In a Q&A, Bioengineering doctoral candidate Ana P. Peredo explains how the idea of “regeneration” motivated her to join WIVA, Wharton Social Impact’s impact investing program.
Why would you — a bioengineering Ph.D. student — seek to join WIVA?
“As a high school student, I was motivated to study bioengineering because of its potential to generate impact through technical innovation. To me, bioengineering was a way to apply engineering principles to create medical technology in the hopes of devising solutions for global health concerns.
Though I have gained significant understanding of the current pressing healthcare needs, I felt that I was missing a key understanding of how investors think about social impact. To better understand how to apply my science background to the impact space, I joined WIVA. I also wanted to venture outside of healthcare and learn about other important social impact sectors such as education, energy, and environment, all of which WIVA explores in its deal-sourcing process.”
What have you learned through WIVA that you have not been exposed to before?
“I learned how to assess early-stage startups for their impact and return-on-investment potential, as well as how to rigorously analyze company financials and projections.
An interdisciplinary research team has found statistical evidence of women being under-cited in academic literature. They are now studying similar effects along racial lines.
By Izzy Lopez
Scientific papers are the backbone of a research community and the citation of those papers sparks conversation in a given field. This cycle of publication and citation leads to new knowledge, but what happens when implicit discrimination in a field leads to papers by minority scholars being cited less often than their counterparts? A new team of researchers has come together to ask this question and dig into the numbers of gender and racial bias in neuroscience.
The team members include physicist and neuroscientist Danielle Bassett, J. Peter Skirkanich Professor of Bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania, with secondary appointments in the Departments of Neurology and Psychiatry in Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine, statistician Jordan Dworkin, then a graduate student in Penn Medicine’s Department of Biostatistics, Epidemiology and Bioinformatics, and ethicist Perry Zurn, an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at American University.
Their study on gender bias, which recently appeared in Nature Neuroscience, reports on the extent and drivers of gender imbalance in neuroscience reference lists. The team has also published a perspective paper in Neuron that makes practical recommendations for improving awareness of this issue and correcting for biases.
They are now working on a second study, led by Maxwell Bertolero, a postdoctoral researcher in Bassett’s lab, that considers the extent and drivers of racial imbalances in neuroscience reference lists.
Together, Bassett, Dworkin and Zurn are using their combined research strengths to uncover the under-citation of women or otherwise minority-led papers in neuroscience and to assess its significance. This research is fundamental in highlighting a true gap in representation in research paper citations, which can have detrimental effects for women and other minorities leading science. In addition, they provide actionable steps to address the problem and build a more equitable future.
Your research team is a distinctive one. How did you come together for a study about gender discrimination in neuroscience citations?
Jordan Dworkin: It was a fortunate coincidence. In the run-up to a big neuroscience conference, I started seeing discussions on Twitter about gender-based discrimination in neuroscience. There were stories being shared of women’s papers being overlooked and reviewers seeing reference lists that were almost entirely made up of men. It was illuminating, especially because some people in the discussion were hesitant to take those experiences at face value. This skepticism, and occasional combativeness, seemed to stem from the view that citations are an untouchable, scientific bastion where researchers’ decisions are fully objective. The tension between that view and scholars’ lived experiences encouraged me to explore the existing literature on this issue.
As it turns out, there is really strong literature on issues of diversity and citation in science. Some disciplines have done field-specific investigations, such as the foundational studies in political science, international relations, and economics, but there wasn’t yet any research in neuroscience. Since biomedical sciences often have different approaches to citation, it seemed that it would be worth doing a deeper neuroscience-specific investigation to give quantitative backing to the issue of gender bias in neuroscience research.
Danielle Bassett: When Jordan and I started working together on this project, I knew it was important. To do it right, we needed to present the information in a way that made it actionable, with clear recommendations about how each of us as scientists can help address the issue. We also needed to add someone to the team with expertise in gender theory and research ethics. We especially wanted to make sure we were discussing gender bias in a way that was informed by recent advances in gender studies. That’s when we brought Perry in.
Perry Zurn: I’m a philosopher by training, with a focus on ethics and politics. Citations are both an ethical and a political issue. Citations reflect whose questions and whose contributions are recognized as important in the scholarly conversation. As such, citations can either bring in marginalized voices, voices that have been historically excluded from a conversation, or they can simply replicate that exclusion. My own field of philosophy has just as much of a problem with gender and racial diversity as STEM fields, something Dani and I have been talking about for a long time. This work seemed like a natural point of collaboration.
Describe this study and what it means for promoting gender diversity in neuroscience.
Bassett: For years now, various scholars and activists in science have drawn attention to issues of gender and racial inequities in the field. Most of these conversations, however, have placed responsibility for change in the hands of people in power, such as journal editors, grant reviewers, department chairs, presidents of scientific societies, etc. But many of the imbalances people notice, whether in conversation with peers or through studies like ours, are perpetuated by researchers at all levels. Given that every research project is built on prior research, and therefore every paper has a reference list of citations, every researcher can make a difference. Who we choose to cite matters.
Dworkin: To understand the role of gender in citation practices, we looked at the authors and reference lists of articles published in five top neuroscience journals since 1995. We accounted for self-citations, and various potentially relevant characteristics of papers, and we found that women-led papers are under-cited relative to what would be expected if gender was not a consideration in citation behavior. Importantly, we also found that the under-citation of women-led papers is driven largely by the citation behavior of men-led teams. We also found that this trend is getting worse over time, because the field is getting more diverse while citation rates are generally staying the same.
For a very simple example, if there were 10 women and 90 men neuroscientists in 1980, then citing 10% women would be roughly proportional. But with a diversifying field, say there are now 200 women and 200 men neuroscientists and citations are still 10% women. Sure, the percentage of women cited didn’t go down, but that percentage is now vastly lower than the true percentage in the field. That’s a dramatic example, but it shows you that if we’re going to call for equality in scientific citation, the number of women-led papers on a given reference list should reflect, or even exceed, the number of available and relevant women-led papers in a field, and our work found that it does not.
Bassett: This under-citation of women scientists is a key issue because the gaps in the amount of engagement that women’s work receives could have detrimental downstream effects on conference invitations, grant and fellowship awards, tenure and promotion, inclusion in syllabi, and even student evaluations. As a result, understanding and eliminating gender bias in citation practices is vital for addressing gender imbalances in a field.
Why are citations important to gender representation in neuroscience?
Dworkin: Unlike hiring and grant funding, citations are something every researcher participates in. For example, as a graduate student I did not have any role on a faculty search committee, or any power in an academic society to decide on conference speakers, but I still have reference lists in all my papers. Citations are a unique area where all researchers play a direct role, where each person has a chance to reflect on their own practices and use those practices to create change in their field. Their ubiquity means that citations function as a conversation within a field, and their presence or absence can signal whose work is valued and whose is not. On a more concrete level, citations are often used as metrics for a variety of important, potentially career-defining, decisions.
Bassett: There are a lot of underrepresented scholars who have fantastic ideas and write really interesting papers but they’re not being acknowledged — and cited — in the way they deserve. And there are great role models for all the young women who are thinking about going into science, but unless the older women scientists are being cited, the younger ones will never see them. Without serious changes in the field, and a deep commitment to gender and racial diversity, many young women and minority scientists won’t stick with it, they won’t be hired, they won’t be promoted, and they won’t be put in the textbooks.
Zurn: Exactly. I think it’s important not only to think about who we’re citing as leading scientists, but also what sorts of people we’re representing as scientists at all. If you are looking at neuroscience as a field and you see predominantly white cisgender men in the research labs and the reference lists, then you begin to think that is what a neuroscientist looks like. But this homogeneity is neither representative of an increasingly diverse field like neuroscience, nor supportive of continuing efforts to diversify STEM in general. We need to expand what a scientist looks like and citations are one way to do that.
Danielle Bassett also has appointments in Penn Engineering’s Department of Electrical and Systems Engineering and Penn Arts & Sciences Department of Physics and Astronomy.
Jordan Dworkin is now an Assistant Professor of Clinical Biostatistics in the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia University.
Kristin Linn, Assistant Professor of Biostatics, Russell Shinohara, Associate Professor of Biostatistics, and Erin Teich, a postdoctoral researcher in Bassett’s lab, also contributed to the study published in Nature Neuroscience. It was supported by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke through grants R01 NS085211 and R01 NS060910, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and the National Science Foundation through CAREER Award PHY-1554488.
“Our Bio-MakerSpace” takes viewers on a tour inside BE’s one-of-a-kind educational laboratories.
Produced primarily on smart phones and with equipment borrowed from the Penn Libraries, and software provided by Computing and Educational Technology Services, the videos were made by rising Bioengineering junior Nicole Wojnowski (BAS ‘22). Nicole works on staff as a student employee of the BE Labs and as a student researcher in the Gottardi Lab at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), helmed by Assistant Professor of Pediatrics Riccardo Gottardi.
Sevile Mannickarottu, Director of the Educational Labs in Bioengineering, says that the philosophy of the Bio-MakerSpace “encourages a free flow of ideas, creativity, and entrepreneurship between Bioengineering students and students throughout Penn. We are the only open Bio-MakerSpace with biological, chemical, electrical, materials, and mechanical testing and fabrication facilities, all in one place, anywhere.”
Bioengineering doctoral student Dayo Adewole co-founded the company Instahub, which also took home a PIP award in 2019. Dayo also graduated from the BE undergraduate program in 2014. In this video, he discusses the helpfulness and expertise of the BE Labs staff.
Senior Associate Dean for Penn Engineering and Solomon R. Pollack Professor in Bioengineering David Meaney discusses how the Bio-MakerSpace is the only educational lab on campus to provide “all of the components that one would need to make the kinds of systems that bioengineers make.”
In a Q&A, researcher Lyle Ungar discusses why counties that frequently use words like ‘love’ aren’t necessarily happier, plus how techniques from this work led to a real-time COVID-19 wellness map.
By Michele W. Berger
People in different areas across the United States reacted differently to the threat of COVID-19. Some imposed strict restrictions, closing down most businesses deemed nonessential; others remained partially open.
Such regional distinctions are relatively easy to quantify, with their effects generally understandable through the lens of economic health. What’s harder to grasp is the emotional satisfaction and happiness specific to each place, a notion Penn’s World Well-Being Project has been working on for more than five years.
In 2017, the group published the WWBP Map, a free, interactive tool that displays characteristics of well-being by county based on Census data and billions of tweets. Recently, WWBP partnered with Penn Medicine’s Center for Digital Health to create a COVID map, which reveals in real time how people across the country perceive COVID-19 and how it’s affecting their mental health.
That map falls squarely in line with a paper published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by computer scientist Lyle Ungar, one of the principal investigators of the World Well-Being Project, and colleagues from Stanford University, Stony Brook University, the National University of Singapore, and the University of Melbourne.
By analyzing 1.5 billion tweets and controlling for common words like “love” or “good,” which frequently get used to connote a missing aspect of someone’s life rather than a part that’s fulfilled, the researchers found they could discern subjective well-being at the county level. “We have a long history of collecting people’s language and asking people who are happier or sadder what words they use on Facebook and on Twitter,” Ungar says. “Those are mostly individual-level models. Here, we’re looking at community-level models.”
In a conversation with Penn Today, Ungar describes the latest work, plus how it’s useful in the time of COVID-19 and social distancing.
Featured on a recent episode of “Choosing to be Curious” on WERA 96.7 Radio Arlington, Bassett discussed her work in studying curiosity and the potential neural mechanisms behind it. In her work, Bassett strives to re-conceptualize curiosity itself, defining it as not just seeking new bits information, but striving to understand the path through which those bits are connected.
Bassett is a pioneering researcher in the field of network science and how its tools can be applied to understand the brain. Now, Bassett and her research team are using the tools of network science and complex systems theory to uncover what common styles of curiosity people share and how individual styles differ. In addition, the team is exploring if there are canonical types of curiosity among humans or if each person’s curiosity architecture is unique.
This isn’t the first time Bassett has combined the tools of disparate fields to pursue her research. For as long as she can remember, Bassett has been insatiably curious and, while she was homeschooled as a child, she often wandered from one subject to the next and let her own interest guide her path. For Bassett, studying curiosity with the tools of physical, biology, and engineering is a natural step in her research journey.
In her interview with host Lynn Borton, Bassett says:
“What took me to curiosity is the observation that there’s a problem in defining the ways in which we search for knowledge. And that perhaps the understanding of curiosity could be benefitted by a scientific and mathematical approach. And that maybe the tools and conceptions that we have in mathematics and physics and other areas of science are useful for understanding curiosity. Which most people would consider to be more in the world of the humanities than the sciences….“Part of what I’m hoping to do is to illustrate that there are connections between disciplines that seem completely separate. Sometimes some of the best ideas in science are inspired not by a scientific result but by something else.”
Melanie Hilman was born to be a Biomedical Engineer. The daughter of an electrical engineering father and physician mother, Melanie was inspired by her parents work and is now pursuing the intersection of their two careers: bioengineering.
Her passion for engineering began long before Melanie stepped onto Smith Walk.
“I always really loved math and science as a middle school and high school student,” Melanie says.
Melanie quickly discovered that Penn was the perfect place for her. After visiting campus as a prospective student, Melanie knew that she wanted to attend a research-driven university where innovation and discovery was at the top of the curriculum.
“Being in a place so rich with research and really smart minds motivated me to apply here and be a part of this program,” Melanie remembers.
On top of her bioengineering research, Melanie submatriculated into Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics with a focus on Mechanics of Materials because she wants to develop a deep foundation in the mathematical concepts. After gaining this experience, Melanie hopes to conduct complex research and eventually pursue a PhD.
BETWEEN TWO WORLDS
“I really like thinking about the interface between biology and today’s technologies,” Melanie comments. Right now, she’s focused on doing research but she is interested in, one day, developing biomedical technologies for the start-up industry.
As if building the future of bioengineering weren’t enough for Melanie, she is a dedicated member of the Penn community outside of the lab. Throughout her time at Penn, Melanie is a student leader of Penn Hillel, a devoted performer in the Penn Symphony Orchestra and Penn Chamber Music, and a multimedia staff member of the Daily Pennsylvanian. Even when school is out of session, Melanie represents Penn during Alternative Spring Break trips where she took on a leadership position renovating houses in West Virginia. All of this extracurricular work is important to Melanie, as she says these experiences have given her a valuable perspective to carry with her through academic, professional and personal life.
“It makes me feel really fortunate for my upbringing and my experiences,” Melanie shares.
WOMEN IN STEM
When asked about her favorite part of being at Penn Engineering, Melanie was certain about her answer: empowered women engineers.
“Having a really strong female engineering network is super valuable to me,” Melanie says.
Melanie says she’s found friendship and support among her fellow women engineers and that working with women is as fun as it is enriching. While Penn Engineering has proved itself to be an inclusive space for Melanie and others, current research shows that only 13% of professional engineers are women, and, among them, biomedical engineering ranks fourth in terms of career path of women engineers. Faced with these jarring numbers, Melanie is even more committed to encouraging other women to join her in STEM.
Most of all, she is grateful for the community she has found on campus.
“I know I’m going to have a good group of friends after I graduate. I have found other women that I hope to have lasting friendships with.”
Armed with friends and research partners, Melanie Hillman may very well turn the tides for women in engineering and usher in a new era of women in the lab who lead the charge for biomedical innovation.
Growing up in Sri Lanka and being surrounded by relatives who were doctors, I have been fascinated by both modern and traditional medicine. However, during physician shadowing in high school, I came to the realization that I was far more fascinated with the technology doctors use rather than practicing medicine. Therefore, I made the decision to turn down studying medicine in the U.K. and come to Penn to study Bioengineering in the hopes of being more hands-on with medical technology.
Have you done research with a professor on campus? What did you like, and what didn’t you like about it?
I currently work in the Interventional Radiology Lab at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP) under Assistant Professor of Radiology Chamith Rajapakse. The best thing about research here is that I get to be hands-on with some of the most cutting edge technology in the world and help pioneer medical diagnostic techniques that aren’t traditionally being used anywhere else. The only downside is that the learning curve can be a little too steep.
What have been some of your favorite courses and/or projects in Bioengineering so far?
Without a doubt, my favorite BE class has to be BE 309 (Bioengineering Modeling, Analysis and Design Laboratory I) and especially the Computer-Cockroach Interface we have to develop for this lab.
What advice would you give to your freshman self?
There are way too many things happening at a given time at Penn. Take it easy and plan it out so you can do everything you want to! It’s totally possible. Who says you can’t work hard and play hard?!
What do you hope to pursue after obtaining your undergraduate degree?
My hope is to head my own health-tech startup and create technologies that will aid developing countries, starting out with my humble island of Sri Lanka first.
A Q&A with neuroscientist Konrad Kording on how connections between minds and machines are portrayed in popular culture, and what the future holds for this reality-defying technology.
For the many superheroes that use high-powered gadgets to save the day, there’s an equal number of villains who use technology nefariously. From robots that plug into human brains for fuel in “The Matrix” to the memory-warping devices seen in “Men in Black,” “Captain Marvel,” and “Total Recall,” technology that can control people’s minds is one of the most terrifying examples of technology gone wrong in science fiction and superhero films.
Now, progress made on brain-machine interfaces, technology that provides a direct communication link between a brain and an external device, is bringing us closer to a world that feels like science fiction. Elon Musk’s company NeuraLink is working on a device to let people control computers with their minds, while Facebook’s “mind-reading initiative” can decode speech from brain activity. Is this progress a glimpse into a dark future, or are there more empowering ways in which brain-machine interfaces could become a force for good?
Q: What are the main challenges in connecting brains to devices?
The key problem is that you need to get a lot of information out of brains. Today’s prosthetic devices are very slow, and if we want to go faster it’s a tradeoff: I can go slower and then I am more precise, or I can go faster and be more noisy. We need to get more data out of brains, and we want to do it electrically, meaning we need to get more electrodes into brains.
So what do you need? You need a way of getting electrodes into the brain without making your brain into a pulp, you want the electrodes to be flexible so they can stay in longer, and then you want the system to be wireless. You don’t want to have a big connector on the top of your head.
It’s primarily a hardware problem. We can get electrodes into brains, but they deteriorate quickly because they are too thick. We can have plugs on people’s heads, but it’s ruling out any real-world usage. All these factors hold us back at the moment.
That’s why the Neuralink announcement was very interesting. They get a rather large number of electrodes into brains using well-engineered approaches that make that possible. What makes the difference is that Neuralink takes the best ideas in all the different domains and puts them together.
Q: Most examples in pop culture of connecting brains to machines have villainous or nefarious ends. Does that match up with how brain-machine interfaces are currently being developed?
Let’s say you’ve had a stroke, you can’t talk, but there’s a prosthetic device that allows you to talk again. Or if you lost your arm, and you get a new one that’s as good as the original—that’s absolutely a force for good.
It’s not a dark, ugly future thing, it’s a beautiful step forward for medicine. I want to make massive progress in these diseases. I want patients who had a stroke to talk again; I want vets to have prosthetic devices that are as good as the real thing. I think short-term this is what’s going to happen, but we are starting to worry about the dark sides.