Editor’s Note: Brett Marie Sansbury, PhD, is the Leader of Discovery Research and Natalia Rivera-Torres, PhD, is Laboratory Operations Coordinator and a research scientist in the Gene Editing Institute at ChristianaCare’s Helen F. Graham Cancer Center & Research Institute. The opinions expressed here are their own. Read more opinion at CNN.
A decade ago, as undergraduate women pursuing degrees and futures in science, we were given regular signals that we were outsiders. From applying for research positions only to see that many of the most competitive labs were staffed largely by males to professors simply not engaging with us as they did our male peers, we learned quickly that science is too often unwelcoming to women. Perhaps this is why only three in 10 scientists worldwide are women, according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics.
This is not only detrimental to women, but also to scientific progress, as it can prevent women with contributions to offer from entering the field. That is why we are calling on scientists, educators and student advisers to start breaking down the barriers facing women in science.
A foundation built by women
Despite the under-representation of women in science, some of our most critical breakthroughs have been driven by women. There are, of course, famous examples: Marie Curie and countless other historic, scientific trailblazers. But there are also contemporary women scientists breaking new ground. There is perhaps no better examples than Dr. Emmanuelle Charpentier and Dr. Jennifer Doudna, who in 2020 became the first women to share the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. They won for the development of CRISPR, the genetic scissors that allow us to edit DNA – and consequently launched a new chapter in science and the human experience.
Their accomplishments helped revolutionize gene editing, which drives our research today. In our lab at the Gene Editing Institute at ChristianaCare, we’re two women in a lab that is nearly two-thirds women, working in a field that has been propelled by women. And that’s inspirational.
Doudna and Charpentier’s work was made possible by the women – and one woman in particular – who came before them: Rosalind Franklin, the pioneering scientist who was the first to capture an image of DNA, revealing its double helix shape. While three men won the Nobel Prize for unlocking the mystery of DNA, Franklin’s role didn’t garner the attention it deserved. (She died before the 1962 Nobel Prize for this work was awarded.)
This is not to understate the many contributions to our understanding of genetics and gene editing made by men, but we believe that it is the women working in the field who are the scientific heirs to Franklin’s achievements. She was integral in revealing the instruction manual of life and now, Charpentier and Doudna have given us the tools to edit and rewrite it.
These women circumvented the hurdles that have long faced women in science and society has reaped the rewards. We must now remove these hurdles to allow more women and, critically, other underrepresented groups, into science. For example, according to the National Science Foundation, it’s estimated that, as of 2015, 3.4% of scientists and engineers were Black or Latina women. That won’t do.
We want each subsequent generation of women in science to face fewer barriers to reshaping the field and making the next breakthrough. This is not only what’s right – it also makes for better science and everyone benefits from that.
How to foster women in science
Supporting women scientists means starting early – making science feel accessible to all by showing students examples of scientists who look like them and creating a collaborative culture in the lab.
The first sounds simple, but requires elementary, middle school and high school teachers to do the work early and intentionally. They need to show and tell the stories of scientists from all walks of life. And scientists must engage with the public. Only then can we change the image that comes to mind when kids hear the word “scientist.” It’s no longer exclusively frizzy, white-haired Albert Einstein; it’s people who look like us.
Then, we need to ensure that classrooms and labs are places of inclusion and collaboration. Like many women, in the past some male faculty members have spoken down to us and engaged less with us than with our male peers. We saw few women leading labs and we could tell less was expected of us inside and outside the classroom.
Universities must act to reshape this culture by evaluating their faculty demographics and developing structures to increase the numbers of women and minority groups employed by their institutions. Along with correcting inequities in compensation, university leaders should support policies like family leave that enable women to achieve tenure with fewer barriers. By creating space for women and minority science educators to thrive, they can inspire the next generation of women and minority scientists.
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Working in a lab that is designed to support women and diverse perspectives, we know the value of women’s representation and mentorship. The Gene Editing Institute and its director Dr. Eric Kmiec have worked to ensure this support by making equality a foundational principle within our laboratory, fostering an environment for female scientists to succeed, championing our research breakthroughs and elevating female scientists to key leadership roles.
Charpentier and Doudna have shown us that when we are breaking into a space that has excluded women, the path forward isn’t to leave others behind – it’s to work together. In 2021, those in the science community must commit to helping others who have been shut out.