tendency to aggression against one another.
Differences observed between the inhabitants of Mars and Venus may be ascribable to a variety of factors, so making crude “male vs female” comparisons between the inhabitants of Mars and Venus is not very useful for understanding the influence of sex on the outcomes of interest. Differences observed between male and female cell lines may be ascribable to a variety of factors, so making crude “male vs female” comparisons between male cell lines and female cell lines is not very useful for understanding the influence of sex on the outcomes of interest. Differences observed between male and female animals may be ascribable to a variety of factors, so making crude “male vs female” comparisons between male cell lines and female cell lines is not very useful for understanding the influence of sex on the outcomes of interest.
More nuanced approaches are required to discern the influences of sex. More nuanced approaches are required to discern the influences of sex. More nuanced approaches are required to discern the influences of sex.

In the 14 May 2014 edition of Nature, the NIH announced that it intends to roll out policies beginning in October 2014 that will “require applicants to report their plans for the balance of male and female cells and animals in preclinical studies in all future applications, unless sex-specific inclusion is unwarranted, based on rigorously defined exceptions.” Although I applaud the motivation underlying these changes, I am far from convinced that simply requiring scientists to include male and female cells or animals in their work will be a significant advance in addressing sex and gender in medical research – in fact, I fear that a crude approach of this sort will not only fail to address concerns around equity, but it may in fact exacerbate them and serve to affirm our cultural bias that men are from Mars and women are from Venus.

So what do you think? Is my tortured analogy off-base? Will this policy and others like it help or hinder equity in biomedical research?

*Let’s ignore for the moment the ways that scientists tend to conflate sex and gender….that’s a whole other kettle of fish.

Save the Date for Feminist Biology!

Save-the-date for Feminist Biology! Why? Because Anne Fausto-Sterling will be speaking. If hearing one of the key players in feminist biology isn’t enough for you, I just heard her at NeuroGenderings, and she has some amazing new data. Plus, she is a major tweeter (@Fausto_Sterling) and I know that the day is coming when she livetweets her own talk. Also, you will get to hear Caroline VanSickle, the fabulous inaugural Wittig Post Doc in Feminist Biology at Wisconsin (read about her and the postdoc here and here). Finally, I have it on good account that Sari van Anders will also be speaking, mostly because I am Sari van Anders (and by ‘mostly’ I mean ‘entirely’). Save the date, plan to attend, and help spread the news. More information is forthcoming in July, including about registration and posters. Here’s the PDF to share: Flyer Symposium 2014

Feminism is a theory like evolution is a theory.

I know, right?! HOW COULD I EVEN SAY THAT?! Could I be a more worstest person??!? Quickbeforeyouleaveletmeexplain:

If you’re a feminist and you say words, you often end up explaining to people why you’re a feminist. Equo pro icqum, if you’re a feminist scientist, you often end up explaining to scientists, even scientists who are feminists, why you do feminist science and why you make up fake Latin logic statements that sound fancy (answer: you can’t make up real ones). Even the most well-meaning folk, who identify as feminists and bring feminism into every other aspect of their lives, want to know: why bring feminism into science?

Lately, when people ask me why feminist science, I’ve been answering: because it works; because it makes sense of the world. Equo pro icqum, scientists use theories that work and make sense of the world (are you impressed I remembered to italicize my fake Latin for optimum veracity?) (I AM). But is feminism a theory? Feminism is a social movement, a lived experience, a guiding principle. To a lot of people, whether feminism is a theory is irrelevant to their activism and life work. But here, I’m talking about how it’s also a theory. Did you think I would back down from my title? DO YOU EVEN KNOW ME? (Here’s a handy test to see if you know me: (a) Will I back down from a title? (b) Do I like milkshakes? (c) Do I enjoy listy things? No, yes, and who doesn’t?!)

Ok. So, feminism is a theory (among other things). But most anti-feminists want to argue that feminism is a political ideology and therefore evil. This is one of my favorite anti-feminist science arguments, because it equates political ideologies with evil and the picking on feminism is pretty obvious if you insert other ideologies: HUMANISM IS EVIL! PACIFISM IS EVIL! DISARMAMENT IS EVIL! WEARING WHITE BEFORE LABOR DAY IS EVIL! (or is it after?! BOTH ARE EVIL!). In my book, the book of evil, I reserve ‘evil’ for things that deserve the moniker, like walls you stub your toes on (jerks!), plants that won’t grow despite your best efforts (a-holes!), and paper cuts (the nerve of that paper!!!). Yes, feminism is an ideology but, and here is the refrain in my song: feminism is also a theory. I will explain more because even I know that saying the same statement over and over again doesn’t make it true (despite what many academics have tried to teach me. har har! academia jokes!).

This is from that most authoritative source that students should never but faculty often use: Wikipedia. I put it in serious font and left it undecorated to make it look even more impressive and true.

What kind of thing is feminism? It’s lots of things. To be honest, I’m not sure most of my feminist-identified people would have a ready answer to describe what feminism is (in terms of a type of thing) (but maybe I am projecting). Saying feminism is a theory could be troubling in another way because many anti-science folks would say that theories are ‘just theories’, that they’re unproven conjectures, which means that calling feminism a ‘theory’ provides a load of additional kindling for those people who want to burn feminism on the anti-feminism+anti-science pyre. If feminism is a theory, then it’s just a random guess, right?! And then feminism slinks away, tucking its loose armpit hair into its shapeless clothes, weeping, but stridently so, wondering why it ever thought stupid things like payment equity were worth considering. (Full disclosure: I’m pro-armpit hair AND pro-payment equity! Surprise! That was irony! I’m pro-stridency, too, but that is just good sense, not irony BECAUSE WHO DOESN’T LIKE STRIDENCY?!?!)

Are theories ‘just’ theories; guesses and random conjectures? No. Theories aren’t just random guesses. They’re not unproven conjectures. They’re incredibly valuable, important, and insightful models of the world. Last I checked, no one can understand the entirety of the world all at once, so theories are a way to make sense of aspects of the world and guide our engagements with it. For scientists, theories are why we get up in the morning because, without them, the world might just be a big bunch of worldness. How to make sense of it? With a theory, of course! Like, take evolution. We use evolution as a way to make sense of the living matter we see in the world and how it has come to be. Evolution is a theory in all the amazing ways we mean theory: it explains the shit out of the world. Its explanatory power is off the charts!

Feminism is a theory like evolution is a theory: feminism explains the world we see. That’s why students who take a feminist class are so often like: I was blind but now I see. For realz! Because feminism explains things you can’t make sense of otherwise. It’s like putting on the right prescription glasses and realizing everything had been out of focus before. I, myself, have -8.5 eyesight (which is worse than most people but who would be competitive about their bad eyesight? Definitely not me, but my eyesight is worse than yours) but my eyesight was literally – LITERALLY I PROMISE – -300 before I got my feminist glasses (quirky yet stylish OF COURSE).

This whole way of thinking is useful in another way. I often have students ask me: what if I do a project where the results don’t jibe with feminism? What if my science contributes to anti-feminism, misogyny, inequities, racism, etc.? What if I am still using jibe but no one else is?! I used to think about this myself and worry, so I understand the students’ concerns (jibe is never out of date). Few feminists want to do work that hurts women or undermines feminism. Contrasting this with evolution is useful: no one worries that their evolutionary biology experiment will call evolution into question because evolution is such a strong theory that it will almost inevitably explain the finding. Same with feminism: it’s such a strong theory, a truth of our world, that it will still explain the finding. Because that’s what truth does, make sense. There is no way that one finding will undermine either evolution or feminism and, instead, there is all likelihood that evolution and feminism are strong enough to make sense of unexpected results. That’s why we have them and that’s why we use them. That’s not tautological, where theories explain themselves; I mean that both evolution and feminism will legitimately make sense of even the most head-scratching seemingly off-target results because why? Because feminism and evolution make sense like a boss.

Of course, that’s not to say that evolution and feminism, like all awesome theories, can’t be revised or improved. For example, bringing modern genetics and now epigenetics into evolutionary theory has transformed evolution in wowish ways. Similarly, bringing intersectionality into feminism has transformed feminism in I-can-see-clearly-now-the-rain-has-gone ways. It’s always possible that a theory is wrong – OF COURSE! – but the strongest theories are supported by the available data and continue to be useful. They continue to make sense of the world in such important ways that the world would go unexplained without them.

So, when someone asks you why feminism? think of me in the background saying feminism because it makes sense of the world. Because it works. Because it’s right. Just like evolution. And watch their head explode in all the best ways. Though that is not the best image to leave you with, so also you could imagine me saying that doing the running man because that will definitely up the awesome ante.

p.s. I checked with some feminist philosophers of science as to whether I was allowed to make this analogy. I’m not sure they were entirely happy with it but they gave me the go-ahead. They may have sneaked side glances at each other while they were doing so, thinking I couldn’t see them but I could. So basically what I’m saying is that if you disagree with me or poke a hole in this argument, I cannot be held responsible for anything I have said, ever, and that is a given, unless you want to hold me responsible for awesomeness and THEN GO RIGHT AHEAD WITH MY PERMISSION.

Title: A (soon-to-be) feminist biology post doc tells all! PLUS CAT PHOTOS.

In part 2 of our ongoing investigative journalism here at Gap Junction Science, I interviewed Caroline VanSickle, the holder of the inaugural Wittig post doc in feminist biology at the University of Wisconsin. (In part 1, we described the post doc.) Here’s what soon-to-be Post Doc VanSickle had to say! I asked hard hitting questions such as “tell us about your research.” and also “what’s paleoanthropology?” and don’t forget “what excites you about feminist science?” Don’t worry. I got to the bottom of all of this AND MORE. And, because of my impressive investigative and interviewing skills, VanSickle just gave me a bunch of cat photos WITHOUT ME EVEN ASKING. Along with captions. All I have to say about this is WOW. But also, that VanSickle has some fascinating things to say.

1) Tell us about your research (like: what’s paleoanthropology?!).

Paleoanthropology is the study of human evolution. Studying humans is different than studying alligators because we complicate our biology with culture. (Editor’s note: but wouldn’t some scientists say that some non-human animals do have culture? That said, my money is not on alligators because they are too eatey-scary.) Figuring out how and when we started using cultural behaviors like language, tools, and kinship patterns, is just as important to our evolutionary story as figuring out when and why our skeletal form changed. Exploring this combination of biology and culture (definitely not biology versus culture) is what draws me to the discipline.

My specific research examines sex* differences in our hominin ancestors. Currently, I am completing my Ph.D. research on the evidence of childbirth differences between Neandertals (who lived 100,000-40,000 years ago) and humans. (Editor’s note: this is how you can tell a real anthropologist from an imposter: they spell Neadertals without an ‘h’. If anyone ever writes you a note that says “give me all your money or Neanderthals!” you can say “you’re an imposter.”) For that project, I compared measurements of the pelvis of Neandertal females to that of recent human females and found differences that may have affected birth. For the Wittig postdoc, I plan to research sex differences in australopithecines, the very early hominins who lived in Africa 3 to 1.5 million years ago. (Editor’s note: that is a long long time ago.) There appear to have been multiple species of australopithecines alive at roughly the same time; I want to figure out how we identify anatomical differences as being due to sex differences and not species differences.

*Paleoanthropological evidence consists of fragmentary skeletal remains. It is impossible to ascertain gender or nuanced sex categories from a complete human skeleton, let alone a fragmentary not-quite human one. This means paleoanthropologists are limited to discussing sex in terms of “likely male” and “likely female” individuals.

This bed smells delicious (there was still a pizza inside the box)

2)  Tell us why you applied for the Wittig post doc.

My research in evolutionary sex differences stems from an interest in figuring out the role females played in human evolution. A lot of previous work in paleoanthropology focused on explaining all of human evolution in terms of how it relates to males. For example, there was a hypothesis that hominins became bipedal so that men could hold weapons while hunting. That hypothesis excludes the possibility that a behavior done by women (or women and men) could have caused selection for bipedalism; for example, ability to carry babies or larger quantities of food. One aspect of my research goals is to challenge hypotheses like this by asking “what were the women doing?”

My goal as the Wittig Postdoc is to find ways to further incorporate feminist theory into my research and teaching practices. When I first saw the post on GJS (editor’s note: that’s us!) announcing this fellowship, which asked for someone “who wants to develop research skills in an area of biology related to gender and teaching skills in feminist approaches to biology” my immediate thought was “CHOOSE ME!!!” UW-Madison’s Anthropology department is an excellent place to undertake research on australopithecines, as one of their professors (John Hawks) is actively involved at a South African hominin field site and therefore knows the people and materials that have been found in the region very well. This, however, was really icing on the cake; the opportunity to develop my feminist science principles over two years of teaching courses for the Gender and Women’s Studies department and implement those principles in my new project was what first drew me to applying for the fellowship.

Oh you wanted to print something?

2) Many scientists, even scientists who identify as feminists in the non-science parts of their lives, feel uncomfortable with the notion of feminist science. How did you come to sidestep that discomfort and move to identifying with feminist science?

This is certainly an issue that many feminists and scientists and feminist scientists struggle with; and I am not sure I have fully resolved it in my own mind. I can best describe my current thoughts on what feminist science means by comparing science to one of my favorite feminist bands, Bikini Kill. I think most would agree that Bikini Kill was a feminist band (the lead singer, Kathleen Hanna, is credited with starting the Riot Grrrl movement and composing a feminist manifesto with other women on what the movement should entail).

To get labeled as a feminist band, Bikini Kill…

  • Existed as a women-led band at a time when this was unusual.
  • Sang about topics they found worthwhile, even if they met opposition.
  • Actively created a safe space for women at their concerts (punk mosh pits were often physically harmful for women, forcing women to stand on the sidelines or risk being trampled. Bikini Kill instituted “girls to the front” rules and kicked men out of concerts if they were overly violent or sexually aggressive).

In my mind, feminist scientists should have similar goals. In short, they should

  • Exist as part of women-led science until this stops becoming newsworthy.
  • Research topics they find worthwhile, even if they are met with opposition (this isn’t to encourage pseudoscience or fringe movements; this is meant to encourage research into a more diverse range of topics).
  • Actively create a safe space for women (and other under-represented minorities) within academia (including at conferences, in departments, in the classroom, within publications, etc.).

Despite identifying myself as a feminist paleoanthropologist (who does Feminist Science as well as Science While Being a Feminist), I am still relatively new to this discussion. I do not claim to be an expert on feminist science methodologies. I do firmly believe that since science is a human endeavor, we humans have the ability to change the process for the better. The suggestions I list here encourage better science for everyone, not just women, which is why I do not find feminist science to be a contradiction of terms.

Books put me to sleep.

3) What excites you about feminist science practice?

I tend to be overly pragmatic, which has been known to get me into trouble when I read overly philosophical works. My perspective is: science is how we learn about the world around us; feminist science is a way to expand science by including more people in the practice. The opportunity to be part of improving SCIENCE, and therefore our knowledge about the world, excites me beyond measure.

Shopping bags are for cats, right?

4) What’s your academic background? How did it prepare you (or not) for doing feminist science?

I’ve always considered myself a feminist, ever since I first learned the word back in middle school. Women’s rights – can’t go wrong with that! I read a bizarre assortment of feminist works I discovered at the local library or that friends recommended (it was normal to read Cunt in high school, right?). I took some women’s studies courses as an undergraduate (graduating just one course shy of a minor). In graduate school, I chose a research topic that would let me study the behavior of women in the past. I also took a seminar taught by GJS-member Laura Ruetsche on Philosophy of Science and Gender. This course was really when all of my previous ideas about Science and Feminism solidified. Reading Longino, Haraway, and many others, I finally felt I had an adequate vocabulary to explain how I thought the process of science worked, why I thought it worked, and how it could be improved by feminist principles. After that course, I found paleoanthropology-specific feminist critiques to read and started thinking about how to better incorporate feminism in my research and teaching practices. I never had a true feminist science advisor, though I have been advised by a number of scientists who I would consider feminists.

Gravity, what’s that?

5) What would you say to aspiring feminist scientist trainees and junior folks out there?

If they are available to you, I recommend taking courses in philosophy of science, gender and biology (like the one I am teaching next fall at UW-Madison), or feminist history. If they are not available to you, there are some mind-opening readings out there that are great for helping you see how gendered scientific inquiry tends to be (readings that include the blog posts here at GJS). A paleoanthropology-specific reading list of such topics might include the books The Invisible Sex and Women in Human Evolution.

While informing yourself about issues relevant to feminist science is of course important, you should remember the power you have to advocate change right now. Just because you are a student doesn’t mean you have to go along with gender bias.  The “See something, say something” principle described by anthropologist Julienne Rutherford shows the importance of pointing out everyday gender biases in science. (Editor’s note: also see our post about this for conferences and this post for saying something as a junior person!). It is of course important to read the situation and avoid putting yourself in danger, but part of being a feminist scientist (or a feminist punk band) is not being afraid to speak up!

Finally, assemble a support network, ideally one that includes woman role models. This is important for everyone, not just aspiring feminist scientists; yet forming a community of support does fit with classic feminist principles. I found this support system through my lab mates at Michigan, as well as on Twitter where I interacted with (and sometimes just lived vicariously through) more senior scholars who were willing to share parts of their day with the public. Sometimes it can really improve your day to know that there are other researchers out there who are struggling with a manuscript, taking a break for a favorite TV show, and fighting the patriarchy both within and outside of academia.

My bipedal cat

What’s feminist biology doing in that post doc?!

By now, you may have heard of the inaugural post doc in feminist biology at the University of Wisconsin, from Gender & Women’s Studies. Don’t go rushing to apply now – the due date is past. But what happened with it? And why did they do it? And how? Who got it? What kind of feminist biology does that person do? Does that person like cats? These are all important questions and we here at Gap Junction Science are dedicated to investigative feminist science journalism/cat reporting. So here goes! All your questions answered. See also our follow up post, focusing on Caroline VanSickle, the new post doc!

First, I asked Janet Hyde, Professor of Psychology and Women’s Studies extraordinaire at Madison and general feminist science instigator, what the dealio was. I didn’t actually word it like that because this was in an email and Professor Hyde is, like, a real professor. As am I! It’s hard to tell sometimes because of how much I like to talk about milkshakes and say things like ‘what the dealio.’ So I probably said something like: I’d love to hear more about the process involved in developing this feminist biology post doc, and how you and your programs came to support this exciting undertaking. Which is fancy speak for ‘what the dealio?’ Here’s some of what she told me.

The Department of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Wisconsin—Madison has created a program that is the first in the nation – and probably in the world.  The program is a postdoctoral fellowship in feminist biology.  The first postdoc has just been named and will begin in September, 2014. Feminist biology seeks to analyze gender bias in biology research, past and present.  In addition, it seeks to develop new theory and methods in biology that reflect feminist approaches. Feminist analysis in and of science has already revealed and challenged sexist beliefs in scientific theories and practices.  This approach opens biological study up to new questions and suggests novel solutions.

I thought that was pretty exciting. But there was more:

The fellowship has been named the Wittig Postdoctoral Fellowship in Feminist Biology because the program was made possible by a generous gift from the estate of Dr. Gertraude Wittig.  Born in Germany, Wittig earned her doctorate in zoology and botany from the University of Marburg in 1955.  She came to the U.S. on a Fullbright Scholarship and later worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a researcher in insect pathology and electron microscopy.  She later took a faculty position in biological sciences at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville.  She worked tirelessly to encourage the participation of women in the sciences.  With no previous connection to the University of Wisconsin, she directed her gift to it in recognition of the strength of the Department of Gender & Women’s Studies in the area of Gender and Science.

This was also exciting because many of us really want to know how something like this gets funded. I feel like this one was less helpful because the lesson seemed to be: be great and some wonderful, smart, accomplished person with money to spare will hopefully see your light shining and donate money to you. That’s not the most detailed protocol I’ve ever seen for getting a new initiative supported. It might as well be: do magic! That said, we are impressed, and by ‘we’, I mean the feminist scientists on whose behalf I ALWAYS speak ENTIRELY. Anyway, this whole paragraph is mostly about how envious I am. But, more seriously, milkshakes. Just kidding! For realz, more seriously, there are so many people who are dedicated to both feminism and science; can we motivate their passion to support similar endeavors elsewhere? Let’s talk more about this sometime, okay?

So, but now, who got it?!

The first Wittig postdoc has been chosen, Caroline VanSickle, who is completing her PhD in biological anthropology at the University of Michigan.  During the two-year period of the fellowship, VanSickle will continue her research on female hominins by investigating changes in pelvis shape – and therefore childbirth anatomy – over the course of human evolution. Her upcoming research will focus on South African australopithecine species dating from 1.5 to 3 million years ago.  VanSickle will also teach GWS 530, Gender and Biology, and will develop an additional, new course on gender and biology.

You may know the University of Michigan for a number of reason not limited to the fact that I (the author of this post) am located here! But VanSickle and I literally just met last Friday at Helen Longino‘s talk for our Feminist Science Studies program, so I can’t claim any credit. Go Caroline! Go some specific hue of university spirit or whatever it is people seem to be saying in Ann Arbor! And, also, of course, go Wisconsin! And go feminist science!

But what about Caroline VanSickle, you ask? You want to know more? Well, I didn’t grow up watching gallons of TV (gallons are the proper TV unit, in case you didn’t know) just to answer every question I raise by the end of the show. So tune in, same feminist science time, same feminist science channel, in about a week or so to learn about VanSickle, her thoughts on feminist science and the Wittig post doc, and many photos of cats (because: the internet).

Here is one teaser cat photo.

VanSickle wrote a caption “This bed smells delicious (there was still a pizza inside the box)” AND WE ARE AMUSED!

The Natural History Museum (cue conflicted feminist science music)

Ok, so The Natural History Museum (cue conflicted music). You’re all like: Please. No. Not my natural history museum. FOR THE LOVE OF DEITY X, LEAVE ME SOMETHING TO HOLD ONTO. You’re like: put the natural history museum down and. back. away. slowly. And I’m like: what? I can’t hear you because: racism. And sexism. And problematics. Obviously, we could also discuss how they’re sometimes rather dusty, but I will leave this issue for the more fastidious of you to take up. Also, you can see my booby post if you want to read more about my natural history museum experiences.

So, here I will “‘fess up” as all the kids are saying these days. I secretly (though, not surprisingly, my secret is now out) love natural history museums. I LOVE THEM. I want to proclaim my love for them whilst jumping up and down on Oprah Winfrey’s couch. I love evolution and I love learning about how various species are related to each other surprisingly closely (or distantly! you never know!) so much that I sometimes want to have a name changing party with a natural history museum and we could both change our last names to NaturalHistoryMuseumAnders*.

Wow. Can I use ppt like a boss or what?! This is obviously a lifelike drawing of a natural history museum. If you think it’s a bit skewed then I guess our friendship is over.

I think one of the first major natural history museums I went to was in New York in my emerging adulthood years (emerging adulthood is like a real thing these days). It may have been called “American History of Natural History.” That’s not the most unlikely title, but don’t quote me on it. Somehow the website doesn’t look at all familiar, but my brain might have emptied out on that. Anyway, I remember a fascination and enjoyment, but also a sort of sickening sensation deep deep down that I couldn’t actually push deep enough. Because I got all the animals and plants and stuff. Obv. very cool. But why the indigenous people from around the world stuck in those life-sized dioramas? At the time, I didn’t know. I did know I was long intrigued by the notion of human evolution and race (I even did an independent study project on scientific racism in high school. Yay ISPs!) and also that it felt like something awry was going on, but I didn’t know what. Or at least I didn’t know how to articulate that what.

Fast forward a few years and I’m at the UBC Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver, on the UBC campus (crazily enough). I’m feeling that fascination and the same sickening sensation deep in my tummy. This time I don’t really push it down at all and sort of look at it. This is a museum of anthropology. It also has a lot of cultural items from First Nations communities. What makes First Nations synonymous with anthropology? Or is it indigeneity that is synonymous? And why is this museum of anthropology so similar to the natural history museum I was at? Is natural history the same thing as anthropology?? What about the First Nations people in Vancouver, British Columbia, and Canada? This doesn’t feel like their museum. I feel like this feels problematic. I still don’t really know what it is, though, or how to articulate that what.

Fast forward a few years (again) and I’m having lunch with a new colleague at my new job. Joseph Gone is a faculty member who studies the interfaces and problematics of conventional clinical psychology, indigenous healing practices, and cultural psychology among American Indian/Native American communities. Joe and I are talking about various things, including Vancouver, and the UBC Museum of Anthropology comes up. I remember that, in the conversation, I’m sort of – very awkwardly – trying to articulate my discomfort with the Museum and realizing that Joe is the first person I’ve spoken to about this (other than my partner) who isn’t surprised by my sentiments. I ask him if he’s ever been there (the UBC Museum), and Joe tells me in frank terms: no; and explains how those museums are problematic representations and appropriations of Indigenous cultures, so he doesn’t like to go into them. It’s the first time I’ve heard it articulated (that what, finally!) and I remember being taken aback, to hear my deep deep down feelings that had risen to the surface be articulated so clearly. Firstly, because: wow, when people know stuff! Secondly, because: snap, when people know stuff you’re trying to know about and they make sense of things you haven’t! Thirdly, because: OMG it’s so much worse than I had really understood, now that I understand it, and I feel sort of sick for not realizing that on my own.

Fast forward some more years (apparently my life is one blur of fast forwards between natural history museum visits) and I have a kid. We go to our local natural history museum all the time because, as I’ve mentioned, I love it and my kids loves animals and especially birds (there are a lot of stuffed birds there). And I’m a scientist and I want to support that (stuffed animals that aren’t polyester. and science). But, there are a few rooms up there, sort of off the main path, that have Native American stuff. Like a big canoe you can climb in! Who’s canoe is it, though? The Native Americans! Which is not to say that a specific nation isn’t listed; it probably is, though I can’t say for sure. But what I mean is: who made it? who used it? weren’t they actual people? Contemporary cultural objects in other museums often have a record of the European or (white) North American individuals associated with them. Is it because folks are trying to say that indigenous cultures are less individualistic or because they’re communicating (consciously or not) that indigenous cultures don’t quite have individuals in them, the way, you know, contemporary cultures of people do. Aren’t indigenous peoples people? Are they not contemporary? What are they doing in this natural history museum anyway, that only otherwise has Things Of The Earth? To be fair, there are no dioramas so there’s that, I guess.

What’s so problematic about the natural history museum for a feminist scientist? Unfortunately, lots of things. I bet a lot of people have written very smart books and dissertations on this exact issue (indigeneity and the natural history museum) and my ignorance and social location are keeping me from knowing them (if you know, please do share!). Here’s a very random list of things I’ve thought about in my spare time while being at natural history museums and feeling guilty about being there (I am wide! I contain multitudes!) that seem relevant to feminist science:

  1. The representation of indigeneity as somehow closer to nature than other cultures are. Like, honestly, I’m not a huge fan of nature/culture divides, but if the only cultures being represented in the natural history museum are indigenous cultures, that’s kind of like shouting: indigenous people are more natural! And therefore less cultural! Because this isn’t the cultural history museum! Go see the Europeans and their candelabras elsewhere!
  2. The representation of indigeneity as somehow an earlier stage of evolution, and therefore more natural. That is a scary and all-too-common proposition. All people – all things! – are equally evolved at any one point in time. That’s like the basic point of evolution, right??
  3. Indigenous peoples are somehow more like animals than people from other cultures. I mean, put some indigenous people in the room next to vultures and wolves, but keep the Europeans in another museum, and it’s hard not to get the message. Like, there’s animals, indigenes (read savages much?), and people.  When you look up indigenes (which I just did because: computer), the definition (the freedictionary.com) is literally “a person or thing that is indigenous or native” or “an indigenous person, animal, or thing; native.” Um: uh-oh. Um: I’m uncomfortable even articulating the racism and problematics of putting this all together.
  4. Indigeneity belongs under the scientific gaze. When we go to Natural History Museums, we’re going to learn about science. They’re trying to teach us to look at things like scientists look at things. They’re trying to teach us what scientists look at, and what are proper topics for science. Awesome, right? But, how is it that indigenous folks are somehow more scientific matter than other peoples? Yikes, yikes, yikes-a-rooksy (to use the sophisticated song that gets sung in my house around oopsies). Another way to put it: subjectivity could be thought of as one of the defining human characteristics; what are natural history museums saying about indigenous people when the closest thing to subjectivity they have is being a scientific subject under the scientific gaze?
  5. Indigenous people are more biological and simple. This is really a sub-argument of many of the above. Kim TallBear has published fascinating scholarship about notions of indigeneity and genetics (e.g., what is an acceptable origin story? why genetics but not oral culture? what happens when communities are defined by blood? &etc.) and one of her examples is how one personalized genetics company sells their product, in part, by superimposing their product over indigenous people learning about their heritage. It’s kind of like: even an indigenous person can find their heritage! Even though they’re so origin-ic themselves! And also, it’s kind of like: this will make a fantastic juxtaposition as genetic technologies are obviously in a world apart from indigenous technologies, because: why? One of TallBear’s articles is called DNA, Blood, and Racializing the Tribe and another is called Narratives of Race and Indigeneity. I highly recommend both – they’re very accessible for scientists.
  6. Indigenous peoples’ technologies are somehow more earthy/simple/evolutionary/natural than other technologies. All cultures have technologies, yet most people see indigenous technologies as somehow natural – which is a not surprising outcome of only indigenous technologies being represented in a natural history museum.
  7. The historic preoccupations of natural history museums with collecting “oddities”. What made things oddities? Obviously, their oddness. But is a thing odd because of something intrinsic to itself or the viewer of it? Familiar things seem less odd; newer things seem stranger, odder. Sometimes kids ask me why I have spots all over my arms (I call them freckles, myself) but in certain parts of the world that’s hard to imagine happening. So what’s ‘odd’ depends on what’s ‘normal’. And what’s normal depends on the culture of the person looking at things. There are so many examples of indigenous peoples being presented within a natural history framework as evolutionary oddities that I’m actually uncomfortable re-presenting them and perpetuating their objectification, othering, and exoticization. So, suffice it to say that when the only people presented alongside a saber-toothed tiger (can you believe what something so crazy looks like?!) are indigenous peoples, it doesn’t take a critical theory expert to see the oddification going on. And, yes, I just made up that word, oddification. Why notski?

Obviously, I could go on. I mean, I’m only at #7 and just getting started. But you’ve probably got your own critiques and concerns, and I don’t want to hog the mike (mic?) any more. But, I do want to comment on one more thing (I’M A MIC HOGGER, SO WHAT?!). This is the point where someone throws up their hands and is like: why do you even go to natural history museums if you hate them so much?! Why not just stay away!? There are a lot of answers to that. First, is that I love science, and I love natural history museums. Of course I’m going to critique them because I care. It’s like milkshakes (exactly like milkshakes, OBVIOUSLY): I want each milkshake to be the best milkshake it can be. Second, if feminist scientists didn’t go into places that were problematic, where would they go? It’s not like the world is a feminist place outside natural history museums. Also, how would those places become unproblematic (or at least less) without people who care enough to critique? Third, um, you know when you yell at the referee for making a bad call? Why don’t you just stop watching sports?! How are critiques based in concerns about power and social justice somehow less valid? Maybe the problem is, in actuality, just how valid they are, and what that means for us.

*I can make this joke because I did have a name changing party because I did change my name to a mix of my last name and my partner’s last name.