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The Courageous Scientists Podcast is a short-term passion project by Kate Clancy, anthropology professor, trouble-maker, and host of Period Podcast. Hear interviews with inspiring scientists who stand in their values, serve as role models, and do hard things. Remember that while some of us can do work right now, others of us are having to put it down or change direction for a time, or focus on the care of others. This is all good and important work. Music selection by Janice Collins (Ambient Technology by Alexei Anisimov), and header and icon by Carrie Templeton.

May 1, 2020

Dr. Rebecca Shansky is an associate professor of psychology at Northeastern University. Dr. Shansky studies the behavioral neuroscience of rodents and has taken on her field's exclusion of female animals in research. As she points out, the way we talk about women has an interesting similarity to the way we talk about female rodents, and it's time for biases against "fluctuating hormones" to stop. You can learn more about Dr. Shansky's work on her website, read her Science commentary, and listen to her talk at the Mind & Life Institute Meeting in Gabarone Botswana (starting at the 6:30 mark).


Dr. Kate Clancy: Okay, thank you so much for joining me. I am…

Dr. Becca Shansky: It’s my pleasure.

Clancy: I am really excited to interview you. This is Dr. Becca Shansky of Northeastern University. She is an associate professor of psychology and we are going to do another courageous scientist interview. So Dr. Shansky, as you know, there are three questions to this interview. So the first question is: What brought you to science?

Shansky: What brought me to science? I was a psychology major in undergrad and mostly because I really didn’t know what I was interested in. It seemed like a particularly interesting major that also wasn’t too demanding and it allowed me to take a lot of other really cool classes like painting and film and all kinds of artsy stuff that I was also into. But when I started taking neuroscience classes as part of the psychology requirements, that was when something kind of kicked on and I was like, ‘Oh, this is actually very cool.’ And I wanted to, I was really interested in research and I wanted to keep reading papers and discussing papers and that was just where I wanted my brain to find its place. So the people in my department were like ‘Well, if this what you like, then you should go to grad school.” And I was just like ‘Okay, I guess I’m going to grad school.’

(Laughs) But it was never this long-term vision where I was like ‘I want to be a professor or scientist.” It was more of an initial way of keeping myself engaged in something I found really really exciting and interesting. So from there I kind of just took it day by day. I went to grad school, I finished. I did a post-doc, I finished. I was like ‘I still like this’ so I guess I am going to just keep going. And here I am.


Clancy: Well, I for one am very glad you’re here.

Shansky: (Laughs) Me too.

Clancy: So can you tell me in what ways have you’ve shown courage in science?

Shansky: So I think that I have shown more and more courage essentially in what I have been, how I have been willing to try and shape my field. So I have been studying rodents since grad school and my original thesis project was looking at sex differences and the way the brain responds to stress. Through there, I started to understand how few people were actually studying female animals unless they were interested in something very specifically female such as reproduction or reproductive behavior. Even though we’re putting all this research out there saying ‘This is the brain, this is how the brain works,’ in reality, we are only studying male animals, by and large.

And, so I got really involved in a group of scientists who were specifically interested in sex differences. When the NIH made its ‘Sex As a Biological Variable’ mandate a few years ago which required people, all researchers who receive NIH funding to  study both males and females in animal research, there was a lot of complaining and a lot of misconceptions about what it meant to study females. And the biggest complaint I heard was that people, everyone would now have to account for the estrous cycle which is the hormonal cycle that rats go through. Some days they have really high levels of estradiol. Some days they’re low. There was a misconception there that fluctuation would mess up their data and I had heard that for a very long time and I started thinking about why people are thinking that about their research when males have different levels of hormones too and it has never seemed to be a problem.

There was something about the complaint about the estrous cycle that felt very disingenuous to me. And it reminded me of the way that we talk about women in society; that we are hormonal. That the ovarian hormones are essentially the one thing that drives our brains, our behavior, and the way we think and act. And that’s not how we think about the role hormones play in males. Which, of course, males have plenty of hormones but have a wide range of emotions and so there seemed to be kind of a double standard there. So what I did was I essentially called all of this out in a perspective piece that I wrote for Science Magazine and it was really scary because essentially what I was doing was saying that my colleagues are sexist and it you know, whether or not they recognized it as such that having this double standard about what it means to do rigorous science in a female animals versus rigorous science in a male animal is not okay. So I was nervous because even though I have tenure now, I still am not necessarily the most successful person and they’re a whole lot of people doing research for a long time that still have a lot of power over me and my career. And so I was scared but I just felt so strongly about it that I wrote it and published it anyway.

Clancy: Can I ask, have there been any particular consequences for your having done that? How long ago was that?


Shanksy: That was… the paper came out almost a year ago. It was may of last year. And there have definitely been some consequences and most of them, honestly, have been really good. I have been invited to speak at a lot more events and not just in… being invited to department seminars which I love to do but I’ve been more kind of global, big picture outreach as well. So I got to speak at ‘Hubweek’ which is a Boston based ideas festival which is very cool. Some of those things were cancelled because of corona virus but the piece that I wrote up, Science decided to put out a press release which they don’t usually do for perspective pieces and so it got picked up by the New York Times, LA Times, Science Friday so all of that and the little 15 minutes of fame have been really fun. And I’m excited that this is something that now a lot, not just scientists… you know I really wrote this piece for my colleagues but the fact that it’s getting, now recognized by a broader community is really good because it is that sort of public pressure that I think can help people really understand how to do science in the right way.


Clancy: I think that’s such an important observation and I am so glad that I followed up and asked you what actually happened afterwards because I think that most of us only think about the negative consequences when we stick our necks out. And of course there are plenty of times where we do that and there really are just costs. And I am not trying to make light of that but at the same time, there are times that you don’t just get to get that conversation going you know? You get to actually experience some really positive… I don’t know if consequences is the right word, you know some kind sort of positive effects sometimes too and I’m so glad that that happened for you.

Shansky: Yeah

Clancy: So, what do you want others to know about how to be a courageous scientist?

Shansky: I think that, what I want people to know is that, I think as you just said, there can be it seems like being courageous is only truly courageous if something bad is going to happen to you afterwards and I think that’s not necessarily the case. You know I think this is… it has been really interesting over the course of my career to watch the progression of mentalities in terms of how to study female animals. You know it used to be, when I was in grad school, ‘It’s not important. All brains are the same. This isn’t worth talking about.’ to ‘It is important, but it’s kind of niche.’ to now everyone has to do it and now I think that people are really trying to think genuinely hard about how to do their science the right way and ‘Do I need to account for the estrous cycle?’ and ‘Is this important an important component of my research?’ Or is it just one of many potential things that could influence data and you have to kind of choose what your going to focus on in terms of experimental control.

So I… the conversations that I have had over the last couple of years especially in the last year with my colleagues since the paper came out have been really encouraging to me. People really want to do a good job so it’s not just this burden any more but then it’s something that maybe is going to enrich their science. So I got off the main question a little bit but I think it really just comes down to just know doing what you know is right and saying what you know is right and I think, even if it isn’t immediate, people are going to eventually come around, maybe not everyone. And I know for a fact that people are still just refuse to incorporate females into their research and I am in the process of writing another piece that will kind of address that and figure out what the steps are for the broader science community including journals and granting agencies to really ensure that that SABV is a success.


Clancy: That was a… was that an acronym at the end?

Shansky: Oh sorry, yeah SABV is the abbreviation for Sex As a Biological Variable which is the NIH mandate


Clancy: Well I can’t wait until your next piece is out. That’s really exciting. And then, of course, we’ll just have to talk all over again. To hear…

Shansky: Oh well we’ll just keep talking (Laughs)

Clancy: Well thank you so much Dr. Shansky. This was really wonderful to hear from you and to hear your perspective on this experience that you’ve had your piece in Science. Thank you so much


Shansky: Yeah this was fun. Thanks for having me.

Clancy Outro: Thanks for Having me for the Courageous Science Podcast. Like I said, this is a short-term passion-project to keep me sane during the pandemic. So I don’t want your money. Please do tell budding scientists and science educators of all ages about the podcast because I think they’ll like it. And if you have the means, send a few bucks the way of your local foodbank. Thanks for listening.