Two Recent Books Provide Insights from Navigating the Status Quo to Critical Analysis

Scientific research is an activity that has been largely dominated by men. Although some academic science disciplines have gradually become somewhat more gender integrated (in 2019, just over 40% of doctorate holders employed in academic biology, agriculture, and other life science departments were women, National Science Foundation 2021), most scientific disciplines remain heavily male dominated (in 2019 fewer than 25% of doctorate holders employed in academic physical science departments were women, ibid.). Despite a small number of notable exceptions, such as Marie Curie, Ph.D.; Barbara McClintock, Ph.D.; and Rosalind Franklin, Ph.D., few female scientists have achieved wide public recognition. As of 2020, only 23 women had been awarded a Nobel Prize in a science discipline, and more than half of those have been in physiology or medicine (Nobel Foundation 2021).

Jennifer Doudna, Ph.D., with a model of the CRISPR gene-editing tool. CREDIT: Innovative Genomics Institute

Two books published this year offer an opportunity to reflect on the changing role of women in academic science and scientific research. Walter Isaacson’s (2021) biography of Jennifer Doudna, Ph.D., one of the researchers credited with developing the gene-editing technology CRISPR, provides a portrait of one of the few women to have been awarded a Nobel Prize in a scientific discipline. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Ph.D. (2021), the first woman of color to hold a tenure-track position in theoretical cosmology, offers a critical account of the role of gender, race, and sexual orientation in physics in The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, and Dreams Deferred. While Isaacson’s portrait of Dr. Doudna shows how a woman was able to succeed in the “man’s world” of science, Dr. Prescod-Weinstein argues that science (or at least physics) is profoundly shaped, indeed distorted by its domination by White males of European origin, making it a difficult place for women to thrive and limiting science’s ability fully to understand the physical world.

Succeeding within the status quo

Isaacson’s biography of Dr. Doudna describes her developing an interest in biology, encouraged by nature walks with a family friend, while growing up in Hawaii. She did encounter some gender-based discouragement from a high school counselor, but she was able to overcome this and to succeed academically, benefiting along the way from working with female professors. She became interested in RNA (rather than DNA) while doing graduate work at Harvard; Isaacson describes her as determined to understand the molecule’s shape, inspired in part by the pioneering structural biological work done by Rosalind Franklin. This eventually led to her interest in CRISPR. Scientists had noticed that bacterial DNA developed repeated sequences that matched those of the viruses that attacked them, allowing them to acquire an immunity to those attacks. Dr. Doudna and others suspected that this process worked through RNA interference (although this turned out not to be the case).

Dr. Doudna’s subsequent research took place largely at Berkeley, where she and her team, in collaboration with French researcher Emmanuelle Charpentier, Ph.D., figured out how CRISPR-associated enzymes in bacteria cut DNA to replicate the sequences of the viruses that attack them. Dr. Doudna and her group eventually learned to simplify the process by which these enzymes operate, developing a method that did not occur naturally in bacteria. They eventually published a paper on their results in Science in 2012. As with many scientific breakthroughs, Drs. Doudna and Charpentier’s work did not occur in isolation; other scientists were working simultaneously on the same matters, and Isaacson documents in some detail the disputes that arose over who discovered what, and when. In the end, although other researchers were acknowledged to have made important contributions, it was Drs. Doudna and Charpentier who received the Nobel Prize for research leading to the development of CRISPR’s gene editing technology.

In the end, however, Isaacson’s story is about Dr. Doudna’s ability not to change this masculine world but to succeed within it.

Isaacson’s account of Dr. Doudna’s work acknowledges the masculine characteristics of research science. He describes the aggressive competition among researchers to receive credit for scientific discoveries. And, he notes how journal editors respond favorably to aggressive, self-promoting language in researchers’ submissions. He also describes Dr. Doudna’s concerns about anti-female bias among the venture capitalists who fund scientific startups and argues that she and her female collaborators’ “self-awareness” and humility (not typical of alpha males) helped them to build a successful scientific team.

In the end, however, Isaacson’s story is about Dr. Doudna’s ability not to change this masculine world but to succeed within it. She was able to sidestep the venture capitalists by raising funds for her startup from family and friends. She held her own in the competition over who should receive credit for discoveries and earn patents. And she was not reluctant to promote her work using the kinds of language (e.g., describing discoveries as “unique,” “unprecedented,” and “novel”) that aggressive male researchers often used. Dr. Doudna undoubtedly benefited from not being alone, from the fact that biology is a field in which there are significant numbers of female researchers from whom she could learn and with whom she could collaborate. But, Isaacson’s biography makes clear that Dr. Doudna’s success in no way changed the gendered character of research science. If one accepts the implications of his account, more women will earn Nobel Prizes in science if and when they learn to emulate the behaviors of successful male scientists.

Making the case for a transformation in science

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Ph.D.’s critical account of her experiences as a female physicist of color makes a very different case, arguing forcefully that science (not women) must change and that science, as well as women, will benefit from that transformation. While her wide-ranging book describes her (and others’) experiences of gender- and race-based discrimination and harassment in physics, her aim is to make a case for doing more than increasing the numbers of women and people of color in physics:

“… it is not enough to repopulate history. Not only should we ask where the hidden figures are, but also what they were doing and what agendas they were serving. We must reimagine Physics through a Black feminist frame.” (268)

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Ph.D. CREDIT: Chanda Prescod-Weinstein

Dr. Prescod-Weinstein (2021) describes the many ways in which the culture of physics is dominated by White men and a Western European tradition. She argues that women and people of color are rarely acknowledged within physics and are much less likely to be encouraged to ask “big questions.” She notes that academic “housework” (all the non-research tasks, from cleaning to advising undergraduates) typically falls on people who aren’t White men and that academic administrators worry about how efforts to increase diversity may compromise “excellence,” implying thereby that only White men can be excellent. She also points to a telling irony in the ways in which complaints about discrimination are received:

“Black women are constantly asked to provide hard evidence for our evaluations of our most commonplace experiences with discrimination, yet white men are taken seriously when they suggest that more affirming data isn’t necessary in order to test their theories of quantum gravity.” (170)

She obviously believes that it is important to increase diversity in physics; indeed, she complains that too many efforts to argue for diversity focus on the needs of the nation (staying competitive, filling shortages of personnel) rather than on the needs of women and people of color. But, for this to happen, science itself must change. Dr. Prescod-Weinstein notes how the very substance of physics is shaped by its White, male culture. For example, the theory known as quantum chromodynamics (which uses color as analogy for physical properties unrelated to color) is sometimes referred to in textbooks as “colored physics,” a term unlikely to have been adopted if physics were more diverse.

Her contention is that diversifying physics also will involve and require reconsidering its relationship to society. Equating science as currently constructed with “progress” ignores the ways in which science can and does trample on the rights of native peoples (as in the construction of a telescope on sacred lands in Hawaii) and erases the contributions of non-White males to knowledge. Research will be driven not simply by the priorities of dominant groups (e.g., interest in physics of melanin will not be rooted only in concern about protecting White people from skin cancer). Dr. Prescod-Weinstein feels that diversifying physics will both require and enable a questioning of science’s relationship to social institutions such as colonialism and militarism. The result, she concludes, will be enhanced knowledge of the physical world:

“Only time, and a community that does not have extensive barriers to the participation of people from a broad cross section of humanity, will be able to tell how our understanding of physics will change when our understanding of who can be a physicist changes.” (26)

National Science Foundation (2021). Women, Minorities and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering. Table 9-28, Science, Engineering, and Health Doctorate Holders Employed in Universities and 4-year Colleges, by Broad Occupation, Sex, Race, Ethnicity, and Faculty Rank: 2019.

Nobel Foundation (2021). The Nobel Prize: Women Who Changed the World.

Isaacson, W. (2021). The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Prescod-Weinstein, C. (2021). The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, and Dreams Deferred. New York: Bold Type Books.