Is there such a thing as an “evolution-proof” drug? (part the third)

A claim that scientists need to quit making:

I’ve written about these types of claims before. The first one–a claim that antimicrobial peptides were essentially “resistance proof,” was proven to be embarrassingly wrong in a laboratory test. Resistance not only evolved, but it evolved independently in almost every instance they tested (using E. coli and Pseudomonas species), taking only 600-700 generations–a relative blip in microbial time. Oops.

A very similar claim made the rounds in 2014, and the newest one is out today–a report of a “super vancomycin” that, as noted above, could be used “without fear of resistance emerging.” (The title of the article literally claims “‘Magical’ antibiotic brings fresh hope to battle against drug resistance”, another claim made in addition to the “no resistance” one in the Scripps press release by senior author Dale Boger). This one claims that, because the modified vancomycin uses 3 different ways to kill the bacteria, “Organisms just can’t simultaneously work to find a way around three independent mechanisms of action. Even if they found a solution to one of those, the organisms would still be killed by the other two.”

A grand claim, but history suggests otherwise. It was argued that bacteria could not evolve resistance to bacteriophage, as the ancient interaction between viruses and their bacterial hosts certainly must have already exploited and overcome any available defense. Now a plethora of resistance mechanisms are known.

Within the paper itself, the limitations are much more clearly laid out. Discussing usage of the antibiotic, the authors note of these conventional semisynthetic vancomycin analogs:

“However, their use against vancomycin-resistant bacteria (e.g., VRE and VRSA), where they are less potent and where only a single and less durable mechanism of action remains operative, likely would more rapidly raise resistance, not only compromising its future use but also, potentially transferring that resistance to other organisms (e.g., MRSA).”

So as they acknowledge, not really so resistance-proof at all–only if they’re used under perfect conditions and without any vancomycin resistance genes already present. What are the odds of that once this drug is released? (Spoiler alert: very low).

Alexander Fleming, who won the 1945 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, tried to sound the warning that the usefulness of antibiotics would be short-lived as bacteria adapted, but his warnings were (and still are?) largely ignored. There is no “magic bullet;” there are only temporary solutions, and we should have learned by now not to underestimate our bacterial companions.

Part of this post previously published here and here.

Baby on board–in a BSL4 lab

I’m happy to welcome Dr. Heather Lander to the blogosphere and Twitterverse. She’s a virologist who has done work with some of the world’s deadliest pathogens in a high-security biosafety level 4 laboratory. This is the type of lab where one must wear “space suits” to work with organisms. You’ve probably seen in dramatized in various movies and TV shows (such as The Walking Dead). Heather describes what it’s really like to work in one–even while pregnant.

Heather 9 months pregnant in BSL4
Dr. Lander, 9 months pregnant in a BSL4 lab

 

TS: Can you tell readers a bit about your background and research? How did you get interested in studying viruses, especially some of the deadliest on earth that require BSL4 containment?

HL: I began my college career as a music major but I also loved science so I enrolled in many science classes, weighing my options. When I took a molecular cell bio class I was hooked. I changed majors and didn’t look any farther ahead than my Bachelor’s degree. But then the news exploded with tale of deadly virus outbreaks, and books and movies started coming out. I was fascinated, as are most people, so with permission from the professor I enrolled in a graduate level molecular virology course. Turns out viruses are beyond interesting. They blew my mind: microscopic, consist of hardly anything and can take us down in a matter of days. I wanted to know what was going on. At this point I thought all viruses were insanely interesting, but I found myself drawn to those that cause hemorrhagic fevers (HFV), and not only because of the media attention. I started reading the literature and these viruses were pretty different than the more familiar ones. They were confounding and I wanted to help figure them out.

Because I hadn’t planned ahead, I wasn’t ready to apply to grad school. So to improve my chances of working with these viruses, I got a job as a technician in a very highly regarded lab that worked on angiogenesis; basically the biology of blood vessels. Because HFVs either damage blood vessels or make them leaky, I thought it would be a good knowledge base. From there I got into the University of Texas Medical Branch as a PhD student and ended up working with CJ Peters, one of the premier experts in HFVs. Our interests aligned and he was great at listening to and encouraging the ideas of a neophyte.

We wanted to investigate viral infection of the cells that line the blood vessels, endothelial cells, and UTMB was getting ready to open their new BSL4 facility – The Robert E. Shope, MD Laboratory – the first of its kind at a U.S. university. In deciding which virus to work with, we took Ebola off the table because it was pretty clear that Ebola caused blood vessel leakiness through overt damage. Other HFVs did not, so the mechanisms of vessel leakiness were still unknown. Of these viruses, the arenaviruses were good options for me. One in particular, Junín virus, which causes Argentine hemorrhagic fever,  was a nice model because we had access to virulent and attenuated strains. I could work with the attenuated BSL2 virus, to get my model and systems up and working, and then repeat the experiments with the virulent BSL4 virus. So I researched the effects of  Junín virus infection on human endothelial cells.

TS: For readers who aren’t familiar with what working in a BSL4 entails, can you describe what it’s like to work in such a laboratory? 

HL: Working in a BSL4 lab adds a lot of steps to any lab work so everything takes longer. Before you can even go inside you are required to have extensive training, health and psychological assessments and be granted Department of Justice security clearance – many BSL4 organisms are Select Agents. After training at all other levels: BSL2 and 3, you are required to complete 100 hours of mentored, supervised BSL4 training, and assessment by the mentor, before being granted independent access. So, BSL4 research is only done if you can’t answer the scientific questions another way. Now, UTMB has the Galveston National Lab, a second BSL4 lab that is much larger, but the Shope lab is relatively small, only a few people can be in there at the same time. This means you have to plan ahead and schedule. Do you have all the supplies you need? You can only carry so much in at one time and you can’t go in and out, it’s too time consuming. So you have to make sure you know what you’ll need and I would often go in a day ahead of time, just to take supplies and make sure I would be ready to go.

During training you do a lot of practice. One of the most important things to practice initially is how to safely hold and open cryovials while wearing bulky rubber gloves. You also learn all safety and decontamination protocols as well as some practical things like moving around the lab safely. Seems silly, but in the lab, you are connected to an air supply through a hose that is attached to the air supply system on the ceiling. Those hoses don’t move with you. They stretch only so far and then you have to disconnect, move to where you need to be and connect a hose at that location. The suits are positive pressure with a constant inflow of air, with ports for air exhaust, otherwise they’d pop like a balloon. The air-flow is wonderful. The suits are cool and relatively comfortable, much more so than the stuff you wear for BSL3. Another important thing to learn and practice is how to enter and exit the lab. Seems simple but there are many steps involved. Here’s a description of what is is like to enter and exit the UTMB Shope Lab. Other labs are different, so this description isn’t meant to apply to all BSL4 labs in general, although the principles would be the same.

One of the best things about working in BSL4 is that, once you’re inside no one bothers you, no one interrupts you. There is a phone, but you don’t use it unless you have to.  So there are no annoying deliveries, phone calls or bored people stopping by to chat. It’s great. Though there was one very important thing I learned early: if you’re disconnect from the air hose, don’t bend over! When you do, you force the air that’s in the suit, out through the exhaust valves, so when you stand back up, the suit is sucked to you like a vacuum sealed bag with no air. Yeah, I did it. They laughed. It only happened once.

TS: Did you or your husband have any reservations about you continuing to work while pregnant? What convinced you that it was safe?

HL: We never had any reservations, and I’ll explain why. When I started working in the BSL4, I made sure I explained the work and the risks, to my family and my husband. So when I got pregnant, I had been working in the lab for a couple of years and he was very familiar with what I did. We had many long conversations about it and, as a couple, sat down with CJ and also our environmental health safety officer, the go-to person at UTMB for Select Agent biosafety, and member of the ASBA council. CJ had been head of USAMRIID’s containment lab and then he was Chief of Special Pathogens at the CDC. CJ and out EHS officer both know their stuff and were very helpful. I never felt pressured to continue working in the BSL4. It was my decision, with input from my husband of course, but he let me make the call. He trusted me and knew I wouldn’t be foolish. Aside from the obvious, the concern with Junín virus is that the case fatality rate is much higher than normal for pregnant women and fetuses, so it was not a cavalier decision by any means.

The bottom line, was that the entire time I worked in the BSL4, I valued my life and I was exacting and followed protocols to the letter. BSL4 protocols are designed to prevent any chance of contamination or infection and if they are followed, then the lab is clean. It’s the cleanest lab I’ve ever been in. I think a big misconception is that there are viruses floating around everywhere in the BSL4 and that’s why you wear the suit, but that’s just not true. The BSL4 protocols prevent contamination and infection. The suits are back-up – meant more to prevent exposure in the event of an accident than as a first line of defense. If someone in the BSL4 goes into cardiac arrest, we would remove the suit and administer first aid. This of course depends completely on each scientist adhering to protocols, and they do. And they are watched to make sure they do. The director’s office has cameras so he can see who is working and what they are doing. Every action is documented. And the people working in there are highly trained. I trusted those people and I trusted myself. I never deviated from the protocols, and I knew that. I was already being as careful and exacting as I could be, so there was no way for me to be more careful because I was pregnant. In addition, I wasn’t working with animals at that point, so the risks were lower. I was never worried and neither was my husband.

TS: How did your superiors take it when you first met with them to discuss continuing to do such work while pregnant? Was there anything you had to sell them on to allow you to work in there during your pregnancy?

HL: This was hard. I was terrified that they would make me stop working. No pregnant woman had ever been knowingly allowed to work in a BSL4 lab in the U.S. prior to this. I say “knowingly” because CJ pointed out that it’s possible that there were women at the CDC or USAMRIID who went into the BSL4 while pregnant and either didn’t know it yet, or they knew but waited as long as they thought they could before telling their supervisor, because they knew they would be told to stop. And here I was, a student at a university.

I broke the news in a committee meeting, my last powerpoint slide was an ultrasound photo. The reactions were mixed, to say the least, but CJ was my advisor so they deferred to him. I didn’t have to sell it to CJ, or to our EHS officer. They were very supportive and seemed to welcome the opportunity to advance the rights of pregnant women in biosafety, in a safe way. We discussed the risks and my work and when my husband and I decided to go ahead and push for me to be allowed to keep working, consulting with the Director of the Shope Lab, and the safety experts at USAMRIID and the CDC.

We also involved my physician, who really advocates to prevent unneeded limitations of pregnant women. It took about 3 months for these negotiations, during which time, I did not go into the BSL4. With the help of my doctor we came up with a plan that would allow me to work in the BSL4, with limitations designed specifically to mitigate any difficulties that the pregnancy itself might cause. We drafted a contract and everyone signed it and it went into my UTMB file along with my OBGYN medical records.

Because sometimes unexpected things can happen during pregnancy, some limitations imposed included that I would not be allowed to go into the BSL4 alone. We also decided I would not stay in the lab for more than 3 hours at a time. This was to prevent me from getting both too tired, or dehydrated.  Turns out this one really didn’t need to be written down, my bladder was always screaming at me before the three hours were up and that meant exiting the lab. I also couldn’t work with animals, which wasn’t something I was doing anyway. When all was said and done, USAMRIID, the CDC, my Physician and UTMB were all on board and I went back in. After I paved the way, others have done it. You’re welcome. 😉

Heather in BSL4 with first successful Junin Romero plaque assay!
Dr. Lander displays her Junin Romero plaque assay.

 

TS: How was it, logistically, working in there while pregnant? I know I always felt huge and clumsy while pregnant and I wasn’t working with anything above BSL2 level and wearing a normal lab coat.

HL: Because the suits are cool, it was still pretty comfortable. It slowed me down for sure, especially the last couple of months. Moving with deliberation was already ingrained in me so that didn’t change, but I definitely moved more slowly. And I was huge, and the suit was definitely cumbersome. My belly pushed against the suit near the end but it wasn’t painful or even uncomfortable, I just had to give myself enough clearance when moving around tables and things. I also had to ask for help when doing normal everyday housekeeping kinds of things in the lab like emptying a trash bin or lifting autoclave pans. Everyone I worked with was very helpful and kind, so it was not a problem. I had the normal aches and tiredness, but if I ever felt too tired to go in, and there were a few times I did, I would cancel my time for that day and reschedule. I knew my limits and respected them.

TS: Any good stories?

Oh boy do I. Unfortunately I can’t share the best ones. When I was still in the 100-hours-of-mentored-training segment of my BSL4 experience, I was in the lab with a professor and we were working with Rift Valley Fever inmice. We had finished the work and had already put the animals away and cleaned up. We were just getting ready to exit the animal room, to go into the main section of the lab, and the air hose connection valve on my suit broke. Without the air hose, there’s no air, not to mention the suit had a hole in it. The professor realized what happened before I did and grabbed the air hose and shoved it against the broken valve, allowing air to get inside the suit. He and I took turns holding air hoses in place while we showered and exited. Because of the incident we had to fill out paperwork and I had to go to the university hospital’s BSL4 exposure unit for a potential exposure. Because we hadn’t been working with anything when the valve broke, I wasn’t actually exposed to anything, but it was standard protocol. I was released fairly quickly and have a story to tell. The experience taught me a lot about how to handle those situations and even though those kinds of things are REALLY rare, the BSL4 director made changes to specifically prevent anything like that from ever happening again, and it hasn’t happened since.

TS:  What are you working on now and what are your longer-term career goals?

HL: I want to put my expertise to good use and I’ve come to realize that I love writing so I’m hoping to find something that can incorporate that. In the meantime, I have a really interesting job doing grant development for faculty at UTMB. This involves high-level assessment of the science, grantsmanship and presentation/writing of proposals, in an effort to help make faculty more competitive. To get my pathogen fix and dispel some emerging disease misconceptions, I recently started the blog and I’m really enjoying it. I also have ideas for a novel (don’t we all?), so…who knows?

Many thanks to Heather for participating! Be sure to check her out at Pathogen Perspectives or Twitter

Economic barriers in the elite University (and in science)

This week at #scio14, Danielle Lee is leading a discussion on privilege in science. I’d started this post and abandoned it a few weeks back, but I think it speaks to a similar phenomenon as she describes in her post. Low-income students are being lost not only to science, but often to the college experience in general. This is amplified at elite institutions, but even at the public institutions I’ve worked at, lower income students are at a significant disadvantage when it comes to preparing for any kind of graduate or professional post-bac training. 

My first introduction to one of my college roommates was via snail mail, back in the day. She had 4 names; her two middle names were both honoring sides of her highly-distinguished family. She was fourth generation Yale and had attended the best private schools her entire life. My other roommate was the daughter of a very successful South Korean businessman, and had spent her high school years at an elite private all-girls’ institution.

Then there was me. I was only the second person in the history of my school to attend an Ivy league university. (The first, a generation prior, had gone to Dartmouth on a football scholarship). I grew up in the country, lower middle-class but not precisely poor, playing on my Grandma’s farm and spending way too much time and gas money driving around our enormous  rural school district to pick up friends. I had graduated at the top of my class of 67 at my small high school, which was situated, literally, in the middle of cornfields. Though we had many excellent teachers and I feel I received a good education, we didn’t even have a single Advanced Placement course.

My arrival at Yale was quite the culture shock. When classmates found out about my background, the questions frequently turned to cow-tipping (which apparently all the urban kids knew about, but I’d never heard of. No one who actually grew up around cows would try to do something so stupid) and pointing out my lack of cultural experiences (wow, you’ve never been to Europe? You don’t know that when one refers to The City, that means New York? What do you mean, you’d never seen the ocean before coming to Connecticut?) During my entire 4 years, I only met a few others from rural areas. Even the other public school kids were often vastly wealthier than I was, and had gone to public schools which were well-funded and top-rated in their state, rather than a struggling rural school like mine, always one levy failure away from disaster. One of my classmates had a sports arena on campus named for his family. Receiving expensive cars “on a whim” or other pricey gifts during family visits was not uncommon. Meanwhile, I worked several jobs at a time–at the Yale Telefund, the dining hall,  and waitressing at a local restaurant–just to pay the bills. I was in class with these kids, but make no mistake–I was not *of* their class.

Though racial diversity at Yale was fairly decent while I was there (that is to say, it was in line with other “elite” institutions, even though it certainly was not representative of the U.S. as a whole), economic diversity was not. Since my time here, Yale has instituted some policies to attract more high-achieving low-income students to the university. (The cover of the Yale Alumni Magazine reporting this story even calls such students “low-hanging fruit,” noting that “they’re out there–but hard to find”–an admission that few of us were “in there” at Yale). The article points out that now, Yale waives the parental contribution to a student’s education for families making under $65,000/year. When I attended, Yale had assumed that parents would finance the education–something many of us from lower incomes know was impossible. As such, I and others like me ended up taking out loans for both the “student contribution” and for our expected parents’ part of the bill, even as most of us worked long hours while attending to pay for our living expenses.

This alone set many of us apart from our classmates. Unlike many of our peers, we were not free to focus on our studies. Extracurricular activities? Not a chance. Most semesters I worked at least 20 hours/week, sometimes up to 40, on nights and weekends. This not only further divided me from my wealthier contemporaries who I was serving in the dining halls or begging their alumni parent donors to contribute to Yale,but also meant that I wasn’t able to socialize as much or attend many University events. I couldn’t go on spring break trips to tropical beaches, or even weekend road trips as I typically fit in 4-5 work shifts from Friday through Sunday.

Even with these programs in place, for the class of 2017, the article notes that 69% of Yalies come from families that make $120,000 or more per year. This means that over 2/3 of the student body comes from families in the top 10% of income earners in the US. Even when lower-income students have been actively recruited:

“…the odds were overwhelming that you came from one of just 15 urban areas: San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, San Diego, Dallas, Houston, Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Portland, Boston, Providence, New York, Philadelphia, or Baltimore. The gears of meritocracy turn most reliably in our cities. Of the poor, smart kids who applied to elite schools in the Hoxby-Avery dataset, a mere 21 percent lived outside an urban area.”

Recently at Slate, Matthew Yglesias discussed a similar issue, suggesting that one shouldn’t donate to elite schools, because even if the goal would be to earmark for financial aid for impoverished students, that’s such a small piece of the pie:

“You’ll often hear that such-and-such a donation to an already-wealthy institution is a great idea because it’s going to financial aid. But when only about 5 percent of your class is coming from the bottom quarter of the income distribution (and we can assume that very little of that 5% is coming from the really truly poor) then even this financial aid is extremely poorly targeted. Meanwhile, the demographics of highly selective institutions reveal that highly selective institutions remain what they always have been—mechanisms for the perpetuation of inequality and hierarchy.”

One thing the YAM article didn’t discuss–perhaps because it was written by an alum whose route to Yale included “load[ing] up our Mercedes station wagon in our affluent neighborhood in Washington, DC” rather than by the swine showman classmate he mentions, is what happens to kids like me when we’re back home. Though not written specifically about Yale, this post discusses the divide that such an education can cause between one’s “new” life as a student at an elite college and at the same time, remembering who you are and what you came from: “Class mobility is not just a process of struggling to fit in amongst your new peers, but also feeling like you’re betraying your roots. It’s really, really difficult to successfully walk on both sides of an invisible line.” Like many who attend Harvard and Yale, when I was at home and was asked about college and where I attended, I’d just mumble “Connecticut,” rather than get into an awkward conversation about Yale that made people from home look at me as if I’d suddenly sprouted an extra head. This wasn’t something my peers from more privileged backgrounds had to deal with; it was more frequently assumed that they’d be attending universities like Yale, after graduating from similarly elite private schools.

There’s also the worry that we’re disappointing people back home if we don’t succeed. The New York Times recently profiled two young men from low-income backgrounds who ended up attending Harvard and Yale. Both talk about pressure they feel and though they don’t name it, imposter syndrome shines through in their essays. The Harvard undergrad, Justin Porter, illuminates some reasons why initiatives like these to lure “atypical” Ivy students alone are not enough:

I do not believe that increasing financial aid packages and creating glossy brochures alone will reverse this trend. The true forces that are keeping us away from elite colleges are cultural: the fear of entering an alien environment, the guilt of leaving loved ones alone to deal with increasing economic pressure, the impulse to work to support oneself and one’s family. I found myself distracted even while doing problem sets, questioning my role at this weird place. I began to think, “Who am I, anyway, to think I belong at Harvard, the alma mater of the Bushes, the Kennedys and the Romneys? Maybe I should have stayed in Mississippi where I belonged.”

This is one thing that no amount of academic preparation can really prepare you for. It was incredibly foreign to me to suddenly be in a place where parents thought nothing of sending their kids a thousand dollars to throw a party for their dorm floor; one where my roomates took me out not to the local Ponderosa or Pizza Hut, but to $50-an-entree places with lines of forks and spoons I’d only seen in movies, or to members-only dining experiences. Alien environment, indeed. And with all of this, I am still very aware that I still have privileges that others who may share my economic situation (or indeed, like many at Yale, far surpass it) do not.

Finally, as I noted at the start, privilege is one of the topics at the upcoming ScienceOnline conference. I can’t attend this year because of the new baby, but the issue of economic privilege experienced by those at elite colleges is very similar to that which hinder those looking to become professional scientists, as previously discussed by Danielle (and also in an older post here which addressed lack of resources) and by Miriam Goldstein. Entering the science field from an economically disadvantaged background carries with it many of the same issues as does entering an elite college. The culture is foreign, the price of membership is costly, and even if you succeed, you can feel alienated from your home community. Those of us who are in positions of privilege–and especially who know all too well some of the difficulties current students face–must work to reduce these barriers when we can, and to at least make them more visible to colleagues who come from backgrounds where they may not even recognize their own privilege or the challenges their students are facing on so many levels. If we want science to be a more diverse occupation, and to have the best and brightest students continue in the field, we must do what we can to be sensitive to the barriers that have been erected, and actively work to tear them down.

[Edited to add this excellent piece in the Atlantic].

Promoting women in STEM–what do we discuss?

While I loved Jeanne Garbarino’s recent post, “Want to promote women in STEM? Leave home life out of the discussion“, and agree with probably 90% of it, I think it unfortunately goes from one extreme to another with some of her recommendations.

Garbarino notes several reasons why she thinks it’s counter-productive to discuss home life issues when trying to promote women in STEM careers: 1) it is rare that home life situations for men in STEM are discussed; 2) not everyone shares the same home life experiences or goals; 3) it doesn’t move the conversation forward. Very true for 1 and 2 (though I’d argue that rather than shutting down this conversation for women, perhaps we open it up more to men, who are increasingly worried about work/life balance as well), but 3 is where my disagreement centers. She writes:

As someone who frequently moderates panel discussions on careers in STEM, I have come to realize and value the types of information that truly move the conversation forward. Let’s face it – finding a job in STEM is not easy, and having a PhD no longer equates to job security (at least, job security in one’s area of research). I’d be happy to discuss my tactics for finding quality time with my children as part of a parenting forum. But ask me to talk about this when the focus is on securing a job, and I will no longer do it – it just doesn’t seem relevant.

Instead of discussing home life, I think it is better to talk about individual strategies for networking, recognizing opportunity, being your own advocate, and negotiating skills. These are the types of anecdotes that are the most valuable.

And while I support that, the reality for many of us is that finding a job necessarily includes a discussion of family life within that search (again, noting #2 above that clearly, for any panel such as this there will be people for whom that doesn’t fit). Personally, I had a secure job, was tenured, loved where I was, but *because* of family issues, it just wasn’t working out, so back on the market I went. For women in particular, we’re much more likely to have a partner who’s also in academia or a similar career. From NSF, note that women in STEM are much more likely to have a spouse working full-time, and to be married to another scientist or engineer. Thus, even when looking for jobs, women are more likely than men to have to deal with dual hire situations, or to need to look for some kind of accommodation for a partner.

Admittedly, I don’t have data for those Garbarino points out may feel alienated by husband/wife language, such as lesbian couples, but that brings up other issues of knowing whether a campus/town/area is LGBT-friendly, or can also find a position for their spouse/partner. And for those with children or planning to have them, knowing how to find out about childcare arrangements, for example, isn’t just theoretical, and can again be a factor in securing a job and may come up during  job negotiations. These *are* family issues, but also critical ones when “the focus is on securing a job,” or at least one where you and/or your partner won’t be miserable–and they shouldn’t be relegated to just a “parenting” or “family” panel in my opinion.

I think that instead of steering women-in-STEM panels away from topics such as partners and children (which she notes that certainly aren’t goals for everyone), it’s important to note that some kind of support system is important for *anyone* in academia. That may be husbands and wives, it may be a circle of friends you can vent to and troubleshoot problems (personal or professional), it may be other family or relatives in the area. Truth is, it’s very hard to go it alone in STEM, but it’s true that a spouse/partner isn’t the ideal solution for everyone. Similarly with the child issue: we all want balance. Just because one chooses to be child-free doesn’t mean s/he still wants to work 80 hours every week and have no kind of life outside of science. So perhaps rather than referring to balance in only a child-centric manner, it would be better to open that up to a bigger variety of ways that one has a life outside of work.

Finally, while I love the “Finkbeiner test” cited, I’m not sure this is appropriate for many *discussions* of women in STEM, rather than write-ups of such as intended. Coverage of women STEM figures in the media is quite different from an advice panel on job-seeking or tenure strategies, in which cases participants or audience members may be seeking just the information that Garbarino suggests leaving out.

Overall, this is a tough and touchy topic. No one wants “women in STEM” to equate to “must always discuss family issues and cheesecake recipes,” but at the same time we have to be realistic that women, even in academia, still generally are doing the lion’s share of family work, and that these are legitimate questions and concerns for many of us, especially for those heading toward the job market. We also know that many women still are turned off STEM careers because they’re seen as incompatible with having some kind of a life outside work, spouse/children or not. I’m not convinced that limiting discussion of these is any better than having the focus solely be on these types of topics–either strategy is bound to be alienating to one group or another. Personally, I can only emphasize what has worked for me. Your mileage may vary.

Epidemiology and social media: conference fail

I have written and deleted this post. Twice. But damn it, it needs to be said.

I’m here in charming Montreal for the North American Congress of Epidemiology. It’s a good-sized meeting, as far as epi meetings go. The site notes that it’s a joint effort between four major Epi organizations: The American College of Epidemiology (ACE); The Society for Epidemiologic Research; the Epi section of the American Public Health Association, and The Canadian Society for Epidemiology and Biostatistics. Collectively, those associations represent a lot of epidemiologists.

The conference started off well. The first night kicked off with a movie about bioterrorism preparedness followed by a panel discussion. Great–movies! Engaging public in novel ways! Love.

On to Wednesday, when the first real sessions begin. The opening plenary discussed Science, skepticism, and society. Great again–this is a perfect warm-up. Later that afternoon, there was another session titled “Communicating Epidemiology: The Changing Landscape”. I was happily surprised when the room for this was pretty packed, as these types of meetings tend to be heavy on chronic disease epi and epidemiology methods. However, I was disappointed with the content. While the first talk was to give “a snapshot of how premier science journals experiment with features that blur old distinctions: blogs, data repositories, standard-setting, and advance online publications,” almost none of that was discussed–instead, it focused on how Nature Genetics was doing…something….about datasets. (Unfortunately I don’t have great notes and was at this point still trying to get the wifi to work; more on that later). Either way, it wasn’t anything as advertised in the description I quoted above, and it discussed *only* Nature Genetics–surely there are more “premier science journals” than just NG? (Why only NG discussed? The talk was by Myles Axton, who is the Editor).

Next on tap was Jennifer Loukissas, communications manager at the National Cancer Institute’s Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics, to discuss “When epidemiologists talk to press and public.” However, there really wasn’t any “public” involved–it was a media training session. Period. Use soundbites, stay on target, think about your message, control the interview, call the journalist back in 5 minutes if you need to collect yourself, etc. Good stuff for scientists to know, to be sure, but isn’t there a world out there beyond talking to journalists? More on that later as well.

The third talk was Jonathan Samet of USC, on “Communicating around conflict.” He’s recently worked on the WHO cell phone-and-cancer opinion that was released earlier this month, and essentially extended what Loukissas began as far as what to and not to say to interviewers, particularly in controverisal areas.

This was not exactly my idea of science communication in 2011, especially since everyone agreed at the beginning of the session that scientists were terrible communicators, our messages frequently ended up getting distorted, all the typical canards. Merely telling scientists to stop being so jargon-y and prepare soundbites–while necessary–isn’t going to solve these problems.

During the (very brief) Q&A, I asked about scientists directly communicating with the public–via their websites, blogs, web video, etc., to get their own message out there and not have to worry about journalists messing it up. Loukissas was the main one to answer the question, saying–incredibly–she hadn’t thought about that.

It was all I could do to keep myself from saying “d’oh!,” complete with facepalm.

The reality is that scientists don’t have to be passive any longer, relying only on reporters to translate their work for them in order to send it along to the public. We should have our soundbites, but realize that we can go beyond our manuscripts (I’ve had ones recently trimmed down to 1200 or even 800(!) words). We can write about the research if it’s behind a paywall. We can write about the realities of doing our work as a jumping-off point after a journalist covers your research, and go beyond the dry data that goes into the paper. We can go beyond the press release and talk about what may be interesting to us about our findings, but maybe aren’t the “meat” of the publication, or are secondary to the “main point” that you’ve worked on for your soundbites and want to emphasize to interested journalists. We can elaborate on interesting research done by others, to discuss subtleties that you can’t fit into a 20-minute interview.

And more.

Communication-wise, this meeting has unfortunately been a bit of a letdown. The science is interesting and there have been some great speakers, but I haven’t been able to share much of that because wifi wasn’t arranged for in the conference rooms. I have internet in my room ($14.95/day, of course), but the password from my hotel room isn’t valid downstairs (something it took me almost a day and a half to find out, after getting the run-around from various people), and the organizers either didn’t care, didn’t think, or couldn’t afford to allow attendees to use the wifi network in the hotel conference rooms. So while I was able to take conference notes from the American Society for Microbiology meeting right on Twitter and share them with everyone via the conference hashtag, not so for this meeting. (ASM even had their own mobile app for smartphones).

The thing is, *epidemiologists need to be plugged into these kinds of things.* So many of the studies reported in the media have to do with epidemiological topics–cell phones and cancer, vaccines and autism, “chronic” lyme, does the internet really give you “popcorn brain”, just to take one current story from CNN. We can’t sit in our towers and just wait for a journalist to call us about those studies anymore–and why should we?

Last year, Craig McClain wrote about why scientists need to use Twitter. That post, while good, focuses mainly on the benefit to the scientist (though he does note that the public can also find information there). We need more of this. We need good, reliable information to be out there on the internet, freely available–and if that’s not possible in your academic publishing model, it’s still possible with a blog, or YouTube video, or basic website that you keep updated with recent news. Epidemiologists are certainly using social media and Google to explore disease; why not give back by wading out there and actually taking part in the conversation?

In the lab–the year in review

Ah, classes are finally over. The last two summers I’ve taught a short, intense course in Applied Infectious Disease Epidemiology, condensing a semester’s worth of work into a week. It’s a fun course to teach, but exhausting–after teaching, I head back home or to the office to finish last-minute preparation for the next day’s talks and assignments, and by the time that’s done, the nightly student homework is rolling into my email inbox for me to grade and comment on for the next morning. By Friday, I feel like a zombie who hasn’t seen my family in a week.

But, it’s now wrapped up for another year, which gives me a small block of time to navel-gaze and reflect on the past year before diving back into more research (and starting prep for fall’s course, Introduction to Molecular Epidemiology).

First, this has been a Really Good Year. For those interested, we just put out a newsletter detailing all the events in the lab in 2010–3 federal grants received (the most recent one from USDA described here, and others from NIOSH and AHRQ), 3 PhD students graduated, 3 MS students graduated, 13 papers published and 15 conference presentations given. You can probably see why my blogging took a dip. However, all 3 PhD students have jobs, as does one MS student (the other 2 are continuing on to a PhD), so the graduates have also been successful–now just to wrap up all their papers…

This year marks the beginning of the new studies, meaning we’ll be enrolling and testing roughly 3,000 people this year around the state of Iowa, as well as carrying out molecular analysis of another couple thousand S. aureus isolates from the state’s diagnostic labs, and still carrying out some additional sampling on farms. It’s already an exciting (and busy) summer, with more to come in fall. We’re embarking on these studies with some new collaborators, and have some pilot projects coming to an end with a ton of manuscripts currently under review or in draft, so 2011 should hopefully be equally productive. Everything isn’t quite a well-oiled machine yet, but it’s definitely much closer this year than it was a year or two ago.

You’re too [pretty/young/female, take your pick] to be a microbiologist!

This wasn’t the post I wanted to write about the ASM conference. There’s been lots of great science discussed (I’ve tried to tweet some of it, but the wifi in both the conference center and my hotel have been spotty, so I’ve not had a chance to write anything comprehensive). Instead, I’m ticked off and venting via dashed-off blog rant.

[Me, trying to make a purchase]: Do you have any of these in a box that doesn’t say “from someone in New Orleans who loves you”? I was going to get them for my lab and that might be kind of creepy.

[Retail salesguy]: Your lab? I’m not sure those are good for dogs.

[Me]: No, not the dog lab. A science lab. My laboratory. The people who work for me.

[RSG]: Oh, you’re here for the science conference?

[Me]: Yes, microbiology. I study germs.

[RSG]: But you can’t be a scientist!

[Me]: I can’t?

[RSG]: No, you don’t look like a microbiologist.

[Me]: Um, what exactly does a microbiologist look like, then?

[RSG]: Uh…

[Me]: Because I’m pretty sure that I am one. (Rummaging through bag, digging out ASM nametag). Yep, that’s my name, and that’s the microbiology conference logo right there.

[RSG]: But you’re too pretty! You should be in Hollywood.

[Me]: (picking up bag, leaving unpurchased boxes on counter) I bet you’ve had dozens of scientists just like me through your store today, and never even realized it because of the stereotypes you hold. Conference runs through tomorrow, so I hope you’ll say hello to a few of them.

I know Mr. Salesguy was trying to be nice and probably thought he was flattering me, but fer chrissakes, that is NOT the way to go about it. Women in science already frequently feel like “The Other,” that we’re “too XX” to be good at what we do, that our possession of breasts surely must mean that we’re too much of a fragile flower to be able to handle the “man’s work” involved in science and academia, and that we need to go above and beyond what our male colleagues do just to feel the same level of acceptance and appreciation. I’m sure Mr. Salesguy has never thought about the plight of women in science before tonight (and I doubt that my conversation really made him think about it for more than a few fleeting seconds), but it really dragged down what had otherwise been a very nice few days of unadulterated sciencey goodness.

Of course, it’s not only science meetings or clueless salespeople; atheist meetings have their unthinking men too, as was recently demonstrated yet again. From now on, maybe I’ll print out this post and keep a copy in my bag, just for situations like today.

Epidemiological studies–why don’t people participate?

Maryn McKenna was awesome enough to take some time out of her vacation to blog about our recent ST398 paper, finding “livestock-associated” S. aureus in a daycare worker. She raised one question I didn’t really address previously, regarding our participation by kids and workers at the facility (eight kids out of 168, and 24 out of 60 staff members).

(Staph screening is very non-invasive, by the way; it effectively involves twirling a long-handled Q-tip inside the front of your nostrils. Kinda makes you wonder why families would not have wanted to participate. On the other hand, since Iowa is the pig-growing capital of the U.S., they may have been motivated not to want to know.)

I thought I’d chat a bit about enrollment for this project, since getting people to participate is one of the most difficult parts of these types of studies. First, there really wasn’t any mention of MRSA and swine for this particular study, so I doubt protecting the pig industry was high on anyone’s list for reasons not to participate. However, anytime we do these type of studies, we’re relying on the generosity of individuals in the community–particularly when we didn’t really have participation incentives, as was the case in this project, which was done on a shoestring budget. (We passed out mini hand sanitizer bottles for adults, and had some little toys for the children).

We ran into several challenges for the research which limited our ability to enroll children. Along with a swab, we also had a questionnaire for parents and employees to fill out (as well as a third questionnaire for the director of the facility). For parents and employees, we asked about exposures: did they spend time in hospitals, around animals, at the gym? Had they recently had an infection? etc. For the directors, we asked about cleaning routines at the facility, as well as facility size (number of children and employees). So it wasn’t only the swabs, but also a decent amount of paperwork to fill out when you include the informed consent forms. We also had to do all of this at the facility; because of the way we were sampling, parents didn’t have a chance to take the questionnaire home to fill it out and then return it. So only parents (and employees) who had some spare time during either child drop-off or pick-up really had the chance to participate.

This particular study also started in roughly March 2009–right around the same time as the emergence of novel H1N1. There was a lot of news about the swabs that were taken to test for flu, which are more invasive than regular Staph swabs, so perhaps many potential participants had the mistaken assumption that the swab collection would be more uncomfortable than it really is. (When we were able to swab the child participants, most of them giggled and said that the swab tickled).

Finally, I should note that this facility was one of the larger ones we sampled, and to do this, my grad student returned several times during the day to try and catch parents during common drop-off/pick-up times (and employees who worked different shifts). However, even with this, we certainly missed a number of children and employees, such as those who were part-time and simply didn’t attend or work the day that we were there. We did have higher participation rates at some of the other facilities.

So, I think timing and misinformation–rather than any kind of fear of finding out things they might not want to know–led to our lower participation rate at this facility.

Rock Stars of Science, part deux: coming to a GQ near you

The second edition of the Rock Stars of Science is now out online, and in the November 23rd (“Men of the Year”) edition of GQ magazine. As Chris Mooney notes, this is a campaign funded by the Geoffery Beene Foundation, working to raise recognition of scientists’ work (and scientists, period, since roughly half of the American population can’t name a single living scientist). Part of the campaign is to make science noticeable and “cool;” I’ll quote from the press release:

ROCK S.O.S™ aims to bridge a serious recognition gap for science, observes journalist Chris Mooney, co-author of the recent book, Unscientific America, and a partner of the campaign.

“The current gap between science and our popular culture,” says Mooney, “keeps Americans from recognizing the centrality of science to their daily lives. They think science is some strange activity performed by slightly geeky others in white coats. In fact, science fuels our economy and is our great hope for cures to diseases that affect all of us.”

“The RSOS™ campaign shines the spotlight on this critical national issue,” says G. Thompson Hutton, CEO and Trustee of the Geoffrey Beene Foundation, supported by the designer menswear brand Geoffrey Beene, LLC, which dedicates 100 percent of net profits to philanthropic causes. “If we invest in research, we will save lives now and trillions of dollars later.”

So, I think it’s a great cause, and a unique way to spread the word. From that side of things, I’m all for it.

But… (there has to be a “but,” right?)

The first campaign didn’t exactly knock my socks off. Chris gives an update on the participants at The Intersection; if you read through it, you may notice the 2009 participants had many things in common: they were universally older, white men. To be sure, they include older white men doing great things (Tony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIAID, was one of those featured)–but they promoted the stereotype of scientists as, well, old white guys.

This time around, the lineup is more diverse, featuring 17 scientists–including 4 (white) women and 2 men of color (though still, mostly older). The scientists chosen include notables such as Nobel prize winner Elizabeth Blackburn and physician/astronaut Bernard Harris. The lineup is also heavy on cancer researchers and other biomedical types; understandable, since they are focused on disease and cures. I realize these are easier to “sell” to the public, because we all know someone who has experienced cancer–but if the foundation does a round 3, perhaps some more physical scientists could be included? Even if they maintained the focus on health, climate change, for instance, has the potential for huge impacts on health–and many engineers, physicists, and chemists work on health-related problems.

They also have a cutesy Q&A with each scientist, providing them all the same questions. Some I find to be fairly lame (“What was your worst part-time job?” “Alternate career choice?” “Longest med school study session” [!? why the emphasis on med school?]), along with some that I think make a better impact, like discussing misconceptions of their work, or their best moment in science/research. I realize the “lame” ones are to help the audience see that scientists are just like them, and spent time in crummy jobs, but diversity in the questions would be nice to shake things up a bit. Then they have a portion where the scientist’s research is described…which is terrible. I don’t know if this made it into the print version or is only online, but in many cases, these descriptions are lifted right off the scientist’s professional website. Look at Catriona Jamieson’s, for instance (taken verbatim from her lab website):

Dr. Jamieson specializes in myeloproliferative disorders (MPDs) and leukemia. Myeloproliferative neoplasms are a family of uncommon but not rare degenerative disorders in which the body overproduces blood cells. Myeloproliferative neoplasms can cause many forms of blood clotting including heart attack, stroke, deep venous thrombosis, and pulmonary emboli and can develop into acute myelogenous leukemia. Although some effective treatments are available, they are laden with serious side effects. In addition, individuals can become resistant to the treatments. Dr. Jamieson studies the mutant stem cells and progenitor cells in myeloproliferative neoplasms. These cells can give rise to cancer stem cells. Cancer stem cells may lie low to evade chemotherapy and then activate again later, causing disease progression and resistance to treatment. Her goal is to find more selective, less toxic therapies. In the past two years, Dr. Jamieson’s stem-cell research studies have taken a great leap: from identifying a promising treatment in the laboratory to opening and completing the first clinical trial to target cancer stem cells in humans. This trial is the result of teamwork that has brought together her discoveries in myeloproliferative neoplasms and a local pharmaceutical company’s drug development track.

I mean, really?? I’m a scientist, and just reading that even made *my* eyes glaze over. If one thing they’re trying to convey is the importance and relevance of the scientist’s research to GQ readers, what percentage of the readers are really going to walk away with a deeper understanding of what Dr. Jamieson does by reading that description? It would have been a small thing to ask each participant to submit a layman-friendly version of their research (their “elevator talk” description, for example) for GQ to include.

Finally–one of the “scientists” is Dr. Oz. What is he doing in there? One, I would think he’s already well-known enough; why not save that spot for another scientist? Two, yes, I know he’s actually done research and published, and is on the faculty at Columbia. Fantastic. He’s also a serious woo peddler, who has even featured everyone’s favorite “alternative” doc, Joseph Mercola, on his talk show, and discussed how vaccines may be playing a role in autism and allergies (despite mounds of evidence to the contrary). This seems to completely contradict their goal of “research funding as a national priority,” since Oz is often (and Mercola is always) highly critical of “mainstream medicine.” I really don’t understand his inclusion, and think it’s to the detriment of the rest of the campaign.

I know, this is quite a lot of complaining (isn’t that what bloggers *do*?), but I’m sincere in hoping that this campaign does raise awareness. I hope they expand it beyond GQ–why not do something similar in magazines with a larger female readership, such as Good Housekeeping or even People magazine? Women are the ones who make many of the healthcare decisions, after all. We’re often advocates for health and healthcare research–and if more funding is what they’re ultimately looking for, we vote too.

[Edited to add: Science has an article on the campaign as well.]

Women and Veterinary Medicine

The Dog Zombie has an interesting post discussing women in vet med–and why there are so many. She notes that her school is only 12% male, versus more of an even distribution in med schools, and the recent discussion of gender imbalance in science blogging. This is interesting to me, as my personal vet is male, as are almost all of the vets we collaborate with for our research. Of course, the gender distribution of veterinarians in academia may well be more gender-balanced (or even male-skewed) than those currently in vet school or recently graduated.

DZ posits some possible reasons for this divide:

-Vet med is often seen as a caretaking profession, something that may appeal strongly to more women than men.

-Why vet med and not human med? One difference is that vet med pays a lot less. Are women more tolerant of low pay than men?

I found a few articles on the gender differences; both suggest those factors as well as others. The 2003 Canadian article muses that veterinary medicine may become more like nursing–female-dominated and potentially lower-paying in the future. Both cite some statistics, but nothing that appears as thorough as some of the AAAS women-in-science type of studies. Does the AVMA have a committee on women’s issues, or pay much attention to these reasons?