A Double-Edged Sword: POC Women in Neuroscience
Updated: Apr 22
Hey FemNeuro readers! I'm Christine Liu, a 27 year old scientist about to finish a PhD program in neuroscience at UC Berkeley. I conduct research on the networks of brain cells that nicotine acts on. Specifically, I'm interested in how a high, aversive dose of nicotine affects the brain's dopamine system. I love being a neuroscientist because understanding the brain is like solving a puzzle that underlies our experience of the world around us. It is a privilege to be able to be given the tools to ask and answer questions I have about the brain. In my free time, I make art through Two Photon Art, an art collective I co-founded with environmental scientist, Tera Johnson. We make zines, enamel pins, jewelry and other cute things that celebrate science. I also serve my community through an effort called The STEM Squad, where we seek to support people pursuing careers in STEM, whose genders have traditionally been marginalized.
How difficult was it for you to pursue this career? :
Pursuing a career in neuroscience was difficult for me because my parents were immigrants and didn't have a good understanding of the higher education system in the US. There's a lot of gate-keeping in academic research careers; intentional or not. It is quite common for PhD students to have parents with PhDs, but that was not my background. I ended up navigating SATs, college applications, and my college experience on my own. I also grew up low-income, so I was working a lot of minimum wage jobs starting at age 17 onwards. I got really lucky by finding a volunteer position in a neuroscience laboratory during my freshman year of college and met some really great mentors and advocates who advised me on how to become a better scientist and get accepted to more opportunities. I was able to get paid to do research for two summers! However, I still had to make ends meet so I worked as a resident assistant, teaching assistant, and at a museum when I went home for spring and winter breaks. It was difficult to juggle a full-time course load, research, jobs, and other extracurriculars but I grew immensely from the experience!
How does gender bias play a role in the career path you’ve chosen? :
Gender bias didn't directly play a role in my decision to select neuroscience as my path, and I didn't encounter a lot of direct gender bias that made me feel like I couldn't pursue science when I was in high school and in early college. I don't recall being negatively affected by any microaggressions or biases against gender minorities pursuing science, but that may have been balanced out by my "model minority" status. As a Chinese American, people can assume that my ethnic background correlates with increased aptitude for STEM, a double-edged sword that can actually impair learning and is rooted in racism. Almost all of my classes had a lot of women, particularly in my psychology classes (I was a double major in Biology and Psychology because University of Oregon didn't have a neuroscience major at the time). Neuroscience as a field, has a pretty good gender balance at the trainee level, but that drops off the higher you go up the ladder. There are fewer female neuroscience professors than male counterparts, and this is especially true for women of color.
When was a specific moment you realized you were viewed differently in the scientific world because of your gender? :
When I experienced sexism in college and high school, it was easy for me to chalk it up to immaturity. However, when I entered graduate school and encountered worse workplace sexual harassment than I had ever experienced in the past, it was a wake up call. I realized that "officially" being accepted as a scientist into a PhD program did not make me immune to sexism, racism, and classism and it would be something that I would have to fight against if I wanted to continue a career in academic research. Not only would I be belittled or ignored because of my gender, my accomplishments would also be discounted due to ignorant beliefs that affirmative action is more responsible for a woman's success than her labor.
Is the gender disparity between men and women in science visible to you? :
The gender disparity was glaring to me when I first started graduate school, but the gender balance has shifted in the 5-ish years I've been here. I've also sought out community with women and people who identify with other marginalized genders through The STEM Squad, so I now interact with tons of women in my own field and in others. I definitely recommend building the community you want if it's not already there.
What advice do you have for girls who feel discourage from pursuing a career in stem/neuroscience because of their gender? How do you think girls in stem should defend themselves against gender-bias in their school and college careers? :
I encourage girls to form a coalition with anyone who wants to support equity in STEM. This can be other girls, boys, trans folks, people of color, teachers, classmates, etc! Talk about gender, race, and other important topics often and from a place of care and learning. The more we can support each other, the farther we will go together. Practicing responses to bigoted comments can also be really helpful. One tactic I fall back on when I can't think of a snippy comeback is the Socratic method. Keep asking questions to force the person making an ignorant comment to break it down. Eventually they will have to verbalize how their joke or comment was rooted in bigotry without having to have a heated argument. I can't overstate how important it is to be calm and coherent during arguments that attack parts of your identity. Lastly, never entertain a devil's advocate. Your time is better spent on doing the things that make you happy, excited, curious and inspired!
What is your favorite thing to research and/or study about Neuroscience? : I am fascinated by how small molecules like recreational drugs can affect our brain to generate hallucinations, addiction, and other forces that overwhelm our natural state. Drugs are simply molecules that look and behave closely enough to molecules in our brain (neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and acetylcholine) that they can "hijack" our existing neural circuits!