NSights Blog

Picturing a scientist on International Women's Day

Exploring perspectives and an invitation to join in continuing discussion, self-reflection and action

In making the documentary film, Picture a Scientist, available to the University of Nevada, Reno community of faculty, staff and students, it was hoped to prompt discussions and strengthen the commitment and actions that will lead to greater diversity, inclusion and equity in the sciences, engineering and beyond.

After the viewing opportunity closed, the discussion continued with a panel featuring six esteemed women colleagues and scientists from across our campus. It was fitting to pause and listen to their perspectives on February 11, 2021, which was also International Day of Women and Girls in Science. Today, on International Women’s Day, we again pause and invite you to join in discussing, listening, reflecting, and taking positive action around issues of diversity, equity and inclusion.

It’s worth doing. After all, we have an opportunity to create – and not simply dream – of an inclusive tomorrow.

Picture a Scientist began as a project in the late 1990s with an exploration by its producers of reports and data that exposed significant gender inequity across the sciences. “As we dug into the data and spoke with dozens of scientists, we realized the vast extent of the challenges facing women and minority scientists,” the production team wrote.

The film came later and shows, again as the production team wrote, “Despite groundbreaking efforts by the courageous scientists featured in the film and elsewhere, systemic gender bias and racism persist.”

The film is striking a chord. It has been rewarding to hear from many on our own campus who were moved by it and reported having been surprised, not surprised, saddened, discouraged, angered, hopeful and optimistic for what lies ahead.

So, where do we go from here? In our panel discussion, Kelly Cross, Ph.D., assistant professor in chemical and materials engineering, reminded us to start by recognizing our own biases. From there, she advises, “Practice empathy.”

Dr. Cross’ comments were among many meaningful points made by panelists.

Mentorship was a prominent theme in the discussion:

  • Lucia Notterpek, Ph.D., associate dean for biomedical research and professor of physiology and cell biology, University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine, benefitted from good mentors and this drove her desire to reach out and identify mentors and role models. Her advice: create your support network.
  • Marin Pilloud, Ph.D., associate professor of anthropology, College of Liberal Arts, had varying mentorship experiences in the context of her male-dominated academic training. Similar to Dr. Notterpek, she chose to seek out women peers and mentors. Dr. Pilloud has used her varied experiences to consciously shape how she chooses to mentor.
  • Cross continued on the idea of consciously choosing how we mentor and, in particular, how we train our Ph.D. students. As she said, few of us are trained in how to mentor. Her advice: seek out training, particularly as it pertains to diversity, inclusion and bias, and recognize that different mentors can successfully mentor in different ways.
  • A positive mentor encourages and challenges. Melanie Duckworth, Ph.D., panel moderator and co-author of this blog, noted that “mentor-mentee relationships can be complex, defined both by the mentor’s provision of career-expanding opportunities and the mentor’s engagement in professional and personal criticisms that, at best, are ‘tests of toughness’ rather than tests of professional knowledge and skill.”
  • Wendy Calvin, Ph.D., professor and chair of geological sciences, College of Science put it this way: “Graduating is no longer a hazing exercise – ‘I got over the bar and now you get over it.’ Today we are encouraging young scientists to be the best they can be.”
  • Monika Gulia-Nuss, Ph.D., assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, College of Agriculture, Biotechnology & Natural Resources, noted that there are many more supportive than unsupportive mentors. She acknowledged that having support at home has been defining to her career, and she advises developing mentor networks to help us shape our personal and family lives as much as our professional lives.

What is our individual role as we see, learn about or experience microaggressions, systemic racism, gender bias or outright harassment? As Dr. Duckworth noted, inaction serves as passive support of these forms of identity-based oppression. Yet action most often requires courage and tough conversations:

  • “Set an expectation in our labs, have discussions up front to say we won’t stand for aggressions or micro-aggressions,” advises Dr. Pilloud. “We should be clear about consequences. People in power need to step up and say something. Recognize that students and early-career faculty may feel they can’t.”
  • Be an ally advises Dr. Cross, and she adds: “There are steps, there are ways and training” to help fill the ally role.
  • For the victim, Dr. Notterpek advises, “Speak up, and if you feel you can’t, reach out to someone for help.”

When Dr. Duckworth asked what is needed at the system level, the answers came quick:

  • Cross: Accountability.
  • Pilloud: Reimagine how we define excellence and success.
  • Notterpek: Don’t expand workplace expectations beyond normal work hours.
  • Gulia-Nuss: Accept that everyone is different; have these conversations.
  • Calvin: Come together outside the siloes of our disciplines to have these discussions and do this work.

There was more … the role of intersectionality and the marginalization that happens where identities intersect, the impact of the pandemic and what it might mean for careers and especially women’s careers, the continued opportunity to expand diversity within the sciences by inspiring girls at earlier ages. All of these topics can be part of the discussions you create and encourage.

If you’d like to learn more, please email researchcommunications@unr.edu to receive a list of reading and resources.

A sponsored opportunity to view the film is available nationally until March 24, 2021. University of Nevada, Reno faculty, staff, and students wishing to watch the documentary can do so here (and if you are off-campus, it will ask you to log in using your NetID and password).

You can register to join a discussion on March 24, 2021, with several women featured in the film.

Melanie Duckworth and Jane Tors
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