The Silent Killer: Gender Discrimination
Hey FemNeuro readers! My name is Kimberly Fiock. I’m 24 years old, and I’m a PhD student in the Experimental Pathology program at the University of Iowa. My work looks at factors that regulate the expression of tau during development. The tau protein is important for the stabilization of axons, which allow neurons to communicate with other neurons. When tau is hyperphosphorylated in adults, it aggregates and becomes toxic to the cell, ultimately leading to cognitive consequences like dementia. Studying this protein in development allows us to better understand the normal function and regulation of tau gene transcription and translation. We can then use this process to identify therapeutic targets for both neurodegenerative and neurodevelopmental diseases
I love what I do because I enjoy solving puzzles and discovering new things! Each experiment I do gives me a new piece of the puzzle, and I enjoy watching my project unfold. The brain is such a fascinating organ, and there is so much we don’t really understand. On top of that, a lot of degenerative diseases that were once thought to be exclusive to humans are now being studied in other species. If I can help provide therapeutic targets for disease in humans, I’m also going to help other animals.
Getting to this point in my career was pretty difficult. Impostor syndrome is a very real thing that many graduate students face but don’t ever talk about. There were many times where I felt I wasn’t qualified to being talking to other students about my work because I didn’t feel like I knew enough. As an undergraduate, I struggled a lot with other individuals telling me I wasn’t cut out for a career in science. I didn’t have a lot of guidance, so I didn’t take all the of important prerequisite classes for graduate school (not necessary classes that are required but are helpful in understanding advanced coursework). Because of this, I really struggled in my first year and fell behind my peers in my ability to understand basic biology concepts. I ended up dropping a class, which made me feel like a failure.
How does gender discrimination play a role in your career path thus far?
Gender discrimination is kind of a silent killer. We hear a lot of stories about explicit harassment of women in the workplace, but not everyone is going to experience discrimination in an obvious way. For me, discrimination manifested in my role models. All of my high school science teachers were men. As an undergraduate, I only had one female neuroscience professor in four years. The only labs I interned in were run by men. My thesis committee for my master’s degree was comprised of all men. There are only two female PIs in my department.
These are the kinds of examples that you don’t really think about when you think about discrimination. They’re not as obvious. Generations before us did not have a lot of women as role models in science, which discouraged women from breaking that mold. It’s a cycle that needs to be broken, though.
When was a specific moment you realized you were viewed differently in the scientific world because of your gender?
My first year of graduate school, I was told I couldn’t wear shorts to work (even in
the summer) because it’s a safety hazard. I’ve seen many men around work
wearing shorts, and no one says a thing. That’s when I realized that it’s not about
the concern for my well-being as much as the “lack” of professionalism if I show
more skin than a man.
How has Neuroscience helped shape your identity, how have you grown within this field?
I applied to college as a neuroscience major on a complete whim. I had no idea what it
entailed or what I was going to do with a neuroscience degree. Looking back, I can’t
imagine majoring in anything else. The brain is so complex and largely
misunderstood. The field of neuroscience is so broad that you can really study
whatever you want. If you’re interested in why we think the way we do, you can study
cognitive neuroscience. If you’re interested in why some people get sick and others
don’t, you can study neuropathology. There’s just so much to learn, you’ll never run
out of things to explore. I’ve grown immensely in the 6 years I’ve been studying
neuroscience. It’s embarrassing to admit, but there was a time when I thought that
neurons and cells were different things. Now, I’m able to write an 80-page thesis
about my work that people are actually impressed by. I’ve always wanted to be a
scientist, but I never really knew what that would mean for me. Once I found
neuropathology, I knew that’s where I’d make a difference.
What is the biggest lesson you have learned in your career thus far?
Know your own worth. Other people will try to tell you what you are and aren’t
capable of, but you have to know your own worth at the end of the day and make
the decisions that are best for you. It’s important to listen to advice, but you don’t
have to take every piece that’s given to you.
What advice do you have for girls who feel discouraged from pursuing a career in Neuroscience because of their gender? How do you think girls in stem should defend themselves against gender-bias in their school and college careers?
Just because you don’t see a woman in the spotlight of the career you want does not
mean it’s unobtainable for you! You don’t have to have someone showing you that it’s
possible for it to be possible. It’s okay to pave your own path. Remind yourself of your
value and follow your own passion, even if you’re the only person that thinks it’s worth
it! Don’t be swayed by the presentation of your gender in a specific field. It may feel
intimating to be the only woman at your job, but it doesn’t mean you don’t deserve to be