Tag Archives: science

Diversity Series: Solutions for the STEM diversity problem at the University level (reblog)

Lack of hispanics, blacks and other minorities in the sciences is a well-documented problem. What is at the root of this problem? At what level of training or education should the solutions be targeted at? These are some of the questions individuals working in this area grapple with constantly. Here is an interesting piece from the Huffington Post that discusses the problem and possible solutions at the level of higher education.

As a side note, we’re excited to host Dr. Maggie Werner-Washburne, one of the contributors to this piece, in February 2015 for a seminar for Hutch United, a group committed to fostering diversity in science at Fred Hutch.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/george-sanchez/crisis-opportunity_b_6181290.html

 

Hutch United Logo 4

Sharing Our Stories – Diversity Series

This is the second post in the Diversity in Science Series where I reflect on some of my own early experiences as a person of color and the first in my family to enter a PhD program.

The first time I noticed the lack of diversity in the sciences was as a young graduate student as I listened to a seminar and noticed that I was one of only a few people of color in a full auditorium. I distinctly remember feeling both intimidated and conspicuous. I’m sure I wasn’t the only new graduate student who felt intimidated. It was common feeling among everyone in our class, regardless of color. We had even learned there was a name for what we were feeling, ‘impostor syndrome.’ The thing for me was that the feeling of being an impostor wasn’t just because I’m brown—Indians aren’t underrepresented in the sciences.

Feeling like an impostor came more from my personal background. Everyone seemed so familiar with the research scene. I didn’t even know what a ‘PI’ was when I first arrived since I had never done research in a lab. (FYI, PI stands for Principal Investigator—in other words the boss of the lab.) My classmates seemed to be so comfortable socializing with other students and faculty. The only PhD’s I knew before grad school were my professors from undergrad. And, it seemed like everyone else’s parents were professors or doctors or other types of academics. I came from a blue collar family. My dad was a farmer in India and worked as landscaper in the US before becoming a real estate agent. My mom was a house wife in India and then worked at a farmer’s market and a macaroni factory in the US.

I felt out of place—and I didn’t want anyone else to know. So, I faked it.

I didn’t ask questions but instead paid attention and stayed quiet until I learned what I needed to without letting anyone in on my secret, for a while anyway. It took me about a year to start to make friends—who eventually became really good friends and got to know the real me, and my family. As time went on, I realized that I wasn’t alone in feeling this way. A lot of folks had come from different backgrounds, and I don’t just mean color. But nobody ever talked about it so we went around thinking we were alone in feeling out of place.

We were all faking it!

Why was there the need for secrecy? The thing about being different in any environment is that it can make you feel very conspicuous. No one has to say a single word to you for you to feel this way, you just do. I didn’t want to seem to others like the outsider I felt I was, so I kept my little secret. And so did everybody else.

Would things have been different for me in those early years had I met someone who came from a similar background? Definitely!

I am so proud (and always have been) of my family’s ‘blue collar’ background and how hard my parents worked in a country that was foreign to them so my siblings and I would have the best opportunities available to us. I’m ashamed I didn’t talk about it openly, or even hid it in an effort to fit in. Maybe if we share our stories more openly, we can help reduce the pressure of fitting in and being different for aspiring young scientists from even the most humble backgrounds.

It’s been many years since that day in the auditorium, and I still find myself thinking about diversity in science. The difference is that now I openly talk about my ‘different’ background, especially to the younger scientists. It’s time to celebrate the diverse backgrounds we all come from and use this diversity to launch us forward, and not hold us back. As a few friends and I endeavor to find solutions to the diversity problem at our own institution, we’re starting by sharing our own stories. Everyone has one. What’s yours?

Why is diversity in the workplace so important?

Diversity in the sciences is a topic that is close to my heart and something I keep coming back to over and over. It’s not something we strive for just in the sciences but probably all work places. I’ve always taken it as a given that diversity is a good thing without feeling the need to justify it. But, why is diversity so important in the workplace?

What diversity means to me

For me, diversity refers to cultivation and celebration of ideas from and individuals from different ethnic, national, social, economic, political, physical, mental and sexual (orientation and identification) backgrounds and ways of thinking. Yeah, it’s a cumbersome definition but it’s inclusive, just like the word it defines. And notice, I didn’t write ‘tolerance.’ For me, true diversity means respecting and celebrating differences, not just tolerating them.

Getting back to why diversity is important

An obvious reason is that cultivating a diverse work force allows ‘equal’ opportunity for folks from different backgrounds, some of which come with challenges that can be roadblocks to success. But I think the strongest argument for diversity is that we ALL benefit from working in an environment with people from diverse backgrounds, ideas and experiences. Working with folks with different experiences, different sets of assumptions and approaches to problems not only has the potential to lead to more creative solutions but also forces us to challenge our own assumptions and ideas.

Lack of diversity in the sciences is a problem

Despite the potential benefits, the sciences still struggle to be sufficiently diverse. We have a really nice representation of international scientists (which is great!). However, there’s a glaring and well-documented under-representation of African-Americans, Native Americans, Mexican-Americans, mainland Puerto Ricans and Pacific Islanders across academic and research institutions nationally. The problem gets worse the higher you go up the ladder, from undergrads, grad students, postdocs, faculty, and all the way up to higher administration. The reasons behind this are complex-involving circumstances that have basis in history, economics, social and racial conditions and politics-and we won’t explore them here.

What we can explore here are some possible solutions. Through a series of posts I’ll conveniently call ‘The Diversity Series’, I’ll explore different solutions some of us are implementing locally to foster diversity. The next post in the series will be ‘Sharing Our Stories.’

 

Riyanka Ganguly – A young role model for all ages

I was blown away by this 5 minute speech by high school student Riyanka Ganguly. In an Ignite Seattle speech entitled ‘I Like Pink But That Does Not Mean I Can’t Think,’ Riyanka beautifully challenges stereotypes and preconceived notions that young girls (and grown women) encounter as barriers to their success–especially those of us interested in science. Riyanka is an unapologetic go-getter. She started a chapter of Young Women in Bio at her high school and I can’t wait to see all the places she’ll go!

Why should you care about science?

And why should scientists care if the general public cares about science?

Last week I wrote about the importance of science community engagement in public education and the role of science journalism. The implicit assumption of the post is that it is important for the general public to be engaged in science. In case you don’t share this assumption, let me outline a few reasons why you should.

  • Scientific developments affect us all, whether it’s the development of new cancer therapies, understanding what causes drug resistance in ‘super bug’ bacteria, or evaluating the safety of genetically modified foods (we all consume them).
  • Having a better understanding of how seemingly small contributions in very specialized areas by a large number of scientists (which includes some disagreements), over time and across the world , collectively help fields move forward will help the public understand why science is slow.
  • A general public that understands how discoveries in a fruit flies or yeast can help human health and innovation in general will hopefully generate more support for research. Public support for research may translate to an increase in funding.
  • Beyond financial support, an informed general public can better judge science news without the sway of politics (think global warming).

As you can see, the benefits are many for both scientists and non-scientists alike!

It’s not my job . . . or is it?

Recently I had the privilege of meeting Joe Palca, a science correspondent for NPR and creater of Joe’s Big Idea. I had invited Joe to come speak to young scientists at our institution about science writing. In addition to picking Joe’s brain for career advice, this was an opportunity for us to learn more about science reporting. Most scientists will tell you they feel that main stream media science stories leave out important details and often misrepresent the impact of scientific findings.

Joe, who has a PhD in sleep psychology from UCSC, seemed like the perfect person to have this conversation with since he knows the worlds of science and journalism well. I expected him to echo some of our frustrations and maybe vent about limitations of reporting to a general public that has a limited science education or gripe about colleagues who don’t pay attention to detail. To my surprise, the conversation went in a very different direction. When asked if Joe feels like it’s his (and other science journalists’) responsibility to educate the public about science, he responded “no” and said that his responsibility was to report on science, which is different.  He pointed out that most science reporting pieces usually have no more than one or two sentences actually describing the science—the story is often about the people doing the science, not the science itself. This was a surprising and interesting perspective to hear. Thinking more about this, Joe’s right. He’s a journalist, not an educator. His job is to report on the story. Why do we as scientist place the burden for educating the public on the shoulders of journalist?

If it isn’t Joe’s job to educate the public, whose job is it? Regional and national science education centers like the Pacific Science Center in Seattle do a great job of educating some of the public. But can we, as scientists in the trenches, do more? I think we can. And we should. Most science in this country is funded by the government which means tax payer money. We routinely give progress reports in the form of scientific publications to the scientific community, but isn’t it our job to give a progress report to the taxpayer as well? Having said that, I do concede this is a really difficult task. Most of us are great at presenting our most recent findings in auditoriums full of experts but when it comes to explaining what we do to grandma, we can find ourselves at a loss for words!

Science makes it into the news if there’s a huge discovery in a particular field. But, there’s a lot of cool science going on all the time! I know because my friends are work on it—human evolution, anti-freeze proteins, genetic engineering, just to name a few. Now, let’s see if we can find a way to tell you about it. Stay tuned!

FHCRC scientists meet with Joe Palca, NPR Reporter
FHCRC scientists meet with Joe Palca, NPR Reporter

Photo: By Philamer Calses, University of Washington PhD Candidate

Message from a princess: Cancer is a global health problem

When I think of global health issues pertinent to the developing world, I generally think of infectious diseases–like malaria, HIV and tuberculosis. Cancer usually doesn’t come to mind–it’s only a problem for the developed world, right? Wrong.

After attending a lecture today by Her Royal Highness Princess Dina Mired of Jordan (King Hussein Cancer Foundation), it is clear to me that cancer is a global health problem. The lecture also included remarks by  Dr. Julie Gralow (Seattle Cancer Care Alliance oncologist and Jill Bennett Endowed Professor in Breast Cancer), Dr. Julio Frenk, (Dean, Harvard School of Public Health and former Health Minister of Mexico) and Dr. Felicia Knaul (Harvard Medical School). It turns out that about 54% of cancer diagnoses and 64% of cancer deaths in the world come from developing countries. By 2030, the percentage cancer deaths that come from developing countries is predicted to go up to 70%. What’s tragic is that many of these deaths are preventable! For example, Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia has 80-90% survival rate in the western world, while the survival rate in developing countries is around 10%.

CANCER IN DEV

Another example is cervical cancer. While cervical cancer related mortality has gone down in the US due to extensive screening, it still a major problem in developing countries. Several years ago, scientists (including some who work across the hall from me) developed a vaccine that prevents a vast majority of cervical cancer by targeting the Human papilloma virus (HPV). HPV infection is the leading cause of cervical cancer. A recent study (written about in the New York Times today) shows that the incidence of HPV infection has significantly decreased in teenagers since the introduction of the HPV vaccine. This is great news for the US as we can also expect rates of cervical cancer to go down. But what about poorer countries? Under the direction of Dr. Julio Frenk, Mexico has implemented health reforms that provide the HPV vaccine free to school-aged girls. This practice is not widespread in most low and mid-income countries though it can help prevent cervical cancer.

Additionally, a fact of life with cancer often is the necessity for palliative care–end of life care that generally involves management of pain. While availability of medicines to manage pain is good in the US, Canada, Australia and the EU, it is a huge problem in developing countries. Sadly, not only will more people die of cancer in developing countries but they will likely die in more pain.

What are the reasons for these disparities?
One obvious reason is access to healthcare facilities that can provide the appropriate care–especially in rural settings. More than just facilities, many places lack well-trained oncologist and other professionals. Princess Dina Mired pointed out that many developing countries send students to the West for studies, but few come back to practice medicine in their home countries for various reasons. Even for patients who have access to healthcare and trained providers, paying for the treatment is problematic. The lecturers today cited that prior to health reforms in Mexico, almost 30% of breast cancer patients never finished cancer therapy (for which their families had already gone into severe debt) because they ran out of money. Of course, financial strain as  result of expensive treatment even with insurance can also be a problem here in the US.

There is also a divide in global funding of programs to eradicate infectious diseases vs those that target cancer in developing countries. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and others have made a commendable and effective push to improve survival from infectious diseases. But why has cancer in developing countries been largely ignored by the folks holding the money bags? Perhaps it is because of the myth, which I was guilty of believing, that cancer is only a problem for wealthy countries. I hope the some of the numbers I provided above will convince you this is simply not true.

How do we overcome these disparities to reduce cancer incidence and improve cancer survival in developing countries?
Obvious solutions are improve access to health care, have better trained staff and good equipment, make health care affordable, and get more people to invest in cancer prevention and treatment for developing countries.

So, how do we do that?

What are your solutions?

 

 

References and suggested reading:
*Saving the Children — Improving Childhood Cancer Treatment in Developing Countries
Blog by Dr. Felicia Knaul
FHCRC Petri Dish blog post on HPV vaccine efficacy

Finally understanding the impact of sequestration

“How has sequestration affected you and other postdocs?” a journalist asked me a few weeks ago. He was doing a story on the impact on scientific research of this year’s $85 billion reduction of federal spending. The vast majority of scientific research in the United States is funded by the federal government.

To be honest, I wasn’t really sure how to answer his question. I happen to work at a world-class cancer research center that has been able to provide an incredibly supportive environment for research, even during the financial downfall of 2008. I figured we’d be ok for now. The future, however, is less certain.

A likely direct impact of sequester is that fewer scientists may choose to go into academia. Colleagues who are hoping to have careers in research at academic institutions are worried since it’s becoming more and more difficult to get research grants funded. The funding situation was already pretty tough before sequester. The question on everyone’s minds is how will it change now? Academic career pursuits are also in trouble due to the fact that university departments may also slow down hiring of faculty. In the current climate, PhDs may choose to explore other science-related fields—biotech, science writing, consulting, to name a few. How these non-academic sectors handle the potential increase in PhDs being funneled towards them remains to be seen.

As PhDs in the US, how are we going to train ourselves for nonacademic careers with limited resources? As graduate students and postdocs in academic institutions, we’re generally trained to do one thing: how to do academic research. We can choose to take part in extracurricular activities that do train us for the non-academic job market. The extent of this training and participation varies from institution to institution. Luckily, I work in a place where there is a lot of institutional support (financial and administrative) for such programs. We probably have one of the best* student and postdoc associations in the nation but our budget has taken substantial hits several times this year. Going forward, we’ll have to think hard about the kinds of career development programs we can offer and become more creative with our resources. I feel deeply for my colleagues at other institutions who are starting or trying to maintain programs with almost nonexistent institutional support.

There are likely to be broader impacts on science in the US. Our commitment to scientific progress has played a huge role in the amount of innovation that comes out of the US—and this very innovation (and our immigrant history) is what has made us a global leader. (It sounds cheesy, but I believe in this strongly.) I worry that this will change if we don’t continue our commitment to science. This problem is bigger than this year’s sequester. Rates at which research grants are funded have been steadily decreasing over the last decade.

These were the issues as I understood them at the time of the interview when I shared them with the reporter. I now know that my understanding of the impact of sequestration on science was far from complete. I hadn’t considered the impact on people—not just careers.

The main function of a research center is, of course, to support and carry out research. In order to preserve funding for this essential function, difficult decisions have to be made to reduce the number of support staff (administrative, technical, etc). This happens at the level of research centers and in individual labs. Saying goodbye to these valued colleagues is when I finally understood the impact of sequestration.

 

*Ok, as chair of the said association, I might be slightly biased. The assertion as to the strength of our program is based on my experience at a recent national conference, where I had the chance to compare ours with other organizations.

Gene patents? No thank you!

The US Supreme Court ruled this morning that human genes cannot be patented. My research and clinical colleagues are overjoyed! The suit was brought forward by the Association for Molecular Pathology against Myriad Genetics. The defendant, Myriad Genetics, has held patents for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes since the mid 1990’s. Women with mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA2 are at high risk for developing breast and some other  kinds of cancers. Men with mutations in BRCA2 are also at a high risk for breast cancer.

Myriad Genetics has been the only company that clinicians could refer patients for identification of BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations. Myriad Genetics has not licensed other companies to do the testing. It costs around $3000 to get the test done and most insurance companies cover the cost for patients with family history of breast and/or ovarian cancer. If you can shell out the $3000, Myriad Genetics conveniently offers direct-to-consumer testing for BRCA1 and BRCA2—allowing you to bypass your physician altogether!

The monopoly held by Myriad Genetics will now come to an end. It was wrong to begin with!

Why should a company be able to patent genetic information that exists in all of us? Patenting the technology or method used for discovery of the genetic material or gene sequence is legitimate but not the sequence itself. It seems absurd to me that a company can file for a patent for a naturally occurring phenomenon. Our bodies have been making use of that genetic information for a lot longer than Myriad Genetics has been in existence—sans patent.

The Supreme Court ruling is a win for patients (consumers). With the patent ruled unconstitutional, other companies can develop methods or use existing, publicly available, technologies, to sequence BRCA1 and BRCA2, in addition to other cancer susceptibility genes. With additional competition, we can hope for a test that costs less than $3000. This is a reasonable expectation since scientists are currently racing to sequence the entire human genome (>20,000 genes and other non-genic regions) for $1000. We can also hope that these companies will encourage public sharing of information about different mutations that may us better understand a class of mutations called variants of unknown significance, discussed elsewhere. Myriad Genetics stopped sharing this kind of information a few years ago because it “doesn’t make a lot of business sense,” according to CEO Peter Meldrum1.

What about business and the bottom line? Myriad Genetics will continue to profit from BRCA1 and BRCA2 testing as they hold the experience, expertise and a large database. Perhaps the profit margin may go down as competitors enter the market. There is now space in the market for others to get a piece of the commercial genetic testing pie.

Overall, this is a huge victory–for patients, clinicians and scientists.

1 http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-12-28/myriad-stymies-cancer-answers-by-impeding-data-sharing.html

Brainstorm for breast cancer

As the recipient of the Thomsen Family Breast Cancer Research Fellowship, I was invited to speak about my work on chemotherapy resistance in breast cancer at a gathering of the Breast Cancer Research Institute. In the audience were breast cancer clinicians (surgeons, oncologists, radiologists) and research scientists (basic scientists, translational biologists, epidemiologists) from the Fred Hutch/Seattle Cancer Care Alliance and the University of Washington.

This was a rare opportunity for both clinicians and basic science researchers to share data and have the opportunity to collectively help move the field forward. Following my presentation and presentations by other award recipients, there was a round-table discussion to do exactly that. We were provided with a list of directives to guide how breast cancer research should be funded at the local level and, as a table, asked to provide feedback on those directives.

My table consisted of one other basic scientist and three radiologists who develop and modify MRI techniques for early and better detection of breast tumors. As we discussed the merits of the listed directives, one of the radiologists shared that he thought large data-gathering consortia (which collect many different kinds of data from a large number of patients) may be a waste of resources as those efforts are not driven by a specific hypothesis (or idea) to be tested. The basic scientist and I responded that for us those large data-sets are invaluable! We can test hypotheses that we develop on non-clinical, lab-based experiments on patient data available in those data sets. A great discussion followed.

This anecdote demonstrates the importance of having such round-table discussions among researchers and clinicians. We can best evaluate effective strategies and the most appropriate use of resources working together. It was a rare opportunity to brainstorm with experts from different fields. All of our approaches and contributions may be different but we all share the same goal–improve survival from breast cancer by developing strategies to better prevent, detect, and treat this terrible disease.