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Hidden Figures: Honoring Women’s Impact in Neuroscience Throughout History 

It’s Women’s History Month, and now, more than ever before, we are at a tipping point. There is increased cognizance of gender inequality and the importance of inclusive and diverse approaches to medical research.

The Gender Gap: Women in Science by the Numbers:

  1. Half of all graduate and postgraduate students are women. Yet, women make up just one-third of math and science master’s and doctorate program graduates.
  2. Between 1901 and 2019, the Nobel Prizes were awarded to 21 women out of 615 scientists. Only one woman, Marie Curie, has been honored twice, with the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903 and the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911.
  3. Since 2019, women have accounted for (50.5%) of most US medical students. This rate is steadily increasing and should soon impact the number of female doctors entering the workforce. However, women remain concentrated in certain specialties (pediatrics and women’s specialties) and are less likely to be promoted to healthcare leadership roles.

Historically, women have been underrepresented in scientific fields, and this spills over into the research and study of women’s health. At the same time, we know that there are gender differences in health, including differences in pain perception and management, hormonal changes in brain and pain, and cardiometabolic risk factors, among other factors contributing to the complex interplay of sex and gender in health.

Women have been undervalued, underdiagnosed, undertreated, and underresearched. Across the board, protocols designed for men have been applied as one-size-fits-all to women without consideration for gender-based prevention, diagnosis, and treatment. The gap widens when we explore sociocultural factors driving the underdiagnosis and underestimation of pain for women.

One of the main reasons for the female gender gap in healthcare is the almost complete absence of historical role models.

Now for the good news: Women are shattering barriers every day and, one by one, breaking the glass ceiling in medicine. There are more women in medical science careers and positions of leadership than ever before in history. Today, let’s dedicate this space to recognizing and celebrating the women who have made significant contributions to the field of neuroscience and inspiring and empowering the next generation of women in medicine!

Five Forgotten Pioneers in Neuroscience

  1. Maria Mikhailovna Manasseina (1843–1903): One of the first women in Europe to earn a degree in medicine. She made important contributions to biochemistry, physiology, and sleep. She discovered that the negative effects of prolonged sleep deprivation originated in the brain and showed that sleep was vital to the preservation of life.
  2. Laura Elizabeth Forster (1858–1917): Studied the muscular and nervous systems, particularly muscle spindle fibers and the degeneration of nerve fibers after spinal cord injury. She was one of two women to develop their scientific potential at the Santiago Ramón y Cajal school.
  3. Manuela Serra (lived 1921): Her biography may be scarce, and she was neither a doctor nor a scientific researcher. She published studies of the spinal cord and was the first to report the presence of microglia in the white matter.
  4. Augusta Marie Déjerine-Klumpke (1859–1927) studied the anatomy of nerve centers and was the first woman to contribute directly to the writing of a neuroanatomy textbook. She pioneered rehabilitation after spinal injury and made important contributions to our current knowledge of spinal cord diseases. She won many prizes and awards. In 1914, Déjerine-Klumpke became the first female president of the French Society of Neurology.
  5. Cécile Mugnier Vogt (1875–1962): Made many important discoveries in the field of neuroanatomy and neuropathology. Her work led to a new understanding of how different parts of the brain are interrelated. In the 1920s, she publicly refuted Darwin’s claim and explicitly stated that nothing in her research showed a difference between male and female brains.

Ten of Today’s Trailblazing Women in Neuroscience

  1. Susan Y. Bookheimer: She is a professor of clinical neuroscience at UCLA School of Medicine known for her work developing brain imaging techniques to help patients with Alzheimer’s disease, autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, brain tumors, and epilepsy.
  2. Emma Yhnell: A British neuroscientist and lecturer based at Cardiff University. Her past research was on computerized cognitive training and Huntington’s disease. She won the British Science Association’s Charles Darwin Award Lecture for Agricultural, Biological, and Medical Sciences and the British Neuroscience Association’s Public Engagement Award.
  3. Heather Whalley: She is a Scottish scientist and senior research fellow in neuroimaging at the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Clinical Brain Sciences. Her main research is on the mechanisms underlying the development of major psychiatric disorders.
  4. Sheila Nirenberg: She is an American neuroscientist and is currently a professor at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University. She works in neural coding and is developing prosthetic devices to communicate directly with the brain and new smart robots. In 2013, she received a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” for deciphering the retina’s neural code, which allowed her to develop a new treatment for blindness.
  5. Molly J. Crockett: She is an American neuroscientist studying the role of neurotransmitters on human morality, altruism, and decision-making. She won the Janet Taylor Spence Award from the Association for Psychological Science in 2019.
  6. Danielle Bassett: An American physicist and systems neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania. They were the youngest individual to be awarded a 2014 MacArthur fellowship. Bassett, whose pronouns are they/them, was also awarded a 2014 Sloan fellowship.
  7. Sandhya Koushika: She is an Indian neuroscientist and is currently working at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai. Her research focus is the regulation of axonal transport within nerve cells. She received the International Early Career Award from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
  8. Eve Marder: A University Professor and the Victor and Gwendolyn Beinfield Professor of Neuroscience at Brandeis University. She is well known for her pioneering work on small neuronal networks, which revolutionized the study of neural circuits.  Marder has won many awards, including National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences memberships.
  9. Mary Jeanne Kreek (1937-2021): She was an American neurobiologist specializing in addiction. She was best known for her work in the development of methadone therapy for heroin addiction. Kreek won numerous awards, including the Betty Ford Award, the Specific Recognition Award for Research in the Science of Addiction from the Executive Office of the President, the R. Brinkley Smithers Distinguished Scientist Award, and the Nathan B. Eddy Memorial Award; the Wellesley College Alumnae Achievement Award; and a Lifetime Science Award from the National Institute on Drug Abuse at the National Institutes of Health.
  10. Yasmin Hurd: She is the Ward-Coleman Chair of Translational Neuroscience and the Director of the Addiction Institute at Mount Sinai.  She is globally recognized for her multidisciplinary research on the underlying neurobiology of substance use disorders and comorbid psychiatric disorders with a focus on risk factors for addiction and developmental exposure to drug abuse.

How To Tip the Scales and Increase Female Representation in Medicine

All this momentum has been building. You can practically feel the energy and passion driving equal representation of women in medicine. What we do next has the power to usher in an era of medical science where women are represented equally in scientific research, valued, and given the freedom to innovate, enhance human health, and extend lifespan.

Become A Mentor: Effective mentorship is vital to career growth and advancement. A framework for mentor-mentees can help promote and retain women in academic medicine. Mentorship opportunities that are formal and develop naturally substantially impact women’s representation in healthcare leadership and attract more women to male-dominated specialties.  Join a mentorship program at your workplace; if none exists, you can suggest adding a mentorship program with leadership. Everyone can do their part to offer female peers the guidance and support they need to thrive in medical science.

Support STEM Programming: Dedicated programs and organizations that offer targeted support for women in science are essential at all career stages. Explore local and broader opportunities to empower women in medical science. Some great places to start are at your current workplace, alma mater, and local colleges.

Creating an Inclusive Space at Work: Healthcare organizations should already have policies that promote equitable hiring and promoting. However, gender bias persists, and current practices may perpetuate gender stereotypes. You can counter this by becoming an advocate:

  1. Actively recognize and celebrate your female colleagues’ work in meetings, presentations, and publications.
  2. Become aware of conscious and unconscious gender biases and make efforts to eliminate these practices. For example, you can reform the interview process by standardizing interview questions.
  3. Promoting flexibility and work-life balance is critical to addressing gender equity. You can be a champion for adaptable work structures and family-friendly policies.

Check Out More Inspiring Initiatives That Aim to Close the Gender Gap in Science:

  1. curated advice from female scientists from around the world.
  2. Women In Neuroscience (WIN) initiative to advance and empower women in the field.
  3. Women in Neuroscience Repo ( aims to increase the visibility of women in neuroscience.
  4. biaswatchneuro seeks to track representation and raise awareness of gender bias.
  5. AAMC Mid-Career Women Faculty Leadership Development Seminar equips mid-career women faculty with the knowledge and skills for leadership in academic medicine and science.
  6. AAMC Early Career Women Faculty Leadership Development Seminar provides women with foundational leadership knowledge and skills to achieve their career goals and become a successful leader in academic medicine and science.