Women who have beaten the odds to find themselves in the upper echelons of science face a further hurdle—visibility. Female scientists are less likely to sit on science advisory boards, receive awards, and give invited talks at conferences. However, a new study suggests that the reasons women appear less often on the podium are complicated.
Reporting in the Journal of Evolutionary Biology, Julia Schroeder of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Germany and Hannah Dugdale of the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom found that only 16% of invited speakers at the European Society for Evolutionary Biology Congress between 2001 and 2011 were women. The total—66 of 430 individuals—was half of what would be expected based on the number of senior female scientists in the life sciences.
The dearth of women is not because they aren’t being invited. Instead, female scientists were twice as likely as their male counterparts to turn down an invitation to talk in slots reserved for presenting original and important work. At the same time, the number of female presenters of posters and uninvited talks was almost at parity with men.
Evolutionary biologist Trudy MacKay of North Carolina State University in Raleigh says that relatively short notice and a tight budget contributed to her decision to decline an invitation to talk at the congress in 2011. Women also turn down talks because they receive too many invitations each year and are anxious about balancing the demands of family and work, says Jeanine Olsen of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, who headed one of Europe’s Seventh Framework Programme’s Gender Action Plans aimed at promoting gender awareness. Younger women also tend to do less self-promotion, Olsen adds.
Finding ways to address those issues is next on Schroeder and Dugdale’s agenda. And the first step is to contact scientists to find out why they declined invitations. “Then we [will] know what can be done to change their minds,” Schroeder says.
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GUELPH, CANADA—When plucking a snail from the beach you’d be lucky to snag a left-coiling shell. That’s because only 5% of all snails are “lefties,” new research shows. Shell enthusiasts have long marveled at the lack of sinistral (left-coiling) snails among their collections, especially when other shelled mollusks, such as clams and the now-extinct ammonites—nautiluslike creatures that sported dozens of tentacles inside spiraled shells—are just as likely to be left- as right-coiling. Now, in the largest survey of its kind, researchers inspected more than 55,000 snail species—representing two-thirds of all gastropods—to reveal that left-coiling has arisen more than 100 times, and yet few of the species that have made the switch have been particularly successful. In the rare cases where left-coiling took off, it was almost always on land, the team reported here in a presentation last week at the annual meeting of the Canadian Society of Zoologists. The researchers don’t know why sinistrality is so rare underwater, but the most likely explanation, they say, is that unlike land snails that tend to hang around where they hatch out, the microscopic young of sea snails are carried on ocean currents that make the chance of meeting and reproducing with another left-coiling nest-mate slim. Without such a meeting, the left-coiling lineage goes extinct.
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TORONTO, CANADA—German scientists have pulled out of an international research project with Canada that was attempting to find ways to minimize the environmental damage caused by exploiting Alberta’s oil sands. The move comes after political pressure forced Germany’s largest scientific organization, the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres, to rethink its connections with an industry that many consider to be environmentally destructive.
The scientists who are part of the Helmholtz-Alberta Initiative (HAI) will no longer be involved in developing technologies that improve Alberta’s crude oil or treat the toxic effluent from the oil sands projects. Instead, the scientists will focus their efforts on the initiative’s remaining research avenues, such as carbon capture and storage and mine site reclamation.
It is a change in focus, Stefan Scherer, the managing director for the HAI, tells ScienceInsider. HAI, founded in 2011, is a partnership between the Helmholtz Association and the University of Alberta “designed to find solutions to the pressing environmental issues facing energy projects such as Alberta’s oil sands in Canada and coal production in Germany,” according to the project’s Web site. “I don’t anticipate laying off scientists,” nor will money be withdrawn from the project; the initiative is not collapsing, Scherer adds. That sentiment was echoed by a spokesperson for Alberta’s Environment Minister Diana McQueen, whose department donated CAD $25 million to the project 2 years ago.
Of the four Helmholtz institutes involved in the partnership, only one, the Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) in Leipzig, has suspended its work in Canada. The institute’s supervisory board voted in December to impose a moratorium on UFZ’s involvement in the project. This decision is a “small hiccup”, explained Lorne Babiuk, the vice president of research at the University of Alberta and co-chair in the initiative. He added that the initiative’s focus can easily be redirected because much of the technology being developed for use in the oil sands is relevant to other carbon industries. “We will reorient the initiative,” agrees the other co-chair, Reinhard Hüttl, scientific executive director of Helmholtz Centre Potsdam. “We won’t have projects directly related to oil sands.”
The German move was in part triggered by ongoing debate over a possible amendment to the European Union’s fuel quality directive that would restrict the use of “high-polluting” oil within Europe. Germany, the largest market for fuels in Europe and the fourth largest in the world, has so far blocked the move along with the United Kingdom, but public opposition to importing Albertan oil remains high. The Canadian government has been lobbying German politicians at both the national and the European level to continue blocking the ban. That lobbying, along with Canada’s withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol, prompted several German politicians to ask the Helmholtz Association pointed questions about the Alberta project.
“It was seen as a risk for our reputation,” Frank Messner, Helmholtz’s Environmental Research Centre head of staff, told a European news Web site. “As an environmental research centre we have an independent role as an honest broker and doing research in this constellation could have had reputational problems for us, especially after Canada’s withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol,” he said.
An independent assessment into Helmholtz-Alberta Initiative environmental credentials will report its findings in June.
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TORONTO, CANADA—The Bank of Canada has issued an apology for expunging an Asian-looking scientist from a new $100 banknote after some Canadians objected to the figure. The bank’s governor said that the bank will review the design process for new currency in light of the ensuing public outcry.
The kerfuffle began several years ago, when currency designers showed focus groups the proposed design for a bill highlighting Canada’s contributions to biomedical science. The bank has declined to release that original image, which apparently showed a woman with Asian features using a microscope. But some members of the focus groups expressed concerns that “Asian should not be the only ethnicity represented,” and that the image “stereotype[d] … Asians [as] excelling in technology and/or the sciences,”
according to a report published by the Vancouver Sun. The bank then redrew the image to appear more Caucasian, which has ruffled feathers. An editorial in the Calgary Herald, for example, complained that the bank’s actions =”#ixzz24d9hqsla”>”
unwittingly reinforced the bigoted notion that white skin is neutral, [and] that ethnicity is a quality white people don’t have.=”#ixzz24d9hqsla”>”
Ted Hsu, a former physicist and member of Canada’s Parliament, also criticized the bank’s actions. “I don’t think there is anything wrong … with the original image having too clear an ethnicity,” he says. “Canada is a diverse country; I think it is okay to have people of different ethnicities represented on our currency. … The Bank of Canada should not have responded to feedback [from focus groups] about how someone looked,” he adds, but should have instead left the design to the artist.
The new plasticized banknotes, which went into circulation this year, are more secure, cheaper, and greener than existing bills. In addition to the female scientist, the $100 note also includes a picture of a vial of insulin, which represents the discovery of insulin as a treatment for diabetes by Canadian scientists Frederick Banting and Charles Best (along with non-Canadian John Macleod). An image of an electrocardiogram alludes to the 1950s invention of the pacemaker, and a twist of DNA represents Canada’s role in sequencing the human genome. The significance of the controversial figure at the microscope is less clear.
“At least it’s a woman,” quips Paul Dufour, a science policy specialist at the Institute for Science, Society and Policy at the University of Ottawa. The bank got one thing right, he says: It tried to promote the role of women in science.
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MONTREAL, CANADA—When taking a dip this summer you will probably swallow tens, possibly hundreds, of microscopic plankton called choanoflagellates. These common organisms have led to an uncommon insight into how multicellular organisms might have evolved. Bacteria can prompt single-celled choanoflagellates to divide into multicellular versions of themselves, University of California (UC), Berkeley, biologist Nicole King reported last week here at the 71st annual meeting of the Society for Developmental Biology. King hopes the work will prompt biologists to look more closely at the role of microorganisms in the evolution of multicellularity.
To the untrained eye, choanoflagellates look like animals. But they are less complex—the closest living relatives of animals but on an older branch of the tree of life. As such, these organisms can provide clues about what early animals looked like and can help reconstruct the events from more than 600 million years ago that led to the incredible diversity of the animal kingdom.
To investigate the transition to colony life, King decided to sequence the genome of a colony-forming choanoflagellate and compare it with the genome of a unicellular individual. But before sequencing, she asked undergraduate Richard Zuzow to purge the sample of everything but the plankton itself. When Zuzow added antibiotics to get rid of any bacteria, the choanoflagellate colonies disappeared. At first, “I didn’t believe him,” King recalls. But with repeated tests, she became convinced that “the bacteria are the important part of the [multicellular] story,” she says
To the mournful tune of a lone saxophone scientists marched through the streets of Ottawa and onto Canada’s Parliament Hill to protest a glut of cuts to government research labs and — they say — a lack of evidence-based decision making in the Canadian government.
The 10 July rally drew an estimated 2000 scientists, graduate students and their supporters to the sunny capital, many of them dressed in white lab coats; smaller protests took place in other cities across the country including in Regina, Guelph and Calgary.
The protesters accuse the Harper government of shutting down Canadian scientific agencies because they threaten to expose the environmental impact of fossil fuel extraction, particularly from the Alberta oil sand, and of mining on Canadian lakes and rivers.
“That’s a story that [Canadian Prime Minister] Stephen Harper doesn’t want you to hear,” said Maude Barlow, the National Chairperson of the Council of Canadians, an advocacy organization that works to promote green water and energy policies, in her speech outside the Houses of Parliament.
Cuts to the Canadian federal budget this year have meant the closure of various scientific programs, including the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA), a 44-year-old research station that houses a system of 58 lakes in northwestern Ontario. ELA provided the first evidence for acid rain, and diagnosed the effects of mercury pollution and synthetic hormones on aquatic life.
“Society has learned a tremendous amount [from these lakes],” said Jeff Hutchings, a biologist at Dalhousie University in Halifax and the President of the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution. “It [will] be tremendous loss, and not just to Canadian society, because [the lakes] generates knowledge of importance to any country with lakes,” he told Nature.
The cuts are imminent. The first of Canadian government scientists will lose their positions at the beginning of August , and the closure of the ELA is slated for April next year.
“The government would like to have universities take over this facility, [but] in this time frame that almost certainly won’t happen…[the facility] will [therefore] presumably be moth-balled, taking with it decades of internationally renowned research,” said Hutchings.
In response to today’s protest, Gary Goodyear, Canada’s minister of state for science and technology, released a statement that claims the Canadian governments commitment to supporting science. “Our government is investing in science and research that is leading to breakthroughs that are strengthening our economy and the quality of life of all Canadians.
“While the government is returning to a balanced budget, science, technology and innovation remain a strong priority with an added $1.1-billion investment over five years,” he said.
But Ian Rutherford, Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society based in Ottawa points out that the protest is not just about a failure by the government to fund science. “There is an insidious campaign to muzzle scientists, to keep science out of the news, to… make science unimportant,” he says. “I think it is wrong. The scientific community has to stand up and say this is nuts.”
One environmental scientist, Kringen Henein of Carlton University in Ottawa, told Nature: “I’m really depressed… I just became a grandmother…and what is my grandson’s country going to be like in forty years if this is the way we are going?”
UPDATE: An earlier version of this blog stated that 5000 participated in the march, according to an organizer’s count. The revised figure of 2000 is based on a police estimate.
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US and Canadian researchers have evolved a population of fruitflies that can count. The result, presented on 9 July at the First Joint Congress on Evolutionary Biology in Ottawa, Canada, supports the notion that the neural mechanisms underlying basic arithmetic skills first emerged hundreds of millions of years ago. It could also eventually offer a key to understanding why some people have problems with numbers.
Few doubt that our closest animal relatives have some capacity to count. A variety of clever studies have also revealed the numerical skills of more distant species, including salamanders, fish and bees. But until now, no one has ever tried to genetically enhance an animal’s counting ability.
To tackle the challenge, evolutionary geneticists Tristan Long, of Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Canada, and William Rice, of the University of California, Santa Barbara, teamed up to try to create a race of numerically savvy insects. During a 20-minute training period, flies were exposed to either two, three or four flashes of light — two and four flashes coincided with a vigorous shake administered by placing a electric toothbrush next to the box containing the flies. After a brief rest, the flies were returned to box and shown the light flashes. Despite a dislike for being shaken, most of the flies were not able to learn to associate the negative stimulus with the number of flashes. But 40 generations later, they could.
The researchers caution that the work is preliminary and that they do yet know what genetic changes are behind the insects’ evolved number sense.
“The obvious next step is to see how [the flies’] neuro-architecture has changed,” explains Long. He then hopes to look for genetic differences between control and experimentally selected flies to pin down the genes responsible for their enhanced counting ability.
Neuroscientists have long speculated that human mathematical ability is built on an innate foundation that predates language and complex reasoning. Dyscalculia, a poorly understood disorder that affects a person’s ability to learn and perform basic arithmetic operations, may in some cases be related to an impairment of this innate foundation. If so, says Long, fruitflies could help to uncover genetic links to the disorder.
“This project was really about getting people interested in using fruitflies as a model system for understanding numerical competence and its evolution,” he adds.
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Cancers can resist destruction by drugs with the help of proteins recruited from surrounding tissues, find two studies published by Naturetoday. The presence of these cancer-assisting proteins in the stromal tissue that surrounds solid tumours could help to explain why targeted drug therapies rapidly lose their potency.
Targeted cancer therapies are a class of drugs tailored to a cancer’s genetic make-up. They work by identifying mutations that accelerate the growth of cancer cells and selectively blocking copies of the mutated proteins. Although such treatments avoid the side effects associated with conventional chemotherapy, their effectiveness tends to be short-lived. For example, patients treated with the recently approved drug vemurafenib initially show dramatic recovery from advanced melanoma, but in most cases the cancer returns within a few months.
Many forms of cancer are rising in prevalence: for example, in the United States, the incidence of invasive cutaneous melanoma — the deadliest form of skin cancer — increased by 50% in Caucasian women under 39 between 1980 and 2004. So there is a pressing need to work out how to extend the effects of targeted drug therapies. But, until now, researchers have focused on finding the mechanism of drug resistance within the cancerous cells themselves.
Two teams, led by Jeff Settleman of Genentech in South San Francisco, California, and Todd Golub at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, expanded this search into tumours’ surrounding cellular environment.
Settleman’s team tested 41 human cancer cell lines, ranging from breast to lung to skin cancers. The researchers found that 37 of these became desensitized to a handful of targeted drugs when in the presence of proteins that are usually found in the cancer’s stroma, the supportive tissue that surrounds tumours. In the absence of these proteins, the drugs worked well1. By growing cancer cells along with cells typically found in a tumour’s immediate vicinity, Golub and his colleagues showed that these neighbouring cells are the likely source of the tumour-aiding proteins2.
One of the most startling results of the teams’ experiments was the discovery that a protein called hepatocyte growth factor (HGF) boosts melanoma’s resistance to treatment with vemurafenib. Intrigued by this result, both teams looked at blood samples from people who had undergone treatment with vemurafenib, and found the higher a patient’s HGF levels, the less likely they were to remain in remission.
Martin McMahon, a cancer biologist at the University of California, San Francisco, who was not affiliated with either study, explains that the results have immediate implications for the design of clinical trials, which he says could combine targeted drug therapy with drugs capable of knocking down the production of proteins such as HGF.
“These papers show that the influence of the cell’s microenvironment is important not only for melanoma, but also for pancreatic, lung and breast cancer,” McMahon says, adding that they are “very exciting, because they expand the focus of where we should be looking for the mechanisms of drug resistance”.
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