Author Archives: JFBrinkworth

The wonder of new

Science can be a brutal enterprise. Experimental biology is highly prone to failure. Grants are difficult to land. The political climate can make entire nations hostile environments for your research. For those in the trenches of science meant to stem long emergencies, like species conservation, climate change and vaccine development, the emotional costs of the work can be very steep. For long stretches of time, you can give a research question your all, work in obscurity, face continual discouragement and forget why you fought to be in the field in the first place.

…and then there are moments like these, that make you feel like you did the first time your future science touched your heart and soul.


Infectious disease and Aunt Flo

Hey All,

A few weeks back I had the honour of being interviewed by Dr. Kate Clancy for her excellent podcast “Period”. Period examines all things cultural and biological about menstrual cycle. Want to know how Periods for Politicians found its groove, or the biological reasons that PMS and PMDD occur, or why we and Killer whales undergo menopause? Maybe how menses is addressed in literature over time has been niggling at you. If any of this sounds interesting, Period is for you.

Dr. Clancy has 12 excellent episodes available on her website “Context and Variation”. You can find the introduction to the podcast here

In episode 8, “Menstrual-born killers”, I get to chat a bit about the potential health outcomes of bad menstrual hygiene. We also get into environmental impact of menstrual waste and measures menstruating women can take to reduce their footprint.  Check it out –


Surviving the Sexodus: call for essay titles closed!

…at least for now. We will keep you posted. There are a few things in the works over here.

What a powerful response. If, the day before we released the call, you had asked me how many people would write to us, I would have estimated 20. Maaaaybeee 25. How wrong was I?  We received dozens upon dozens of titles from you over ~10 days. We haven’t finished responding to your emails so we don’t have an accurate count of titles yet.  If you haven’t heard from us yet, I apologize. You will.

When Marie-Claire and I sat down to discuss this project over 2 years ago, we were persistently dogged by two concerns a) very few people or no one would want to talk about their challenges b) our call for supportive essays describing negative experiences in order to pass along the derived wisdom to another generation of women would be met with denial. “Science is hard for everyone. Complain less and get to work”, “this is how the weak are weeded out of the field” “I’ve never had a problem and women who do are not suited to the field”,  …and so on. We were deeply concerned that the primary response would be protests describing women who have faced  serious obstacles as exceptional…somehow not within the normal distribution of women in science and, therefore, not worth talking about.

While we did hear from one person who told us “science is hard”, every other comment we received, including those from people wanting clarification on the the project’s tone, was respectful and informative. Importantly, the hundred-ish women who contacted us with stories to share were overwhelming positive about the project. A hundred-ish women who wanted to talk about their negative experiences, and wanted to pass along advice and support to young scientists – how exciting is that??

The last 10 days has me thinking about our future in STEM. I’m sure if we left the call open, we’d get many more title proposals. Describing the negative to derive some good has struck some kind of collective nerve. The utter absence of “pull yourself up by your boot straps” narratives in these proposals relieves me of the messy business of excising such stories due to tone, but it also bring me relief for another reason entirely. We – I mean the grand-all-of-us-WE – care about this leaky pipeline in STEM. In stark contrast to period during which I was a trainee, a lot of us are willing to honestly and loudly talk about our experiences in order to help others. Importantly, as these we scale the obstacles we face on this career path, we are not pulling up the rope behind us.

…and that, right there, is just one of the many ways that you ladies rock.

Update: Call for essays from women in science on surviving the exodus


I am humbled by how many of you have reached out to us to share your stories. My website was only indexed a few days before the call went out and within hours of the call’s release, that particular post had been viewed hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of times and the numbers keep climbing.  The emails proposing titles for personal essays just keep rolling in. Every proposed essay has been deeply relevant and important to discuss. Your enthusiasm is so infectious. Marie-Claire and I are truly honoured to be able to work on this project with you.

We are so excited to see what the next week brings.

Given the enthusiasm you have shown and have generated (Tumblr and Facebook posters and those tweeting in the world – wow. Thanks so much!)  we are trying to cast the net really far this week, so that we can get the broadest representation of women and their experiences in the sciences as possible. If you have a story to share please contact us. If you know someone who might be interested in contributing to this effort, please pass along the link to the call . If you would prefer to pass along a pdf, you can find it here  -> Call for Women in Science_final .

Thanks again for your excitement and encouragement.



Call for papers: Women in science on surviving the sexodus

Women in Science: Call for personal experience essays
“Surviving the Sexodus: Practical advice from women in science”
Edited book
Rutgers University Press, 2016 (tentative)

Many young women dream of a life in science, inspired by the opportunity for a meaningful and rewarding career involving curiosity, passion, mentorship and discovery. Indeed, a desire to reap such rewards can help explain the representation of women in the early stages of some scientific careers (e.g. graduate enrollment), especially in biological and life sciences. Women are, however, very underrepresented in senior research positions. It is fair to say that the proportion of women employed at the senior research level does not nearly reflect the numbers of women who initially express interest in science career.

The reasons behind women staying in science, progressing through the academic/corporate hierarchy or leaving science entirely are complex, but we likely can all point to pivotal moments and challenges that we faced over the course of our experience with the scientific lifestyle. For some of us, these are singular standout moments, for others it is the accumulation of small aggressions that wear us down. Whether it be low pay, long work hours, the pressures of publish or perish, loss of potential retirement fund years, new career interests, spousal career conflict, change in family arrangements or responsibilities, difficult job searches, bullying, harassment or exclusion, there are a myriad of reasons that women are not proportionally represented in science jobs. Those of us that have worked in science have, however, found one way or another to deal with these challenges and have something valuable to share with our peers and those who are coming up behind us.

The aim of this book is to present the shared wisdom of women who have worked in science to girls and women contemplating or actively pursuing scientific careers. We are collecting personal essays describing the challenges, large and small, experienced by women over the course of education and career development and the strategies they developed to cope and move forward, including finding other avenues for their scientific passions. The overall goal is to provide a collection of relatable stories that can offer support and hope to those at all stages of pursuing a career in science.

If you are interested in participating, please send an email with a provisional title by September 10th, 2014 and draft abstract (250-500 words) by September 30th, 2014 to Jessica Brinkworth and Marie-Claire Shanahan at jfbrinkworthATgmailDOTcom and mcshanahATucalgaryDOTca  Essays will be approximately 1500-5000 words long and can include images if desired. The suggested topics below are a guideline only. We are willing to consider any essay that describes challenges and negative experiences and specific strategies and coping mechanisms that you used, even if it changed the direction of your work or life.

          We are sensitive to concerns about privacy and will work with authors to ensure that their stories can be conveyed fairly while preserving their personal and professional security.

Please forward this call for essays to anyone you think might be interested in participating in such a project. We are seeking authors from a broad variety of fields and backgrounds. The publication timeline is as follows:

September 10 2014 – provisional titles
September 30 2014 – draft abstracts
June 10 2015– essays for review due
September 10 2015 – revised essays due

Hope to hear from you,

Jessica Brinkworth                                              and           Marie-Claire Shanahan
Assistant Professor                                                              Associate Professor
Department of Anthropology (starting 2015)                  Research Chair in Science Education
University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign                          Werklund School of Education
Urbana, Illinois                                                                      University of Calgary
USA                                                                                         Calgary, Alberta

Potential starting areas for essay topics include, but are not limited to:

Real life

Starting a family early or late career
Real life interruptions of science career
On being an adult student in grad school
Finding work life balance
Mixing family and field work
Mental or physical illness

My friends are buying apartments and I’m pipetting for my dissertation at 3 am

The wrong mentor
Poorly funded grad programs
The wrong program
Being interested in another life completely
When your advisor doesn’t make tenure, or leaves

Being an ethnic minority in science
Being LGBTIA in science
Being alternatively abled in science

Pocketbooks and suitcases

Personal financial challenges during study/career
Life of the scientific spouse
Working in a place where you do not speak the language
Working in another country/culture

Thievery, loss and recourse

Not making tenure/losing tenure
Failed job searches
Loss of funding
On getting scooped

Over the line

Wrongful dismissal
When a mentor can’t seem to keep their nose out of your personal life
Microaggrressions, insults – on the message that you do not belong here

When we quit and where we go

The decision to leave academia
The decision to leave science
Adjuncting for life
Returning to academia

The scientific method is a myth/why you need to know that science is a hot mess

Physics! photo credit: Karen Amarotico (

photo credit: Karen Amarotico (

              In my grade 6 science class a teacher stood at the front of the room and said the word “hypothesis”.  It was the third in a series of steps  I needed to take to complete a scientific experiment – form a hypothesis. As a process, science seemed very simple, I just needed to state a purpose, give background, form a specific hypothesis (new fancy word), test it, put it in context of other people’s results and draw a conclusion.

            I had an untraditional entry into wet lab science. I sat at my first bench after having been enrolled in a doctoral program for a year. It wasn’t until I was well entrenched in the business of keeping cell cultures alive that I realized how reliant  the practice of biological science on the well planned fishing expedition, and the constant revision of acts meant to keep something alive long enough to find something interesting to analyze. In order to ensure an interesting result, projects must be framed broadly. Ninety percent of a researcher’s efforts will be dedicated to processes that don’t directly lead to a result or, if they should, they will fail to do so. The more tightly formed a hypothesis, the less likely you are to find something new. The more open your hypothesis, the more likely you are to catch a result. Once you have at least one interesting result, you can start to narrow your hypothesis down – a process that seems to lead many scientists to form their experimental backstory after the research is completed. This is how science is done. More importantly, this is how powerful and very informative science is done.

               The reality is at the bench, the standard description of the scientific process is pretty far removed from the actual process of doing science. Yet, when we report our findings to public, we are expected to describe our process as linear, tied to a narrowly defined hypothesis – as if that was the starting point. As a narrative, it might be interesting, but it’s a practical fallacy. Most importantly, it belies the truth about biological processes – they are messy, webby, intertwined with infinitesimal unknowable reactions that will alter whatever is the focus of a study. It means that a researcher can spend a lifetime, working long hours, hammering away at a question, doing everything they should do except quit, and have nothing to show for it. Ultimately, the stickiness of biology can complicate how results are conveyed after publication, and confuse or mislead the public.

              This is particularly true for the two areas in which I have spent almost 20 years studying – evolutionary biology and immunity. Together, “evolution” and “health” are a sexy combination in the science pages of media outlet. “Obesity is a good adaptation gone bad”. “Fasting leads to an evolutionary advantageous refreshing of your immune system”. “Menopause due to evolutionary flaws”. Common, high impact headlines, bound to alter the behaviour of some readers, despite not being true. Biology is complex. Evolution is complex. The process by which we come to understand them is complex. The culture of doing and purveying biological research is built around this complexity….which is why it is worth discussing such processes as the hot messes they really are.