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"Political" Science

Reflections on the end of a young career

by Miriam Sander

"I hoped that my desire to be active, assertive and intellectual would be welcomed in a profession which requires and values those skills. Even though I am a woman. And I am a woman who strongly asserts that those qualities are poorly accepted in women, even in 1998."

What I Was Looking For...

"Creative" is an adjective that brings to mind the artist and the artistic process. In the overly-cultivated image that appears, a long-haired, somewhat disorganized, inspired young musician, poet or painter slaves over his or her craft. "Passion" is also a word with strong associations. We think of romance first, and then of activities or objects that provide great pleasure, as in a passion for chocolate, wine, or basketball. Occasionally we might even think of a passion for truth or justice.

I have always been attracted to both passion and creativity. I have expressed and found both in many walks of life: in poetry, photography, music, cooking, running, and tennis. In Georgia O'Keeffe's flowers, Ansel Adams' landscapes, Brahms' Intermezzi, Miles Davis' improvisations, Steffi Graf's slice backhand, or Einstein's theory of relativity.

It may come as a surprise that after sampling many ways to satisfy my hunger I found an outlet for my creativity and a forum for my passion in the scientific laboratory.

Unlike our image of the creative artist, the creative spirit or process is not often associated with our image of the scientist in his or her laboratory. In truth, the creativity linked to the scientific process is somewhat more constrained by the hard facts of reality. But "somewhat more" is really not much more at all. Consider the constraints that the laws of sound, light and chemistry place upon the musician, painter or photographer. And consider the "blank page" that lies before the scientist who is on the brink of a breakthrough, to which key components remain unknown. The process of finding the path that uncovers new thoughts, ideas or knowledge is highly creative. And it is one of the most elevating beautiful and ennobling experiences in which to participate.

But that is not the story I want to tell. I want to tell the story of how something very beautiful, vibrant and creative can be badly tarnished by the institutions of our society. It is not a new story. It is one thread in my personal story, of finding my own strength and balance, and surviving the destruction of one of my dreams.

I remember the first time I "saw" DNA. It can be seen with the naked eye, when it is fairly pure and when the quantity is sufficient. I first saw a very small amount, glowing in the dark because it was tightly bound with a fluorescent dye. I was doing my first lab research as a graduate student. My goal was to deduce a physical map of a circular piece of DNA using DNA sequence landmarks called restriction sites. About 6 months later I learned the technique of DNA sequencing. About a year after that I carried out a protein purification. I started with a mixture containing more than 10,000 different protein molecules: the sample was manipulated so that what remained at the end was only one molecule- the other 9,999 molecules were gone! I have since done that kind of experiment hundreds of times, and each time, when it works well, it is thrilling. I have worked without regret many many 12 hour shifts. Many 60 hour weeks. And not for overtime pay. Because it was exciting, compelling work, and because there was great reward simply in seeing the results of the experiments I performed, or in helping other scientists achieve their results.

I chose to become a scientist because of my passion for the laboratory. But I also felt attracted to science for several other reasons. I reasoned that science should be more objective and less gender-biased than other professions. I hoped that my desire to be active, assertive and intellectual would be welcomed in a profession which requires and values those skills. Even though I am a woman. And I am a woman who strongly asserts that those qualities are poorly accepted in women, even in 1998.

What I Did...

I pursued graduate work in biochemistry, one of the most rigorous of the biological or medical sciences, at Duke University, where I earned a Ph.D. in 1987 under the supervision of a generous, and very supportive mentor, Dr. Tao Hsieh. My graduate work was published in professional journals, producing six manuscripts. In four of those publications, I was the "first-author," the scientist given major credit for doing the work and preparing the manuscript. For academic scientists, their publication record, both its quantity and its quality, is the yard-stick by which they are measured. For a young scientist, my record was excellent at that point. With Ph.D. in hand, I went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for a three year postdoctoral fellowship, funded by a grant from the American Cancer Society. Leaving MIT in 1990, I accepted a non-permanent research position, called a senior staff fellow, at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. NIEHS is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) government research program, a prestigious part of the US basic research system.

At NIEHS I developed a research program in the field of DNA repair. DNA repair is the process by which a cell prevents mutation or death caused by environmental or endogenous agents that damage DNA. By 1992 I had my own laboratory, budget and research staff. In 1994, I was formally nominated and approved for a tenure-track appointment. Fortuitously for my career potential, DNA repair became a "hot" research area in 1995, when a link between DNA repair and hereditary colon cancer was established. The story hit the cover pages of both scientific journals and daily newspapers, offering prospects of diagnostic testing and prevention. As my research group grew, and my publication record improved, I was encouraged by the progress of my career. My colleagues and supervisors indicated to me that I had strong potential to achieve a permanent tenured position at NIEHS.

In the fall of 1995, I entered the first step of the complex three step tenure promotion process at NIEHS. I was turned down. While my colleagues and supervisor agreed that the grounds for denial were not well founded, I accepted the decision and spent another year and half improving my record. In the spring of 1997, the first step in tenure was successfully achieved, and the committee gave me a unanimous and strong vote to be tenured. However, at the second step, before another committee, a split decision was reached, and my supervisor informed me that I could not receive tenure. I had the option to undergo another waiting period and resubmit my promotion request one final time. This could occur in 1999 just as the time of my temporary non-tenured appointment expired. I declined that opportunity.

What I Found...

After seventeen years of hard work, and playing the game by the rules, I have learned that scientific society works just like the rest of society. The power structure perpetuates itself, and excludes many who, on merit alone, might excel and succeed. It is one of the same stories you have heard before—a job is awarded to an candidate pre-chosen from a set of 'insiders,' a long awaited promotion is not awarded, or the tax break goes to the wealthy tax payer.

Tenure, promotion, publication in the most prestigious journals, and receipt of funding for research are the most important measures of success in science. Well-established, older scientists have significant influence over the success of their younger colleagues in all these categories. Often, success in one category is linked to success in the other areas. Unfortunately, this balance of power can lead to unequal distribution of opportunity. It can and does lead to inequity, and the inequities are easy to see, for those who want to see them.

Who's Who in Science

In January 1993, a report was issued by The Task Force on The Status of NIH Intramural Women Scientists. The report included the following statements: "There are inequities for NIH intramural women scientists with regard to pay, tenure, promotion, and visibility," and "while women are entering the pool of postdoctoral trainees in reasonable numbers, they are not advancing to tenure at rates comparable to their male counterparts. Furthermore, women are significantly under-represented at the most senior managerial levels." It would seem that my career history at NIEHS represents a continuation of this pattern. This in spite of the fact that the 1993 report made numerous recommendations, the goals of which were to change several of the trends identified, and promote the progress of women scientists at NIH.

In another study which proved consistent to the 1993 report, NIEHS found pay discrepancies for some women members of its staff in 1996, when a study was done comparing NIEHS and NIH-wide salaries. I was on the downside of this discrepancy. To bring my salary in line, a 20% increase was required. It is to NIEHS' credit that the inequities were corrected, but it is not to their credit that they existed in the first place.

At NIEHS, 8 tenure-track candidates were appointed in 1994. Only 1 was a woman. One additional female tenure-track candidate was appointed in 1996, and one more is expected to join in 1998. Currently the total pool of tenure-track candidates includes 1 woman and 9 men; overall, there are about 80 tenured scientists including 10 women. Thus, unless significant recruitment efforts are made, the existing representation of women in the tenured staff at NIEHS can only change very slowly, if at all, in the near future. As mentioned above, the representation of women in the pool of postdoctoral trainees is significantly higher (29.5% in 1993).

The trends we identify by looking at statistics in this and any area of society are important and enlightening. But the statistics say nothing about individual cases. I will never really know if I would have achieved tenure at NIEHS if I were not a Jewish woman. Some fraction of the decisions made that determine success or failure in the careers of young scientists are unfair and not truly based on merit. These decisions adversely affect whites, blacks, hispanics, women and men alike. But in the cases that impact upon minority parts of the working population, it hurts just a bit more,because the chances of promoting diversity in the workplace are lessened.

What Did I Learn?

I know that I am a good scientist. A very good scientist. And that I dedicated 7 1/2 years of my life to developing a strong research program that made measurable contributions to the scientific community. I take that knowledge, and an appreciation of the strengths and knowledge I have gained in my work career as a scientist with me. My lack of success in climbing the ladder at NIEHS, does not diminish my sense of my potential. As a scientist I developed the ability to be creative, innovative, independent, assertive, and analytical. Many of these skills lie on the "ego-based" or "masculine" side of the dichotomy of human psychology. I count myself lucky as a woman to have learned to tap into that part of myself. But, I feel that survival as a woman, in the professional political world that is still largely dominated by men, equally requires access to our feminine side.

Where Am I Going?

After spending most of my life thinking I wanted as little as possible to do with the business world, I have decided to start my own business. I am starting out on this path based on guts, intuition, reading a few good books on the subject, and by relying on a lot of help from my friends, colleagues and family. No doubt I will encounter inequities and discrimination, as well as unfair politics and policies in the business world, as I found them in the scientific world. Perhaps in several years, I will be writing about another thread of my story, for better or worse. For the moment, I would like my voice to be heard, so that those who perpetuate the power structure in science at the expense of some of their dedicated colleagues, might not escape scrutiny and criticism. For a chance to express that voice, now and perhaps again in the future, thank goodness for The Prism.

  Miriam Sander has lived in the Triangle area for fifteen years. Her new business venture is Page One Editorial Services.  

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