Hello! My name is Alyson and I am a Virologist. I work as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Pediatrics at Dalhousie University and the IWK Health Centre, studying viruses to find out how they make you sick. Since each one of you lovely people are your own individual, composed of unique characteristics, how you respond to a viral infection depends on your age, genetics, and health status. Viruses operate inside of your body’s cells to modify the action of the cell and your overall health. This dynamic relationship of Viruses versus You is called the host-virus interaction. Sometimes, as with the recent emergence of ZIKA virus in Brazil, the virus causing a specific human disease is not immediately known and scientists must hunt for the disease origin. Since viruses are not visible by the naked eye, at times it is difficult to know which virus is causing disease, who it is infecting, and where in our bodies it is targeting. These are the questions that drive me as a virologist and inspire me to think of myself as a Virus Hunter!
What is Soapbox Science?
So… Soapbox Science. I will be at Soapbox Science Halifax on the morning of Saturday June 16 at the Seaport Farmers’ Market talking about Virus Hunting from my handmade soapbox. Please come and see me. Bring your questions and enthusiasm. What is Soapbox Science you ask? Soapbox Science is an event giving the public an opportunity to interact with scientists, hear about our research, and ask questions. At our Halifax event, there will be 12 scientists, including myself, speaking about our work which ranges from viruses to insects to solar power. I will specifically be talking about the viruses causing outbreaks and pandemics including Ebola, Zika, pandemic Flu, and HIV. The focus of my research is to understand how these viruses emerged from their animal reservoir and how we can protect all types of people from disease. For example, I have previously searched for flu in ducks by collecting duck poop and testing it for different strains of influenza virus.
My daily work clothes in the lab includes a Powered Air Purifying Respirator (PAPR) to protect me from respiratory viruses including influenza. You can ask me about how viruses spread from one person to another (modes of transmission), the unique ways each virus cause illness, and how your illness may differ from another person. I have previously talked with high school students for Let’s Talk Science and Let’s Talk Microbiology. For the Soapbox Science event, I will have pictures and models of these viruses for you to look at as well as interactive activities to get involved without ever having to see a real virus. The goal of my research is to keep the community safe from harmful viruses, therefore your questions and ideas are valuable to me, too!
Women in Science
One of the most exciting aspects of Soapbox Science is that it features only female scientists up on the Soapbox. My fellow female scientists and I have spent years on our crafts and are excited to speak with you about our research. Why is it important to have a female-inspired event? Historically, women have been underrepresented compared to men in the scientific disciplines. Furthermore, although there have been many but fewer excellent female scientists in the past, their contributions have been underrecognized in scientific textbooks and historical records due to gender biases. Stereotypes portraying women as less intelligent, less competent, and less suited in the STEM disciplines have existed for centuries. And this is not only a historical problem. Trends of gender bias and underrepresentation continue today. A recent article by Ed Yong gives clear evidence that gender imbalance is still a significant problem. Specifically, Ed shows how female scientists are less likely to be recognized and quoted for their scientific expertise than men, thereby shaping our perception and opinion of women in science or lack thereof. Furthermore, a current NSERC report illustrates how women are underrepresented at every academic level in the sciences, from undergraduate student to university professor. Statistics Canada found that only 18% of university faculty members at Canadian Universities were female. The roots of imbalance are now beginning to be researched so we can understand why this occurs and how it can be corrected. Often referred to as “The Leaky Pipeline” and “Death by a Thousand Cuts,” research has suggested that the cause of gender imbalance is multifactorial. A landmark study published in PNAS investigating hiring preferences by both male and female scientists showed that males were statistically preferred by the scientists for lab positions. Another study has provided evidence that letters of support written for females are written in the tone describing a research trainee whereas letters for males of the same academic background are written describing males as equals and colleagues. Accounts of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct by men have also been a continuing problem for women in science. Women in field as especially vulnerable. Together these studies and others show that factors contributing to the loss of women in science include unconscious bias, higher standards applied to women for the same job, and harassment and abuse in the workplace. Soapbox Science is one initiative working to bring change. It is a platform for female scientists to raise their scientific voice and be recognized for their contributions in STEM.
WHAT WORRIES ME about the gender imbalance in science is that it affects every aspect of our daily lives. When scientific efforts only come from half of the human population, then the progress gained is through a single lens or gender perspective. Both ideas and research priorities are lost when decisions are made by committees lacking diversity. This is highlighted by research dominated by single gender studies. For example, in the past, drug discovery and evaluation research was done using a standardized cohort of single-gender subjects. This strategy has proven to be inappropriate and deleterious as hormone and biological differences between genders affects drug action. To correct this previous imbalance in research, both the Canadian (CIHR) and American (NIH) research funding agencies are now requiring a balanced approach when investigating biological and health problems. They are also putting in place gender balance regulations to ensure that both sexes are equally represented at the researcher level as well as in research studies. Close to home, Dalhousie is now consciously increasing diversity in hiring by instituting positive policies for employment equity. To do this, the school has made internal goals for equity in hiring, training, and promoting women. Furthermore, the Faculty of Medicine has developed its own policy that builds on the central policy of Dalhousie.
Want to hear more about my work or discuss women in STEM? Want to meet a scientist? Do you have any burning science-related questions? Come to Soapbox Science in Halifax the morning of June 16. Not in Halifax on that date? I’ve got you covered, too! I will be coming back with more blog posts before the Soapbox event with more information on my Virus Hunting, and after the event I will give an update on how the day went. Do you have questions for me? Please comment on this post and I will get back to you.