Conference: Futures of Science, Race, and Gender

September 28, 2009 at 2:21 am Leave a comment

Report on MIT Program in Womenś and Gender Studies: Futures of Science, Race, and Gender
Sept 26 2009 by sam \(^_^)/

This is a summary and digest of a conference I went to at MIT. I was looking to research for Scientific American/La America Científica. The web site for the conference is at

Panel 1:
Mentoring Women: Four Generations of Women Scientists at MIT

This session was an intergenerational panel of women who work in Cognitive Science. (specifically cognitive neuroscience). The discussion was primarily about intergenerational mentoring, and all the women on the panel had mentored or been mentored by the others. It was quite an interesting “lineage” as it were. At the end of the whole session, the audience response took it into another direction entirely (noted below)
Molly Potter began by outlining a history of women at MIT over the past century and into this one. She said an interesting thing, when McCormick hall (residence for women) was built at MIT, there was an upsurge of women students. Seems like a no-brainer? but sometimes the institutional barriers are so obvious they are hard to notice, paradoxically.

Nancy Kanwisher talked about the importance of mentoring.She made an interesting comment about the relation of neuroscientists and psychologists and their different ways of studying the mind. So when brain imaging (PET) scan came along it was a long time before psychologists were able to use this technology because the medical field had it and didn’t want to let it go.

Rebecca Saxe and Liang Young spoke in brief, about mentoring and their relations to their mentors. Both of them do not feel so much about ¨being a woman in the field” but just being in the field.

A question for me that came out of this: what is the critical mass of women where being a women ¨doesn´t matter”? that it’s “not an issue?” i.e. your self recognition of yourself as female does not come up constantly in a job with respect to promotion.

and is this a generational break in feminisms? (At least North American feminisms?)

Part II (i.e. holy crap!)

So after the talk (which was largely about these intergenerational collegial relationships) the audience had questions.One audience member asked how did white priviledge influence the panelists’ success. Actually the question was more like you all were white, how did you benefit from being white? NOTE TO SELF: the youngest panelist was Asian, i am wondering how she thought about being described as white. Rebecca Saxe intervened and said actually Liang was Chinese not white.

The issue exploded as a second questioner said that Liane Young is “basically white” because she is a model minority. (NOTE TO SELF: WTF! what is Basically White, anyway?) At this point it was actually painful to be in the room.
Another audience member intervened (fortunately) and said she appreciated the idea of ¨lineage” and mentorship ideas in this talk, and felt that should have been the main theme. Dr. Potter did some mediating on the spot, there was an awkward closing, and the group dispersed for lunch. Bottom line: 4 brilliant women in cog sci in panel, 1 audience meltdown discussion at the end.

Wow. how did this happen? Meltdown! I guess having a conference on race and gender going to engage with race and gender throughout. Panelists self identifying as white or a person of color..would that help? these are hard questions and i wonder how that will unfold in future discussions.
[NOTE TO SELF: it didn’t substantially]

some notes from Panel 2

some notes from Panel 2

Racialized Bodies
Pilar Ossorio, Sandy Alexandre, David Jones, Amy Marshall

I missed Sandy Alexandres mistake. too long at the MIT book store. I entered in the middle of Pilar Ossorio’s talk. one of her fields is developmental biology. the field in this talk was the topic of genetics, and ¨pharmacogenetics” and race in discussion of science and medicine. Ossario talked about race as a social construct, but said race can influence where people live, work, and get healthcare. She talked about the use of ‘racially differentiated biologies’ and should they exist. her theoretical influence is standpoint theory.

David Jones began his response with this question: is all of biology reducible to genetics?
He asked, how do differences accumulate on the body, and bodies. He explained Pharmacogenetics as being how genes affect drug absorbtion. He said there are other issues to be considered in that question..such as..things you eat can have an effect on drug absorbtion and so can “non compliance” ie not taking the medication. he said not enouf studies have been done on the effect of non compliance. He ended by asking should science research be directed by differences or common experiences?

Amy Marshall, another respondant, and an alumni of the Women’s and Gender studies dept at MIT talked about the problem of the definition of race in genetics.
David Jones also mentioned how it is easier to get scientific funding for genetics research (pharmacogenetics) than for studies of non-compliance.

Summary: overall a nuanced and interesting session on the issues of race and genetics in context of scientific and medical research.

Notes from panel 3

Notes from panel 3

Race, Gender, and In Vitro Fertilization in Ecuador: A reproductive economy.
Speaker: Elizabeth Roberts

Elizabeth Roberts is a medical anthropologist who did an ethnography with women in Ecuador as they got assisted reproduction. She talked about her assumptions prior to do this..that Ecuadorian women were too poor, catholic, or overpopulated to want assisted reproduction. I appreciated her sharing that..a reflexive approach.

In-vitro fertilization gained ground in the 1990’s in Ecuador. She noted that in Ecuador, there is intense privatization of health care, the public system is not good…race and class are intertwined with whether women get private or public health care.

She also noted about race in Ecuador, that race is perceived as a form of shape shifting..she claiims that it is possible to shift race over the course of one’s lifetime.i’m not sure how that can be long as color of skin is connected with perception of race. I do understand that in different countries, race has different histories, and different nuances. I wanted more details on that and less on assisted reproduction at this point.

respondant: Corrine Williamsshe talked about the ethical issues of picking the gender of a child (that was her field of study)

respondant: Rachel Dillon
she talked about transgender surgeries in relation to in-vitro fertilization, and the similarities and differences in negotiating them. For example, both surgeries tend to be out of pocket costs, so they are hard to get by lower income people (in the United States) But the differences rest in family non support for trans surgeries.
Also it is hard for trans men to get surgeries such as voluntary hystorectomies, in the United States, there are barriers for trans men to get surgeries that might stop potential reproduction.

I have to say I think both the respondants got the short end of the stick. They introduced interesting ideas that never had a chance to really get discussed in context with this panel. This could have been a conversation and interesting at that, but it should have been either just 1 speaker, or a panel of 3 with a followup.

SUMMARY: interesting talks but lost opportunity for developed dialogue.

OVERALL SUMMARY: glad i went. Awkward moments. some good conversations. Brilliant women. I did fell that it needed to be written up and posted on this blog. TOok a lot of work. I’m sure i missed some details, but did the best editing i could. Phew!

Entry filed under: conferences, Uncategorized.

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