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Spectrum Launch: How to break down biases in neuroscience

Through a website called Stories of Women in Neuroscience, Nancy Padilla-Coreano aims to shift biases in the field, one conversation at a time.

Hello, and welcome to the August issue of Spectrum Launch, the newsletter that provides resources and guidance for early-career autism researchers.

This month, we interviewed Nancy Padilla-Coreano, assistant professor of neuroscience at the University of Florida in Gainesville, and co-founder of a project called Stories of Women in Neuroscience (WiN).

When Padilla-Coreano was a postdoctoral researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she and a colleague put together a list of nearly 50 scientists, based on a Google survey of other postdocs, to invite to give departmental seminars. But after reviewing the names collected, her colleague said, “Nancy, we can’t use this list,” Padilla-Coreano recalls. She was confused about what he meant. It was a list of great scientists — what could be the problem?

Everyone on the list was a man, he pointed out.

“That was really eye-opening about my own bias,” Padilla-Coreano says. “It gave me the sensation that women’s scientific contributions to neuroscience have been more invisible to me.”

So she decided to change that. In 2018, she and her collaborators began interviewing women neuroscientists about their lives and work, and writing profile articles to post on the Stories of WiN website. In June, they reflected on their work in an article published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Padilla-Coreano spoke with Spectrum about her goals for the project and what she has learned from all of those conversations.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Spectrum: What was the goal for the project when you started?

Nancy Padilla-Coreano: We had dual goals: to increase the visibility of women neuroscientists and highlight their scientific discoveries, but also to highlight their trajectories and how they got to where they are. That way, they could serve as role models for graduate students or younger trainees.

S: How has your experience with the project changed over the past three years?

NPC: I was initially expecting that this would be a service to the community. I wasn’t expecting to gain anything myself from interviewing women in neuroscience. But by interviewing these women, and by connecting with them, it’s helped me to feel like I’m part of the field and part of the neuroscience community.

I also sometimes see myself in what they say, and that has helped me with my own imposter syndrome, for example. I used to worry a lot about imposter syndrome, but it comes up in many interviews that even people who are full professors feel that way. And that’s just been so powerful for me to know that it’s normal, and that you can keep progressing, even if those feelings come and go. It somehow normalized it for me in a way that allowed me to ignore it.

Headshot of Nancy Padilla-Coreano. She is standing outdoors wearing a green shirt and giving a soft smile.

S: Have any surprising themes emerged from interviews over the past three years?

NPC: I was surprised by how important that first research experience is. In my life, participating in undergraduate research was incredibly important for getting me into a career in science. But it was interesting to see how important it was for other people, too. That first experience is often a key moment for people who become scientists.

S: Are there any other recurring topics that have cropped up that you have found interesting?

NPC: One thing that comes up is the idea of ‘recognizing women.’ As I was reviewing the literature, it was frustrating to me how long it’s been pretty obvious that women are under-cited, underrepresented and not nominated enough in research. It felt like we’re saying the thing that other people have been saying for a while. That was frustrating, to see how many other papers have already pointed this out. But I guess we have to say it one more time.

S: What are you thinking about as you move forward with Stories of WiN?

NPC: We’re all really passionate about increasing accessibility to research, and we’re very conscious of how that first experience is so important. So a couple of months ago we wrote a grant to see if we can get some funding to sponsor the first research experience for young women who want to go into neuroscience, preferably women from underrepresented backgrounds who have no prior experience.

Our team is spread out at different institutions, and we’ve interviewed so many different lab heads, so we have a network of labs that we know would be a good environment for mentoring. And this grant, if we get it, would allow us to make that first research experience a paid research experience. There are a lot of people who cannot afford to volunteer for that first research experience.

And then the other thing is, Stories of WiN is growing. We’re trying to recruit team members from other parts of the world so we can diversify the voices that we’re representing.

S: Is there anything else that you want people to know about women in neuroscience?

NPC: Academia was created by white men. And that has a lot of implications. The way the system is set up is not consistent with it working for everybody. And that’s something that we should just be thinking of every day when we make choices.

I think about that a lot, when I’m on an admissions committee or when people are discussing important decisions that will affect how others are judged.

There’s a mold of a scientist that we need to change — that we need to break, basically — if we want to make science accessible for anyone.

Jobs and funds:

  • Michael Breen, assistant professor of psychiatry, genetics and genomic sciences at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, is hiring a senior-level postdoctoral fellow/senior scientist to work on transcriptomics, RNA therapeutics and neurodevelopment. “Reach out to learn more,” Breen wrote in a tweet about the job listing.
  • The Autism Research Centre in Cambridge University in the United Kingdom is hiring an assistant professor, tweeted Simon Baron-Cohen, who is professor of psychology there. Applications are due 29 August.

Recommended reads:

  • The Society for Neuroscience announced its 2022-2024 cohort of Neuroscience Scholars earlier this week.
  • A recent Nature Career Column details how to find and organize academic papers. The author, Maya Gosztyla, a graduate student at the University of California, San Diego, previously tweeted about the subject, as described in a past edition of Spectrum Launch, In the new article she also shares a link to her own handy paper-tracking spreadsheet!
  • When searching for papers on a specific topic, it may be useful to create a map of the important studies on the topic or look into how one paper fits into the broader context of research. Vrinda Nair, a graduate student at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, tweeted about the tools that she uses to dig deep into the literature.
  • A good seminar presentation is key when you’re on the postdoctoral job hunt, writes researcher Allison McClure. She outlined her experience — from applications to decision — in an article for Nature.
  • Is this lab toxic? Before you join, check out these tips for identifying red flags, including flouting institutional rules and the principal investigator not collaborating with others in the department, tweeted by ecologist Mark Anthony.

  • Thinking about switching labs partway through graduate school? One student and his former adviser offer up some tips for parting ways amicably in Nature.
  • How might a graduate student in clinical psychology get the most out of an internship in the field? Cassandra Brandes asked, and Twitter delivered. Multiple people recommended making friends with the others in your cohort. “They will be your life raft when things get tough,” wrote Fallon Goodman, assistant professor of psychology at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. And Brenden Tervo-Clemmens, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Medical School, recommended taking some time off, tweeting, “Give yourself breaks and have fun!”

  • Having a baby when you’re a postdoc is tough, but it isn’t impossible. Erica Colicino, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of South Florida, asked for advice for making it happen, and other academics shared their experiences.

  • Mary O’Reilly didn’t get the academic job she wanted, so she pivoted to something new — scientific illustration. She wrote about that transition in an article for Science.

Any suggestions for how to make this newsletter as useful as possible, or recommendations for what topic we should cover next? Send them to [email protected].

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