Tag Archives: GWiSE

Coffee & Conversation with Dr. Laverne Melón

Written by Alyssa DeLeoNEURCoffee & Conversation is a series of informal chats with women faculty on campus, hosted by Tufts GWiSE. 

Our last Coffee & Conversation of the year featured Dr. Laverne Melón, a post-doctoral fellow in the Maguire lab and a TEACRS scholar. She will joining Wesleyan University as a faculty professor in neuroscience in the Fall. Laverne was born in Trinidad and moved to New York when she was 10 years old. In high school, Laverne helped establish the science club, which she insists was the most poppin’ after school extracurricular at the time, and she knew she wanted to work in research before even knowing what that was. The science club gave her and her peers the chance to support each other in the search for research experiences and ultimately lead her to volunteer in a cancer genetics lab at Columbia University. As she reflects on her first experience in science, she also acknowledges that it was also her first exposure to the sexism and racism that exists in scientific institutions. It’s difficult to turn a blind eye to these situations when all you want to do is put your head down and do the work in front of you. But, she didn’t let this taint her passion for the field and her experiences spoke to her resilience, which would be noted by several scientists later in her career.

Laverne went on to earn a BA in neuroscience at Middlebury College, a MS in Behavioral Neuroscience at Binghamton, and a PhD in Addiction Neuroscience at IUPUI after her lab at Binghamton moved. She lost a Binghamton fellowship in the move and had to teach at IUPUI, which she found frustrating as anyone does when they’re forced to do something. However, Laverne began to enjoy the process and her career path in academia became increasing clear. Laverne has been a post-doc in Jamie Maguire’s lab for the last 4 ½ years studying effects of stress on reproductive health and the role of the GABAergic system in alcohol addiction. As she moved into her post-doctoral years, she was really fueled by a research question which she presented to Jamie along with some data to score her current position. Now, she’s fielding multiple offers for faculty positions and learning to navigate this new part of her career.

As always, we chatted about how early life experiences brought our guests to their current positions, how crucial the role of mentors played in this trajectory, and the vital importance of self-advocacy. But, we kept coming back to this idea of producing good, reproducible science and how that is only possible if the field really cared about the people behind the data. It’s no secret that scientific institutions have not been the best advocates for the health of their workforce. Levecque et al. published a study in May of 2017 reporting one in two PhD students experience psychological distress and 1/3 of graduate students are at risk for a psychiatric disorder. An online survey of graduate students in a recent March 2018 study by Evans et al. reports graduate students are more than six times as likely to experience depression and anxiety compared to the general population. SIX times! It’s exceeding clear that health of scientists across fields and levels are struggling in this environment. This begins by hiring scientists that are more than a good researcher, but are inspired teachers, passionate mentors, and expert managers who are in touch the health of their lab.

As Laverne is beginning the next chapter of her career, she’s considering taking on an administrative position as a director of inclusion and diversity in addition to her faculty appointment. She intends to use her status to implement institutional changes to allow for better science through caring, supporting, and mentoring the next generation of scientists. When Laverne started to work in science, she admitted she tried to assimilate as much as possible, but it gets exhausting. It’s difficult to integrate into establishments and systems that have been hostile to the existence of women and minorities in science while trying to stick it out until you can get to a position to make changes. She’s been able to tap into her mentoring network over the years for support and instructed us to be vulnerable in our insecurities to allow these organic mentorships to grow.

If you’re interested in getting involved with GWiSE, follow us on Twitter @TuftsGWiSE, like us on Facebook, or email us at tuftsbostongwise@tufts.edu. Our next Coffee & Conversation is October 19th, 2018 at 5PM in Jaharis 913.

NE GWiSE Spring to Action

Guest Post by Alyssa DiLeo (Neuro), Tufts Graduate Women in Science & Engineering (GWiSE)

Tufts was host to the first Spring to Action event organized by the newly formed New England Graduate Women in Science and Engineering (NE GWiSE). The group represents graduate women in STEM from universities across New England in advocating for greater representation and resources for women in STEM fields. Within the context of the #MeToo and #TimesUp campaign, the forum focused on sexual harassment within our scientific communities with the goal of reviewing and creating school specific policy to be presented to each school.

Organizing Executive Board, Courtesy – Siobhan McRee

Dr. Leena Akhtar, a lecturer in Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality from Harvard University kicked off the event as the keynote speaker. She walked the audience through the history of sexual harassment in the workplace and the landmark court cases that ultimately provided protection against sex discrimination. The 1964 Civil Rights act banned employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, and sex. But, it almost wasn’t. Apparently, the provision on sex was included to sink the bill. That’s right, protection against discrimination based on sex was considered the most unlikely and ridiculous concept to be included in the law at the time.

As the 60s and 70s went on, many court cases, mostly brought by African American women, reinforced the law and made sexual harassment and hostile work places unlawful. Liberal and radical feminist groups organized to hold the government accountable to enforcing these laws and provided resources to women suffering injustices, something that is still relevant today. However, the cultural and societal backlash to the feminist movement was brutal. Change was not welcome in historically male institutions and newspaper articles summed up the feeling over the new law through obscene political cartoons and agonized over the idea of qualified women applying for traditionally male jobs. To quote Mona Lisa Vito, “What a frickin’ nightmare!”

Fast forward to present day and women are still fighting pay disparities, sexual harassment, and gender discrimination. Power structures in academic sciences are still very much in place and institutions mostly want to protect their tenured professors who bring in grant money rather than expendable graduate students. Deviant behavior perpetrated by scientists are usually notorious and well-known within their institutions and can persist because of bystander inaction. A panel including title IX coordinators and sexual misconduct specialists from BU, Harvard, MIT, Brandeis, and Tufts answered questions from a NE GWiSE moderator and the audience inspiring conversation about policies and reporting guidelines in place at each university. NE GWiSE also provided an overview of sexual harassment policies and offices among the New England universities represented at the event. Surprisingly, many do not require sexual harassment training for faculty and staff, especially older faculty, which is an incredibly irresponsible decision that can easily be fixed.

Title IX Panel, Courtesy – Siobhan McRee

Breakout groups formed to discuss these existing policies and create a list of “asks” to be brought back to each school. Tufts will be proposing to mandate tailored Title IX training that includes mental health and cultural sensitivity modules every few years, as well as further incorporating sexual misconduct into ethics classes. In order to better inform these trainings, a climate survey will go out to students, faculty, and staff about sexual harassment and the workplace environment at Tufts. 

Breakout Groups, Courtesy – Siobhan McRee

Despite the fight laid out before us, everyone left this event with hope in their hearts and fuel to continue fighting for justice in academia. This past year we saw Nasty Women unite and march on Washington the day after the president was inaugurated. Powerful men like Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, and Louie C.K are facing consequences for their inexcusable behavior and the world is taking sexual harassment allegations seriously. The conversation about sexual harassment is finally shifting from the perpetrator to the victim and focusing on what can be done to stop these behaviors rather than suggesting the victim was asking for it. These situations are reinforced by power structures and vulnerability often found in the sciences, but it’s beginning to even out as women have the support to continue their careers into higher level faculty positions. Victims of sexual harassment and gender-based violence are being lent a voice to speak out about the injustices they face within the workplace. As Dr. Leena Akhtar said, “this movement is a reckoning” and we’re just getting started.

The NEGWiSE Spring to Action Attendees, Courtesy – Siobhan McRee

If you’re interested in getting involved at Tufts, GWiSE chapters on the Boston and Medford chapters have been established this year and welcome all members of the graduate and scientific community to attend events.

Rosie’s Place Donation Drive Sheds Light on Pervasive Gender Bias

Last December, the newly formed student organization, Tufts Graduate Women in Science & Engineering (GWiSE, Tufts chapter of New England GWiSE), participated in a city-wide philanthropic effort. A donation drive was organized for Rosie’s Place, a shelter focused on helping poor and homeless women; founded in 1974, it is the first women’s shelter in the US. The drive was meant to run from Dec 11-15, and collect tampons, pads and any other menstrual hygiene products.

However, when Siobhan McRee, a Genetics grad student who co-founded Tufts GWiSE, went to place a donation box in the Jaharis lobby, she was informed that she wasn’t allowed to do it, as there is already a “Toys for Tots” box in the lobby. Additionally, the security personnel informed her that she would need approval from the Friedman nutrition school to place a box in the lobby. McRee had already obtained permission from Associate Dean Dan Volchok, following precedence of other donation drives (e.g. – GSC winter clothing drive 2015). Dan V was quick to solve the problem, according to McRee, but she didn’t feel comfortable putting the bin in the lobby anymore. Instead, she decided to try the program offices in M&V 5th floor.

McRee was surprised to find that there was resistance from the administrators too. “You don’t expect pushback from certain groups of people”, McRee explained (most of the office admin are female). The general consensus among the admins, led by one strong proponent, seem to be that the donation bins and the flyer for the drive (approved by the dean’s office) were inappropriate and would make men uncomfortable. She was told to post the flyers and put the bin in the women’s bathroom. A supporting admin later offered their office space to host the bin and collect the donations. Tufts GWiSE informed the student body accordingly and donations were effectively collected from Dec 13-15.

Despite the pushback, McRee believes that the drive was successful, “we filled up the back of a car”. She added that the pushbacks might have actually helped the drive in some way. But, she was dismayed to find that people at Tufts would harbor such old-fashioned views that women’s reproductive issues should not be discussed in public, especially on the biomedical campus of a liberal institution. She believes that this is an indication that sexist attitudes towards women’s health, that are rooted in patriarchal ideology, need to be addressed to create a safe working environment for women and to fight against discrimination and sexual violence. When asked for his comments, Dan V stated that the events that transpired are not representative of the greater Tufts community, and Dean Dan Jay mentioned that he had not heard of the pushback from department admins. Contrary to expressed opinions as to how the drive might offend men, male community members actively participated in the drive, further supporting Dan V’s convictions re: the Tufts community. 

While the Dean’s office at Sackler was very helpful, the response from Tufts university administration seemed lukewarm in comparison. McRee’s husband, after learning of the incident, tweeted to the university and the president. Patrick Collins, executive director of the Tufts PR department, reached out to McRee to take note of what happened. However, as McRee described, there was no followup afterward and she felt that they weren’t proactive about the matter and didn’t offer an apology that a Tufts employee would pose such roadblocks in holding a donation drive for women’s health.

This kerfuffle may seem an isolated incident in a largely liberal institution which has vowed a fight against sexual harassment and violence against women. However, from a broader picture, this doesn’t seem so isolated. It is true that Massachusetts sets a higher standard for women’s rights compared to other states across the nation – from popular support for Planned Parenthood to not having any taxes on feminine hygiene products (otherwise known as “tampon tax”, a discriminatory legislature considering that Viagra enjoys a tax-free status). However, just as racial inequality in the city of Boston exists in a hidden but structural manner, the same is true for violence against women. This violence takes the shape of entrenched patriarchal views that still seem to be pervasive in a liberal community, besides the ubiquitous, more overt forms of violence such as domestic abuse & rape. These views and barriers impede the improvement of women’s health, as McRee’s experience shows, in a manner that is hard to fight against (re-routing, administrative bureaucracy). “I was told to just do it and ask for forgiveness later, but I’m a non-confrontational person, and, this shouldn’t be the norm” McRee explained as to how she felt discouraged regarding putting a donation bin in the lobby.

Such structural barriers to women’s health issues have disproportionate effects along the racial line – the city of Boston reported in 2015 that 69.7% women living in poverty are non-white. Additionally, these barriers affect an even more marginalized community, that of the transgender population, who are routinely turned away from homeless shelters and therefore are at greater risks of harm to their health especially since a significant portion of them turn towards sex work to meet basic needs. The need for menstrual hygiene products are even greater in this community, considering the myths surrounding their bodies and the taboo regarding their identities. In recent years, Boston’s aid to the homeless has grown scarce, especially after the closure of Long Island shelter and with a sizeable portion of this population yet to be rehabilitated. This drive probably could have been more effective and served the needs of a greater portion of the homeless population, if not for such roadblocks.

In the wake of the #MeToo and #Time’sUp movements, agency and ownership of a woman’s body has come into the limelight once again. The belief that women’s health should not be discussed in public is rooted in patriarchy, and that menstruation can cause discomfort to men serves to solidify its ideological grasps on men and women alike. These ideas also rob a woman of her agency and ownership of her body, while adding stigma and shame. These methods of structural violence are more subtle and harder to disavow compared to assault and rape, as the Aziz Ansari case has shown, but they need to be faced and dismantled as well if gender equality is to be achieved at Tufts, Boston or any other community for that matter. McRee believes that both men and women should be part of the conversation surrounding such issues and that men, just as they helped with the donation drive, can play an important supporting role in advocating for better policies to improve women’s health. 

A step towards addressing such issues is already being organized by Tufts GWiSE, in partnership with New England GWiSE – “Beyond breaking the silence, building a collective”, a gender-inclusive forum focusing on sexual harassment in academia will be taking place on March 3rd, 12-6 pm in the Sackler building. The forum intends to discuss sexual harassment issues in the STEM fields, explore current policies at local graduate schools that address such issues and develop a plan of action to collectively advocate for improved policy action. If interested, please RSVP here.  Additionally, events by other groups on campus are also being organized to discuss the state of women in biomedical science. For future events and more information, keep a lookout on the weekly Goods and social media outlets – you can follow @TuftsGWiSE on Twitter and Facebook

An exciting new group, NEGWiSE, kicked off this summer with an Inaugural Retreat connecting New England area graduate women in science and engineering

by Siobhan McRee & Heather Tanner

There was an excited tension in the humid halls of Boston University the morning of August 19th, where women from eight institutions across New England were finally coming together under one roof. For months leading up to this day, representatives from each school spent many a late-night brainstorming, planning, and organizing, not just the Inaugural Retreat they were attending today, but the genesis of a new organization whose mission would be to unite, diversify, and advocate for women in science and engineering throughout New England. They had just founded NEGWiSE: New England Graduate Women in Science and Engineering.

The retreat kicked off with the keynote speaker: local entrepreneur, founder, and CEO of Seeding labs, Dr. Nina Dudnik. Her nonprofit company brings scientific equipment and training to underserved areas worldwide, and the theme of her talk was collective action. As she spoke, she acknowledged that tens of thousands of protesters were currently marching on the Boston Common to protest racism and hate speech, and many in the audience had cut their marches short to hear her speak. Protest signs littered the aisles as Nina pointed out that by taking the time to support fellow women here and now, when there were other pressing and important issues, strongly demonstrated the passion and dedication of everyone in the room. Continuing to echo the national conversation, Nina emphasized that the time for talking is over, and she urged, to many a nodding head, now we must act.  

Nina talked about her time as a graduate student at Harvard Medical School, where she overcame extreme gender imbalances to find mentors and advocates, and ultimately changed the demographics of her department to hire more women. She spoke of how we as women in science must work harder, be more productive, and walk a fine line to be just the right amount of outspoken but likable – feminine but firm. She said that often we, as women, do this with an apologetic meekness that we must shirk to accept full ownership of our accomplishments. Her advice: practice saying the words “My name is…and I am an expert in…”  because this is something we consistently feel shy about, regardless of our achievements or awards. But we can help each other do this too. Nina encouraged us to amplify each other’s voices; whether in meetings, in lab, or online, me must give and receive credit. We must also repeat, reinforce, and validate other women’s viewpoints so their voice, and our collective voices, can be heard. We can build an ‘old girl’s network’ of our own. This is a kind of power we can harness to act on, to affect change, and keep improving.

Nina reminded us that we as women are already working overtime; here we are choosing to spend our Saturday, not on the couch watching TV, but actively working to both question and improve the status quo, all the while standing in solidarity with other women. But as a new group, Nina stressed, it is important we distinguish ourselves, to find a niche among the multitude of women’s groups in the Boston area. As her keynote wrapped up, the room was uplifted with a common hope and strength. Nina put words to the thoughts we all had- that together we have the resources not just to talk but to act, and facilitate important and sustainable change.

Building off the groundwork laid by Nina, the next part of the retreat featured short presentations from each school about their GWiSE groups, where representatives from Tufts, Boston University, MIT, Northeastern, Harvard, Brown, Boston College, and Dartmouth all talked briefly about their strengths and resources, and how they could benefit from a consortium like NEGWiSE. While Tufts does not have a dedicated GWiSE group (yet!), the Tufts Mentoring Circles stood in to represent Tufts, and will also be supporting the development of a Tufts GWiSE group that’s currently in the making.

The bulk of the afternoon was dedicated to several “Breakout Sessions.” These focused discussions were brainstorming sessions on topics such as the organizational structure of NEGWiSE, the role of men, increasing diversity, outreach, and advocacy. Tufts’ own Dr. Ayanna Thomas, professor of Psychology, led the diversity discussion to brainstorm how NEGWiSE could facilitate enhancing diversity, both regarding incoming graduate student demographics and within high level graduate education positions. Likewise, discussion was held about how other GWiSE groups at other universities can help Universities such as Tufts to create their own internal GWiSE group.

However, one Breakout session that received a lot of traction was Advocacy. Attendees, added to the momentum started by Nina’s keynote speech through eager discussion of action items affecting graduate students and consideration on how NEGWiSE could implement change. Several issues rose to the top as important within the STEM graduate community, including parental leave policies, mental health, domestic violence, and student/advisor dynamics. In fact, NEGWiSE decided to take on resource gathering about parental leave policies for comparison across universities, with the goal of proposing a standard policy for graduate student parental leave that can be proposed directly to each administration. This timely issue is the first action item that NEGWiSE will be tackling, but it will not be the last. Through the breakout sessions, the mission of NEGWiSE was refined to include graduate student advocacy as a central tenant, especially for issues relating to women in STEM. It was strongly felt that NEGWiSE will distinguish itself among Boston area groups in this way, while also best serving the needs of multiple universities across New England.

But the retreat was not simply all work and no play; after the brainstorming was over, the fun began! Moving from the classrooms of BU to the BU Beach, attendees met and networked with each other over delicious BBQ. A scavenger hunt encouraged people to talk to each other. Attendees needed to find a person who fit each condition from a list. For instance, items included who had run a marathon or who likes Dunkin Donuts better than Starbucks. The first few people to find answers to all those questions won some NEGWiSE swag. A fun photo booth with props got everyone laughing, while a DJ spun tunes, and a Facebook friending frenzy ensued.

The Inaugural retreat introduced the framework and mission of NEGWiSE, a new group to connect, support, and advocate for graduate women in science and engineering. Soon the NEGWISE will hold their own elections for this year’s committee which will follow with many more activities which will be announced at Tufts. Likewise, the Medford and the downtown campus are negotiating our own GWiSE group. If you want to get involved with the Tufts GWiSE group that is forming and will partner and collaborate with NEGWiSE, please contact tuftsgwise@gmail.com.  Also, you can follow NEGWiSE on twitter @NE_GWISE or on Facebook at New England GWiSE