As It Happens

Women's contribution to genetics relegated to the footnotes, study finds

After seeing the movie Hidden Figures, professor Emilia Huerta-Sanchez was inspired to seek out women in genetics research who were not given proper credit for their work.

Researcher Emilia Huerta-Sanchez says 'a false narrative' has persisted that diminishes women's contributions

An unnamed scientist peers into a microscope in a laboratory. (Evening Standard/Getty Images)


Since the dawn of science, women's work in the field has been undervalued.

That kind of oversight was put in the spotlight with the 2016 biopic Hidden Figures, which tells the story of three black women mathematicians who worked at NASA during the space race in the 1960s — and the vital role they played.

After watching that film together, genetic researchers Rori Rohlfs and Emilia Huerta-Sanchez set out to find more overlooked women scientists.

Huerta-Sanchez is an Assistant Professor at Brown University and Rohlfs is an Assistant Professor at San Francisco State University.

"We were very surprised that we didn't know the stories of those women," Huerta-Sanchez told As It Happens host Carol Off.

"We thought why don't we do a study where we look back at papers, different research articles ... and see how often women get acknowledged, [rather than named as authors.]"

Researcher Emilia Huerta-Sanchez, right, and her colleague Rori Rohlfs. (Submitted by Emilia Huerta-Sanchez)

After scouring the acknowledgements, a few names kept appearing. One name was Jennifer Smith, who in one paper, was thanked for, "ably programming and executing all the computations."

"When I first saw that I was surprised because nowadays she would have been made an author," Huerta-Sanchez said. 

"She was running programs in a computer. She was developing some algorithms. She was doing statistical inference in the computer. She was supporting a lot of the computational work that was done for that study."

Huerta-Sanchez and Rohlfs recruited students to help them comb through 20 years of the journal Theoretical Population Biology looking for more names in editions published during the '70s and '80s. 

"In the 1970s, a big proportion of the acknowledged programmers were women and that changed in the '80s," Huerta-Sanchez said.

"That correlates with programming going from being a pink collar job, meaning done by women, and then in the '80s becoming a male-dominated field."

Huerta-Sanchez says women often acknowledged in scientific papers in the past would have been made authors today for similar work. (John Pratt/Keystone/Getty Images)

Huerta-Sanchez says that shift has historically diminished the role women played in the research.

"Even though it looks like the field of population genetics was created by a small group of men, there were, in fact, a lot of women behind the scenes helping with the research and supporting the research through computational work,' Huerta-Sanchez said.

Rohlfs and Huerta-Sanchez tracked down one woman, Margaret Wu, and some of the people who hired the acknowledged women to confirm that the computational work was similar to what graduate students might do today and not simply clerical work.

"[Wu] knows what grad students do because she eventually became a professor," Huerta-Sanchez said. 

Wu helped developed an important tool still used in genetics today called a Watterson estimator, named after the paper's only author, G.A. Watterson.

Huerta-Sanchez says Wu doesn't hold any resentment, despite the fact her contributions were historically downplayed.

"She was very happy to know she made some contributions to a paper that was highly cited," Huerta-Sanchez said.

"Both Rori and I are definitely more upset because we think she should have been made an author — and also because it would have been nice to know as grad students that there were women behind the scenes helping with the work."

Physicist Donna Strickland in a lab at the University of Waterloo, Oct. 2, 2018. (University of Waterloo)

When asked about Canadian physicist Donna Strickland, who only became a full professor after winning a Nobel Prize last year, Huerta-Sanchez says the problem persists today. 

"I've been in academia for more than 10 years now and we've been trying to increase the number of women in science, in engineering, in math, in computer science — but it's going really slow," Huerta-Sanchez said. 

"By taking credit from these women, we kind of push the field behind a little bit and I think by omitting them from history it creates a false narrative that women haven't been doing science but, in fact, they have."

Written by Kate Swoger and John McGill. Interview produced by Kate Swoger​.


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