Women in Science @ MBI


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The Mechanobiology Institute Women in Science (MBI-WIS) at the National University of Singapore is an organization composed of graduate students, staff, post-doctoral fellows and faculty in the sciences in weCanDoItSMSingapore. We are dedicated to achieving equity and full participation of women in all areas of science.

Our goal is to advance women in science and to discuss and make the research community aware of past, present and future challenges. We seek to increase the participation of women in science at all levels, and to enable the advancement and success of women scientists.

We encourage the women of the MBI and NUS and Singapore to become involved in mentorship, networking and outreach, as well as participating in seminars and discussions on this topic.

MBI WIS Conferences

2015 BIOS: Biological Symposium organized by the MBI Women in Science Initiative

Post-event Report
by Lakshmi Ramachandran, PhD, MBI Science Communications Core

BIOS 2015 Overview

On Friday, October 16, 2015, the Mechanobiology Institute (MBI), Singapore, hosted the inaugural Biological Symposium (BIOS) series, BIOS2015. This free symposium, which is an initiative by the Women In Science (WIS) committee at the MBI, brought together close to one hundred scientists from various research institutes in Singapore, including the MBI, National University of Singapore (NUS), NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Institute of Medical Biology (IMB), Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB), Temasek Life Sciences Laboratory (TLL), National Neuroscience Institute (NNI), Duke-NUS, and D3-A*STAR.  The talks covered a variety of topics including cell signaling, cytoskeleton, infectious diseases, cancer and drug discovery in Singapore, highlighting the diversity and talent of researchers working in the biological sciences in Singapore. A unique feature of BIOS2015 was that all of the speakers were women, and talks were given both by established researchers as well as post-doctoral fellows and graduate students.

screencap-poster-v3-thumbBIOS2015 opened with a welcome address by Prof. Linda Kenney, principal investigator at MBI and professor of microbiology at the University of Illinois-Chicago, who is also one of the key drivers of the WIS initiative at the MBI.

Recurring Mechanobiology theme

The three sessions in BIOS2015 were titled “Microorganisms”, “Cell signaling in disease” and “Cytoskeleton, disease and drugs”.  A recurring theme in all sessions was Mechanobiology. The various talks on mechanobiology portrayed the relevance of mechanobiology in disease and highlighted some advances in mechanobiology research. Prof. Birgit Lane, executive director at IMB-A*STAR and a pioneer in keratin research, gave a very informative talk on keratin, the key cytoskeletal protein in epithelial cells that make up our skin as well as the lining of internal organs. Besides being essential for keeping our skin intact, it also plays a role in mechanical signaling in response to mechanical stress. Prof. Lane spoke about how studying the rare fragile skin disease epidermolysis bullosa simplex has provided remarkable insight into keratin function.

A role for cytoskeletal proteins in infection was highlighted in a talk by IMCB research fellow Dr. Lee Wei Lin, who showed how the pathogen Yersinia exploits actin to phosphorylate proteins that regulate actin polymerization.  Dr. Khoo Bee Luan from the MBI discussed how innovation and advances in technologies used in mechanobiology have paved way for novel diagnostics in cancer. She showed how microfabrication can be used to capture and expand circulating breast cancer cells, and how this can be used clinically to predict response to anti-cancer therapy.

Other mechanobiology talks included a talk by Dr. Zhang Dan from TLL on how the endoplasmic reticulum regulates actomyosin ring assembly in fission yeast. MBI graduate students Hu Xian and Charlotte Guetta presented their findings using interesting images and videos showing real-time recruitment of proteins at focal adhesions, and novel modes of cell migration along nanofibers respectively.

Session One: Microorganisms

The first session on “Microorganisms” chaired by MBI graduate student Mrinal Shah commenced with a very interesting talk by Prof. Yunn Hwen Gan from Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, NUS. Prof. Yunn has pioneered the study of an endemic disease called melioidosis caused by the bacterium Burkholderia pseudomallei.   She presented her seminal findings on the bacteria’s virulence mechanisms and host immune responses. Although, Prof. Yunn was faced with challenges when Burkholderia pseudomallei was classified as a bioterrorism agent, which has limited the scope of her research, she has persevered on studying this bacteria with the aim of developing novel therapeutics.

The next talk by Prof. Shee Mei Lok from Duke-NUS addressed the current problem of dengue fever, both in Singapore and worldwide. She highlighted the need for developing safe and effective therapies for dengue as currently there are no licensed dengue virus vaccines. Prof. Shee Mei presented promising research findings from her lab in creating novel dengue virus vaccines and therapeutics using neutralizing epitopes.

Prof. Mary B Chan-Park from NTU then spoke about her innovative work designing antimicrobial polysaccaharides, mainly the development of non-toxic, biocompatible, cationic, nanoporous hydrogels that can selectively kill microbes by specifically disrupting their anionic membranes. One advantage of the chitosan-based hydrogel is that it can be topically applied, making it well-suited to preventing or treating catheter-associated and stent-associated infections.

Session Two: Cell Signaling in Disease

Following a coffee break, BIOS2015 continued with the second session on “Cell Signaling in Disease”, chaired by MBI research fellow Dr. Pascale Monzo.  This session featured talks focused on the molecular characterization of different cancers, predictive biomarkers, and precision medicine for better treatment of diseases and improving patient lives. Dr. Carol Tang from NNI highlighted the need for stratified medicines to treat brain tumors and presented supporting work with a JAK/STAT inhibitor AZD1480. Prof. Reshma Taneja from NUS revealed how epigenetic changes like preferential histone acetylation of oncogenic fusion protein PAX3-FKHR over a critical protein involved in muscle development (MyoD) can drive the development of a type of muscle tumor, rhabdomyosarcoma. NUS graduate student Priyanka Balaganapathy discussed the role of notch signaling in p53–mediated neuronal cell death in cerebral ischemia, suggesting the possibility that therapies targeting the notch pathway could delay neuronal cell death in patients suffering from stroke.

Session Three: Cytoskeleton, disease and drugs

The lunch break after the morning sessions provided unique networking opportunities and time for informal scientific discussion. The afternoon session on “Cytoskeleton, disease and drugs” chaired by MBI research fellow Dr. Rishita Changde, featured some of the talks on mechanobiology described in detail in the beginning of this article. This session concluded with an enlightening talk by Dr. Veronica Diermayr, head of project management D3 (A*STAR), on what happens downstream of the drug discovery pipeline as well as on Singapore’s spectacular progress so far in anti-cancer drug development.

Key Note Address

The keynote address by Prof. Katharina Gaus (NHMRC Senior Research Fellow at the University of New South Wales and Head of the EMBL Australia Node in Single Molecule Science) saw a packed seminar hall and intrigued audience.  Prof. Gaus’s research is focused on understanding how T cells make the decision to initiate an immune response. She has pioneered the development of new super-resolution microscopes to understand complex interactions within T-cell signaling networks based on analyses of single molecules.

Panel Discussion

Following the scientific talks, there was an engaging panel discussion on junior careers in academia and alternate careers in science, with a special focus on women in science. The panelists, Prof. Katharina Gaus (UNSW), Prof. Birgit Lane (IMB), Dr. Sheemei Lok (Duke-NUS), Dr. Mary B Chan-Park (NTU), Dr. Zhang Dan (TLL), Dr. Veronica Diermyer (D3-A*STAR), and Jolene Tan (AWARE), addressed a range of questions from the audience, from “what it takes to make it in science” to “possible solutions to enable women to make it to top positions in science”.

One of the major points brought out in the discussion is the importance of introspection and determining one’s personal goals, and then pursuing that goal with passion and hard work, be it in academia or in alternate science careers. Also, the panel encouraged doctoral students to look at alternate science careers, as there are plenty of opportunities for science graduates outside of academia. In particular, there is a requirement for people with a sound knowledge of science to interface between funding bodies and scientists, and similar people are also required in technology transfer and legal offices. . In conclusion, the panel stated that choosing the right mentors, building a good social and personal trust network, maintaining self-confidence, and having the right attitude for job interviews are paramount to achieving your goals.

The panel discussion also brought up the striking drop in number of women at top positions in science. At the graduate student or post-doctoral level, there are almost as many females as males. However the numbers of females drop drastically at the senior research fellow, principal investigator and director levels. This is a trend seen everywhere and Singapore is no exception. The panel attempted to identify the reasons for this and come up possible solutions.

From the discussions it became clear that personal choices, family and kids are not the only reason for the drop in numbers of women from top science positions. In fact, the panel discussion shed light on an often over-looked and under-estimated reason: an unconscious bias towards recruiting men! Ms. Jolene Tan from the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), Singapore, presented figures supporting this unconscious bias. The number of female and male applicants for a position starts at the same figure but gets skewed and biased towards male applicants from the time of application screening, interviews to the final selection of candidates. Therefore there is an urgent need for awareness as much as for action and solutions to ensure that the scientific knowledge and skills that talented women scientists gain through years of doctoral and postdoctoral training do not go wasted either because of a gender bias or lack of institutional support or consideration for women who strive hard to balance work and family.

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The MBI and WIS committee would like to thank L’Oréal and Thermo Fisher scientific for sponsoring BIOS2015, and we look forward to BIOS2016 next year.

MBI-WIS Organizing Committee Members: Linda Kenney, Dee Dupuy, Pascale Monzo, Rishita Changede, Mallika Nagarajan, Naila Alieva, Stuti Desai, Ekta Makhija, Mrinal Shah, Megan Louise Finch-Edmondson, Minnah Thomas, Lakshmi Ramachandran


 

MBI WIS Outreach: 2015 International Women’s Day at Hong Lim Park, Singapore

On March 8th, 2015, the MBI WIS were pleased to join the festivities at Hong Lim Park for ‘All Fired Up!’ a celebration of International Women’s Day. At the MBI WIS table our members spent the afternoon handing out science-y swag and chatting to visitors about careers in science.

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The MBI WIS table at the 2015 ‘All Fired Up!’ International Women’s Day, Hong Lim Park, Singapore

The event was sponsored by AWARE, Singapore’s Association of Women for Action and Research, who put together a full schedule of events focusing on the themes of women’s rights and concerns.

 

Prof Elizabeth Hartland on being a researcher, department head and parent

On Tuesday, February 25th, MBI was glad to welcome Professor Elizabeth Hartland from the University of Melbourne for her seminar on Cell Death Signalling during E.coli Infection followed by a Q&A about her experiences 2014Feb_hartlandKenneySMas a woman pursuing a high level career in the sciences.

Dr Hartland is the head of the University of Melbourne’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology which comprises more than 120 academic staff including 15 full professors, 80 graduate students and around 22 research groups that are actively involved in microbiology and immunology research and teaching. The Department is recognised internationally for scientific excellence and leadership across the fields of microbiology and immunology and is home to a number of Australia’s most eminent biomedical scientists including Nobel Laureate, Professor Peter Doherty AC. Each year the Department attracts around $20 million in competitive funding for its research programs.

Prof Hartland’s lab and research focuses on molecular microbiology, cellular microbiology and the study of innate immune responses to bacterial pathogens. Her current research projects include the discovery of new virulence effector proteins in bacteria with type 3 and type 4 secretion systems and understanding how the biochemical function of translocated effector proteins aids infection.

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[ l to r ] Ekta Makhija, Lisa Tucker-Kellogg, Linda Kenney, Elizabeth Hartland, Rishita Changede, Mrinal Shah

Following her presentation on Cell Death Signalling during E.coli Infection Professor Hartland was glad to take questions from MBI researchers and students about her career path as a working mother and scientist and the challenges she faced pursuing a career in the hard sciences.

Corinna Lim and Jolene Tan from Singapore’s Association of Women for Action and Research

MBI-WIS’s inaugural event was held Thursday, January 9th, 12.30pm in the Level 5 meeting room as a brown-bag talk exploring gender equality in Singapore. We were delighted to welcome Corinna Lim, Executive Director of the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) and Jolene Tan, Programmes and Communications Senior Manager of AWARE.

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The Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) is Singapore’s leading gender equality advocacy group.

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Jolene Tan presented a lively and informative overview of gender issues in Singapore.

AWARE believes in the rights of women and men to make informed and responsible choices about their lives and to have equal opportunities in education, marriage and employment, and in the right of women to control their own bodies, particularly with regard to sexual and reproductive rights.

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Corinna Lim during the animated Q&A session after the presentation.

AWARE is dedicated to removing gender-based barriers. These barriers apply to both women and men, but because of the way human society has evolved, it is women who are more likely to come up against these barriers. These barriers, whether structural, attitudinal, or self-imposed, prevent individuals in Singapore from developing their potential to the fullest and realising their personal visions and hopes. AWARE works to identify and eliminate these barriers through research and advocacy, education and training and support services.

Since its formation in 1985, AWARE has carried out research into numerous issues affecting women, including workplace sexual harassment, poverty of older women and Singapore’s compliance with UN anti-gender discrimination standards.

Find out more about AWARE, its resources and activities at www.aware.org.sg.

MBI WIS Articles and Outreach

The MBI WIS Mentoring Initiative is proud to feature Shilpa Shankar of XI STD, Delhi Public School, Bangalore, India. The following article was written by her under the guidance of Prof Linda Kenney.

Why are Women not Appearing in Leadership positions?

by Shilpa Shankar

Historically, due to the customs and religions followed in many countries, men and women were not given equal access to education. However, in recent times there has been improvement for women to have equal access to education. This has led to more job opportuinities for women in modern times. Women are engaged in job opportunities like their male counterparts in various sectors such as: Science and Technology, Finance, Law, Trade and Commerce. Providing equal opportunity for women has not led to women occupying higher positions. This has led to fewer leadership roles occupied by women in various sectors.

What are the factors then that prevent women from occupying higher leadership roles?

In an effort to understand this problem, I conducted a survey by interviewing people from various countries namely: China, US, India, Singapore and Taiwan in an effort to know their diverse views of this problem. Towards this I composed a set of questions to understand the various factors affecting a women’s career in different countries.  In addition, I was interested in determining whether old customs and religions followed in different countries still have a role to play on the career life of women.

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Shilpa Shankar of Delhi Public School with MBI WIS mentor, Prof Linda Kenney.

According to the interviewees of different countries, most of the interviewees felt that women tend to compromise on their career growth for their family. Family pressure can be a concern in various ways; in some cases family pressure may be marriage oriented issues and in others, families may not support women to pursue higher studies or encourage them to work.

Safety is another concern in certain countries where some of the working places are not safe. For example, commuting from one place to another during night hours may not be safe. However, in some countries, safety is not a factor for women losing out on careers, since commuting via public transport systems at night hours is comparatively safe.

Women’s attitude and confidence also plays a major role, where it is important to be confident and determined to become a successful leader. For example, a woman representative has been selected for the vice president position of Taiwan. Yet, there are women who don’t have the urge and determination towards their goals and as a result they may not become successful leaders.

In rural areas of some countries some interviewees felt that the rule of “equal pay for equal work” was not implemented fruitfully. People also felt that the government of some countries such as India should initiate social groups which would ensure compulsory education to all children in the rural areas, which would help them in their future.

Apart from these factors, the other important concern is the culture and tradition of individual countries. Some cultures of countries did not support women working and growing in their career. Male dominance is another concern in some countries which have a prolonged history and have adopted a culture which is reluctant to change. At the same time, countries which don’t have a long history of male dominance tend to have adapted to equal representation, which is an encouraging factor for women to grow immensely in their career.

Tradition and customs of countries differ from each other. There were many restrictions for women due to these customs. However, in modern times some countries have developed with time and do not have much restriction for women working .While in other countries tradition still has a role to play. Hence in many cases women lag behind in their career growth and don’t realize their potential.

Based on the analysis, I conclude that women should learn to balance between their office and family, by accepting their challenges and working with determination and passion towards their goal. Families should support and encourage women, which may help them grow as leaders in their careers. Tradition and culture are good to follow but at the same time making changes in a developing world is also important. It is also important to set higher career goals, which will help in growing as a leader. More encouragement for women in pursuing their higher studies is an important component to become a successful leader.

Acknowledgments
I would like to thank Prof Linda Kenney for guiding and supervising me in this project. I would also like to thank the interviewees and administrative staff for their support and encouragement. I would also want to thank Mechanobiology Institute (MBI) and the National University of Singapore (NUS).

MBI’s Deputy Director, Prof GV Shivashankar and MBI’s own Prof Linda Kenney collaborated on an article written for India Bioscience.org to bring awareness to the challenges faced by female students in pursuing careers in the sciences.

Women in Science: Is India losing out?

by GV Shivashankar & Linda J Kenney 

Traditionally, as dictated by societal structure, Indian daughters were encouraged to be married at a young age. Without strong family support, this usually left little possibility for a large fraction of Indian women to pursue scientific careers. This is primarily due to the fact that academic research requires a much longer time to obtain a Ph.D. degree and usually involves subsequent post-doctoral research experience. Recent years have seen a tremendous influx of resources for pursuing higher education in India. This has rightly enabled a large fraction of middle class families to send their children for higher studies either in India or abroad.

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Prof GV Shivashankar

The outcome of this influx is that we now have a larger number of female students at the Ph.D. and postdoctoral level pursuing active research in India and abroad. That is the good news. However, a worrisome phenomenon is emerging. Although parents have enabled their daughters to participate in Ph.D. programs, they often discourage them from further pursuing their career. This could be primarily because the societal pressure along with parental concerns leads parents into believing that “marriage and settlement” will be harder for a daughter with a higher education and at a more advanced age.

This is unfortunate, as with the right post-doctoral research experience, these young women could pursue very active academic careers. They would by then know how to balance their professional and personal lives well. Why then is there this social imbalance? Why are parents discouraging their daughters from taking the paths to a career in science? This is a major issue concerning a large fraction of female Ph.D. and postdoctoral researchers as they face this pressure of “marriage and settlement” from parents. We have now witnessed, in our labs and institutes both in India and abroad, a number of our students and post-docs going through this struggle. A larger number of female students in recent years report that this is a crucial factor in deciding their scientific career paths. Initiating and sustaining a strong research program is a major challenge, and this added parental pressure on our female scholars will only make them turn away from careers that they dream of pursuing. This is even more important at a crucial time in Indian scientific history, when we have many more resources to expand Indian Science.

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Prof Linda Kenney with her lab

A part of the solution can be to educate parents about the way science works. Together, we need to take an active part in engaging society to discuss the rewards of nurturing the next generation of scientists. This should include active discussions between students, their families and their mentors. There are many attempts to address this issue and others affecting women in institutes around the world, for example, Mechanobiology Institute Women in Science program (MBI-WIS) at the National University of Singapore. This program aims to affect change in attitudes and approaches through seminars, discussions and networking. Similar initiatives set up in India could discuss issues like ensuring stronger support from families to promote vibrant academic careers for women in science in India.

This article appeared at IndiaBioscience.org.