How Do You Get Girls To Study the Brain? Ask This 16-Year-Old
16-year-old Grace Greenwald of Denver is not just interested in science. She’s interested in neuroscience, the scientific study of all aspects of the nervous system, and she wants to get other girls interested too. She’s created a website, The Synapse Project, whose goal is to encourage young women to “enter the field of neuroscience through information and mentorship.”
“Just as a ‘synapse’ is the junction between two nerve cells,” so Greenwald says she created her site “to serve as a junction between esteemed neuroscience leaders and young women who aspire to join the exciting community of researchers, doctors and policy advisors who are passionate about the brain.” The Synapse Project contains profiles of neurologists including Helen Mayberg, who has studied the neurology of depression and disease pathology, and Amishi Jah has a lab in Miami that does research on mindfulness.
Greenwald created the site after wanting to learn more about neuroscience and finding few resources devoted to kids. The Synapse Project also offers virtual field trips that enable students to “visit,” via Skype, a neuroscientists’ lab and see experiments performed. Another part of the site provides volunteer and internship opportunities (for college and graduate students) to work as research assistants with neuroscientists.
Greenwald’s grandmother is Glenda Greenwald, who runs the annual Aspen Brain Forum, a “high level think tank” intended to bring together leaders in science and in industry to study the brain and aging, Alzheimer’s, autism, Parkinson’s, neural prosthetics and many other exciting new fields of research.
Noting that neuroscience isn’t a subject readily available for younger students to learn about, Greenwald has been also working on an independent study on the topic with a teacher. She hopes to one day create a MOOC about neuroscience for kids her age and even younger, with worksheets, lectures and other materials.
It goes without saying that we need a lot more young women like Greenwald. A 2006 analysis in Nature Neuroscience found that only 1 out of 5 articles published in the journal had a female corresponding author. A survey published in Neuroscience Quarterly offered more encouraging results as it found that, for the academic year 2007-2008, women represent 50 percent of undergraduate neuroscience majors, 52 percent of predoctoral trainees, 44 percent of postdoctoral trainees and 44 percent of nontenure-stream faculty members.
But the survey also noted that women represent only 26 percent of tenure-track/tenured faculty members and 21 percent of full professors. While many women choose to study science in college, a gender gap persists as they make their way up the career ladder.
For those who choose to treat those with neurological disorders, a similar gender gap prevails. In the field of neurosurgery, only about 7 percent of the roughly 3,300 board-certified neurosurgeons in the United States are women, according to 2011 figures. That’s about 219 (in the 1960s, there were exactly two). Female neurologists earned 24 percent less than male ones in 2011.
But science writer Virginia Hughes has noted an intriguing and hopeful sign. While writing an article on brain cells called microglia, Hughes discovered that, of the 15 people she spoke to, seven were women and many with labs staffed mostly, or fully, with women.
Microglia is a new subfield of neuroscience; Hughes suggests that women are attracted to study something with many unanswered questions, and without so much “dogma” from other scientists. Women may also have a different approach to conducting research that is less competitive and more collaborative. As one scientist, Marie-Ève Tremblay of the University of Wisconsin, says, “we are all young women helping each other a lot, trying to collaborate rather than just compete.”
You could certainly say that about Grace Greenwald. She could just focus on learning as much as she can about neuroscience. Instead, she’s devoted her time and energy to create a project with the goal of helping other young women learn about a fascinating and ground-breaking subject, too.
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