Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Pipeline Problem (IV): Patriarchy and the ball-and-chain mechanism of inactivation.

I'm referring to mechanisms of inactivation of potassium ion channels in allusion to the accumulation of negative effects in women's careers.

In truth, the multi-factorial formula that slows advancement is much the same for all oppressed populations, although the 'contents' of specific variables differ (income, gender, sexuality, race and cultural constructs of language and socialization). Two variables that are universal in the equation of oppression, however, are (a) blame/responsibility (b) the indifference of power. Power, like money, is an indifferent intermediate that magnifies errors in perception and communication. (Hopefully, I'll have a chance to write more about these variables and how I think they work in a different context.)

In this post, I'm turning back even further in the past to present more details that I'll use in a subsequent post(s) to suggest possible improvements in academia in relation to the Pipeline Problem. I'm also turning back to describe the reasons I felt I had reached a tipping point as function of the hostile takeover of Research Genetics. When I, myself, looked back on my CV, there were enough times when my career had stalled, even before the hostile takeover -- at least on paper.


While growing up, I received a quadruple dose of keeping the peace -- most often by staying silent, giving in and finding a 'work-around' to obstacles. I was (1) a girl, (2) an only child of (3) immigrant parents doing their best to fit in and succeed in a new culture. The fact that we moved several times as my father moved up the corporate ladder meant that my parents were my only source of a sense of stability. Their disagreements felt earth-shattering. I learned to adapt as much as possible to avoid the discomfort of argument which, as for many couples, were typically triggered by minutia without addressing root causes. My father having to lay off 40 engineers due company restructuring -- a shock to my parent's idealized American dream --, the death of my brother a few days after birth, and the stresses of immigrants trying to fit in, to name a few.

My Undergraduate Years: Psychology and the Transition to Neuroscience

I grew comfortable in the realm of ideas while growing up, so it's not much of a surprise that I chose undergraduate work in Psychology.
I loved Psychology and Sociology coursework and appeared to have an affinity for it. After completing the degree requirements for a double major, however, I instead decided to pursue studies in Neuroscience, in particular, Auditory Neurophysiology.

The decision was motivated by several factors. First and foremost, I had become enthralled by the possible existence of neurons acting as feature detectors for phonemic distinctions. Scientific understanding of auditory processing lagged behind the understanding of visual processing for which feature detectors had been found. I rationalized that auditory physiologists might not have been looking at the right features. If phonemic feature detectors could be found, at least for the phonetic distinctions already present at birth, it might then be possible to work backwards to find organizing principles for sound, and gain understanding beyond the processing of pure tones and noise and the localization of sound that were the focus of researchers at the time.

My switch to Neuroscience and an academic career as a researcher also was motivated by my experience of psychology in practice. More advising and/or a strong meditation practice back then might have affected my decision. It's difficult to look back and say for certain now.

My honor's thesis, a multi-variate analysis of the factors affecting parents ability to cope with having a developmentally disabled child, was emotionally draining. I had designed a questionnaire which, if I recall correctly, was sent out to approximately three hundred couples whose addresses were supplied by an organization affiliated with the Department. There was an approximately 80% response rate. I scored the answers myself -- no need for a double-blind since most of the questions were multiple choice, although often parents provided additional comments. They were a personally invested population. For myself, the process of going through the questionnaires was emotionally charged with empathic resonance. Some of the couples had gotten divorced and, in some cases, the children had died. I remember being upset that the organization hadn't kept their mailing list up-to-date. The pain and anger of some of those couples was palpable.

In an irony of ironies, I didn't learn that my little brother had died of a severe case of Down's Syndrome, such a severe case that he couldn't process food, until the mid-1990s when my mother and I were discussing my having children. I wonder whether either of my parents were at all haunted by my thesis topic. Even I, in retrospect, wonder why I chose it. Was it a subconscious wish to understand problems in my own family? Either way, plenty of reason for empathic resonance with minimal resources for coping.

In terms of advising, I wonder that no one asked how I was coping. In addition, although theses were still commonly referenced in papers in those days, I'm surprised my advisor didn't suggest publication, especially since the thesis won an award.

Another experience that deterred my enthusiasm in the practice of psychology was my own experience with counseling. Not the same as clinical psychology or psychiatry to be sure, but I became familiar with how insensitive counseling could be in spite of the supposed intention to help.

I went to counseling towards the end of my undergraduate years because I knew I needed to escape from the beginnings of domestic abuse in my first marriage. I had gotten married during the summer after my freshman year, most likely in an attempt to find stability after my parents' divorce. As a married undergrad I was working 20-30 hours per week in addition to a full course load and my honor's thesis research and didn't have much of a social life. As I became more successful at school and found a job with United Cerebral Palsy of Vermont (instead of working retail as I had before that), a rift in the relationship appeared and grew. I had written papers on domestic violence and knew the situation wasn't going to get better and that I had to leave. The counselor I saw suggested I leave immediately even though Christmas was only a few days away. I couldn't bring myself to leave my husband's family with that 'gift' for their holiday. During my next appointment, the counselor decided I wasn't really motivated to leave and recommended a 'great' psychotherapist -- my thesis advisor, a real conflict of interest in my opinion. I left the counselor's office and never looked back. I asked for a divorce when I left for graduate school.

Graduate School

For graduate school I was hoping to backdoor my way into the Neurophysiology program at the University of Wisconsin, which at the time was the most well known for Auditory Physiology in the world. 'Backdoor' because I had made the decision to switch rather late in terms of the timing of applications. Also, in my opinion, it was the only program that had the reputation suggesting the search of phonemic features would get done. The professor I written a book chapter on phonemic distinctions for recommended I attend my first Gordon conference (!!!). While there, he suggested I meet with a colleague from the Communicative Disorders Department at UW that was also at the conference. It was a great conference and I was accepted into the Communicative Disorders program and assured of a research assistant position when I arrived. My hope was that I would be able to arrange to perform the research on phonemic distinctions as part of either the Communication Disorders or Neurophysiology programs.

I was never given the chance. As it turned out, within a week or two of arriving on campus, I went to visit the professor I had decided was most likely to have the enthusiasm and interest in the project based on the papers I'd read and essentially received a polite, but blank stare. There were a lot of auditory physiology professors on campus so I ended up spending many late nights helping one of the teams record cortical responses to pure tones and noise while also completing a Master's thesis on a completely unrelated topic which, honestly, I had only minimal interest in (though it fit with the interests of the lab in which I was employed).

Part of the difficulty I was to encounter during my graduate years was a heavy bias against my undergraduate Psychology/Communication Disorders degree and a bias towards a common core of coursework in the 'hard' sciences. Speaking for the Psychology Department, I consider that bias unfounded. None of the coursework in my graduate years provided as sound a training in scientific methodology and ethics than what I received as an undergraduate. In fact, there were numerous instances in which I was surprised by the comparative laxity. For example, it took awhile to get used to the much lower n (number of observations in a given category) for experiments. Further, because of low observational counts, statistical comparisons were often oversimplified. Low n could be rationalized based on the increased difficulty of experiments and greater control of 'environmental' factors compared to research with human subjects. Based on what is now known about genetic variability in its various forms that rationale is obviously an assumption. I still remember my days at Yale buying seaweed to nurse Aplysia back to health in the attempt to induce the bursting state of the channel that was the basis of my Nature paper. There were several months out of the year and especially after storms along the coast that channels in the bursting state were almost non-existent.

During my masters years I took courses in Statistics, Fortran and Engineering in addition to the more standard departmental coursework. [My first encounter with sexism in academia that I had no trouble identifying as such was when I received a B+ instead of an A in Engineering. Even though I had higher overall numeric score than one of the male students receiving an A. When I asked the professor he said it was because my last exam score (non-cumulative) was lower than for the first three -- the very exam I'd asked to reschedule because I was in court finalizing my divorce an hour before; I had requested an alternate time for the exam as soon as I was notified of the court date, but he'd denied the request. The overall effect of that specific instance, however, was minor compared to the effects of sexism overlapping with other biases.] I also regularly attended the Auditory Physiology departmental Journal Club. I hadn't given up on my dream of having the chance to look for phonemic detectors.

I was admitted into the Neuroscience Ph.D. program after receiving my Master's and officially began working in the lab I had frequented during earlier years. To my dismay, I was again penalized for my Psychology degree in spite of my masters coursework. My advisor recommended, and the advisory committee agreed, that I needed to go back and pick up more common core coursework in addition to the normal requirements.

Another factor that might have contributed to my advisory committee penalizing me with extra coursework was my test scores. My Miller Analogy and GRE scores were average. I was off the charts on the analytic portion of the GREs, but that portion of the test was new and didn't count. In those days, it wasn't yet the trend to spend a significant amount of time prepping for those exams. And knowing what I know about how the tests are designed I'm inclined to suggest that one reason my scores weren't higher was due to cultural differences. My parents' own socialization had been limited by the difficulties they experienced during World War II. For example, I was surprised to find out my father, although an extremely intelligent man, had not heard of Freud. Finally, my scores might have been affected by a mild case of dyslexia I believe I have but have never taken the initiative to be formally diagnosed with. At any rate, even though I wasn't bothered too much by average, it's possible the advising committee was.

I absolutely loved Physics, but all together the coursework was too time consuming in terms of the big picture when I look back on my CV now. In addition, at least in my view, most scientists pick up the necessary information readily along the way and learn better through active involvement doing the experiments. Over the years I found the extra coursework wasn't very useful and had contributed very little to my research.

During my first year in the auditory lab I was part of another collaborative project. Then, instead of being allowed to take the reins and look for phonemic detectors, I was assigned a morphological experiment that required my reinventing the wheel to look at pathfinding of neuronal tracts in the developing cochlea. In retrospect, an implicit bias on the part of the advisor likely suggested that being in charge of recording experiments wasn't the best choice for a girl. As I read the literature on the inner ear, I fell in love both with the aesthetic beauty of the cochlea, mechanisms of resonance, and ion channels. When the University hired an ion channel physiologist, I switched labs and for the next four years worked with the best Zen teacher I've ever had (!) even though he was Baptist. Although I already had developed a desire to investigate the ion channel mechanisms giving rise electrical resonance in the cochlea, the questions we were addressing in terms of the mechanisms regulating ion channels in Schwann cells and axons of the sciatic nerve were close enough.

During my first year we performed experiments together. I learned all the basic techniques, tissue culture, analyzed data -- everything except actual recording. When I finally was allowed to record channel activity on my own I had miraculously acquired a perfect sense of the technique required for patch clamping, which works a little like surfing in terms of the interface between the experimenter and recording equipment, i.e. a certain amount of skill and sensitivity (to the un-initiated, perhaps best understood as a form of balance in the comparison to surfing) was required. In later years, especially at Yale, I had to smile to myself a little when people wanted to learn how to record using the patch clamp technique in a day.

I ended up winning another thesis award for my I felt I had finally thrown off the bias associated with my Psychology degree and the run-around I received while trying to get the opportunity to pursue the search for phonemic feature detectors. I was in business! (After nine years in graduate school and all the while accumulating student loan debt... Though at least those debts were nothing like they are in the present day.)

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