Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Wisconsin Symposium on Feminist Biology

Last month, several members of the lab attended the Wisconsin Symposium on Feminist Biology. Dr. Clancy gave the keynote address, and Mary Rogers presented a poster. The conference was fantastic. Almost every talk had some relevance to one or more of my research projects.

'Evolution of Woman' by Eduardo Saiz Alonso

The conference centered around several common themes. First, there's a problem with how male biology is seen as the standard model human and non-human biology, or "normal" biology, whereas female biology is pathologized as "abnormal." Even within female biology, deviating to far from the average (for the populations studied, which are often WEIRD) is considered problematic. Women who have their first period too late or too early,  or have their first child too early (teen moms!) or too late (geriatric pregnancies at 35!) are all seen as problematic. Both socially and biologically, women are expected to stay within tight constraints of "normal." Second, in order to conduct research that examines female biology with greater nuance, we need have greater inclusion and diversity in science. This means that we need to overcome the biases and gatekeeping mechanisms that keep women, and particularly women of color, from rising to the same career levels of men in scientific careers.

The first talk, "Sex, Gender, and Animals" was given by Marlene Zuk, an evolutionary biologist at University of Minnesota. She addressed how preconceptions about female and male roles bias how animals are viewed, which in turn is then used to essentialize specific human cultural patterns as normal (Zuk, 2003). She also presented examples from animation about depictions of social insects as male (whereas workers are females), and illustrations portraying ‘scientists’ as predominantly men. Finally, she cautioned against relying too heavily on primate models, and note how the concept of Aristotle’s Great Chain of being still creeps into evolutionary thinking (Zuk, 2003).

The next talk, "Why is Jack More Likely to Become Department Head than Jill" was by Molly Carnes, the Director of Women's Health Research at UW-Madison. She started off with examples of well-known cognitive biases, which she used an analogy for how we make implicit judgements based on race and gender. She provided examples of how women are socialized into different careers within medicine, and how they face a glass ceiling in leadership roles (Carnes et al, 2008). Finally, she discussed a study examining an intervention to overcome implicit bias in the hiring process (Carnes et al, 2009). Training to acknowledge and recognize biases works—but trying to ignore biases (the gender-blind or race-blind approach) does not.

Next was a panel devoted to Ruth Bleier, a neurophysiologist who was a pioneer in feminist biology. Judith Houck, the chair of of Gender and Women's Studies at UW-Wisconsin discussed her legacy and influence at Wisconsin, while Bleier's granddaughter, Nadja Eisenberg-Guyot, discussed feminist anthropology approaches to feminist biology.

The panel was followed by a small poster session, where Mary Rogers presented her poster, "Pathologizing Reproduction in Young Adults: The Pushes and Pulls on Age of Menarche."

Mary with her poster
The next talk, "The Feminist Neurobiology of Mental Health" was given by Ann Fink, the current Wittig Postdoctoral Fellow at UW-Madison. She gave an overview of her work on the neuroplasticity in rodents, and its implications for understanding sex and gender differences in women’s neurobiology. It's assumed a priori that women are predisposed to hormonal fluctuations in mood and susceptible to mental illnesses such as PTSD due to biological differences. However, these interpretations neglect the social and environmental influences that shape neurobiology and the etiology of these conditions. Until research accounts for these mediating factors as well as individual variation, depicting women as hormonal and prone to mood disorders is essentially an updated version of the outdated concept of hysteria.

Dr. Clancy presenting her keynote address

Finally, Dr. Clancy gave her keynote address, "Feminist biology approaches to life history theory and women's reproductive ecology." She started out by introducing our lab and two of the major research projects the lab is working on (reproductive ecology in Polish and Polish-American women, and social and biological factors affecting teenage girls participating in a science camp). She then addressed the issues with problematizing women's biology. 

From Dr. Clancy's keynote:  Stress does not turn you or your womb into a slow cooker of death.

One of the best slides was the "slow cooker of death" analogy for pregnancy. When a woman is stressed during pregnancy, this doesn't mean that she's permanently damaging her baby with her "toxic" stress--it just means that her body is signaling the baby about the environmental context it will be born into. She then described some of the results from the lab's research on social and ecological factors affecting menarche and depression (some of these results will be presented at HBA and AAPA 2017!). She then segued into discussing the need for a diverse variety of perspectives in scientific research. While the percentage of white men have held steady, and the percentage of white women has improved, the number of women of color faculty are declining (Armstrong and Jovanovic, 2015; National Science Foundation, 2015). 

Overall, the conference emphasized the importance of studying variation in female biology, and the work we need to in communicating that variation. While there's important scientific work to do, there's also incredibly important work we need to do outside of our labs. We need to effectively normalize women's biology in science communication, in the media, in our every day conversations. Especially at a time when women's reproductive decisions are dangerously politicized, we need to make sure we communicate accurate information about women's biology and it's range of complexity.

Armstrong MA, Jovanovic J. 2015. Starting at the crossroads: Intersectional approaches to institutionally supporting underrepresented minority women stem faculty. Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering 21(2):141-157.
Carnes M, Morrissey C, Geller SE. 2008. Women’s health and women’s leadership in academic medicine: Hitting the same glass ceiling? Journal of Women’s Health 17(9): 1454-1462.
Isaac C, Lee B, Carnes M. 2009. Interventions that affect gender bias in hiring: A systematic review. Academic Medicine 84(10): 1440-1446.
National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. 2015. Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 2015. Special Report NSF 15-311. Arlington, VA. Available at:
Zuk M. 2003. Sexual Selections: What we Can and Can’t Learn about Sex from Animals. University of California Press. 

Thursday, October 27, 2016

We're recruiting participants for a study of workplace experiences for WoC scientists!

We are recruiting research participants who are women of color science faculty at the University of Illinois. We are conducting a pilot study examining workplace experiences of women of color STEM faculty, and would like to hear your experiences.

Eligible participants are 1) University faculty (either tenure-track or non-TT) 2) identify as women of color, and 3) are within the social, natural, or physical sciences, including engineering. We consider participants ‘women of color’ if they identify as a woman, and as non-white. If you meet this criteria, we hope you'll join our study.

Focus groups will be 90 minutes long. To ensure your privacy, each focus group will include participants at similar academic rank, and will not include multiple members of the same department. All participants will be entered into a lotter to win one of three $25 Amazon gift cards.

If you fulfill our participant criteria and are interested in participating, please email Dr. Michelle Rodrigues at

Thank you very much for your time! We hope this project provides valuable information to improve recruitment and retention of women of color at Illinois.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Come work for the Clancy Lab - now accepting grad students

The 2016-2017 Clancy Lab. Top row: Rachel Mitchell (U), Katie Lee (G), Mary Rogers (G), Summer Sanford (G). Bottom row: Kate Clancy, Michelle Rodrigues (P), Zarin Sultana (U), Sara Gay (U). Not pictured: Kristina Allen (U)
The Clancy Lab (my half of the Laboratory for Evolutionary Endocrinology) is looking to accept PhD students for fall 2017. Here are some of our current projects:
  • PI: Clancy, NSF #1314170: “Ecological determinants of luteal reproductive function.” The goal of this project is to explore the proximate determinants of women’s fecundity and fertility in the luteal phase.
  • PI: Amos, co-PIs: Cross, Clancy, Imoukhuede, Mendenhall, NSF #1648454: “The double bind of race and gender: a look into the experiences of women of color in engineering.” The goal of this project is to analyze and understand the problem of poorly sustained participation in engineering among women of color.
  • PI: Clancy, co-PIs: Hekman, Urban, Simons, Hammack, Focal Point: “Training the 21st century scientist.” The goal of this project is to identify the factors most important to graduate training and professionalization for scientists, and to produce workshops and a graduate course that develop those skills and competencies. A major focus of this project is diversity and inclusion.
Additional projects, pending funding:
  • Co-PIs: Clancy, Lara-Cinisomo, NIH R21 PA-16-161: “Trauma, inflammation, pain, and quality of life outcomes among enodmetriosis patients.” The goal of this project is to clarify correlations between past traumatic events with reproductive hormones and inflammatory biomarkers, as well as pain occurrence, severity, and duration through the menstrual cycle, in order to make clear associations between these factors believed to produce variation in quality of life outcomes among women with endometriosis.
  • PI: Clancy, HHMI Science Professors: “The Human Side of Science.” The goal of this project is to develop a weeklong camp, The Human Side of Science Program, that develops undergraduate STEM students’ personal resources, their competence in scientific culture, and time and space to build a support network they can call upon in times of stress or difficulty. We will assess student experiences of microaggressions and other setbacks, their resilience around these experiences, and their health effects in the weeks before and after camp.
My affiliations:
The Clancy lab has two major priorities: 1) develop an inclusive, humane working environment to promote advancement of a more diverse population of scientists, and 2) promote science through individual and group outreach efforts.  And as you can see, our laboratory’s research is intentionally diverse, with projects that cover traditional biological anthropology as well as science and technology studies. More recent efforts in our lab have integrated these two halves of our work, to understand how lived experiences within the science climate influence social, mental, and reproductive health. This means we are hoping to recruit students interested in any of the following topics:
  • Women’s reproductive ecology
  • Biocultural anthropology, particularly related to women’s health or racial health disparities
  • GxE interactions, particularly as they relate to life history trait timing
  • Broadening participation in research – interests in research questions on underserved populations, including but not limited to transgender/genderqueer/genderfluid, differently abled, migrant identities.
Finally, if all of that didn’t excite you enough, here are a few great things to know about the University of Illinois that, if you happen to be a senior in college, you may not realize are very important:
  • Our graduate school acceptance generally carries five and a half years of guaranteed support in the form of both TA and RAships.
  • The graduate students at Illinois have a strong union that will have your back throughout your time here.
If these research areas and climate sounds good to you, we hope you’ll apply to the University of Illinois Department of Anthropology PhD Program! The deadline is December 1, 2016, and the application is here.

Please email me to set up a time to talk. Other folks in the lab may also be able to answer some of your questions about the university, living here, and the resources of the graduate program.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Bioengineering Ethnographies with Aspiring Girl Scientists

In July, our Laboratory for Evolutionary Endocrinology helped at a girls science camp!  While this and similar camps focus tend to focus on the “hard” sciences, we introduced a social science perspective and explored why social science matters for engineering. We discussed human biological and social variation, and encouraged them to look at the ways that variation affects their bioengineering sessions at camp and bioengineering in general. For example, if primarily able-bodied white men are designing biotechnology, how does that limit the outcome? How can adding a variety of perspectives make biotech more useful and accessible?

A camper examines a 3D printed heart

During the camp, the campers visited the JUMP simulation center in Peoria. At JUMP, simulations using manikins (there is a difference between manikins and mannequins) give healthcare providers opportunities to hone their skills and train for unexpected outcomes. JUMP bioengineering teams are also involved in a variety of projects to improve medical care. We gave the students a mission—while learning about the JUMP center and participating in educational activities, they were to put on their social-scientist hats and conduct an ethnography of the JUMP center.

Over the course of the day, campers toured the facilities, and learned about the research conducted there. They began the day with a tour of the ambulance bay and simulation apartment designed to train EMTs. There, they were also given a lesson on the importance of observation—the simulation specialist explained how in different simulations, the apartment is set with up clues to the resident’s medical history. We then toured the facility, learned about 3D printing, virtual reality, and the use of coding to program automated infusion pumps.

Campers treating a sick manikin baby
The highlight though, was participating in a medical simulation involving treating a sick manikin baby. There, the girls were assigned to different treatment teams, and had to apply their problem-solving skills to save the baby (spoiler alert: the baby survived, thanks to the girls’ cooperative effort).

The campers saved the day!

However, I was a bit disappointed by one aspect of our visit. I had been told about the manikin who simulates birth, and was REALLY excited to see her. However, it turns out that they no longer show her on educational tours.The JUMP center is affiliated with a Catholic hospital (Order of the Sisters of Saint Francis), and the nuns in charge did not want groups on educational tours seeing genitalia. Since a birthing manikin mom obviously involves exposed genitals... it was apparently too scandalous for us to see. Furthermore, I was also told that there are “modesty pieces” that are used to cover the other manikins genitalia when not in use for simulations. It's hard to convince young women that their biology is "normal" when even female manikins' bodies need to be covered and hidden!

The following day, the campers discussed their ethnographic observations. One observation they brought up was the lack of diversity among the manikins. All of the manikins we saw were light-skinned, indicating that the “standard patient” is white. I’ve learned from the JUMP website that there is a dark-skinned manikin designed to simulate conditions common to African-Americans. However, there’s still quite a way to go before the manikins and their associated simulations can adequately reflect the diversity typical of American hospitals. Having just one dark-skinned manikin may cause doctors and nurse to envision the ailments of the white manikins as "normal" and the ailments of the dark-skinned manikin as "abnormal." Using it only to represent conditions typical to African-American populations (such as sickle cell anemia) might also cause doctors to overlook symptoms due to expectations of "typical" diseases for that population.

 One thing that the campers did not mention, however, was the representation of engineers and doctors we saw at the JUMP center. All the videos with doctors were interviews with white men. The majority of the engineers that spoke to the campers were white men (though there was one white woman). One of the videos showed a group of interns with far more ethnic and gender diversity, but I worry that the lack of representation the girls observed may be a subtle discouragement. For the girls that continue to pursue education and careers in science, it will probably be one of many subtle discouragements they will encounter.

One goal of the camp is to encourage female participation in STEM careers. The girls were certainly excited and motivated to learn, and I hope their enthusiasm will continue to outweigh any discouragement they experience along the way. At the end of the camp, the girls discussed their career aspirations, and we were excited to see a range of interests from the social sciences to medicine to bioengineering. They discussed being surprised by the range of bioengineering careers and wanted to learn more. We hope that seeing bioengineers in action inspired them, and we hope that the social science perspective we introduced helps ensure that they decide to be inclusive and thoughtful about the technology they will create.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Kubki Ferrari or A Brief Ode to Andrzej*

As you may remember from biology class, biological females have variation in hormones across the menstrual cycle.  The exact length of the hormone cycle and the levels of hormones vary between women** and across an individual woman’s life.  How this variation in circulating hormones might affect other physiological systems and ultimately health outcomes is a complex and understudied area.  A major part of our research projects is that we are interested in how hormones and biomarkers vary for women across the menstrual cycle.  This means we need daily measures of hormones from each woman who participates in our studies.  For our current project based in Poland, we ask each woman to collect urine each morning.

In the past, the best way for us to collect, store, and ship these samples back to our lab would be for the women to use a normal 4 oz (188 mL) urine collection cup.  This is just like the kind you might use at your doctor’s office.

It is important for the urine to be frozen right away, and using this type of cup really fills up a woman’s freezer! After one full menstrual cycle, our research participants could have 20-36+ small cups of urine in her freezer, with a total volume of 2-3 liters!  That can be a problem, especially in the smaller freezers that are more common in the region in which we work.

Fixing the freezer space problem

Our first idea was that we could collect the cups periodically from each woman and aliquot some into smaller containers using a standard plastic pipette.  This would take a lot of time for us, because we would be walking to their houses or the local clinic, thawing the samples, aliquoting, and refreezing.  Let’s not even discuss how we were trying to figure out if there was clinic space for the aliquoting or if we would have to do this on the dining room table at our field site residence!!!

Problem Solver

Then our field site manager/coordinator/hero Andrzej Galbarczyk enters the scene and argues that we should use some fancy new urine collection cups.  As we Americans scoff at the idea over Skype, Andrzej insists that the cost is not much higher, the process will be easier, and he can order them to be shipped directly to the field site for us.  Katie admits, it was that last part that sold her on the idea.  She couldn’t figure out how we would fit 15 x 30 urine cups + 15 x 30 pipettes + 15 x 30 x 3 small tubes into the checked luggage for the trip to Poland.  We needed to bring a lot of shoes and clothing to be prepared for walking up and down the mountains in a variety of weather conditions.
The fancy new collection cups.
That’s how we recall being talked into the new urine collection system.  The urine cups have a fancy little lid that screw on securely (after you fill it), which then allows you to use vacuum tubes to take aliquots of urine from the cup.  Vacuum tubes are commonly used in the US for blood collection.  You may have seen your phlebotomist use them the last time you had to have blood drawn at the doctor’s office.  Our vacuum tubes for urine have a special yellow top to help distinguish the contents.
Our fearless leaders: Kate Clancy and Andrzej Galbarczyk testing the urine cups with apple juice.
Equipment testing

Of course, before we could ask our research participants to use these fancy cups, we had to test them ourselves.  This is also when we nicknamed our urine cups.  Fieldwork + jetlag does funny things to your mind.  To test our urine cups, we bought some Polish apple juice (gotta support the local economy!), filled the cups, and then filled up some vacuum tubes.
Look at the unusually high level of wonder and awe reflected in the face of our field site leader!
These fancy urine cups were thus dubbed “kubki Ferrari”, or “little Ferrari cups” since they were so fancy and from a company based out of Italy.  Everyone who visited the field site over the summer got a chance to either try the cups for themselves (with apple juice) or see a demonstration.  One lucky soul even had the opportunity to use our test-frozen sample tube to reduce inflammation on a foot injury.
Our test to verify that the tubes would freeze without breaking.  Full of sok jabłkowy (apple juice).
In conclusion, this method of urine collection and aliquoting was awesome, and we would not have discovered it if not for Andzrej.  For that we say: Thank you Andrzej for ensuring we did not have to play with urine on the same table from which we ate our meals.

*   Reference to Rocky and Bullwinkle title formats
** We are using the colloquial gendered term “women” instead of the biological term “female”.  We understand that there is huge diversity in how people may identify their gender.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

10 Things to Know Before you Go: Poland Fieldwork Edition, Part 1

1.  Talk to a local (Part 1)

Before you go, get in contact with someone who will be at the site or who has been there before. They will be able to tell you what to bring far better than this list.  Additionally, it will be nice for you to see a friendly face who is expecting you and knows you will need some help. 

Ludwik, one of the Polish graduate students who supervised the field site, is setting a bad example.  Petting the cows is NOT recommended here.

2.  Learn polite phrases in the local language

If you haven't studied the local language before heading to a new place, learn some of the easier phrases. In Poland, a simple "Dziękuję" (thank you) goes a long way. That being said, if possible, you should try to learn the whole language.

3.   Google translate only works when you have internet access. Consider bringing a phrase-book or a dictionary

Mary downloaded the Google translate app. She was excited because you could talk into the phone, it would translate the words, and say the translation for you. Then Katie pointed out that we don’t have 24-hour wi-fi access. The app has come in handy, but, generally, don’t plan to rely on something that needs the internet to work.
Katie at the bus stop after successfully asking a woman (in Polish!) for help finding a bus. 

4.   Hitchhiker's Guide is right - always bring a towel

And not just a washcloth - Mary learned that the hard way.  We also recommend bringing two water bottles and some trust-worthy zip-lock baggies. This is especially true if you want the zip-locks to be waterproof and/or leak-proof.

5.  Know what your shower situation will be like

 In other words, you won't be able to take 30 minute perfectly lukewarm showers. You should probably be mentally prepared and know how to pare down your standard grooming routine to something more field-appropriate.

6. Have money

European ATM's do not always take U.S. credit or debit cards.  Have cash as a back-up.  Some machines will eat your card. Some merchants will not accept credit cards, including some small hotels. 

7.  Always save your receipts

Even if you aren't saving your receipts for a grant report or reimbursements, it is a good idea to document and save receipts. This gives you an idea of how much you are spending in order to prepare for the next year. It's also helpful if you share any costs with others at the site to be able to track spending. It also helps you track the amount of cookies and cheese you are eating.
Katie picking black currants at our house with our landlady (who didn’t want to be in the photo without doing her hair). We used these for a delicious snack after walking around all day.  No receipts for this!

8.  You will walk (a lot)

You will need to eat more to make up for that.  You should bring at least 2 pairs of walking shoes, and prepared for one of them to get disgustingly wet and muddy.
Katie and Mary walking home at the end of a day of fieldwork.  Technically, walking home from the sklep (shop) after a day of fieldwork.

9.   Look up the weather, and adjust your backpack (and shoes, clothes, etc.) appropriately

For example, it rains here a lot. Mary's backpack is not waterproof (this is another reason to have trustworthy waterproof baggies).
Katie and Mary after running home from fieldwork in the pouring rain. 

10.   Be prepared, but there is no need to be over-prepared

Know if you will have access to a store, and if you can buy essentials at your field site.  You may find you need things you couldn't anticipate, so have the luggage space and the budget to add to your supplies if needed.  For example, Katie found she needed to buy new pants after losing weight from all the walking.
Mary’s suitcase fits a stadiometer, a scale, lots of Oragene® Discover saliva kits, Whatman® Omniswabs, Eppendorf® tubes, and all her clothes (plus lots of socks).  No towel, though

While much of this is common sense, it can be easy to forget these basics when you are in the whirlwind of preparations for heading into the field.  Never underestimate the power of politeness, the utility of common sense, and the value of clean socks and underwear after a long rainy day in the mountains.