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STEM and the Workplace Culture: Speaking up in the name of Science



Drawing of a woman standing in a room of people
Svetlana Mojsov has watched other scientists win recognition for work she contributed to, which led to the development of glucagon-like peptide-1 agonist drugs.

I have not met Francis Barany, a chemist at Weill Cornell Medicine, but he is someone I would love to have a conversation with regarding gender equality, Diversity and Inclusion in science. His research in cancer is fascinating and life changing; however, I am drawn to statement he made in a Science magazine article about gender equity and the “workplace culture” within science. He reframed an “either or” credit in a scientific discovery to a “yes and” scenario to include a female scientist’s overlooked contribution.


Barany’s quote comes at the end an end of an article written by Jennifer Couzin-Frankel titled“ “Her work paved the way for blockbuster obesity drugs. Now, she’s fighting for recognition.” Couzin-Frankel’s story chronicles the contributions of scientist Svetlana Mojsov and the discovery of the hormone GLP-1, at the foundation of the recently popular obesity drugs. It is a great read.

 

My dear friend, a PhD food scientist with 13-patents to her name sent me the article, saying I might enjoy this, knowing my passion for difficult conversations, especially when concepts like toxic masculinity confines roles for men and women. My smart, savvy, science-brained friend also knows my proclivity toward the art of communication, relationship building and gaining momentum for gender equity. She was right! Couzin-Frankel wrote in a way that even helped this communication professional understand that scientific lab work, experiments and writing builds on solid research done at the early phases; as in early work lays the foundation for more work to prove out a logic model or theory over time.

 

Mojsov, a female scientist, did groundbreaking foundational work. Her name was even first on research papers, an order in academia that means something relative to contribution on the work. She also helped develop and mentor other young scientists to follow the rigors of scientific, medical research.

 

Yet, when the awards came in, her name was omitted from the principal researchers – all males – who got multiple accolades. Some justified it as the slippery slope within science on what constitutes a contribution toward discovery, and others said they don’t get why not, expressing symphony to get recognition.

 

Francis Barany and his brother George, also a chemist who worked alongside Majsov as a fellow grad student took it a step further. They are now taking action to speak up about her contributions.

 

Here are the quotes attributed to Francis Barney based on Mojsov’s work: “This is a story that has happened over and over again in science “There are no villains. You don’t have to say that somebody hogged credit, but rather that she isn’t getting the recognition she deserves.”


What I appreciate about these statements is that it is not a zero-sum game scenario where one wins and one loses or a condemnation of work, but a plea to extend the recognition. The article notes that the principal researcher that are getting the recognition attest to her vital contribution. One of them even said he is very sympathetic. In fairness to him, he did not nominate himself and it is not as simple as adding her name on a certificate.


Again, this is not a condemnation of the principal researchers, but more so a nod to the phrase A rising tide lifts all boats! Mojsov, described as a quiet scientist, is now advocating for herself. The Barany brothers are amplifying her voice.

This article is a great primer for a healthy debate about discovery, science and gender equity. There are so many angles here to start a conversation:


  • We don’t know if this would be seen differently if Mojsov was a male?

  • Per the article, Mojsov is married to a well-known scientist who is willing to speak up for her, but she insists on standing on her own; what do you think?

  • What could the principal researchers that are getting the accolades do in this case?

  • What about the comment from the nominator who agrees she made a contribution but not the discovery?

  • What would you do if you were the principal researchers? If you were Mojsov?

  • These are the conversations that are important to move gender equity forward. One of the men I interviewed for the book Men-in-the-Middle: Conversations to Gain Momentum with Gender Equity’s Silent Majority, said in the training lab where we talk about Diversity & Inclusion it is “safe,” but the real-life learning lab is where we live.


It can be challenging to determine what to do when the stakes are high, and the risks are real. Normalizing these conversations among men and women, is a place to start.


Let’s start a conversation.


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