Dr. Mandë Holford on Science Diplomacy, International Collaboration, and Venomous Snails

Author: Maryam Zaringhalam

Posted on: January 16, 2017

Kicking off the New Year is Dr. Mandë Holford, January’s Woman of the Month. A Rockefeller alumna, Mandë is a Professor in Chemistry at Hunter College, with a scientific appointment at the American Museum of Natural History. I met Mandë through the Science Diplomacy course she co-facilitates with Jesse Ausubel and Rod Nichols at Rockefeller. The course — which starts in February — was a real eye opener for me, broadening my view of what a scientist can do with her training. But more eye opening was Mandë herself.

I believe the most effective style of mentorship is creating opportunities. So when I think about how I want to mentor, I think of how Mandë has mentored me. Every time I spot her at a meeting or talk, she’ll introduce me to the movers and shakers of the science outreach and policy world. She has helped me build a professional network and given me the confidence to believe that I deserve to be moving and shaking with the best.

It’s been my great pleasure to get to know her over the last year — including learning fun facts like how she used to sky dive for “fun.” I’m thrilled to share her insights on the role of mentorship, the importance of science diplomacy and collaboration, and the power of venomous snails.

What first brought you to science and how did that bring you to Rockefeller?
Mentoring. I wouldn’t be a scientist or a RU alum without the mentoring of my undergrad college chemistry Professor, Dr. Larry Johnson. Working in his physical chemistry lab as an undergrad changed my worldview. I fell in love with science. It was so fantastical, working with YAG lasers, making liquid nitrogen ice cream, growing glowing purple bacteria cultures. Who could resist!

When it came time to graduate, he asked me what I wanted to do next. I had no idea. He recommended I try grad school and suggested Rockefeller. As a New Yorker I applied to grad schools outside of New York City; Rockefeller was the only New York school I applied to. I wanted to escape the concrete jungle for actual grass and greener pastures, but Dr. J and the Rockefeller recruitment weekend showed me I could have green pastures on the Upper East Side.

Dr. Johnson came to my RU PhD thesis defense. He’s proof in the pudding for what a great mentor could do.

Very briefly, what does your lab study?
My lab looks for new ways to manipulate cell signaling using peptides found in the venom of marine snails. Specifically, we’re doing drug discovery and development as it pertains to pain and cancer using a very unusual source. Similar to snakes, predatory sea snails, such as cone snails, terebrids and turrids, use venom to subdue their prey. The snail venom is fast acting, specific, and very potent — all the ingredients you need to make a successful drug. Our work is very interdisciplinary, combing evolutionary biology, peptide chemistry, bioinformatics, and nanotechnology. Grad students can be scuba diving in Papua New Guinea one week then characterizing the effects of novel peptides in tumor cell models the next.

Like bench to bedside, we go from Mollusks to Medicine.

You took some time away from research after graduate school to pursue science diplomacy. What brought you to that decision and what have you taken from that experience back to the (metaphorical) bench?
A Ph.D. is powerful and it can take you many places. After getting my Ph.D. from Rockefeller I did a few things to explore how I could contribute my newfound knowledge. Science was always going to be a mainstay of my career. The question was, would I apply my expertise through research as a scientist, or outreach as a science educator working at a museum, or in as a policymaker directing/advising how science happens on a national or international scale?

I was awarded a AAAS Science & Technology Fellowship soon after graduating RU and went to Washington, D.C. to work in the Office of International Science and Engineering as a “science diplomat.” In that year, I traveled to 7 different countries to set up collaborations and projects for American and foreign scientists. I learned how science is conducted outside the U.S. and established early partnerships with collaborators I still work with today.

My AAAS Fellowship literally firmed the idea of science as a global endeavor and how important it is to think broadly about the impacts of the work you’re doing. My lab has several very close collaborators in Paris, Italy, Russia, and Germany. I think it’s important for early career scientist to grasp the power and potential of conducting science on a global scale. That was my major back-to-the-bench experience.

Have your training experiences as a woman of color in science impacted or influenced the way you now lead your lab, if at all?
I know for several people, being from an underrepresented group (whether ethnicity or gender) has been problematic as they pursued their scientific career. This hasn’t been the case with me.

I recognize there is a substantial gap in the number of women and people of color in science, and I think there isn’t a clear answer or solution for how we improve those numbers. In my group, I try to do what my parents taught me: work hard and play hard to achieve your vision of success. I think that’s gender-neutral training. But as always the details are what need to be explored when we try to level the playing field.

As my career develops, I’m becoming more aware of the need to try to help where I can. Could be my career or my recently becoming a mother. You see things a bit differently when someone is that dependent on you.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Don’t be afraid to fail. And don’t be afraid to admit when you don’t know something. We’re all ignorant at some point. The really smart people know that and try to become less ignorant about things we want to be good at.

And now I’ll plug the Science Diplomacy seminar coming up. What are you most excited for in the series and why should Rockefeller students and post docs take the class?
Cool! This year we’re trying a new experiment, focusing on one specific Science Diplomacy theme to thread the six seminars and guest lectures together. The theme this year is migration of people, ideas, and technology.

When we think about the migration of ideas, Science Diplomacy can dictate how we address issues as wide ranging as the weaponization of genetic editing (CRISPR technology), security of cyber spaces, and equitable diffusion of personalized medicine. In 2016 we’ve seen a massive refugee migration from Syria, and the tensions it’s caused in Europe particularly. We’ve also had to deal with the Zika virus and its spread in North, South, and Latin Americas. And we’ve had the normalization of U.S. relations with Cuba. How can science deal with these threats/opportunities and what policy initiatives are being proposed?

This year, with our guest lectures we go from Russia versus U.S. nuclear buildup (William Perry) to human and animal migration in Cuba — complete with a recent tour of the Cuba! Exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History (Ana Luz Porzecanksi) — to science at the poles (Melody Brown Burkins) to people and peace (Torsten Wiesel and Asi Burak). It’ll be a great course and will share some of the thrill I experienced while a AAAS Fellow in D.C. learning how science operates on a global scale.

Interested in interviewing an outstanding woman who is currently at or an alumna of Rockefeller? We’re currently accepting your nominations at wiser@rockefeller.edu.

To be a feminist ally, get comfortable with making mistakes. They’re inevitable.

Author Avital Percher

Posted on January 10, 2017

Striving to be an ally has meant that I’ve had to get comfortable with being wrong. A lot. But that’s no excuse to stop trying. The key is to listen and learn from those inevitable mistakes.

Who considers himself a feminist ally, has two thumbs, and occasionally screws up royally? This guy. I’ve said the wrong things, taken the wrong actions, and hurt people I care about. Sometimes, I’ve had people correct me on the spot. On other occasions, I’ve understood the implications and extent of my error in a world-crashing moment a few days later.

The most uncomfortable part of being a white heterosexual male ally is recognizing the inevitability of making mistakes. Lots of them. These mistakes stem from not realizing the gravity of my actions. I am a product of society, supported and guided by the very norms that breed bias and inequality. Old habits die hard. So, even with the best intentions, I am always coming up against a steep learning curve. It is an uphill battle, and not in a ‘the valiant hero fights the enemy hoards to save the kingdom’ kind of way (PS: women don’t need men to save them anyway). It is more akin to a ‘mercenary sits on a hill, meditates and undergoes deep personal introspection’ kind of process.

Now, let me use concrete examples and avoid the nebulous platitudes that fail to hit home.

A few years back a friend, let’s call her Rosalind, told me how mad she was at having to correct someone else, let’s call him James, for referring to a group of women as ‘females.’ Pausing to think it over, I started to defend James, pointing out that indeed ‘females’ was technically correct. Rosalind patted my back and calmly pointed out that the phrasing is demeaning. Recognizing I was missing something, I let the topic slide to give myself a chance to think it over. Several days later, I realized I had never heard of a single man or group of men referred to as males. Reduction to sex alone is a not-so-subtle way to indicate their character and personality are negligible when considering their social value. It took an awkward conversation and someone speaking up to correct me — the way she’d time and again corrected others — to realize this.

Our mistakes can be as much about inaction as action. One of my weakest points in being an ally is failing to speak up when a colleague or friend makes a sexist comment. Discomforted by the notion of confrontation, I stay quiet while others throw gendered insults such as ‘don’t be such a girl,’ or ‘grow a pair’ (the relative sensitivity of our suspended gonads makes for some significant irony). One approach I’ve been working on is to state an opposing perspective (‘girls are actually really tough’) or frame my response in the form of a question (‘why should that matter?’). Again, a work in progress, but one in which I understand my silence is part of the problem.

These mistakes and failures of character don’t stop me from trying to be an ally. Making mistakes is inevitable, and being an ally means practicing something our society doesn’t really encourage: acknowledging and apologizing for one’s error, and trying to work on it. Men are taught to take action, never look back, and never be wrong. Admitting to a misstep is tantamount to weakness. I stand up, dust myself off and continue learning.

There is no card, trophy, or parade for being a feminist ally. Nor should there be. There are so many ways to trip and fall, that it seems overwhelming. But this discomfort is incomparable to the relative impact of our actions (or inactions) on women — and minorities. Learning to listen, engage, speak up, and admit error in tough conversations is essential. Suppressing the gut response of becoming defensive helps a lot.

So, my advice to aspiring allies? Embrace when you are wrong. I guarantee you will learn something from it.

500(+1) Women Scientists: taking the pledge to stand for science and scientists

Author: Maryam Zaringhalam

Posted: December 8, 2016

On November 17th, 500 Women Scientists pledged “to build a more inclusive society and scientific enterprise.” I’ve joined them, and you can too.

I’ve had a chronic headache since November 9th. As a woman, I lamented another glass ceiling left unbroken. As a scientist, I grew more concerned than ever about the realities of climate change and the treatment of basic research.

While science strives to be apolitical, when politics is thrust upon its practitioners, the scientific community must act in turn. So I have been heartened by the rapid mobilization of science advocates and academic institutions around the country. The scientific community has rapidly drafted open lettersorganized rallies, and issued calls to action to stand up for the integrity of science. But what I have found even more compelling is the attention called to protecting the actual people who work in science.

After the election, a group of 20 women in science began brainstorming how we as a community can work together to stand up for our work and ourselves. The group — now known as 500 Women Scientists — quickly grew and coalesced into an Open Letter written by Kelly Ramirez, Jane Zelikova, Theresa Jedd, Teresa Bilinski and Jessica Metcalf. Posted on November 17th, the letter now has 11,650 signatories from around the world who have answered this call:

Our scientific work may be global, yet we will take action in our own communities and we will work towards an inclusive society, where science and knowledge can be embraced and everyone has the opportunity to reach their potential.

As we witness the dawn of a new administration, we must remember that we don’t live in an autocracy. We have the right to make demands of our institutions, academic and governmental. I have found this letter a reminder that as a woman in science, I can still feel empowered to expect equal pay regardless of gender, to feel protected when advocating for evidence, to call out bias when I experience it, and to protest the unethical use of science. So I too have taken the pledge to stand up and speak out.

Here at Rockefeller — and in academia more broadly — we boast a diverse population of immigrants, women, LGBTQIA, and minorities. And so WISeR would love to hear from you how this election has affected you and how you plan to take action.

To echo 500 Women Scientists: We are women. We are scientists. Our voices count.

Dr. Jeanne Garbarino on Outreach, Inclusion, and Engagement

Author: Maryam Zaringhalam

Posted on: November 29, 2016

November’s Woman of the Month is Dr. Jeanne GarbarinoDirector of Science Outreach at Rockefeller University. Together with her team, Jeanne has crafted initiatives like the Learning at the Bench (LAB) After School Program and the Summer Science Research Program to provide K-12 students with authentic biomedical research opportunities. Her work has been essential to connecting Rockefeller with the broader New York City community. On a more personal level, Jeanne’s mentorship and encouragement have been crucial in my own development as a science communicator and advocate for women in STEM. I’m thrilled to share some of her thoughts on science outreach and the importance of fostering inclusion in STEM education.

What first brought you to science in general and biology in particular?
I grew up in the Bronx where we didn’t really have a lot of trees. But there are these green areas between the parkway where I would go and examine the grass, or dig around, or pick up rocks and try to identify them. My expeditions were inspired by my fascination with the Museum of Natural History. We used to go there every Saturday, and the Hall of Rocks and Minerals was my favorite place in the world. I started learning about the rocks and minerals and how to identify them.

Then I had this biology class and realized there’s all this crazy stuff that happens in a cell. I decided I wanted to do something related to human biology. I wound up with this failed idea that I wanted to be a doctor, and then I realized that’s not quite science. So I found my way to doing research in college. The first time I got a pipette in my hands, it really struck me that I love doing benchwork. You get in your head, you have your routine. It’s like meditation.

You originally came to Rockefeller as a postdoc, so what experiences in your training led you to where you are now, heading up outreach here?
When I first went into PhD training I was convinced the only way to make my degree work would be to open up my own lab at a research institution. But when I was in my third year as a postdoc, and I was nine months pregnant with my second kid. I started thinking: “Holy crap. I have to provide for two children. I have to think about college and daycare and healthcare. And I don’t have job security.”

So I started to think about what skills could potentially get me hired anywhere and decided to work on my writing. I was already a pretty good grant and paper writer, but I struggled when it came to writing for the general public. I had also read that the best grants are typically the ones written in the style of a Scientific American article. So if I pursued learning to write for general audiences, I could use that skill for grant writing, while opening up channels for science writing or journalism.

I started writing for Natural Selections and they eventually put my articles on the front page, which made me think maybe I’m a good writer. From there, I decided to start a blog and began using Twitter to engage. I started creating a network and found a really awesome community. I eventually met a woman, Lou Woodley, who had similar ideas and viewpoints to mine. We, along with Joe Bonner and John Timmer, decided to start a discussion series that took the things we were writing about to the next level with in-person events.

We started a series called SPOT On NYC, which stood for Scientific Policy, Outreach, and Tools Online. Each month, we would invite a panel of people to talk about either science policy, outreach, or tools that scientists might be able to use to better do their science. That started getting a really amazing following.

I had a lot of fun doing that, but I wanted to do something even more hands-on, so I started volunteering with the BioBus and at my daughter’s pre-school. That’s when it hit me that outreach was the thing I wanted to do. I knew we had an outreach department at Rockefeller, but I hadn’t interacted with it at all. I created a packet about why Rockefeller should lead research institutions in the areas of science outreach and communication, with in-depth citations and references to student performance. I asked Mark Tessier-Lavigne for a meeting and made a case for why we needed to start engaging and doing outreach outside traditional academic research. He told me Rockefeller had this position as head of outreach opening up and that I should apply for it.

I got the job and set to work creating this new program from the ground up.

You’ve made a real mission out of providing opportunities to students who otherwise wouldn’t have access to top-notch research facilities. How are you empowering the women and underrepresented minorities that come through the lab in your work?
The goal of our program is to make sure that everyone has access to scientific opportunities, should they want to pursue them. I don’t measure success by whether a student goes on to major in STEM. I also don’t care about diversity for the sake of diversity (this idea was first presented to me by my very good friend and colleague, Sabriya Stukes, and I have become a convert). I don’t care about the number of butts in seats and the color of those butt cheeks. What I do care about is fostering a feeling of inclusion and empowering people to make informed decisions. You can do both of those things through the scientific enterprise.

We recruit volunteer scientists from diverse backgrounds because it’s really important to show that anyone from any background can become a scientist. Science isn’t just for old white men. Exposing the kids to a spectrum of different backgrounds and trajectories and experiences really opens up ideas of who can and cannot be a scientist.

Another thing we do is involve students in active learning. We don’t tell them what’s right or wrong. We give them a tool and ask them what they can do with this tool. We encourage the students to design the experiment. Then they ask me “Is it right?” And I answer, “I don’t know. There’s no right or wrong. It’s just data!”

We also talk to all the students who come through about science careers. A lot of kids don’t understand that getting a Ph.D. in the life sciences is not something they have to pay for. In fact, if you go to graduate school, you get paid, you can defer loans, and you get health insurance. This really opens up science for them because a lot of these students come from low socioeconomic backgrounds. While I am not necessarily looking to create a new generation of scientists, it would be irresponsible of me not to at least inform kids that these are opportunities that exist.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve received during your career?
Don’t ever apologize for something that you actually have to do. I used to be that woman in the seminars who would say “sorry” or “excuse me” before asking a question. But I realized, you know what, I’m not sorry. Here’s my question.

Another piece is just general life advice that my aunt told me: It’s better to be kind than to be right. That’s been really valuable for me in outreach, especially because I’m meeting up with populations that overwhelmingly have a distrust for science. I’m working with kids who ask, “Is it true that we have a cure for cancer, but scientists won’t let it come out because then they’ll lose their jobs or won’t make money.” On the inside I just have this knee-jerk reaction like, “What are you talking about?” But that’s so ineffective. It’s way better to say, “That’s interesting that you’d say that. I’d love to hear more. Why do you think that?” Be kind about how you engage and work from there.

Interested in interviewing an outstanding woman who is currently at or an alumna of Rockefeller? We’re currently accepting your nominations at wiser(at)rockefeller.edu

Dr. Monica Mugnier on Mentorship, Independence, and the mysteries of African Sleeping Sickness

Author: Maryam Zaringhalam

Posted on: October 24, 2016

WISeR is pleased to roll out our new initiative: Rockefeller’s Woman of the Month series. Each month, we’ll highlight an outstanding woman at any level of training hailing from the university. To start us off, I’m excited to share my interview with molecular parasitologist and my former labmate, Dr. Monica Mugnier.

Monica did her graduate work in Nina Papavasiliou’s Laboratory of Lymphocyte Biology where I first got to know her and follow her groundbreaking work. Thanks to her own personal drive, and under the enthusiastic mentorship of Drs. Papavasiliou and George Cross, Monica is now starting up her own lab at John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health as a recipient of the esteemed NIH Early Independence Award. I sat down with Monica last month as she was getting ready to leave for her new post as assistant professor to talk not only about her work studying African trypanosomes (Trypanosoma brucei), but also to discuss what brought her to Rockefeller and what lessons she’ll bring with her while starting up her lab.

What first brought you to science?
I can’t remember a specific moment. But I was looking through some of my old things in my dad’s house and I found this book report from fourth grade. It was on a biography of Marie Curie. I wrote that I wanted to be a scientist like her.

My best friend and I also used to play pretend that we had an animal hospital together.
We would discover the cure to rabies. So I guess it was more like we had this animal hospital, but we were running biology experiments in it.

Flash forward some years, why did you choose Rockefeller for your graduate work?
The thing about graduate school that frightened me was that I would never be able to have an original idea. Rockefeller pitched itself as a program that would really force you to be independent. You drove the science, so you had to have the ideas. You also had to understand the science broadly because they didn’t have departments.

I wanted to get a well-rounded education in science and I wanted to be forced to learn how to come up with ideas. You never have to do that when you’re an undergraduate. And you don’t necessarily have to do that in graduate school. I thought that was what I really needed and wanted to learn.

And that’s been my experience.

How did you pick your mentor?
The way that I met Nina was through the Seminar in Immunology. She presented work about the immune response to trypanosomes and there were all these mysteries and she was really excited about them. Which was infectious. I went to talk to her and she said: “Oh you should come rotate and you can work on this. Whatever you want.” She let me design my rotation project by myself. So I was very independent. The other labs I rotated in were very good but I didn’t get that degree of independence. I decided that I would learn more if I had to do it on my own. It was the first time I saw how you could go to a lab with some seed of an idea or question.

What big question in biology are you working on?
How do African trypanosomes change their protein coat to evade recognition by the host immune system? So essentially: how do they outsmart us to stay alive and kill us?

African trypanosomes are the parasites that cause African Sleeping Sickness in humans and a disease called nagana in cattle. The human disease is fatal if you don’t treat it, and the drugs to treat it are really nasty. The animal disease is a big burden in Sub-Saharan Africa because it affects domestic livestock. So a lot of poor rural Africans will come to hardship if their cattle gets sick and dies. So that’s the big picture reason you might care about it in a health-related way.

But from a point of curiosity, what I’m interested in is the way that the parasite changes its surface coat. The parasite is covered in the super dense variant surface glycoprotein, or VSG, coat. There are 10 million copies of the protein on the surface of a single parasite. So typically if you’re covered in one protein, your immune system will recognize it and clear it. But these parasites have this trick where they have a set of thousands of different coat-encoding genes. So during an infection, the parasites will have this one coat on their surface and it’s the only thing the immune system recognizes. The immune system will then mount a response, but before it can clear all the parasites, some parasites will change their coat by turning on a different gene.

So that game of cat and mouse is the thing that I’m really interested in. It’s the main, most critical process required to sustain this infection. It’s also, I think, one of the most mysterious processes. We know extremely little about how it’s controlled. So I’m using high-throughput sequencing methods to try to characterize what happens in the bloodstream of an animal in order to understand, or get hints at, how it’s being controlled at the molecular level.

So you just graduated! What’s next for you?
I’ve received an NIH Early Independence Award which is going to fund me to start my own lab at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The big question my lab will study is similar the one I was asking during my graduate work. The techniques will be similar, but I will be asking more specific questions about how the parasite evades the host immune system. Specifically about the mechanisms by which the parasite extends its repertoire of VSGs.

What I didn’t say before is that the parasite can actually mutate these VSG genes and swap little bits of them to make new genes. Based on my previous research, it seems that that process is critical to sustaining a long-term infection because the intact repertoire is probably used up very early in the infection, and the creation of new types of coats is how the parasite maintains a long-term infection.

So I want to understand how specifically the parasite extends the coat repertoire in its genome.

What lessons or advice from your Ph.D. are going to help you as you move towards independence?
The training I got at Rockefeller was the training I had hoped to get. I learned how to ask a question, and I learned how to troubleshoot. But the thing I learned in graduate school that is the most valuable is how to ask people for help. When I started at Rockefeller I didn’t know how to program, and now 50-75% of what I do is programming. A lot of that was just asking people for help and learning from there. I think having the confidence that you can learn what you need to learn is really important. If you know the right people to ask, and you’re not afraid to ask, and you’re not afraid to try things, you can solve any problem.

As you start thinking about starting your own lab, and what kind of mentor you are going to be, how can you foster a diverse lab culture?
The culture of science can be very sink or swim in some ways, and not particularly encouraging. But positive reinforcement is something that I think works for almost everybody. It works for my dog Bailey. It works for me. It doesn’t matter how old you are. People need to build confidence. And you can only build confidence if someone is encouraging you.

The reason that I’ve done so well is that I was lucky enough to have a string of mentors who encouraged me a lot. So even if I doubted myself I would say: “Well, my mentor said that they think I can do it, so I’m just going to try.” I really want to foster an environment where people are encouraged, and you point out their successes and you celebrate them. You don’t get angry if they make a mistake or they don’t understand something. That’s how you bring out the best in people. That’s how you get people to not leave. This is especially important for underrepresented groups in science because a space where people are negative is an automatic turn off — because they’re already coming in feeling like they’re not supposed to be there. So my biggest goal is to be positive and encouraging. I think it’s good for everybody.

If you weren’t a scientist what would you be?
That’s easy. I would be a high school teacher for the same reasons that I like the idea of running a lab. You can make a real difference. And I enjoy communicating about science and thinking about it. I think high school is a critical time to get students interested in science. It was actually a really close call between the two!

Interested in interviewing an outstanding woman who is currently at or an alumna of Rockefeller? We’re currently accepting your nominations at wiser(at)rockefeller.edu

Ghostbusting Women in Science: Why Representation in Media Really Matters

Author: Ilana Zucker-Scharff

Posted on: August 19, 2016

If you’re a fan of the Ghostbusters franchise, you’ll have heard about the controversy around the release of the newest movie. The two original Ghostbusters movies were released in the 80s, and consummate nerd that I am, I’ve watched them just about a hundred times. This then makes me a certified fan of this cult classic, with enough authority to say: these movies have gained such popularity and culturally iconic status because they’re a perfect mix of action, comedy and sci-fi. But the popularity of these movies among certain groups of people (read: young, white men) also likely stems from the movie’s underlying story of nerdy, misunderstood men who save the day, get famous, and get the girl.

For any person who has felt left out or alone because of their particular interests, watching the original Ghostbusters is true gratification. You can look at the screen and see possibilities for your future: fame and fortune for you, and disgrace to those who misjudged or didn’t believe in you. Those young white men who considered themselves outsiders and watched these movies as children must especially feel this way.

So it is easy to understand the backlash in response to the release of the newest movie, popularly dubbed “Lady Ghostbusters.” In the original movies the men were the heroes and the women were either, for Sigourney Weaver’s character the rational non-believer who in the end is saved by the hero with a very typical damsel in distress scenario, or for the character of Janine, the unintelligent, overworked secretary who fawns after the big, smart men. These tropes are switched in the new movie and the men are taken out of the main picture, vilified or objectified.

As a woman who has experienced seeing myself in these roles my whole life, I can understand how devastating that can feel. But that is why this movie is so important. Not only does it call out Hollywood and the men who consume media without critical assessment of how others are treated and portrayed, it also has made movies more accessible to a different group of outsiders, which is extremely important.

The new Ghostbusters movie excels in its representation of women as confident, intelligent leaders. It also has a slightly more problematic — but still important — representation of a woman of color as a leader and an indispensable character to the plot of the film. But the film is even more important for its representation of women scientists.

Science in general has a pretty bad reputation in popular culture. An incredible number of movies, TV shows and books out there show science or scientists as the inciters of the main conflict. How many times has there been a plot where science goes too far and humanity suffers? How many evil scientists are there in comics and TV shows? Even when the hero is a scientist they’re often a failure or a screw-up or just plain socially incompetent (i.e Peter Parker or the men from Big Bang Theory). Science has brought so much joy and excitement into my life; I cannot understand why it is so often vilified. But what is even more frustrating to me as a woman in science is the complete and utter lack of representation of women in science and STEM related fields.

In the majority of media in this country, the token woman in science is portrayed as a love interest (Natalie Portman’s character in Thor), or an object of the male gaze (Alice Eve’s character in Star Trek: Into the Darkness). Yes, there is the occasional Dr. Ryan Stone in the 2013 movie Gravity, or Temperance Brennan in the TV show Bones. But strong, relatable women in science are few and far between.

As a young woman who grew up with a passion for science — and as an adult deciding whether to pursue science as my future career — I’ve found it difficult to see myself becoming a scientist because there are so few examples of successful women in the field in comparison to men. Yes, there are many successful, even famous women in the STEM fields. And the number of women getting PhDs has increased. But the number of women then going on to have higher-level faculty positions is much smaller — a disillusioning statistic. When there is not even a single woman among the most popular and famous scientists (Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye the Science Guy, Albert Einstein, Brian Greene, Brian Cox, just to name a few) it can feel like there is little hope for us women.

Having women who are pretending to be “ghost scientists” may seem silly and even counterproductive to the fight for equality to some (although you can actually get a degree in this subject with a PhD in parapsychology). It is indicative of how sparse the representation of women in science is that we are grasping at a comedic representation of a debatably true scientific discipline. But to those of us who have wanted so desperately to see images of ourselves in the media we consume, it feels incredibly gratifying — as gratifying as it must have felt for those young men who fell in love with the original series. Now in the new Ghostbusters finally we have:

  • Dr. Erin Gilbert, a professor of physics who is up for tenure at one the best universities in the world

  • Dr. Jillian Holtzmann an engineer who can do anything she sets her mind to

  • Dr. Abby Yates who is never uncertain in her conviction to keep experimenting and testing her theories

These are scientists I can believe in and look up to. These are scientists that some little girls can look at and say: “Hey these ladies kicked butt, maybe I can do the same thing in my biology class, or my physics class.” We still have a long long way to go, especially when it comes to non-binary gender and race representation in the media, especially in the STEM field. But this movie was one of the most important steps forward for women in STEM that has happened in a while.

This Ghostbusters reboot is not just extremely funny and well done, it also does for young sci-curious women what the original did for all those young, nerdy men: reflected a piece of our marginalized and misunderstood selves on the big screen and promised us it will all work out in the end.

So for anyone in need of unlikely heroines, do yourself a favor and make sure you see the new Ghostbusters.

Spotlight on Kadiatou Dao: Tackling Biological Nonproliferation in Mali

CRDF Global Robin Copeland Memorial Fellow Kadiatou Dao shares her journey to becoming a leader in biological nonproliferation in Mali and why women are so critical to the field.

Author: Maryam Zaringhalam

Posted on: June 16, 2016

“Women are the key to peace,” Kadiatou Dao declared to an eager audience at CRDF Global headquarters in April.

Founded in 1995, CRDF Global is a nonprofit organization that promotes international scientific and technical collaboration through a number of incredible programs including the Robin Copeland Memorial Fellowship. The award recognizes a woman leader working to promote nonproliferation in emerging countries. So as the 2015 fellow, Dao is uniquely qualified to make such a bold and inspiring statement. With funding through the U.S. Department of State, she has spent the last year gaining the expertise to tackle biological nonproliferation of infectious disease in her mother country of Mali.

I had the great fortune of meeting Dao when Rockefeller University’s Science Diplomacy class visited CRDF Global. There, she shared her experiences — which include working in the bacterial meningitis diagnostics at Mali’s National Institute of Research in Public Health and studying malaria’s resistance to drugs at the University Pierre et Marie CURIE in Paris — and her insights as a woman advancing the field of nonproliferation.

Before returning to Mali to put her training to use in Biosafety and Biosecurity, Dao was kind enough to share some of those remarkable insights with our community in the interview that follows. To learn more about funding for women in nonproliferation and support their work, be sure to visit here.

When you spoke to our group, you said: “Women are the key to peace.” This statement is all the more powerful coming from a woman who is a leader in biological nonproliferation. How do you view your gender as an asset working in this field? 
Nowadays women have proved their qualifications in many areas. In my field, for example they are rising scientists who are also very involved on the political stage. To talk about peace — or means to reduce nuclear threats, chemical or biological weapons — is a priority for everyone, regardless of gender. Still, studies have shown that women and children are most vulnerable to natural disasters and disease. We must make it a priority to strengthen the representation of women who are not well represented in this area. The need for close cooperation is therefore necessary. Women have a unique experience in managing epidemics and times of conflict and post-conflict. Taking advantage of these acquired experiences is essential to strengthen the culture of peace. I invite all women in science and beyond to break their silence and to become more active in the decision making process. They must understand that their involvement is more than necessary to reduce the proliferation of all kinds of threats. They are the key to peace.

What area of nonproliferation are you currently working in and how did you find your way to the field?
As I’m microbiologist, my focus is on the nonproliferation of biological agents. I also serve as a Research Assistant at the National Institute of Public Health Research (INSRP) in Bamako in Mali where I have worked for the last seven years. INRSP is the reference laboratory for diagnosis and surveillance of endemic and potentially epidemic diseases in Mali. I am also the Deputy Secretary General of the Malian Association for Biosafety and Biosecurity (MABB), where I continue to dedicate most of my free time to these activities. This Association aims to reduce the biorisk in facilities where biological agents are handled, and to the surrounding community and environment, as much as possible.

When I heard about the one year CRDF-RCMF program to empower women to take part in the Biosecurity and Nonproliferation field, I jumped at the opportunity. The decision was easy. The expertise that I’m developing in this program will serve my daily work at the INRSP to strengthen Mali’s laboratories network, and is another way to support my activities at the MABB.

What are the current challenges facing Mali and how do you hope to work to solve them with the training and support you’ve received?
Mali is faced with the constant threat of disease outbreaks. In addition, Mali is challenged with the burdensome control of deaths from treatable diseases, such as tuberculosis, malaria, HIV, and the expansion of antibiotic resistance. The recent Ebola outbreak revealed weaknesses in the management of our health system. We urgently need to build our public heath capacity to improve the efficiency of outbreak response and biorisk management. Biorisk is an issue everywhere, both in facilities where pathogens are handled and in the environment. Effective border control is another priority.

My contribution to nonproliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) will start with the implementation of my capstone project from my fellowship program on Biosafety and Biosecurity promotion in relevant institutions in Mali.

At the Center of Nonproliferation Studies at Monterey in California, I improved my knowledge on the political and technical aspect of implementing Nonproliferation throughout the entire world. Mali, as one of many developing countries, is under the burden of treaties, regulations and conventions implementation. Most of the time, the difficulty with implementation is the lack of resources and the wait time for external help from developed countries. Biological international regulation requires all participating countries’ involvement. From my point of view, to appropriately meet this challenge, the connection between scientists and diplomats — known as “science diplomacy” — must be introduced to addressing this real need. This strategy would be most beneficial for Mali’s effective involvement in the implementation process of international obligations in the biological field.

The Public Health Preparedness and Response Program at the Association of Public Health Laboratories (APHL) is the best place that I could have found to learn about biosafety standards and practices in the US public health system. There I expanded my knowledge of US laboratory systems, public policy and biosecurity policies. The team assisted me in developing technical expertise in biosafety and biosecurity to strengthen Mali’s laboratories network. I further developed my capstone project to: (1) better inform workers at the facilities where biological agents are handled; (2) communicate to policymakers the need to improve biorisk management and collaboration at every level in Mali; (3) design a training program by taking into account gaps identified from baseline risk assessment.

And now, given all your experiences working in Mali, Algeria, Paris, and now the US, what is the best advice that you now have to give to women in science working their way up?
I really believe that culture could affect differently the process of women empowerment. Science has a powerful ability to build bridges between genders and also communities to solve challenges that certainly affect us all equally. There are not many women in science in developing countries, not only because of their gender, but also due to the socio-economic conditions. So, I whole-heartedly encourage those rare ones who find their way to keep going and be an example for others who find the path daunting. From my experience, there is no way of knowing if a path will be closed to you because of your gender unless you try. So, women should arm themselves with courage and deep commitment to be competitive at all levels.

STEMinism 2016: focusing on the future of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math

On April 19th, students from across NYC gathered at The New School for STEMinism: a day-long summit at the intersection of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) empowerment and the spirit of feminism.

Author: Maryam Zaringhalam

Posted on: April 27, 2016

Deep in the trenches of academia, there are few chances to take the pulse of the next generation of STEM. Fortunately, STEMinism: Science and Entrepreneurship in 2016 was one such opportunity.

Hosted by the Feminist Press and the Gender Studies Program at The New School, STEMinism is a day-long conference that brings together middle and high school students across NYC to discuss the opportunities and challenges of being a minority in STEM. My high school days are far behind me, so I am grateful to STEMinism for providing a unique peek into how to engage with the future of STEM: How do we empower them, while priming them for challenges they’ll face?

Well, with STEMinism.

The snazzy portmanteau represents two core movements that are critical for society’s future: STEM and feminism. With challenges like climate change looming large, the importance of STEM is clear. But the importance of feminism often remains elusive.

So a quick, but necessary digression so we’re all on the same page. Feminism is a fundamental belief in equal rights and opportunities for all, regardless of gender. In the words of Feminist Press executive director Jennifer Baumgardner: “Feminism is an opportunity and invitation to bring all the parts of ourselves into the room.” (Also: see HeForShe.) Embedded in the tenets of feminism is an all-inclusive spirit. That appreciation for all perspectives is what is so critical to our future.

The very essence of STEMinism was highlighted by the conference’s keynote speaker, Dr. Mandë Holford. Holford is an associate professor of chemical biology at Hunter College, with a scientific appointment at the American Museum of Natural History. Her research on venomous snails is truly awesome. But here I want to highlight three non-scientific insights I took away from her talk that are crucial when we think of the future of STEM.

Curiosity is universal. Holford began her talk by defining a scientist as someone who systematically asks questions. Her definition, simple as it is, opens the field up to anyone who is willing to learn how to ask the right questions — no stereotype required. She noted: “I firmly believe a scientist is not born, she’s made. Our mind is born curious. All it takes to be a scientist is to train that curiosity.” Of course, not everyone will (or even should) become a scientist. But we are all born with that same raw impulse towards questioning that can help us at least think like one. So we must ensure we don’t exclude those who don’t fit the stereotype for a scientist. Because…

… diversity is essential. Attracting people from diverse backgrounds necessarily brings more ideas to the table (or lab bench), which is vital for a field that requires fresh ideas and perspectives for nourishment — for innovation. In response to a question on how Holford thinks about representing women of color in STEM, she said: “Science needs more people — different kinds of people — asking questions.” At Rockefeller, we tout the motto “science for the benefit of humanity.” So the people driving research should reflect the diverse makeup of that humanity and all its concerns. Beyond providing equal opportunity and representation, a whole body of research demonstrates that diversity boosts productivityand creativity, while increasing retention of women and underrepresented minorities by creating a supportive network. So it’s not enough to attract diversity into STEM, we must work hard to keep it. And that’s where we must remember that…

… administrations can drive change. From unconscious bias training to better parental leave policies, academic administrations have many opportunities to encourage more of their trainees to stay in STEM careers. And herein lies an opportunity for those of us who are the present tense of STEM to break institutional barriers and open doors for the future. We have the power to advocate for the importance of diversity within the sciences and push for policies that foster that diversity.

That opportunities like STEMinism exist for New York’s young minds fills me with hope. In addition to examples of ground-breaking research, the future of STEM needs exposure to these challenges set in an optimistic light. Now, it’s our job as the cream of academia’s current crop to do everything in our power to pave the way — through our research and our advocacy — for them.

The Big Blue Whale in the Room: Making STEM a Safer Space for Women

Ilana Zucker-Scharff dives into “Harassment in the Sciences,” a talk and discussion presented on March 5th by the American Museum of Natural History and led by Dr. Christina R. Richey.

Author: Ilana Zucker-Scharff

Posted on: March 19, 2016

If you’re a woman in science you are probably aware of what seems like a recent outbreak of harassment scandals in the scientific community. There was the shocking outspoken misogyny of Noble laureate Tim Hunt in June of last year, the two extremely alarming cases, nearly one right after the other, of male astronomers harassing their female employees and students, and most recently, the sexual misconduct case being investigated at the American Museum of Natural History. That’s just naming a few. With these gender inequalities coming to the forefront of our minds and the media, there has, thankfully, also been an upswing in the amount we are discussing and addressing these concerns.

On Friday, March 4th, the American Museum of Natural History hosted a talk by scientist and advocate Dr. Christina R. Richey titled “An Uncomfortable Conversation: Harassment in science and how we can and must do better.” Dr. Richey is a senior scientist at ASRC Federal and, in 2015 she was appointed Chair of the American Astronomical Society on the Committee of the Status of Women in Astronomy.

Dr. Richey presented the results of a survey she and her committee conducted to investigate the concern about workplace climate in the astronomical and planetary sciences community. Richey argued that the current system of reporting — what she refers to as the “whisper culture,” wherein scientists warn their colleagues against working with someone who may have a questionable history — is no longer sufficient, and perhaps has never been. The survey was distributed to 426 participants who were primarily working in the astronomical and planetary sciences, 285 of whom were women. Now for the results:

  • 82% of the respondents had heard sexist remarks at least once from their peers.

  • 44% had heard them from their supervisors. It is important to note that supervisors are required to take training courses to prevent this kind of situation.

  • 32% had experienced verbal harassment due to gender and 8% had experienced verbal harassment due to race. While this second number may seem small, this is likely due to the fact that there is an alarming lack of diversity in the astronomical and planetary sciences. In fact, according to Dr. Richey, there have only been around 100 women of color who have graduated with PhDs in the field ever. Richey referred to the situation for women of color as a “double jeopardy;” they are likely to experience harassment due to race as well as gender.

  • 9% of all responders had experienced physical harassment, which, upon further investigation, had been redefined by responders to include physical assault.

  • 1 in 4 had felt unsafe in their work place due to their gender. As a result, many had skipped out on workplace opportunities, rightfully putting their own safety over the production of good science.

Although this study only applied to a certain small group of researchers in the particular field of astronomy and planetary sciences, it seems safe to say that the problem of harassment is far more pervasive than it should be. Even with a sample size that is fairly small in comparison with the greater size of the scientific community, a large portion of these men and women were having negative experiences related specifically to their gender. These numbers cannot be brushed aside anymore. Especially considering harassment affects the most important aspect of our work. We must find a solution.

Richey had a few suggestions. She strongly believes in order to fix this situation we must first start with better education and training. If we have to go through lab safety training, we should also go through similar training for harassment in order to create a truly safe environment. We also need a different standard for our leaders. All leaders must be allies and if you’re a leader and not an ally, then you should not be a leader. This should become the norm for all academics, but especially leaders and supervisors. A mentor sets the tone in the workplace, not only for the women who want to feel safe, but also for the men who will follow in their mentor’s footsteps. Certainly, as Dr. Richey jokingly put it: don’t expect a cookie or a gold star for behavior that should be just the normal order of things.

Most importantly, we need to make women and other minority groups a part of the conversation. Ask what is needed to feel safe, but also don’t forget that most academic researchers would choose to talk about their science over their gender, race, or sexuality any day. Making women and minorities feel safe and at home will only lead to the production of better science. So really, it’s in everyone’s best interest to strive for a better, safer working environment.

16 women and minorities who could be Rockefeller’s 11th President

Author: Maryam Zaringhalam

Posted on: February 8, 2016

On Thursday, February 4th Marc Tessier-Lavigne announced he will be heading west to lead Stanford University, and is stepping down from his position as Rockefeller’s 10th President. His resignation presents an excellent opportunity for Rockefeller to demonstrate its commitment to building a more diverse and inclusive University by prioritizing women and minority candidates, especially those with a demonstrated commitment to diversity. Towards this goal, WISeR crowd-sourced suggestions from our members, which we are passing along to Russell Carson, chair of the search committee. **This is not an official list in any way and does not reflect the views of The Rockefeller University. We have simply listed great scientists and leaders our WISeR members recommended. We are posting these names and biographies without consent or comment from any of the listed individuals.

Of course, Rockefeller boasts our own stellar female faculty who would be great for the job, but I’ve limited this post to candidates outside of our community.

Within three days, seventeen of our members suggested sixteen unique candidates, all leaders in their fields. From this list, I’ve highlighted six. In addition to their award-winning research, these candidates have a history of advocating for diversity and of leading departments, governmental initiatives, biotech companies, or entire universities. I’ve also included the complete list of all of the extraordinary scientists that our members suggested. If you have additional suggestions, please add them to our comments section and we’ll grow the list!

And so, here they are (in alphabetical order):

  • Ben Barres

  • Bonnie Bassler

  • Carolyn Bertozzi

  • Jennifer Doudna

  • Susan Lindquist

  • Shirley Tilghman

Ben Barres

Ben Barres is Professor of Neurobiology, of Developmental Biology, of Neurology, and, by courtesy, of Ophthalmology. As a trans man, Dr. Barres (formerly Barbara) has a unique perspective on gender discrimination in science and has become a prominent activist for women’s rights. After transitioning, for instance, he heard a faculty member said, “Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but then his work is much better than his sister [Barbara’s].” Most notably, he has spoken out against former Harvard President Larry Summers’ infamous comment stating that the underrepresentation of women in science is due to innate differences in aptitude “at the high end” — not bias — between the sexes. In response, Barres wrote “Does gender matter?” for Nature on the premise: “I am suspicious when those who are at an advantage proclaim that a disadvantaged group of people is innately less able.”

In addition to his work with glial cells, Dr. Barres is known for his commitment to mentorship, which he believes is central to supporting women and diverse minority trainees in science. In 2013, he wrote a NeuroView for Neuron advising students in “How to Pick a Graduate Advisor.” For more on Barres’s commitment to combatting sexism in science, check out this article.


On Dr. Barres Stanford profile, he cites his current research and scholarly interests as the mystery and magic of glia. His lab studies glial cell development and the interaction between glial cells and neurons.

Awards & Honors

  • Searle Scholar Award (1994)

  • McKnight Investigator Award (1997)

  • Kaiser Foundation Award for Excellence in Preclinical Teaching (2007)

  • Mika Salpeter Lifetime Achievement Award (2008)

  • Member of the National Academy of Sciences and elected the Reeve Foundation International Research Consortium on Spinal Cord Injury

Notable Positions

Dr. Barres is currently the Chair of Neurobiology at Stanford Medical School. He is also co-founder and Director of Annexon Biosciences.

Bonnie Bassler

Bonnie Bassler is the Squibb Professor in Molecular Biology at Princeton University. She assumed the position of Chair for Princeton University’s Department of Molecular Biology in 2013 with plans to enhance the departmental curriculum, research, and public outreach. Dr. Bassler’s influence extends beyond academia and into the world of public policy. In 2011, she was appointed by President Barack Obama to serve as a member of the United States National Science Board, which oversees the National Science Foundation. She is an adviser for Congress and the President on policy and educational issues. In an interview with The Daily Princetonian, she says: “I think the social contract for a scientist in the 21st century is to have a foot in the science world and a foot in the lay world and the policy world … We want to make sure that the public continues to think that [science] is a good enterprise.”

Dr. Bassler is a long-time advocate for women in the sciences through mentorship and her commitment to promoting the careers of young female (and male) faculty. On receiving the Alice C. Evans Award for Leadership in Clinical Microbiology, she notes: “Progress has been made, but women scientists continue to struggle against gender bias and discrimination, both in academia and industry. The importance of prizes like this one — awarded exclusively for helping women to participate in science — is the evidence. I am truly grateful to receive this honor. Nonetheless, I urge us all to work to make such awards curious relics of history.”


Dr. Bassler’s research centers on cell-to-cell communication — or quorum sensing — in bacteria. Learn more about her lab here and check out her TED talk for the medical implications of her work.

Awards & Honors

  • Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator

  • MacArthur Fellowship (2002)

  • Princeton University’s President’s Award for Distinguished Teaching (2008)

  • Wiley Prize in Biomedical Science (2009)

  • Richard Lounsbery Award (2011)

  • L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Award (2012)

  • Member of the National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Society, the American Philosophical Society, and EMBO

Notable Positions

Dr. Bassler’s leadership experience is extensive, so here is just a snapshot. She is currently the Chair of the Department of Molecular Biology at Princeton University. Dr. Bassler serves as an appointed member of the National Science Board, and on the National Academies Board on Life Sciences, the HHMI Science Education Committee, and Discovery Communications’ Science Channel Scientific Advisory Board. In the past, she acted as President of the American Society for Microbiology and chaired the American Academy of Microbiology Board of Governors.

Carolyn Bertozzi

Carolyn Bertozzi is currently Professor of Chemistry and Professor, by courtesy, of Radiology and of Chemical and Systems Biology at Stanford University. Last year, Dr. Bertozzi moved from UC Berkeley to Stanford University to join ChEM-E, a new interdisciplinary institute that serves as an incubator for chemists, engineers, biologists and clinicians to tackle problems of human health. In joining the institute, she has cited an additional goal of bolstering undergraduate and graduate education. But her education advocacy extends even beyond the university level as she has participated in high-school outreach programs, including the Catalyst Program, and in programs that promote the participation of women in science.

Bertozzi is also an openly gay scientist. After receiving the GLBT Scientist of the Year Award in 2007, she commented: “It reflects science achievement and stands as a representative of the community history overlooked or actively suppressed. Hopefully people can look at me and realize that it’s okay to be open in their lives and be themselves and do great work and make contributions to the world as scientists … Most awards I received were from groups focused on science. This accomplishment pertains to science accomplishments, but also recognizes the gay or lesbian services of being a scientist.”


Dr. Bertozzi is credited with founding the field of bioorthogonal chemistry, allowing for chemical modification of molecules in living cells. Her group studies cell surface interactions that contribute to human health and disease, with a focus on glycosylation, pursuing projects in cancer, inflammation and bacterial infection. For more about her work, visit her lab website.

Awards & Honors

  • Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator

  • MacArthur Fellowship (1999)

  • Donald Sterling Noyce Prize for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching (2001)

  • GLBT Scientist of the Year Award (2007)

  • Lemelson-MIT Prize (2010)

  • Heinrich Wieland Prize (2012)

  • NAS Award in Chemical Sciences (2016)

  • Member of the National Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Medicine, the German Academy of Sciences Leopoldina, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the National Academy of Inventors

Notable Positions

Dr. Bertozzi served as the Director of the Molecular Foundry at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. She also founded Redwood Bioscience and has served on the research advisory board of GlaxoSmithKline.

Jennifer Doudna

Jennifer Doudna is the Li Ka Shing Chancellor’s Chair in Biomedical and Health Sciences and Professor of Biochemistry, Biophysics and Structural Biology at UC Berkeley. A co-pioneer of CRISPR technologies, Dr. Doudna attributes some of her success to having a strong female role model early in her career — her undergraduate advisor Sharon Panasenko: “It’s a challenging job, especially for women … The further along I get in my career, the more I see how important it is for young women to have supportive female mentors.”


Dr. Doudna’s has devoted her career to “exploring the molecular mechanisms of RNA-mediated gene regulation.” Most famously, she is one of the pioneers of the CRISPR system with collaborator Emmanuelle Charpentier, which won them the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences in 2014. Learn more about her lab’s other projects here and check out her TED talk for the implications of CRISPR gene editing.

Awards & Honors

  • Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator

  • Eli Lilly Award in Biological Chemistry (2001)

  • Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences (2014)

  • Dr. Paul Janssen Award for Biomedical Research (2014)

  • TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People (2015)

  • Member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Medicine, and was elected Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science

Notable Positions

Dr. Doudna is executive director of the Innovative Genomics Initiative at UC Berkeley and UCSF. She is also co-founder of Editas Medicine, Intellia Therapeutics, and Caribou Biosciences.

Susan Lindquist

Susan Lindquist is a Member of the Whitehead Institute and Professor of Biology at MIT. An advocate for gender issues in STEM, Dr. Lindquist reflects: “As a graduate student I was just so excited about the world of molecular biology. It was such a thrilling time to be involved in science but at the same time, it was rather a bleak time in terms of women. I never even hoped to have my own lab one day. My imagination was that I was going to be working in the corner of some man’s laboratory.” Since, she has been recognized not only for the quality of her research, but also for her commitment to mentoring women in science.

Rockefeller’s own Elaine Fuchs notes: “Susan is a remarkable leader, a brilliant scientist, a tremendous mentor and colleague, a strong supporter of women and a compassionate mother of two teenaged girls. And she manages to accomplish far more within a 24-hour period than virtually anyone I know.”


Dr. Lindquist’s work centers on the protein folding problem: how do proteins fold correctly, and what happens when they don’t? Her lab studies protein folding in the context of neurodegenerative diseases, prions, cancer, and evolution. For more about her work, visit the Lindquist Lab webpage.

Awards & Honors

  • Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator

  • Dickson Prize in Medicine (2002)

  • Senior WICB Career Award (2004)

  • Genetics Society of American Medal (2008)

  • President’s National Medal of Science (2009)

  • E.B. Wilson Medal, American Society for Cell Biology (2012)

  • Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Medicine, and the Royal Society

Notable Positions

Dr. Lindquist is the former Director of the Whitehead Institute. She is co-founder of FoldRx (acquired by Pfizer) and scientific founder of Yumanity; both biotech companies center on drug development for diseases of protein misfolding.

Shirley Tilghman

Shirley Tilghman is currently the President of the American Society of Cell Biology and president emerita of Princeton University. As the 19th President of Princeton, Tilghman increased the economic diversity of the student body with increased financial aid and oversaw the development of several institutes, including the Integrated Science Program — an interdisciplinary approach to scientific training. Through her presidency, she remained a staunch advocate for women and minorities in the sciences. Her administration launched two major initiatives to address gender issues: the Task Force on the Status of Women Faculty in the Natural Sciences and Engineering, to improve the recruitment and retention of female faculty, and the Steering Committee on Undergraduate Women’s Leadership, to prepare young women for the future. Her dedication to graduate training reform also earned her recognition as Science Careers‘ Person of the Year in 2014.

Maxine Singer, biologist and former president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, notes: “[Tilghman] never shies away from asking the kinds of questions that turn things topsy-turvy; questions that make you realize that, just because we’ve always done it this way, doesn’t mean we should continue doing it.”


Before assuming the Princeton Presidency, Dr. Tilghman studied genome organization and gene regulation during early development. She was also a member of the National Research Council’s committee that crafted the national effort to map the human genome. Learn more about her scientific journey in this perspective piece.

Awards & Honors

  • Princeton’s President’s Award for Distinguished Teaching (1996)

  • American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB) Women in Cell Biology Award (2000)

  • L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Award (2002)

  • Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society for Developmental Biology (2003)

  • Honorary Doctorate (one of 19), Rockefeller University (2006)

  • Person of the Year, Science Careers from the Journal of Science (2014)

  • Member of the American Philosophical Society, the Institute of Medicine, the Royal Society of London, the International Mammalian Genome Society, and foreign associate of the National Academy of Sciences.

Notable Positions

Dr. Tilghman was the 19th President of Princeton University from 2001 to 2013, making her the first woman to hold the position. In 2015, she was elected as the President of American Society of Cell Biology. Before assuming the presidency, Dr. Tilghman served as Director of the Lewis-Sigler Institute of Integrative Genomics and chaired Princeton’s Council on Science and Technology. She has also been on the board of directors of Google, the Board of Trustees at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, and the Queen University’s Chemistry Innovation Council.

Other amazing individuals:

Elizabeth Blackburn

Co-discovered telomerase earning the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. In 2007, she was named one of TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People and is the current President of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies [Research]

Helen Hobbs

Studies the genetics of lipoprotein metabolism. Her work earned her the 2016 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences [Research]

Shirley Ann Jackson

Theoretical physicist and current President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute of Troy. She is the first African-American woman to receive a doctorate from MIT and lead a top-ranked research university [Presidential profile]

Mae Jemison

Physician and NASA astronaut. She was the first African-American woman to travel in space and the current principal of the 100 Year Starship organization

Cynthia Kenyon

A leader in the biology of aging and Vice President of Aging Research at Calico, a subsidiary of Alphabet Inc. [Research]

Mary-Claire King

Famous for identifying the breast cancer gene BRCA1, demonstrating that humans and chimpanzees are 99% identical, and for her human rights work [Research]

Raynard Kington

Current President of Grinnell College and former Deputy Director of the NIH

Ruth Lehmann

Developmental biologist and Director of the Skirball Institute of Biomolecular Medicine and Chair of the Department of Cell Biology at NYU School of Medicine [Research]

May-Britt Moser

2014 Nobel Prize winner for the co-discovery of grid cells. Founding Director of the Centre for Neural Computation at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and Co-Director of the Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience [Research]

Fiona Watt

Known for her work in epidermal stem cell development and her advocacy for women in science in the UK [Research]

Huda Zoghbi

Research centers on neurodegenerative diseases and Rett syndrome. Director of the Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute at Texas Children’s Hospital [Research]

A very special thanks to everyone who shared their picks. The exercise has been nothing short of inspiring for me. I spent the weekend watching interviews and TED talks, and poring over articles that showcased this cohort’s formidably deep dives into the worlds of research, activism, and mentorship. These are people who have made waves with their leadership, guided great minds with their mentorship, and changed the way we think about the world with their research. We are lucky to have them.

A Case for Transparency and Accountability

Author: Maryam Zaringhalam

Posted on: February 3, 2016

On January 20th Rockefeller students were invited to an Open Forum with university president Marc Tessier-Lavigne. Students submitted questions and concerns for review in November of last year, and the administration’s answers were presented at the forum. Tessier-Lavigne’s comments will be released eventually by his staff. In the meantime, I wanted to open up a discussion on one particular point that was raised during the forum: transparency and accountability.

Students walked into the auditorium knowing the discussion would not be recorded. According to a campus-wide email, this open forum would remain closed as “a private event for the students and [Tessier-Lavigne] to discuss our issues.” While this rationale may be understandable to some, it ignores legitimate concerns about transparency and accountability that are popping up at institutions across the nation.

Why care?

A distinct power imbalance exists when the president (or any high ranking official) of an institution engages in a dialogue with students. We rank low in the higher ed hierarchy. This is a fact — no matter many times administrators remind us of how we are the future and how deeply our opinions matter. Our careers lie at their mercy. Power disparity makes trust tricky.

When we voice a concern, especially one that is controversial, it is coming from a place of urgency or discontent because there’s more at stake for us. We’re not protesting for the sake of pestering. We can speak out all we want, but without proof that our concerns are acknowledged, we have no power to force accountability. A simple recorded “I hear what you’re saying. We’ll look into that and report back,” allows us to follow up and make sure appropriate actions are taken. Records force accountability.

Of course, students are also entitled to an open dialogue. But we can surely reach a compromise. Recorded discussions, for example, can easily be placed behind the university Firewall and made undownloadable. Bottom line: the Rockefeller student body has the right to choose how we are addressed.

It’s time for a conversation about what transparency and accountability mean within the Rockefeller community, especially as they play into other concerns raised during the open forum. A couple examples, which I’ll explore more in posts to come, include:

  • Student protections. Detailed and transparent protocols for handling reported cases of student mistreatment force accountability and encourage students to report conflicts in the laboratory — which can be anything from workplace bullying to sexual harassment.

  • Attracting diverse faculty. Transparent tenure procedures can attract diverse faculty in an era of increasing awareness of the role of unconscious bias as they ensure accountability for ultimate tenure decisions.

Want more? For a great case on the need for transparency in academic institutions, check out this interview from Diverse Issues in Higher Education.

Enough is Enough? Title IX at Rockefeller and Beyond

Author: Maryam Zaringhalam

Posted on: December 30, 2015

Rockefeller recently hosted a presentation and panel discussion centered on the Title IX and “Enough Is Enough” laws. The panel included Rockefeller’s Title IX officer, Thomas Sakmar, Director of Security, James Rogers, and Assistant Director of Security, Michael Murphy.

**update February 11, 2016: Rockefeller’s Title IX officer is now Virginia Huffman, HR.

So first, a few definitions to orient us. Title IX is a federal law that prohibits all forms of discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded educational programs or activities. Title IX’s reach extends to all students on campus, including prospective and visiting students. “Enough Is Enough” specifically deals with sexual misconduct and assault—which includes verbal and physical harassment, domestic abuse, stalking and rape. Namely, the law states that you have the right to report an incident to campus security or law enforcement. Because New York State is an affirmative consent state, any unwanted sexual advances without an explicit, verbal “Yes” qualify as a reportable incident, regardless of whether force was used.

The presentation focused on sexual misconduct and harassment, as they are the most easily identified and actionable offenses. Nevertheless, it is important to understand that Title IX covers all manners of discrimination. Reportable instances include the exclusion of women from groups like journal clubs, prejudicial comments about, say, the place of women in science, and awarding academic honors disproportionately by sex. Basically, any act that contributes to an environment that favors one gender over the other may be reported to our Title IX officer. Of course, this is far easier said than done, as many forms of bias are implicit and ingrained within academic culture at large.

We certainly need more of a discussion on the insidiousness of unconscious bias and how we can use Title IX and similar measures to begin addressing these deep-seated issues. For now, I encourage you to ponder the need for a cultural shift with this piece by Claire Pomeroy in Scientific American. In the meantime, back to our Title IX presentation.

So what happens once a complaint has been filed? As Title IX officer, Dr. Sakmar will launch an investigation, maintaining the highest level of confidentiality possible, keeping in mind the safety of the claimant, which may include switching housing or lab assignments. Here, it becomes rather complicated. One of Rockefeller’s most attractive strengths is how uniquely a community it is. Many students, postdocs, and professors are not only employed by the university, but also live here and send their children to school here. Consequently, Rockefeller acts for many of us as an employer, a landlord, and a childcare provider, a point thoughtfully raised by a fellow graduate student. While this unique position provides a great deal of leeway in terms of complaint resolution, this triple role may act as a barrier for filing a report in the first place, as claimants may jeopardize their role within the community.

Furthermore, we must remember that students have likely invested a great deal of time and energy into their work. This is by no means exclusive to Rockefeller; it goes hand in hand with what it is to be a graduate student, devoting years of your life to research. So there is a great deal of pressure not to report an incident that could jeopardize that work by, for instance, requiring that you switch labs. It is imperative, therefore, that every measure possible is taken not only to protect the claimant’s safety, but also their career. Striking this balance is extremely tricky, but it is also crucial to upholding an environment in which a student feels comfortable filing a complaint.

Incidents covered by the statutes of Title IX and “Enough Is Enough” are delicate by nature, as these laws have been put in place specifically to ensure an open and unbiased academic environment. While the panelists provided thoughtful answers to attendees questions, follow-up presentations would benefit greatly from going through specific scenarios illustrating how exactly incidents will be handled with special attention on how the student’s personal and professional safety will be maintained.

Useful links: