Women aren’t the only ones underrepresented in the laboratory — female animals are too

How sex differences are shaping biomedical research and other trends in science publishing — an interview with Liz Bal, Journal Development Manager at BioMed Central.

Dec 16, 2015 · 9 min read

What’s your story?

I’m a London-loving science geek with a background in biology and interest in how research is peer-reviewed, shared and communicated. I work for BioMed Central, the world’s leading open access publisher, ensuring that high-quality research is freely available to all.

How did you develop an interest in science and what fascinates you about it the most?

At school, my absolute favourite subject for a long time was maths. This naturally led me to be regarded by my friends at school as the one most likely to become an accountant, bearing in mind our limited knowledge of career paths at the time… It wasn’t until I reached my late teens that I started to develop a stronger interest in science. Science suddenly became — or so it seemed — a lot more complicated and intriguing. Photosynthesis was no longer the simple equation of carbon dioxide plus water gives you glucose and oxygen, my science teacher didn’t have all of the answers and it was now clear that there was — and is — still so much yet to discover. What appealed to me most was the changing and varied nature of science. I was also starting to gain insight into the creativity of the scientific method — thinking about how the world works, coming up with ideas and then testing it. The complexity of biological systems was of interest to me and, without a clear career path in mind, I followed this interest by studying biology at university, thankfully abandoning the prospect of accountancy (a fine vocation — just not for me!) and entering the world of science publishing.

What future trends fascinate you and why?

I’m fascinated by the biology of sex differences, and how this is starting to shape biomedical research itself. It’s not just women who can be underrepresented in the lab, it can even be the female animals under study too! This over-reliance on male animals can lead to the neglect of key sex differences, translating to neglect in clinical studies and practice. For example, one important difference we’ve learnt in recent years is that males and females can actually respond differently to medications. There are now efforts to address this bias as, for example, funders such as the NIH take steps to ensure that researchers balance sex in cell and animal studies.

Another trend in the sciences is big data. The opportunities to harness big data and use it for scientific advancement are great — whether it’s from the lab, electronic medical records or even smartphones — but there are challenges, particularly with patient data, such as consent and privacy issues, as well as limited resources for the curation and governance of the data itself.

Science publishing — what are the key challenges, and how can these be resolved?

Science publishing is undergoing radical change. Since the advent of open access, online publishing, and with advancing technology, we’re now facing a number of new challenges and opportunities.

Peer review is a core value and method of quality control that has been used in science publishing. It is also a complicated task, performed by busy people. As the speed of science increases, the number of academic papers published and scientific journals continue to grow, and the pressure on scientists to publish persists, we now find ourselves asking: Can the current peer-review system cope? Are researchers given enough credit for reviewing the work of their peers? And are the current the peer-review models fit for purpose?

In reducing the burden on peer reviewers, the concept of ‘portable peer review’ has emerged as a possible solution, at least in part. All too often, manuscripts can be reviewed and rejected from multiple journals before finally being published. Allowing the reviewers’ reports to be passed on, along with the manuscript, to another journal for consideration, may help to remove the need for another round of review and lead to more rapid publication. Many publishers now facilitate this process between the journals in their portfolios, and there are also efforts for this to work across publishers, with initiatives such as the Neuroscience Peer Review Consortium, an alliance of neuroscience journals, willing to pass on reviews to each other. There are also many serious efforts under way to improve peer review itself, with many alternatives to the traditional model of peer review increasingly adopted by journals. There is also a movement towards preprints. Stephen Curry wrote a nice piece on this recently.

Another interesting challenge emerging is the so-called ‘reproducibility crisis’, particularly in pre-clinical research. Recently, the reproducibility of a shocking number of high-profile studies has been called into question. A prime example can be seen in cancer research, where only 6 (six) out of 53 landmark cancer studies could be replicated. Our ability to translate promising cancer research to clinical success has been sadly very low. This has also become evident in other disciplines, from stem cell research to psychology and neuroscience. I think that the main contributor to this trend is the pressure to publish ‘good’ results, with too much emphasis placed on the perceived level of impact, novelty or interest in the results, rather than the soundness of the methods. While one might argue that science is self-correcting and better than ever before, increasing the reproducibility and reliability of research is of high priority to funders, researchers, institutions and publishers, as irreproducible research ultimately represents a level of ‘waste’ in research. It can also diminish public trust in science. It’s not all doom and gloom, however, and I believe these discussions around reproducibility represent more of an opportunity to improve the research process, experiment with new models and generate a cultural shift. It’s also important to note that this doesn’t involve fraud or misconduct. What I’m especially interested in is how increased transparency in the reporting of research and openness can help. In my current role, I’ve worked with colleagues to create and trial a new reporting checklist with the aim of increasing the reproducibility.

What are your current favourite science stories and why?

One of my favourite science stories over the past year was the research uncovering, to put it simply, that male experimenters stress out lab rodents, potentially skewing study results. Aside from being hilarious, this led to a call for researchers to report the gender of experimenters in the lab when publishing their research.

Secondly, as quite a fun story, I was shocked (and grossed out) by the news that 80 million bacteria can be transferred during a 10-second kiss, and that it can even change your microbiome!

More recently, I was fascinated to hear about the creation of ‘bionic roses’ implanted with electronic circuits, allowing researchers to change the colour of a leaf when a voltage is applied. The implications of this are not yet clear but scientists hope that, with further study, this might lead to the manipulation of plants in other ways!

You have a particular interest in open research, why is this?

Open research — or open science — essentially means making research more transparent, more collaborative and more efficient, ultimately accelerating the process of scientific discovery. A central element to this, of course, is to provide open access to the research information, rather than hide it behind paywalls. However, open research moves beyond open access, involving more openness in all aspects — including open data, open methods, open source, and open peer review. When open science will simply become just science, as discussed in a timely commentary from Mick Watson, seems unclear, but it is certainly the future. Technology is enabling this shift, for example, in leading to the use of ‘open lab notebooks’, which scientists can update in real-time for everyone to see. It will be interesting to see how different scientific research — and publishing — will look in the future!

What are the most important developments in biology right now?

Well, I can’t speak for the whole of biology but certainly in neuroscience, which is my particular area of interest, we’re now in an unprecedented era of new discovery. Neuroscientists are now working towards a more complete, dynamic picture of the brain, with the aim of being able to see how individual cells and complex neural circuits interact in both time and space. Ultimately, it’s hoped that this increased understanding of how the brain works will help researchers to treat, cure and prevent brain disorders. All with similarly ambitious aims, there are now several big brain initiatives — notably the Human Brain Project, the US Brain Initiative and Japan’s BRAIN/MINDS — accelerating progress. With the current, undeniable shift in the field, likened to that seen in genomics with the Human Genome Project, it’s an exciting time for neuroscience.

How can we encourage people outside science to become more interested in the subject?

Citizen science is a great way to do this — involving the public in science and empowering them to contribute will increase interest and engagement. Science communication is also incredibly important. The more that scientists engage with the public, the better. It also helps to show the human side of science, which I think is sometimes lacking when portrayed in the media.

What is the extent of the gender bias in science? How do you believe this can be tackled?

The gender bias in STEM is still quite pronounced. This gap is virtually non-existent at high school but then gradually increases from undergraduate degree level to post-graduate research to senior academic research positions. The higher you go, the fewer women you find. I think this loss of women in STEM can be tackled in a number of key ways. First and foremost, we need to be recognizing and promoting positive female role models in science. There also need to be more allies (male and female) in helping reduce this bias, more grassroots initiatives and mentoring programs, and more practical support for women in the lab, such as flexible working hours and child care. Calling out everyday sexism is also important. It’s 2015, but poor gender stereotypes still persist. I’d also be really interested to see where these women are going — are they leaving science altogether or just academia? In science publishing, this gender bias doesn’t seem to exist and there are many women in senior positions, many of whom have backgrounds in scientific research.

Who are the top three people in STEM who inspire you?

First would be Huda Zoghbi, for her pioneering work on Rett syndrome, a rare genetic neurological disorder, which almost exclusively affects females. Early in Zoghbi’s career, her colleagues, peers and funders were not encouraging about her research into Rett syndrome. As a rare disorder, it was difficult to determine if it had a genetic component, as there were so few patients and families available for study. However, Zoghbi quietly continued with inspiring determination, leading to the important discovery that Rett syndrome caused by mutations in the gene MECP2.

Then, I’d have to say Erin McKiernan, for her commendable efforts in waving the flag for open access and open science. As a researcher herself, she works hard to promote the benefits of being open, demonstrating how this can be done in her own research and addressing bad practices.

Then, last but not least, Jonathan Eisen, an evolutionary biologist, for his efforts in promoting open access and his fearless approach in calling out gender bias in STEM.

What advice would you give to a young biologist?

The best advice I could give is to keep following your interests and forge your own path, remembering that there are routes you can follow within biology that are outside of academia. Science publishing is one of many routes you can take that allow you to stay involved with science, build on your knowledge and contribute to advances. My fellow biologists have embarked on a range of careers, from science policy to communication to funding to outreach, even getting involved in a bit of science comedy (not, an oxymoron, honest…). So, as a young biologist, learn about the range of options open to you, whether that’s in or out of the lab.

What would your Plan B career be?

I would have loved to have been a professional cellist. The cello has such dark and majestic tones and is by far my favourite of the strings. Unfortunately, my cello is gathering dust in my shed at the moment so I’m a tad rusty!

Any views or opinions expressed here do not necessarily represent that of BioMed Central.

Find more interviews here.


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