September 29, 2017

Keynote address at the University of Queensland's international scientific conference

Salk News


Keynote address at the University of Queensland’s international scientific conference

Salk President Elizabeth Blackburn was invited to present the keynote address at the University of Queensland last month on gender equity and diversity issues in the Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine (STEMM) disciplines. Blackburn is Australia’s first female Nobel laureate. Following her address, which received a positive audience response, she participated in a panel discussion on the barriers and challenges of women in science. Here is a transcript of her address:

September 25, 2017

Good afternoon. It is a true pleasure to be here with you today. Thank you for the opportunity to share a few personal thoughts on what, in my view, is one of the most important issues confronting what we call the STEMM disciplines. It’s an important conversation and one we need to be having more of.

“What’s a nice girl like you doing in science?”

Elizabeth Blackburn
Elizabeth Blackburn

Credit: Salk Institute

That was the question a teacher asked me, as I was beginning my studies in biochemistry at the University of Melbourne, more than 45 years ago.

It turns out, it was a seminal moment. That question – for the first time I could recall – drew attention to my gender in relation to my academic interests and professional pursuits.

The deprecating tone aside, I am glad he asked it. Because it brought into focus for me the reality that, as a woman in science, I would face hurdles in a male dominated field. But rather than sending me fleeing to another profession, the comment provided a wind in my sails – a wind that helped to propel me to great professional achievements. It also engendered a strong and lasting personal interest in ensuring that women in science are valued, supported and encouraged to be at the forefront of our critical work.

Over the course of my career, I have been profoundly inspired by brilliant women who have made groundbreaking contributions to science and health research. Many of these women helped to pave the way for my own professional journey. In turn, I have championed the cause of women entering the field and am gratified that more and more talented women have chosen to do scientific research. As they have made their marks, I have cheered with enthusiasm – not just because they are pushing the bounds of life-changing discovery, but also because I have experienced first-hand the challenges female scientists can face.

But never have these issues been more personal for me, than they are today.

As you may know, the Salk Institute, which I have led since 2016, has been in the spotlight recently in connection with gender and diversity issues – and, sadly, not in the way that I would hope.

This has been a painful time. The fact that we strongly disagree with the way the Institute has been characterized does not erase the emotional component of the situation. The faculty members who have asserted claims are our colleagues. We work with them each day. They are part of the Salk family we all cherish. And we greatly value their contributions to the scientific community and to the Institute. This is personal indeed.

But, just as the schoolteacher’s comment was a prompt to do more, to reach higher – so is the adversity we face today.

I am honored to be the first female president of the Salk in its 57-year history. Part of that honor stems from the fact that this is an organization in which women thrive, where female scientists are doing extraordinary work and arriving at incredible discoveries.

An associate professor named Janelle Ayres, one of our rising stars, is upending the way we treat infectious diseases by finding ways to harness the immune system, thereby lessening our dependence on increasingly ineffective antibiotics. Clodagh O’Shea, another rising star, is rewriting the textbooks—quite literally—for her recent discovery of how DNA is packaged. Science magazine featured her discovery on its cover recently. Joanne Chory may just save our world with her expansive knowledge of how to manipulate plants to grow more nutritious crops in adverse conditions and how to sequester carbon to preserve our atmosphere. And these are just a few of the amazing women scientists doing great and important work at the Salk.

In fact, their work is nothing short of astonishing – making it quite sobering to think: What if these brilliant minds had been shut out of the science field because of their gender? What if we were robbed of their intelligence, their novel devices for fighting disease, managing cancer, and feeding the world?

Talented women such as these come to Salk, and stay at Salk, because they have the opportunity to build illustrious careers at the Institute. But, as in the scientific community at large, there is always more work we can do to increase access and enhance support. Since our inception, the Salk Institute has embraced the challenge of leading the way in conducting the most ambitious research into the most serious biological questions of our time. In the same regard, we must challenge ourselves to lead the way in advancing an even higher standard for diversity. To address the most critical issues facing humanity, we must draw on the whole of humanity.

So how do we create a new norm in the professional world of STEMM disciplines?

First, we must acknowledge the struggles and barriers women have experienced. We must speak openly and invite conversation on sensitive topics that are often difficult to address, such as bias, whether conscious or unconscious, that research has proven exits. And we must ensure that professional environments support women with policies, programming and resources designed to foster success.

At Salk, for example, we created the position of Chief Science Officer whose duties include enhancing transparency, fairness and equity in faculty recruitment and retention. Five years ago, we launched a dedicated Women & Science program that provides an outstanding forum for interactions between Salk’s female scientists and community and business leaders as well as monetary awards.

We are certainly proud of these advances. But can I stand here and say we’ve cracked the code? Of course, not. No one has. We must ask ourselves: what more can we do? For Salk, and for me personally, answering that question so that we may persist in championing diversity is a top priority.

That said, to successfully deal with these complex issues – we need to begin to address them well before the professional level. We must confront them when the next generation is in their formative stage – suiting them in confidence from the start.

Atefah Riazi, the Chief Information Technology Officer of the United Nations, recently said: “If there’s one thing we don’t teach women and girls, it’s confidence.” She went on to explain how early social pressures and worldwide gender stereotyping not only discourage today’s girls from pursuing STEMM disciplines, they also skew the girls’ perceptions of their own abilities.

A study published this year in Science underscores her point. Researchers from three different universities carried out a range of tests with 400 children, half girls, to determine how gender stereotypes impact their personal beliefs about intelligence and ability. The results were astounding…and disheartening. Girls as young as six identified “brilliance” as a male trait. And they shied away from activities they perceived to be for the “really, really smart.”

That’s simply unacceptable.

We all must redouble our efforts to abolish these false perceptions. One way to combat outdated stereotypes is by offering young girls new ones to embrace. Riazi relates a story from her own family. One of her young daughters, newly outfitted with glasses, came home from school to complain that someone had called her a “geek.” “Wow,” Riazi told her, “you are so lucky they called you a geek! That is fabulous, we must go celebrate. Because geeks are the smartest people.”

Wouldn’t that be a wonderful new norm for girls? Wouldn’t it be wonderful for them to know that it’s okay—even cool—to be smart and to excel in STEMM disciplines? And wouldn’t it be exceedingly beneficial for society and for the future of our world if geeks were celebrated to the heights of our sports and entertainment stars?

Everyone needs a champion, someone who believes in them. A mentor. Think back on your early training. Did you have someone to encourage you and point the way? Or did you have a more difficult journey—did you have to forge your own path?

I was fortunate during my postdoctoral studies at Yale University to have an exceptional mentor: Joseph Gall. This was at a time when there were relatively few female postdocs working in labs, yet Joe treated everyone equally and with respect. He assumed we were all good scientists. That gave us the confidence to believe in ourselves.

A good mentor looks past the phenotype and probes the brilliant mind. Looking back, I realize that Joe was always encouraging me. But it wasn’t until I had students in my own lab, though, that I realized the value of encouragement for building productive relationships.

When I was an assistant professor at the University of California, Berkeley, I was flying home from a conference with a student. She had been attempting some difficult work and was floundering a bit. We began talking and during our conversation I praised her for the effort she’d put into her work. I’d never done that before. All of a sudden we could communicate a lot better. This was a big lesson for me: praise and appreciation really matter.

As president of the Salk Institute, I recognize that I have a unique and ideal opportunity to be a mentor and role model, to pave the way for others. But, in fact, we all have the opportunity to make a difference.

So how do we do it? Given the time we have, I’m going to propose a few broad approaches here for those in leadership roles and we’ll have an opportunity to elaborate on them in the panel discussion that follows.

First, it’s important to lead by example. Be a role model for inclusion – and make it a priority in your approach to leadership.

More than 15 years ago, former Salk Institute President Richard Murphy championed a committee to consider how Salk could “best recruit and maintain a diverse faculty and promote its well-being and success,” with gender equity the first issue to be examined. That led to the development of a report that identified a number of trends and offered a series of recommendations. And Salk has since implemented recommendations from the report as well as other initiatives designed to enhance diversity and inclusiveness. But, again, there is always more that can be done – we must persist in our efforts. When I was named President last year, I made clear that this was a priority for me and fundamental to our vision for the future.

Next, we must listen – not just to hear, but to understand. The capacity to listen is essential for progress and successful leadership. It is critical to ensure that everyone has a voice – and that those voices are heard and respected. Be open to feedback. Welcome input and insights from the whole of the organization. And expand your outreach – both with programs and on a more personal level.

Make change visible. Cultural changes don’t happen overnight. We all should promote work-life balance as the new norm and let it be known that 18-hour days are not a metric for scientific merit. At Salk, for example, we’ve enhanced faculty benefits to increase childcare allowances and have put in place other accommodations for childbearing. It’s also worth noting that in terms of visibility – the majority of Salk’s leadership team is female – with women currently serving as President, Senior Vice President Finance and Administration, Chief Financial Officer, Chief Communications Officer, Vice President of External Relations, and Vice President of Human Resources.

Finally, make more mentors. Create programs that support underrepresented members of the organization. In addition to the Women & Science program I mentioned earlier, we have created a junior faculty mentoring program that is now being strengthened and expanded under the direction of our CSO. I also encourage you to adopt mentoring on an individual level. Look around your place of work and find someone who doesn’t look like you. Then take the time to bring out the best in their talents and abilities.

That brings us back full circle – back to thinking about how we can empower others to succeed, and women, in particular. Twenty years ago, a man named Fred Rogers, better known to all America as the humble and caring TV host of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, was receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Emmys. When he stepped on the stage, he diverted attention from himself and turned it on the audience. This is what he said: “Would you just take, along with me, 10 seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are? Those who have cared about you and wanted what was best for your life? I’ll watch the time.”

Each of us has the power to change another and therefore change our collective future. Each of us can lift up and inspire someone else. Whether it’s your child, your student or your colleague, you have the ability to be a positive influence, to be generous with your experience and gentle in your guidance. Imagine the change we could enact in our world if we each chose to mentor one other person.

And, wouldn’t it be wonderful if, the next time a curious person asks, “What’s a nice girl like you doing in science?” she can respond: “Having the time of my life!”

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Every cure has a starting point. The Salk Institute embodies Jonas Salk’s mission to dare to make dreams into reality. Its internationally renowned and award-winning scientists explore the very foundations of life, seeking new understandings in neuroscience, genetics, immunology, plant biology and more. The Institute is an independent nonprofit organization and architectural landmark: small by choice, intimate by nature and fearless in the face of any challenge. Be it cancer or Alzheimer’s, aging or diabetes, Salk is where cures begin.