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Women in Neuroscience: In History and Today

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Women have made important contributions in the neuroscience field since even before it emerged as a specific discipline in the mid-20th century.

Women in NeuroscienceDespite being a part of the field since its inception, women are still underrepresented in neuroscience, which can be attributed to longstanding bias and misconceptions about the intellectual abilities of women as well as lack of role models, lack of visibility in the field, and more limited access to academic and scientific positions.

Gender Bias Against Women in Science

Darwin himself claimed that women were inferior to men intellectually (though superior morally), which furthered the belief that women were not as capable as men in any intellectual field, specifically those in the stereotypically male-dominated areas of math, science, and technology.

This bias, whether conscious or unconscious, has had a significant effect on how many women enter the neuroscience field. It starts as young as grade school, when girls are expected and encouraged to pursue subjects like the arts, language and humanities and may find little support for a nascent interest in science. Because of this, many girls who may have a natural aptitude for science are steered away from that inclination before they can even begin to understand their talents.

Fortunately, with an increased awareness about gender bias and efforts to interest girls in STEM careers, such attitudes are becoming less common. Women now account for about half of graduate and postgraduate students, though still make up just one-third of faculty in the field of neuroscience.

In addition, despite the accomplishments of many women in scientific fields, women still account for a very small percentage of major international scientific awards such as the Nobel Prize and the Fields Medal. Between 1901 and 2019, out of the 615 scientists who were awarded the Nobel Prize, just 21 were women.

The lack of winners does not tell the whole story, however. Many women have made significant contributions to the prize-winning discoveries, though the prizes were awarded to their male colleagues alone.

Women Neuroscientists in History

One of the biggest reasons for the lack of women in neuroscience is the almost complete absence of historical role models. While women have been making important contributions to neuroscience for more than 100 years, they are rarely recognized by scientific textbooks. Here are some of the earliest female neuroscientists, and their major accomplishments:

Maria Mikhailovna Manasseina (1843–1903): One of the first women to obtain a degree in medicine in Europe. She made important contributions to biochemistry and physiology and was the first to discover that the negative effects of prolonged sleep deprivation originated in the brain.

Laura Elizabeth Forster (1858–1917): Studied the muscular and nervous systems, including muscle spindle fibers and the degeneration of nerve fibers after spinal cord injury.

Augusta Marie Déjerine-Klumpke (1859–1927): Studied the anatomy of nerve centers and made important contributions to spinal cord research. She won many prizes and awards, including the Godard prize of the Academy of Medicine in 1886 and two Legion of Honor awards for her scientific studies, in 1913 and 1921. In 1914 she became the first female president of the French Society of Neurology.

Cécile Mugnier Vogt (1875–1962): Made many important discoveries in the field of neuroanatomy, neuropathology, and cytoarchitecture. Her work led to new understanding about the interactions between the different regions of the brain. In fact, brain expert that she was, she said her own experience and observation refuted Darwin's claim, and explicitly stated that her research did not support the hypothesis of a difference between male and female brains.

Other notable early female neuroscientists include Nathalie Zand, Tatiana Rosenthal, Gabrielle Charlotte Lévy, Una Lucy Fielding, Lucja Frey, Ol'ga Leonova, and Elizabeth C. Crosby.

The Next Generation of Women Neuroscientists

Fortunately for girls and women who may be interested in entering the study of neuroscience, there is no shortage of modern role models. This is very small selection of prominent women in neuroscience:

Susan Y. Bookheimer, a professor of clinical neuroscience at UCLA School of Medicine known for her work developing brain imaging techniques to help patients with Alzheimer's disease, autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, brain tumors, and epilepsy.

Emma Yhnell, a British neuroscientist and lecturer based at Cardiff University. She has done research on computerized cognitive training and Huntington's disease and won the British Science Association's Charles Darwin Award Lecture for Agricultural, Biological and Medical Sciences and the British Neuroscience Association's Public Engagement Award.

Heather Whalley, a psychiatrist and senior research fellow in Neuroimaging at the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Clinical Brain Sciences. She researches the mechanisms underlying the development of major psychiatric disorders.

Sheila Nirenberg, an American neuroscientist working on neural coding and the development of prosthetic devices able to communicate directly with the brain. In 2013 she received a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” for deciphering the neural code of the retina and developing a retinal prosthetic device for people with advanced-stage blindness. She is currently a professor at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University.  

Molly J. Crockett, an American neuroscientist who studies the role of neurotransmitters on human morality, altruism, and decision-making. In 2019 she received the Janet Taylor Spence Award from the Association for Psychological Science.

Emily Falk, an American neuroscientist and professor of communication at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. She studies behavior change and the spread of ideas, with a focus on linking neural activity to individual, group, and population.

Anne Churchland, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Los Angeles focusing on the function of the posterior parietal cortex in cognitive processes such as decision-making and multisensory integration.

Iroise Dumontheil, a professor in cognitive neuroscience at the University of London with a research focus on the social cognition and executive functions associated with the rostral prefrontal cortex.

Danielle Bassett, who in 2014 at age 33 became the youngest person to be awarded a MacArthur fellowship. She is a physicist and systems neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania.

Other notable women in neuroscience include Julianne Holt-Lunstad, science podcasters Kaitlyn Rarick and Cara Santa Maria, Rosemary Bagot, Debra W. Soh, Aurore Avarguès-Weber, Alexandra Elbakyan, Urtė Neniškytė, Isabelle Dussauge, Mouna Esmaeilzadeh, Hannah Critchlow, Lorina Naci, Kay Tye, Ashley Van Zeeland, and Jade Wang.

Moving Forward

There are a number of initiatives that aim to support women pursuing careers in neuroscience or already active in the field.

Women in Neuroscience (WIN), founded in 1980 by the Society for Neuroscience, aims to advance and empower women in the field through resources, networking events, professional opportunities, and awards. The 2021 Celebration of Women in Neuroscience Event will take place virtually on Monday, November 8.

The Women in Neuroscience Repository (WiNRepo) is an initiative that aims to increase the visibility of women in neuroscience, increase awareness for and propose solutions to gender bias, and promote equal opportunities to new generations of neuroscientists.

Bias Watch Neuro is a website that tracks the gender ratio among speakers in conferences and authors of papers published in key journals, to raise awareness of gender bias in the neuroscientific community.

These and other initiatives designed to identify and remove barriers and celebrate and support the achievement of women in neuroscience will hopefully continue to strengthen the tradition of women making significant contributions to the field of neuroscience.

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