Three Reasons Why You Should Meet with Your Elected Officials

Last week a SJSU student from my lab, Anusha Allawala, and I had the opportunity to meet with Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren and a staff member at her San Jose District office.  Members of Congress spend the summer recess in their home districts and unless you live near DC this is often the easiest time to meet with them in person. I had no idea how accessible elected officials actually are until this past year. Members of Congress and their staff spend a large portion of their time meeting with and listening to their constituents and this is one way that you can help ensure that the issue you are passionate about is on their radar. To set up this meeting I emailed the staffer in charge of scheduling (you can find this online or ask your professional society’s advocacy office for help). Even though I waited until early August when her schedule was already full to request the meeting, I was offered a cancellation spot and was still able to get a 20 minute meeting.


 Katie Wilkinson, Representative Lofgren, and Anusha Allawala

Here are 3 reasons why you should meet with your elected officials:

1) You can give your elected officials a personal story to illustrate the effect of policies in Washington.

It is human nature to relate more easily to an individual’s tragedy than dry numbers. The decrease in science funding has had tremendous effects across the board, but you can help your elected officials understand what it means in their district. I asked Anusha to join the meeting because she is currently supported by the  US Department of Education’s McNair Scholars Program, which provides mentorship and funding to low income first generation college students and/or students from underrepresented groups interested in PhD programs.  In the past few years the budget for this program, and many similar programs, has been cut drastically. Now McNair Scholars can only receive one year of support instead of two and there is no budget for research supplies. Anusha was able to tell the Congresswoman how important this program has been in helping prepare her for graduate school, especially since she is a recent immigrant and first generation college student. As Congresswoman Lofgren was also a first generation college student you could tell that she really connected with Anusha’s story and the importance of these federally funded training programs. Perhaps Anusha’s story (or yours) will end up in a speech someday.

2) You can thank your elected official for their support of your issue and encourage their continued support.

In the Bay Area, we are lucky to be represented by people who understand the value of science funding and typically support increased levels of funding. I was told that one of the reasons I was offered first chance at the cancellation spot was that Representative Lofgren is very supportive of science and especially women in science. Even though the Congresswoman has signed Dear Colleague letters in support of increased NIH and NSF funding this year it is still important to make sure that she is thanked for her support and reminded that science funding is valued by constituents and institutions in her district. If your elected official is not in support of your issue, an in person meeting has the potential to change their mind.

3) You can offer yourself as a resource to make sure that accurate science is used in making public policy.

In my preparation for the meeting I learned that Representative Lofgren introduced the Zs to As Act in 1998 that would have pushed high school start times later to align with what we know about the adolescent circadian rhythm (sadly the bill never passed). This is a great example of public policy based on science and at our meeting Representative Lofgren told us she had consulted with sleep specialists at Stanford while she was drafting the bill. Scientists are in the perfect position to offer their expertise or network of knowledgeable colleagues to help develop scientifically sound public policy. Most professional societies have an advocacy office that can help you put your elected officials in contact with relevant experts.

Hopefully now you are convinced to set up a meeting with your members of Congress. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions about logistics. 

Female Lab Rats Are Also Underrepresented in Science

Women have been traditionally underrepresented in science not only as scientists, but also as experimental subjects. This lack of representation in both clinical trials (especially before the 1993 NIH Revitalization Act that required the inclusion of women and minorities in clinical trials)  and preclinical basic research has had negative consequences for women’s health. There are well appreciated sex differences in the basic physiology and prevalence rates of many diseases. Even though cardiovascular disease is the most common cause of death in women, only 1/3 of the subjects in clinical trials on cardiovascular disease are women and less than 1/3 of those trials report the results by sex, meaning they may miss treatments that are promising for one sex but not the other. Women are more likely to suffer from a chronic pain condition than men and even though there is evidence of multiple sex specific pain pathways, 79% of animal studies in the journal Pain from 1996-2005 only used male animals. Sex differences in metabolism can mean that a dose that is effective in men is harmful in women, likely one of the reasons that women experience more side effects than men and that 8 of 10 drugs recently recalled by the FDA led to more serious adverse reactions in women.

Lately the under-representation of female subjects has been getting more attention. In April of this year, a group of senators requested a Government Accountability Office investigation into whether NIH funded clinical trials  included appropriate analyses to determine if there were sex differences in the response to treatment. In March a National Policy Summit on the Future of Women’s Health and accompanying report highlighted both the advances in women’s health research since the 1993 NIH Revitalization Act and the many remaining areas of inequality in clinical research.  The NIH recently announced plans to require that preclinical research on animal models and cell lines include subjects of both sexes, unless there is scientific justification for a single sex study (these guidelines will be phased in starting October 2014). The Research For All Act introduced in June by Rep. Jim Cooper and Rep. Cynthia Lummis would require the NIH to have guidelines for the inclusion of both sexes in preclinical research (in all cases except those which the NIH director deems unnecessary). This law would also require expedited clinical trials to include enough participants to test the efficacy and safety of the treatment in both sexes and for the NIH to report demographic information in their biennial report.

The new NIH guidelines attempt to address the huge bias in neuroscience, physiology and pharmacology studies to include only male animals or not to report the sex of the animals at all. A common justification for not including female subjects is a potential increase in variability that is caused by the estrous cycle (which would require monitoring of estrous cycle and subject groups for each stage of estrous). Recent meta-analyses have found similar variability in both sexes in response to a variety of pain tests and  behavioral, molecular and physiological tests in neuroscience,  suggesting that monitoring estrous cycle is unnecessary and that female mice are ‘now liberated for inclusion in neuroscience and biomedical research‘. There has been push back in the scientific community, though, with some arguing that the new guidelines will lead to a huge increase in research costs and time. Since NIH funding levels have stagnated in recent years, this is a cause for concern. It is unclear what will be considered sufficient justification for only studying one sex and whether additional resources will be available. For health issues where there are known sex differences or ones that disproportionately affect women, it is just good science to include female subjects, though.

Since the Research for All Act would require sex balance in NIH funded research, now would be a good time to express your opinions on these guidelines to your elected officials — and of course to remind them of the importance of federal funding in developing treatments for both men and women (to find your elected officials click here). Personally, I think an increased emphasis on the fact that sex is an important biological variable is a good thing, though I would like to hope that the scientific community could be persuaded to do this without a legal imperative. (Full disclosure: my lab is currently looking at both male and female animals, so I don’t have to change my research program and as a woman I have a vested interest in ensuring that treatments are tested in women)


A Hole in the Female STEM Pipeline: Elite Labs Run by Male Professors Train Fewer Women

The percentage of PhDs in Biology awarded to women has increased from only 15% in 1969 to 52% in 2009. Even with these dramatic gains in the number of female PhDs, women currently make up only 36% of assistant professors and 18% of full professors (1). This drop-off in female representation after graduate school is often termed the ‘leaky pipeline’ and has far-reaching consequences for the state of science and our economy.


Figure from Tools for Change

A recent article in PNAS details one hole in the academic pipeline for women: elite labs run by male, but not female, professors are less likely to train female graduate students and postdocs. Labs were qualified as elite if the PI was awarded Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) support, a member of the National Academy of Science (NAS), or had won a major award like the Nobel Prize. Labs headed by men had fewer female graduate students (47%) and postdocs (36%) than labs headed by women (53% and 46% respectively), but in elite labs run by male professors, female trainees were even more poorly represented. In contrast, the gender makeup in labs headed by women was unchanged with elite status. The authors found that men were 25% more likely to complete their postdoctoral work in the lab of a NAS member and 90% more likely to postdoc in the lab of a Nobel Laureate. Women win graduate and postdoctoral fellowships at rates proportional to their representation in the applicant pool, suggesting that female trainees are as qualified male trainees. The reason why this deficit matters is that assistant professors in research universities are likely to come from elite laboratories (see full article here).

Why elite labs train fewer women was not determined in this study, but most studies on the leaky pipeline tend to focus on two areas: implicit bias and the lack of family friendly policies. While the days of women being explicitly barred from pursuing certain careers are over, implicit bias against women is still alive and well. When given identical resumes, both male and female PIs were more likely to rate male candidates favorably, choose higher starting salaries for male candidates and offer male candidates more career mentoring (2). In European countries where tenure committees are randomly assigned, female candidates are less likely to receive tenure if their review committee is all male but receive tenure at similar rates as men if they have a mixed review committee (1). In a recent survey, 16% of female scientists report instances of sexual harassment in the workplace and this harassment can have far-reaching consequences as vividly illustrated with the #ripples of doubt twitter conversation. It is well known that certain labs are more family friendly than others and female postdocs are more likely to take that into consideration when choosing a lab. Women who have children during their postdocs are much more likely to decide against a research career than male postdocs with children, whereas female postdocs with no plans of having children are as likely to choose a research career as male postdocs with or without children (3).

What Can We Do To Plug the Leaks?

Recruiting and maintaining a diverse scientific workforce is something we all will benefit from (and much of what I’ve discussed here also applies to other groups traditionally underrepresented in science). This is an area of science policy that needs to be tackled at all levels. Locally, we can try to acknowledge and overcome our biases in our laboratory and department hiring and mentoring. If you are on a conference organizing committee, help to recruit female speakers and work to provide child care arrangements, especially paid options for graduate students. Institutionally we can work to implement family friendly policies, like those instituted by UC Berkeley’s Faculty Family Friendly Edge Program (you can even use this cost simulator to see the true cost of not implementing these policies at your institution). At the federal funding level, we can advocate for the expansion of programs like the NSF’s Career-Life Balance supplement that provides funds for a technician while the PI is on maternity leave. 

In this short post I’ve only scratched the surface of these issues. Below are some suggested sites if you want to learn more:

Tools for Change in STEM

Nature Special Edition on Women in STEM

STEM Women 

The UC Faculty Friendly Edge


Old Boys’ Lab–nice write-up about the PNAS study by AAAS Mass Media Fellow Jane Hu