Posted by on July 13, 2016 - 2:47pm

by Nicole C. Woitowich, PhD

I am what you might stereotype as a “girly girl.” I love everything that comes in pink, I have seen the movie Legally Blonde more times than I would like to admit, and whatever Taylor Swift song is popular at the moment is probably my “jam.”

 I am also a biochemist.

 Are these things mutually exclusive? Do women need to hide their love for bold colors, high heels, and pop culture in order to be taken seriously as a scientist? Apparently so, according to many blogs and articles written by other female scientists. Their advice ranges from keeping makeup natural, to wearing dark colors to look more authoritative, or adding “soft touches” such as scarves if you must feel “feminine.”

 The worst part is, their advice isn’t entirely wrong. A recent study by Dr. Sarah Banchefsky and colleagues at the University of Colorado Boulder asked participants to rank photos, unbeknownst to them of real scientists, on their gendered appearance (masculine or feminine) and career likelihood (scientist or early childhood educator). They found that the more feminine a woman appeared, the less likely she was deemed to be a scientist.

 Together with the current climate in the scientific workforce where women are under-represented in leadership roles and tenured faculty, I almost understand why women would want to “tone it down,” and adopt the dress and social behaviors of their male peers.

 Banchefsky, lead author of the study, provides some insight, “We all, to a certain degree, adapt and conform to fit into the environment around us and avoid having people ask questions or look at us askance. I think women do this to be taken seriously, to avoid being asked, ‘Are you really a scientist?’”

 Furthermore, she adds, “…men serve as the power holders and gate-keepers in [STEM] fields, so women work hard to and want to be a part of their circle. Unfortunately, women’s assimilation reinforces the masculine culture in STEM.”

 Hiding or limiting femininity may impart damaging consequences on young and aspiring scientists as well. According to Banchefsky, “If [young women] have in their mind that first, women aren’t typically in science, and when they are, they need to be gender-neutral or non-feminine -  they may worry that they won’t be able to express part of who they are [through] their gender identity in a science field.”

  “I think it’s important to highlight that it just doesn’t have to be this way,” Banchefsky states, and I completely agree.

 To this end, I will continue to match my pink goggles to my outfit and wear pink nitrile gloves because it makes me feel more like “me.” So when young women visit the laboratory they can see that a scientist can be whomever she wants to be.

 Source: Banchefsky et al., Sex Roles. 2016; Epub ahead of print. 


Posted by on June 18, 2013 - 10:39am


Policy changes are necessary to decrease the death rate of pregnant women in developing countries.  Research, according to Dr. Stacie E. Geller, does not end once scientists publish.  The true battle is implementing that research to affect global change.  Dr. Stacie E. Geller, Director of the Center for Research on Women and Gender at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine, puts research into practice by providing safe, affordable medication to pregnant women in developing countries.  Dr. Geller spoke last week at a forum held at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine and presented her research on Postpartum Hemorrhaging (PPH) and its dangers to women in developing countries.

In 2008, there were an estimated 358,000 maternal deaths occurring during childbirth, 99% of these deaths occurring in developing countries. Such global disparities are reflected in the limited access to skilled birth attendants, restricted access to medications, rudimentary delivery facilities, and complications surrounding reliable transportation and communication in developing countries.  Postpartum Hemorrhaging (PPH) is the leading cause of maternal mortality worldwide, accounting for 30-50% of all maternal deaths in Africa and Asia alone.  While the drug Oxytocin is used to prevent PPH in developed countries, developing countries do not have the resources to preserve and administer this drug.  Dr. Geller began studying the drug Misoprostol as an alternative to Oxytocin to be used in developing countries due to its low-maintenance storage and cost-effectiveness.

Dr. Geller, along with a team of researchers traveled to communities in India and Ghana to study Misoprostol for prevention of PPH in home-birth settings.  Their research proved that Misoprostol provides a safe and efficacious alternative to Oxytocin in these communities, but Dr. Geller didn’t stop there.  She worked with the Indian Ministry of Health to approve the use of Misoprostol for PPH prevention by Auxillary Nurse Midwives (ANMs). In Ghana, Dr. Geller engaged with health stakeholders at all levels, conducted community sensitization and trainings, monitored the safe use of Misoprostol, and empowered women to take control of their health.  Furthermore Dr. Gellar’s success strengthened the networks of health providers, decreased maternal mortality and morbidity (due to PPH), and established a model for all of Ghana and other developing countries.  Dr. Geller was a primary advocate credited for Misoprostol’s addition to the WHO’s list of essential medications for the prevention of PPH in 2011, an accreditation which has a lasting global impact.

Dr. Geller stresses the importance of political will in enacting policy changes from scientific research.  Government engagement is critical in reducing maternal deaths, and a scientist’s work is not over once research is published.  Advocating for women’s sexual and reproductive rights, their access to equal treatment, and their right to effective medicine should inspire all researchers to utilize their knowledge to facilitate global change.

To read more about Dr. Stacie Geller and her ongoing research, please click here.


Posted by on January 25, 2012 - 4:15pm

A recent blog talked about the importance of support women in the STEM fields.    A good example is the new partnership between our University and the U of Chicago:

Northwestern University and the University of Chicago have launched the Chicago Collaboration for Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, a three-year effort to enhance the recruitment and advancement of women faculty members in those fields.

“The University of Chicago and Northwestern are vitally concerned about the advancement of women in STEM at our respective institutions, and through this collaboration we have dedicated ourselves to making significant progress,” said University of Chicago Provost Thomas Rosenbaum, the John T. Wilson Distinguished Service Professor in Physics.  Important elements of the collaboration involve studying the apparent relative strengths and weaknesses of the respective institutions when it comes to fostering a positive climate for women in STEM, said Northwestern Provost Daniel Linzer.

The percentage of tenure-track women in STEM fields in 2010, according to University of Chicago officials, were basic biological sciences, 23 percent; physical sciences, 10 percent; and social sciences, 29 percent. The percentage of tenure-track women in STEM fields at Northwestern for the same period were biological sciences, 20 percent; engineering, 11 percent; physical sciences, 14 percent; and social sciences, 36 percent.

The new collaboration for women in STEM includes two yearlong programs: Navigating the Professoriate, for tenure-eligible faculty members; and Beyond Tenure, for tenured associate professors and professors.

The Navigating the Professoriate program is designed for tenure-track assistant professors in the biological, physical, and social sciences, and in engineering.  The program began Oct. 26 with a session on “The Art of Negotiating,” led by Victoria Medvec, executive director of Northwestern’s Center for Executive Women and a Professor of Management and Organizations at the Kellogg School of Management.   Statistically it’s fairly well documented that, on average, women do not negotiate as often or as well as their male counterparts.

The Beyond Tenure program kicked off Oct. 17 with a session titled “What’s Next: Imagining Your Career.” The program was designed to help tenured professors in the biological, physical, and social sciences become architects of their own destiny.  “The idea of taking the long view of your own career and figuring out what you need to do to get there after you’ve already gained a level of success is really a new perspective for many women,” said Peggy Mason, one of the program’s organizers and a professor of neurobiology at University of Chicago.   Women can decide to continue what they have already been doing, but other choices might include becoming a department head or dean, taking a leadership role in a professional society, directing a center, or starting a company.

Posted by on December 19, 2011 - 1:21pm

Dr. Woodruff (in the red jacket) meets with President Obama

Teresa Woodruff, Director of the Institute for Women's Health Research (creator of this blog site)  and the Thomas J. Watkins Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, received the prestigious Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring at the White House from President Barack Obama Monday, Dec. 12.

The award was for an Institute program called the Women's Health Science Program for High School Girls and Beyond. The program mentors urban minority high-school girls for college and careers in science and health.

“Meeting President Obama in the Oval Office was a true honor and humbling event,” said Woodruff.   “In his remarks, the president affirmed his deep commitment to science and engineering and the role that basic science plays in the health of our nation. He made time to congratulate us on our efforts and comment on the critical role that science mentorship plays in the development of the next generation of innovators on whom we count to solve our world’s most pressing needs.”

“This award is for the hundreds of faculty, staff and students throughout Northwestern University and Northwestern Memorial Hospital who donate their time to mentorship,” Woodruff added. “Our program focuses on the next generation of female leaders. Our goal is to ensure that the future is filled with a diverse group of problem solvers ready to meet the world’s challenges.”

The Women's Health Science Program for High School Girls and Beyond (WHSP), a four-year-old program, targets primarily African American and Latina girls from disadvantaged backgrounds in Chicago. The young women can study at four different Northwestern academies: cardiology, physical science, infectious disease and oncofertility. The science program is part of the Institute for Women’s Health Research at the Feinberg School.

Carole LaBonne, an associate professor of molecular biosciences at Northwestern and faculty member in the mentoring program, emphasized the importance of increasing the representation of women and minorities in the STEM disciplines.

"The program developed by Dr. Woodruff has had amazing impact and is truly transformative,” said LaBonne, a member of Northwestern’s diversity committee. “It should be used as a model for how universities across the country can address the pipeline problem by helping to educate and excite students from underrepresented groups about science from an early age."

Of the 90 students who have participated in the Women’s Health Science Program from the Young Women’s Leadership Charter School in Chicago, 18 are seniors in high school, 70 are attending college and two have received undergraduate degrees. Of those attending college, 51 percent are pursuing science majors.

WSHP has grown beyond Chicago through Woodruff’s efforts. Similar informal education programs based on the Chicago model have been running in San Diego, Oregon and Philadelphia. Plans also are underway to expand the program to other Chicago high schools.

Posted by on July 13, 2010 - 4:11pm

A recent post on the Oncofertility Consortium Blog discussed gender disparities in the senior levels of scientific research. Women receive 56% of science and engineering undergraduate degrees and are awarded more than 40% of graduate degrees in the sciences, often a PhD. However, they make up only 22% of senior academic faculty members in the United States.

The Journal Nature may have come across another reason for the gender gap in science. Salary differences. Nature just released the results of their first-ever salary and career survey of more than 10,000 scientists. In addition to examining salaries across countries, academic stages, and industry, the study also looked across genders.

The report found that female scientists begin their post-graduate careers making slightly more than male scientists, about $45,000 per year in the United States. However, 5 years after receiving their highest degree, when scientists generally begin their first academic appointments, male scientists start to outpace females. As time progresses, this trend continues so that 16 or more years past degree completion, men make about $120,000 while female scientists hover below $105,000.

It is important to note that similar salary trends occur in both North America and Europe. According to the study, “Men’s salaries were 18% to 40% higher than women’s in the countries for which we had significant sample sizes-Australia, Germany, Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, India, Japan, Canada, and the United States.”

The exact cause of the scientific wage gap is unknown. However, in my previous career as a scientist, I personally saw women poorly negotiate for starting salaries, producing an initial wage difference that increased over time. In addition, some of my fellow female scientists either took time off from work to raise children or opted for more-flexible, lower-paying, non-tenured positions. In my case, which occurs with many women, I foresaw that my significant other would make more money the long-term and saw myself sacrificing my career for our future family. In my transition away from the bench, I have instead avoided the “sex, science, and salary” issue altogether but the scientific community needs to learn how to keep women in the sciences or risk future scientific and medical advances. The most obvious way to do that? Money.


Kate is on loan from the Oncofertility Consortium. Check out their blog!

Posted by on July 12, 2010 - 9:41am

L-R:    Shaquita, Dr. Carla Pugh, Megan,  and Nicole

The Oncofertility Summer Research Fellowship 2010 is now in full swing (check out this post for more details)!  Our three Oncofertility Saturday Academy alumni undergraduate students, Nicole Miles, Shaquita Webster, and Megan Romero have been hard at work, both at the bench in Dr. Woodruff's laboratory and learning about many social issues surrounding women's health and oncofertility.  Last week, Dr. Carla Pugh presented her work on the use of technology to improve clinical skills education at the IWHR Monthly Research Forum, and Shaquita, Megan, and Nicole wrote the following post on their thoughts about the event.  Enjoy!

On June 22, 2010 at the Institute for Women’s Health Research Monthly Research Forum,  Carla Pugh, MD,  Assistant Professor of Surgery and Associate Director of the Center for Advanced Surgical Education here at Northwestern University, spoke about some of the anxiety and concerns first year medical students face when performing pelvic, prostate, and breast exams.  She stated that the major reason many medical students are so apprehensive to administer these ‘intimate’ exams is due to their lack of experience, as many are fresh out of college. As a first year medical student they are bombarded with information on the anatomy of the human body. However, in order to become a good physician one must not only have an understanding of the human anatomy but also how to perform a physical examination.

With this knowledge Dr. Pugh developed numerous pelvic, prostate, and breast anatomic models linked to sensors. These sensors are linked to computers that display where and how much pressure is applied to various anatomic features of the pelvic, prostate, and breast models.

Dr. Pugh demonstrated that the leading cause of anxiety for second year med students was fear of missing a lesion. Due to breast cancer’s prominence in women, the fear of missing something during a clinical breast exam can be a particularly anxiety-causing. Dr. Pugh also commented on the differences between the ways that clinical breast exams are performed by male and female practitioners, in terms of the time spent and amount of pressure used during the exam.

What makes the mannequins so amazing is that the sensors are placed inside model’s vagina or rectum, and as students' fingers move along the anatomy, they can see the location of their hands on a screen. "When you put your finger in someone's rectum for the first time, you think you know where the prostate is, but you don't," Pugh said. "Several things in medicine are assumed to be learned in time, but I think we can do better than that. You can't teach everybody everything in a lecture format."

Dr. Pugh’s inventions have revolutionized the world of medicine in various ways. But there was one thing that she had not mentioned.  After the seminar, we asked Dr. Pugh how her models are used outside of the classroom and whether they are available to local community centers so that women who don’t have the resources to get to a doctor can visit the center and teach themselves how to perform the exam.  We believe the breast models, in particular, would be beneficial to individuals in the community.  If women are able to give exams on the models it will help encourage self breast exams and promote early detection. While she was amazed by such a great thought, her response was that she had not had the opportunity to do so.

After a discussion with Dr. Pugh, we were interested in finding a way to get the breast  models out into the community.  Throughout our fellowship in the Woodruff lab, we are beginning to understand that the best way to learn any concept is by teaching it to someone else. We suggested creating a community outreach portion for her medical students.  Unfortunately, Dr. Pugh has no control over the curriculum nor does she have enough time with the students to implement such a plan. However, she stated that she would love to have our help to make it possible. With our mentors as our witness, taking Dr. Pugh's breast models to community centers across the city in efforts to increase early detection of breast cancer is now a goal in the making!

Dr. Pugh is also featured in an article in this week's Chicago Tribune.

Authors:  Megan Romero, Nicole Miles, and Shaquita Webster (Oncofertility Summer Research Fellows)

Posted by on July 8, 2010 - 11:18am

Several Northwestern researchers, including our own Institute director, Teresa K. Woodruff, PhD, have been making a strong case for more sex-based research that is making waves in several prestigious journals including Nature and Women's Health.   Readers interested in reading these articles should click here

Posted by on January 20, 2010 - 1:56pm
Melina Kibbe honored at White House

Melina Kibbe honored at White House

Melina Kibbe, M.D., associate professor at Northwestern's Feinberg School of Medicine, vascular surgeon at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and co-chief of the vascular surgery service and director of the Vascular Laboratory at the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center recently received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) at the White House.   This is the highest honor given by the U.S. government to outstanding scientists and engineers who are in the early stages of their research careers.

Her current research portfolio was primed, in part, by two Pioneer Awards the Institute for Women's Health Research (IWHR) awarded Dr. Kibbe and her postdoctoral fellow in 2008 and 2009, respectively.  Her research focuses on preventing vascular injury and scarring in blood vessels following stent surgery.   It wasn't until Dr. Kibbe  ran into Dr. Teresa Woodruff,  IWHR Director, a few years ago, who asked Kibbe if she was including female animals in her research, that she gave it much consideration. After that meeting, Kibbe searched publications in her field that included sex as a variable and she found there was very little.   With her Pioneer Awards, she proposed to include male and female animal models to study the benefits of nitric oxide (NO)-based therapies following stent surgery and found that the effect was totally different between the sexes!

The Pioneer Awards were developed by the IWHR to encourage researchers to include sex and gender analyses in their studies, and the work done in the Kibbe lab demonstrates how a small amount of funding targeted to sex-based research can produce startling results and change a whole field of study.   The immeasurable aspect of the PECASE award that Dr. Kibbe received is the invaluable  publicity it will give her research.  This may help focus on the importance of including sex variables in future vascular research and open doors to new collaborations and larger funding.

Posted by on December 23, 2009 - 1:22pm

As we come to the end of the special exhibit Changing the Face of Medicine, Celebrating America's Women Physicians at the Robert H. Lurie Medical Research Center here at Northwestern, we thought we’d provide a recap of some comments from our special exhibit event “Mentorship in Action” that occurred on December 7th.  At this event, several Northwestern women spoke about their experience as mentors and mentees, including Dr. Neena Schwartz from the Department of Neurobiology and Physiology, whose career has certainly paved the way for all women in science and medicine.

Dr. Neena Schwartz

Dr. Neena Schwartz

In her talk Dr. Schwartz addressed her own experience as a mentee and the status of women in medicine and research today, and gave her own recommendations for mentoring others.  Her academic career began at Goucher College, which was an all women’s college at the time.  She talked about her experience with mentors, some good and some not-so-good, but highlighted Meredith Runner from the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine and Allen Lein from Northwestern’s physiology department.  Dr. Schwartz acknowledged that despite these positive mentors, she was also faced with many hurdles as a woman in science, noting that when she was an instructor at the University of Illinois Medical School, it was thought inappropriate for a pregnant woman to lecture to medical students.  In the 1950’s this was a typical attitude towards women, and something that Dr. Schwartz strove to overcome.

In 1971, at the annual meeting of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, Schwartz and a group of 27 other women colleagues founded the Association for Women in Science (AWIS) with the goal of increasing the number of women in tenure track positions and in study sections to review grants at the NIH.  In 1974, AWIS sued the NIH forcing them to stop all appointments to study sections.  They were to provide a list of all vacancies, a list totaling 413, to which AWIS responded with a list of 1000 qualified women scientists.  Although a major hurdle, opinions of women in science did not seem to progress rapidly from there.  Dr. Schwartz recalled being asked by a female graduate student if people laughed at her when she gave a paper at a meeting, to which Dr. Schwartz replied, “Only when I tell a joke.”  This comment, however, stressed the importance of mentoring young women students in the sciences.  Over the next several years other women societies starting forming including the Women in Endocrinology (WE) with which Dr. Schwartz was also involved. Although the presence of women in science and medicine has certainly increase over the last few decades, Dr. Schwartz brought up an article from 2006 in the New England Journal of Medicine that pointed out disparities still do exist in authorship of academic medical literature.

Lastly, Dr. Schwartz emphasized the importance of mentoring young female students stressing that a mentor should help a mentee define her research and career goals and nurture and guide her without stifling independent thought.  She also pointed out that colleagues can often be mentors by recommending women for committees and talks and by offering to critique CVs.  Overall Dr. Schwartz’s talk was informative and inspiring to the audience of both women and men from students to seasoned professionals.

Dr. Schwartz’s new book “A lab of My Own” will be available sometime in 2010.

Posted by on November 25, 2009 - 4:43pm

One of the beliefs of the IWHR is that a very good way to increase the visibility of women's issues in science and medicine is to increase the number of actual women professionals in those fields. That why we were so happy to see the recent booklet put out by the NIH that highlights some of the important women working at the NIH. Entitled, "Women in Science at the National Institutes of Health 2007-2008", the booklet gives a great profile of many women at the NIH, divided by institute and center. According to the NIH press release about the publication, the booklet contains 298 profiles of women who serve in a "wide range of the roles, positions, and contributions of women across the NIH, including but not limited to, clinicians, basic scientists, program directors, policy analysts, computer scientists, epidemiologists, geneticists, and statisticians, as well as directors and deputy directors of NIH Institutes and Centers."



The personal stories aspect of this publication is absolutely the best part; these aren't just boring biographical sketches about education pedigree, but stories allowing the women to share "pivotal events" that turned them on to science and the insights they have gained over their careers.  As the press release states, "The book features women who started their education at community colleges, women who didn't go to graduate school until they were in their 40's and women whose childhood circumstances led them into a particular field of interest, such as addiction science. Some of these women pursued high-level science careers while raising children alone; others balanced the demands of their job with the demands of a husband’s equally challenging job." These are the personal details that make these women inspirational and make the booklet such an interesting read.

I urge you to download (absolutely free!) the publication "Women in science at the NIH", here. I'm quite certain that you'll see yourself in, or be inspired by, many of these women's stories.