Hello and welcome to TWO BOSSY PhDs!
Today, sisters and smarties Laura Blanton and Kathryn VanArendonk are busting into this newsletter to bring you some deep science knowledge and delicious science GIFs. So hold onto your safety glasses!
KV: Hi Laura! Are we going to SCIENCE UP THIS PIECE?!
LB: YEAH! Science is the best. Except sometimes when it’s the worst.
KV: That is kind of why we are here today, taking over this great newsletter that we love so much! First, can you tell me a little bit about who you are and why you are interested in science and its awesome/terrible nature?
LB: Sure thing. HELLO, EVERYONE, I’m Laura, a recent Genetics PhD grad. I’ve done research on the bacteria that live in your gut, and currently study the X and Y chromosomes.
KV: And you’re, like, very fancy and have papers in Science and whatnot.
LB: That’s beside today’s point, but thank you for being a proud sister.
KV: ANYHOW, the reason that we’re here talking about this today is that we were having dinner and you were chatting about some work things, and you were a little incensed about it, and then I got *REALLY* incensed about it, and we’ve been dying for a forum to talk about this ever since.
So you’re going to tell me a little story about mice.
We know these are hamsters, but we hope you’ll forgive us.
LB: Yes -- today’s point is really to talk about some of the things I’ve noticed while doing research over the past few years, and, upon further investigation, have found to be a legitimate problem across a lot of biological research.
KV: <very Seinfeld voice> so what is the DEALLLL with MICE in science?
LB: Before we get into this, I would like to insert a small disclaimer that research with animals is a real and important thing, but it also has ethical responsibilities and concerns, and I take those super seriously. If you enjoy the benefits of modern medicine, though, you’re benefitting from research done in animal models. They’re used in basic science research and throughout the process of drug development.
So - the thing I was raging about at our dinner is that the research I did all throughout my PhD was done on only (and i repeat, *only*) male mice. That was the thing I was incensed about.
KV: And I heard this, and thought… huh. Why does that even matter, though? They’re mice.
LB: Well, male mice are fundamentally different from female mice. Beyond having different reproductive organs, they have different levels of hormones throughout the body. Plus, think about it: since every single one of your cells contains your complete genome, every cell has a sex (that is, your XX or your XY chromosomes). So even though some random lung cell might not seem to have much to do with whether or not you’re biologically male or female, your sex genes are still embedded in it. And we know very little about how any cell’s underlying sex chromosomes affect they way they work. All my findings during grad school were based on an XY biology, but I have no idea how my experiments would have gone in females -- basically a whole half of the mouse species was ignored.
Also a hamster, not a mouse
KV: Okay, but do we have any reason to believe that would matter? I mean, sure, if you’re doing research on breast cancer or something, that might be different in men and women. But your research was about gut bacteria. Why is that, or heart disease, or anything else, going to be different in men and women?
LB: Even beyond the fact that gut bacteria do differ between men and women, research done in only one sex of animal model may have ramifications later on. Animal models are used to find candidates for drugs and therapeutics, and if they’re only based off of male biology, they might not fully work for a female biology (for example, out of ten drugs pulled from the market between 1997 and 2001, eight were withdrawn because of negative effects in women). Women have different metabolisms, different immune systems -- but really, the full extent of how male and female biology might differ is unknown, because people haven’t taken the time to figure it out.
What even is this? Is it a hamster, or is it a gerbil or something?
[Ed. note: This is the Dramatic Chipmunk, which is actually a prairie dog.
He's from a 2001 Japanese morning show.]
KV: Wait. Wait, what the HELL? We don’t even KNOW how some of these diseases are different between the sexes?
LB: Nope. More people are finally starting to look at sex differences, though. Take, for example, a phenomenon that isn’t strictly a disease, but affects everyone: the response to pain. As NPR writes in this piece about Jeff Mogil’s research at McGill University:
“By studying both sexes, Mogil and his colleagues found that different cells communicate pain in female and male animals. They experienced pain in the exact same way and to exactly the same degree, but the pain is produced and modulated using different circuits," Mogil says.
If the same is true in people, that difference could have big implications for a class of painkillers meant to work by blocking the cells that are more active in men. "The prediction would be those drugs simply won't work at all in women. It's not that they'll work better in women and worse in men. It's that they won't work in women period," he says.”
KV: That is MESSED. UP. So what you’re saying is that at this early stage of research, when people were figuring out essential things about how diseases work, how bodies work, they were only using BOY MICE and so they didn’t even bother to fucking CHECK how it worked in the LADIES. WTF.
LB: To be clear, lots of scientists have also used female mice. But it’s also been super common to group male and female mice together (so if there were any sex differences, they wouldn’t be represented in the statistical findings). And there are huge swaths of research disciplines where they do predominantly use male mice.
LOOK. REAL DATA.
From Beery et al, 2011
KV: (Wait wait, sidebar. What do they even do with all the lady mice they’re not using?)
LB: (...Probably euthanization, without being used for any experiments. Unless they were used to make more male mice.)
WOOO FIGHT THE PATRIARCHY, PROBABLY-A-RAT FRIEND!
KV: (THAT IS SO MESSED UP.) So, by the time drugs get tested for actual humans, though, there’s tons of research that does take sex difference into account, right?
LB: It’s a lot better these days than it used to be. Now, the NIH has mandated that clinical trials must use both men and women (btw, this was only mandated in, like, the 1990s). But for many years, women and children were waaaaaay underrepresented in clinical trials. This wasn’t necessarily out of malice, but out of the worry that the drugs would lead to side effects in pregnancy (read: patriarchal concern that ladies might be not able to handle it). Now, though, there are more women than men that participate in clinical trials. WE GOTTA LOTTA CATCHING UP TO DO.
KV: Let’s summarize. Lots of research about how diseases work was originally done on male mice, or it was done without any kind of statistical measurement of how the diseases might differ between the sexes. And now, even though we KNOW there are differences, there are lots of diseases that we really only understand through a sex-blind model (and by sex-blind, of course, I mean - usually tilted toward the dudes).
LB: Broadly, yes. Some good examples of this are cardiovascular diseases and autism. These diseases often appear differently in women, but because the gold-standards for diagnosis and treatment are based off male-biology, women are likely falling through the cracks.
KV: SO MESSED UP. AHHH.
LB: THUS MY LADY SCIENTIST RAGE. #NormalizeLadyScienceRage
Want some more fascinating and disturbing examples of
how sex bias in science has led to real-world ramifications?!?!
Well, aren’t you in luck!
Laura’s Ticked-Off Sex Bias Corner
While I dearly adore my collection of cardigans, there are some days I’d much rather walk out the door in blisteringly hot summer weather without my faithful cardi stuffed in my bag. TOO BAD, because offices (and labs, for that matter) tend to be frickin’ freezing, and I prefer not turning into an ice pop. And why, you ask, are offices always so chilly, even though it’s environmentally unwise? That’s because the standard office temperature is calculated from a man’s estimated metabolic rate. Thanks a lot, patriarchy.
Last I heard, pregnant ladies use cars to get around. Too bad, because the seat belt was designed based on the male body.
This piece by Melinda Gates about how many women fall through the gaps across the world in terms of being counted as members of a household, let alone the contributions those women make to the household:
“One of the reasons that progress has been so slow for the world's poorest women is that we have very little data about them. There are still women who live and die entirely unrecorded. They leave behind no birth certificate, no death certificate, and no data about the struggles and challenges they faced—whether they had the chance to go to school or earn an income, whether they suffered from violence or disease, whether they died preventable deaths.”
All of this is super depressing. Many thanks go to Google, though, who recently gave Nettie Stevens, little-known badass and discoverer of the sex chromosomes in 1905, her very own and extremely well-deserved Google Doodle.
Kathryn’s Not A Scientist, But She Still Feels Some Lady Rage
Laura inherited all of the family fondness for lab coats and pipettes and terrible puns, so I’m leaving the science-specific stuff to her. But I have my own favorite soap box on this particular topic!
TEEVEE! It is my beloved, it is my favorite thing, and it suffers from a serious lack of women in leadership positions. In the last calendar year, only 17% of TV directors were women, and the year before it was only 15%. And guess what! The numbers for minorities are just as bad! Mo Ryan has written about this topic extensively, although each new headline seems to be just as depressing as the last. In an optimistic turn for this week’s NYTimes, Nell Scovell has some recommendations about how to change the director’s pipeline so that it looks a little bit less like a white sausage-fest.
And here’s the thing -- when women are behind the camera, the representation in front of the camera often changes! Perhaps the best example of this is one of my favorite shows, Jane the Virgin, which has a female showrunner, has some of the highest numbers of female episode directors around, and - shocker! - tells important stories about women’s lives in a thoughtful, compassionate, funny, impassioned way.
As you are a human on the internet, I’m willing to bet you already know about the brouhaha surrounding the new Ghostbusters movie. Delving into that sad mess is not particularly fun, so instead, let’s glory in this delightful imageof Ghostbusters star Kate McKinnon dressed up as TV lady scientist extraordinaire, Dana Scully. Representation matters!
Thank you so much for joining us on this journey through ways to feel angry about science and mice and your office temperature! We want to end by saying that while we’ve written about how much needs to be changed, and how frustrating some of these problems are, we’re angry because we love. These are the things we care about most (and look, Laura’s love of science is probably more noble than Kathryn’s devotion to TV, but that’s an issue for another newsletter). We kind of hope you do come away feeling just as incensed about this as we are, but we also want you to be hopeful that things will get better.