Posts Tagged ‘Debats ICREA’
John and Jennifer are Yale University Biology graduates. Their CVs are identical and both have been appointed for equal positions as laboratory technicians. Now their credentials must be reviewed by 127 lecturers in Biology, Chemistry and Physics who, on the basis of their documents, must decide their salary. What they don’t know is that John and Jennifer are characters invented by the university for an experiment on gender differences. Researchers have created a situation in order to gauge the extent of gender bias. The conclusion is clear: with the same qualifications, it is better to be called John than Jennifer. The gross annual salary suggested for Jennifer is 3,720 dollars less than that proposed for John. The study, published in 2012 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was headed by a woman, Jo Handelsman, who is presently Associate Director for Science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and, as such, President Obama’s adviser on the implications of science for the nation.
Few women rise to such heights because, despite advances, science is still sexist. With the same talent as male colleagues women are frequently paid less, have more difficulties prospering in their careers, obtain fewer grants and are more likely to leave their jobs. This is a world-wide trend. Women who head research groups are still in a minority. There are only three female vice-chancellors in Spain’s 48 public universities. In order to occupy this position one must first be a professor and, in Spain, only 15% of university chairs are occupied by woman.
Women are also neglected in terms of public recognition of their work. Of the 457 Nobel Prizes conceded since 1901, only eleven have gone to women, although many women have played a major role in teams where male colleagues have received the award. One of the better known historical cases is that of Rosalind Franklyn, a biophysicist and crystallographer at the University of Cambridge (an institution which didn’t admit women to full membership until 1948 and, even then, the annual quota was 10% for years thereafter). As a researcher, Franklin made a major contribution when she discovered the structure of DNA in one of her experiments yet, after she had naively shown Francis Crick and James Watson the images she had obtained, the two men went ahead and published the results in Nature and, accordingly, were hailed by the international scientific community and awarded the Nobel Prize. They are still publically recognised as the discoverers of the molecular structure of DNA when, in fact, it was Rosalind Franklyn who should be hailed as the women who opened up a new era in medical science.
This tiny presence of women in the scientific elite contrasts with the number of women graduates and PhD holders. While women students are still a minority in some types of engineering, in other areas such as the life sciences they represent some 75% of graduates and more than 60% of PhD holders. The percentages dwindle after women turn thirty, an age when the majority start thinking about having children. At this point statistical graphs, which had previously shown two lines (one for women and one for men) of more or less parallel paths, now form a cross when the women’s line intersects the men’s line to give a scissor-shaped picture in which the lower blade, the women’s line, now drops sharply. There are exceptions but there is no denying that maternity and an absence of measures to help reconcile work and family duties are major obstacles to high-level performance, to an extent that is so discouraging that some women give up their careers. Apart from prejudice, science is demanding: one must publish, attend congresses, present projects for grants when calls for submissions won’t wait, travel… Without support, there is little chance of success even for the most devoted mothers who spend hours at the computer writing up projects and breastfeeding at the same time.
The fait accompli that men constitute the majority in the scientific elite is so internalised that many women who become leaders, or who publish in the most prestigious magazines are frequently confronted with stereotypes. It is not infrequent that, before knowing a woman scientist’s identity, people assume that this privileged mind working in top-level scientific studies belongs to a man. Some eminent women scientists say that they have been invited to speak at congresses only to find that they are presented in the programme as Mr. X instead of Ms. X.
Breaking through the glass ceiling which acts as a barrier to the advancement of women scientists entails putting an end to many deeply entrenched forms of inertia in our society. To begin with, the bias is not exclusive to the scientific world. Difficulties in reconciling work and family life are present in all professions which entail a certain degree of competitiveness and commitment, ranging from science through journalism and music to business leadership. A mother is 79% less likely to be contracted than a childless woman, and will also be paid less, according to an article published in a special issue of Nature devoted to women. This contrasts with the fact that a man who has children enjoys a professional advantage.
In the special issue of Nature, several authors present options for remedying this situation which is so deep-rooted in our society. What should be done about professions in which, apart from working conditions (which don’t help either), competitiveness means there is no respite? What instruments might redress the scissor effect? Application of quotas is controversial and, in particular, fails to rectify underlying problems such as an absence of measures adapted for a scientific career in order to help women reconcile work and family life. Brigitte Mühlenbruch, president of the European Platform of Women Scientists in Brussels, and Maren A. Jochimsen, director of Essen College of Gender Studies in Germany, have brought together in this special issue of Nature a number of possible solutions. First of all, although it is recognised that the EU Research and Innovation programme Horizon 2020 incorporates gender as an issue to be taken into account for researchers preparing proposals, they also decry the fact that the committees that determine who will receive the grants mostly consist of men. So, too, do the panels of scientific advisers who decide whether an article is to be published or not. Mühlenbruch and Jochimsen suggest that such committees and panels should be comprised by at least 40% women.
They also recommend that there should be greater flexibility for women with children who are presenting projects for funding, that measures should be taken to help the family when a job entails mobility and, moreover, that the fact of a woman’s having children and thus needing time off work should be seen as yet another merit rather than as a negative factor.
The «Women and Science» debates took place at CCCB on feburary 2015. Available online the videos of the round tables ‘Women and science: the view from institutions of quality research‘ and ‘In first person: the voice of women researchers‘.
Ruth de Diego: “Previously we were trying to discover which part of the brain carried out such and such a function, but now we think about networks”March 26th, 2014 Centre Documentació i Debat No Comments
The ICREA-CCCB debates on “The Brain” end on Tuesday 1 April with the lecture titled “Lessons from Brain Lesions”, which is to be given by the University of Barcelona researcher Ruth de Diego. We have asked her to explain in advance why study of behaviour patterns and deficits caused by these lesions is useful in neuroscientific research.
You are a specialist in psycholinguistics and cognitive neuroscience. Could you tell us what is studied in these two disciplines?
First of all, I am interested in psycholinguistics, by which I mean knowing how we come to understand language. While I was writing my thesis I was attracted to the neurobiological aspects of language and, in particular, how brain lesions can affect our understanding and speaking skills. When we come into contact with a new language, our brain gets to work to extract the regularities of that language, even if we don’t understand a word of it. If we land in Japan, for example, and start hearing this strange language, our brain will start to derive all kinds of statistical information, for example which sounds are most frequent, which ones tend to make sequences, and so on. Studying language is interesting because this is what most identifies us as human beings and because language governs our social relations. Hence, a brain lesion that affects one’s ability to speak greatly limits one’s quality of life.
What is the present situation of brain research?
In the past ten years there has been a second big spike in research and the amount of information we have acquired, in this case with a lot of studies on the brain’s structure and connectedness. Previously, in the more traditional approach, the brain was studied in a way that strongly emphasised localisation so efforts were made to discover which part of the brain carried out such and such a function. However, we realised that we couldn’t talk about isolated zones of the brain performing specific functions but, rather, we had to think about networks of different parts of the brain functioning synchronically, or working together and in a coordinated fashion to perform a certain function. Moreover, we now know that the brain is much more adaptable than we previously thought and that when there is a lesion it has an incredible capacity to reorganise itself and restore connections.
Why is studying patients with brain lesions useful?
It is useful because, by comparing different situations, we can discover a lot about the brain and its functions. Imagine a person who has a brain tumour that has taken a year to develop. In that brain the functioning is not exactly the same as that in a person who has not suffered a lesion because of this adaptability I just mentioned: the patient’s brain has been undergoing a process of restructuration in order to adapt to the pathology.
We use transcranial magnetic stimulation with a device that is brought up close to the outside of the head and, by means of a very powerful magnetic field, it changes the functioning of the neurones in the region it is nearest to by inhibiting or stimulating them. This stimulation induces a lesion virtually. This only lasts a certain time, from a few seconds to a quarter of an hour and, during that time, the healthy person acts as if he or she is suffering from a lesion in that part of the brain. Comparing a simulated lesion in a healthy person, whose brain structure is maintained without alterations, with someone else who has a long-term brain lesion, and who therefore does have alterations, makes it possible for us to discover many things about brain structure and function as well as about specific disorders.
What kinds of brain lesions have you studied?
One of the illnesses we have studied is Huntington’s disease, which is quite a rare genetic disorder with a low incidence among the population. In its early stages, Huntington’s disease quite specifically affects a particular subcortical structure, a key area of the brain that has many connections with different parts of the cortex and, accordingly, many associated functions. We also study aphasia, a disorder that affects language comprehension because of a brain lesion. People with aphasia can see the image of a pear and say “banana” for example.
What is the use of studying these diseases?
Studying the whys and wherefores of such behaviour has many uses such as the rehabilitation of patients. Imagine that there are two zones of the brain connected in two ways. As a result of the adaptability I mentioned, if you have a lesion that affects one of them the other one, the intact one, will work to recover its function as much as possible. If we know that one way is obstructed but that the other neuronal network is operating, we can use and reinforce this latter way and design a particular kind of rehabilitation. I’ll give you an example. We have a study showing that there are two main zones of language processing, one of which is more concerned with motor functions like production and speech while the other is more concerned with perception and understanding of language, which is to say it’s more auditory. These two areas are joined by a bundle of connections and it seems that this connection, this ability to transform what we are listening to into a motor sequence, is very important with regard to learning new words. By this I mean that this process of repeating new words, listening to them, hearing them and pronouncing them ourselves – or this loop – enables us to learn. If a patient’s bundle of connections is broken and he or she can’t repeat the words in order to assimilate them, we can help him or her to learn words by turning to another connection that exists, this time a more semantic one. If this other path is taken it’s not possible to repeat words in order to assimilate them but we can accede to the word by giving it sense, connecting the motor and auditory parts of the brain through the structures of meaning. If I train the patient using this method there is a better chance that he or she will understand the word this way than through the obstructed path of repetition.
Would this be similar to mnemonics or the acronyms that are used for studying purposes to assimilate concepts on the basis of unrelated ideas of phrases?
Yes, it would be similar to that. Moreover, all of this has specific uses in the treatment of these disorders because knowing about the alterations in brain structure and functions in patients with Huntington’s disease, for example, enables us to detect and understand individual differences in patients suffering from this disorder. In the case of a clinical trial, we can divide the patients up according to the connections that are affected in each one of them and, by thus grouping them, a much more specific and effective treatment can be offered than if we didn’t distinguish between the different degrees of brain lesions affecting patients.
On Tuesday 25 March Mavi Sánchez-Vives, ICREA research professor at the August Pi i Sunyer Biomedical Research Institute (IDIBAPS) will give a lecture titled “Brain and Virtual Reality“, the third in the ICREA-CCCB series of debates on “The Brain”. We have interviewed her in order to learn more about how the neurosciences use this cutting-edge technology.
What is your field of research?
I’m a neuroscientist and I use virtual reality as a tool for understanding brain functions. I’ll be speaking at the CCCB about a phenomenon that illustrates very well how expressive the brain is, and our great capacity for transforming the inner representation of our body in very short periods of time. We have different ways of knowing that the representation of our own body is in the brain, one of which is through bodily illusions, which are relatively easy to evoke, for example assigning ownership to a rubber arm. There are also numerous illusions of body transformations described in the literature, some of them known to be caused by certain brain lesions which bring about strange or bizarre alterations, as happens with people who believe they have a third arm, or have out-of-body experiences, or with the cases described by Oliver Sacks, for example the man who thinks that a leg in the bed isn’t his and he wants to be rid of it, and other such extreme cases. By means of virtual reality we can study the limits of representation of our own body by re-creating these illusions without needing to turn to people with brain lesions.
How do you use virtual reality?
Through virtual reality, we can bring about the illusion of ownership of an external body and achieve other such illusions by inducing a series of correlated stimuli which produce these illusions of transformation in very brief periods of time. In twenty or thirty seconds we can produce the illusion of ownership of a third arm by means of virtual reality, for example. The fact that these illusions can be produced so quickly leads us to think that the brain has this enormous expressiveness, and that virtual transformations pave the way for very different kinds of applications.
When you speak of virtual reality, do you mean a headset with a screen?
We speak of immersive virtual reality, with a headset, when the user sees an avatar instead of his or her normal body. These experiments have potential in many areas such as rehabilitation, training, physiotherapy and leisure activities.
What have you discovered, for example?
In the case of rehabilitation, we’re studying treatment of pain. For instance, we have published several papers showing that the colour in which a virtual arm appears to you can affect your pain threshold. If your virtual arm is red, you’re going to be more sensitive to a painful or hot stimulus, while if it’s another colour, blue for example, you’ll be less sensitive to a painful or hot stimulus. This means that the pain threshold is not stable and it can be modified depending on the visual information you receive.
These transformations can be brought about in a virtual environment but also by giving life to a robot.
Yes, body transformations can also happen if, instead of having a virtual body, one incorporates a robot body, and this robot body can be situated some distance away. I can use a virtual environment in Barcelona and see through the eyes of a robot in London, and interact and speak in that environment, so that I have a body in the place of destination. If this becomes general, such practice will have to be legislated, with new laws being passed to stipulate who is responsible in the other place, which might be on the other side of the world.
In this video from the TV programme Quèquicom you can see how a Barcelona-based journalist uses virtual reality to “beam” herself into an office in London in the guise of a robot in order to interview the scientist Mel Slater.