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the xx factor: women in science

Cynthia Goh, U of T professor of chemistry, left, with three principals of Pueblo Science, Andrea Nagy, Emina Veletanlic and Mayrose Salvador. The group plans to market a science literacy kit that uses inexpensive household materials such as discarded batteries. <cutline_leadin>Rosa Park for The Globe and Mail</cutline_leadin></caption><133><cutline_leadin>The Globe and Mail

Cynthia Goh was teaching a classroom of children in a rural Philippines school when it dawned on her that the students didn't understand science at all. Prof. Goh, a University of Toronto chemistry professor on leave, asked the students where electricity comes from.

In unison, they chanted back: "Niagara Falls."

It was a rote answer they'd memorized from an American textbook. Not only had they no idea where Niagara Falls was, they didn't understand how the giant waterfall generates power.

It prompted Dr. Goh, on her return to Canada, to get behind a fledgling non-profit organization that teaches science literacy using inexpensive household materials such as dish soap, discarded batteries, pipe cleaners and even fruits and vegetables. It was designed by a team of University of Toronto graduate science students who plan to market the kits to schools that don't have the money for expensive lab equipment.

On a recent afternoon at a University of Toronto science lab, designer Mayrose Salvador, a chemistry PhD, tinkers with one of her creations, a paper windmill she built from scratch. Attached to the twig-like stem is a copper wire and LED light. When she blows on the windmill, the tiny red light illuminates.

"That's how to teach where electricity comes from," says Dr. Goh, who is the director of the University of Toronto's Institute for Optical Sciences, which helps graduate science students such as Dr. Salvador bring research ideas to market.

"It's that simple."

It's a low-tech concept in an institute where many other researchers are hoping to wow the market with their high-tech engineering creations.

But Dr. Goh's heart is with the back-to-basics science kit, called Pueblo Science. Both Dr. Goh and Dr. Salvador are originally from the Philippines and love the notion of bringing science literacy to hard-pressed schools.

Another difference: Nearly all of Pueblo Science's designers are women.

It's a distinction that Dr. Goh doesn't like to dwell on. In fact, she's uncomfortable with the whole discussion of whether women bring a distinctive approach to science and innovation.

"I don't think of myself as a woman scientist," she said. "We're scientists first."

Yet other scholars disagree. They say female scientists indeed bring a different perspective to how they conduct research and approach innovation. Some argue that women's contributions are often aimed at a broader, more diverse population.

It's a loaded discussion, fraught with emotion and disagreement even within the ranks of female academics. Yet more women scientists are speaking out. Last year, a Council of Canadian Academies report addressed the issue straight on.

The report noted that women were underrepresented at the top levels of Canadian universities, especially in the areas of physical sciences, computer science and electrical engineering.

Prepared by an expert panel at the request of the federal government, the Expert Panel on Women in University Research also looked at whether gender played a role in scientific outcomes and priorities.

When it comes to innovation, the report noted, women have, at times, brought unique and previously overlooked perspectives.

A General Motors' female design team, for example, created a safer vehicle with safety latches for kids and adjustable seats for pregnant women. The company promoted these features to female consumers, who make up half the car-buying public.

Another example: A female engineer – and parent – came up with the idea to put diaper-change tables in both women's and men's washrooms at a New Brunswick ferry terminal. The engineer's perspective was that child care was a shared responsibility. Airports, malls, and restaurants later picked up the idea.

Ottawa professor Monique Frize, who has taught electrical engineering since the 1980s, said her female students tended to shy away from mega-projects and tilted toward ideas that help people, not unlike the Pueblo Science project.

"There's a big difference on topics of research between men and women," said Dr. Frize, who has taught at the University of New Brunswick, the University of Ottawa and Carleton University.

Other researchers have gone further, suggesting that scientific innovations that aren't tested from both a male and female perspective can sometimes cause harm.

Londa Schiebinger, a science historian at Stanford University, argues that, until recent years, many medical advances ignored women.

Dr. Schiebinger is the director of Stanford's Gendered Innovations in Science, Medicine and Engineering Project. To underscore her point, she looked at 23 case studies to check for gender bias in medicine, science, engineering and technology, and the environment.

Among findings: Angiograms, a routine medical diagnostic procedure to test for heart disease, weren't designed to detect the kind of artery plaque that builds in women. Pacemakers and voice activation programs were also designed for male bodies and voices.

Sometimes, there's a female bias, as is the case in osteoporosis, which is more common in women. Increasingly, older men suffer from the bone-degenerating disease, and the male death rate from hip fractures is higher than women's.

Dr. Schiebinger teaches workshops to instruct researchers how to screen for gender bias and correct it.

"I don't want to tell [scientists] they're biased," she said. "That doesn't really help. I want to show them what kind of methods and analysis you use to incorporate sex and gender analysis into their research. How do we get it right from the beginning?"

The same questions should be asked at university hiring committees, granting agencies and scientific journals, Dr. Schiebinger said.

"What we're emphasizing is the great opportunity for new knowledge and innovation."

Still, not all scientists are convinced that gender plays a role in scientific innovation, especially Dr. Goh.

"I object to it," she said. "I was the only female chemistry professor for my first eight years at U of T. But I was adamant that no one should notice it. If you don't notice the differences it eventually just dies. If you start harping on it, it just grows."

Seated at a table at the U of T small business lab, the female researchers who helped conceive Pueblo Science, nodded in agreement. Andrea Nagy, a chemistry PhD, said her gender hasn't influenced her research goals or approach to work.

"I'm interested in helping people and I like science as well," Dr. Nagy said. "It's trying all these things that I like and [finding] where I feel I can make a difference."

Added Emina Veletanlic, an engineering graduate who is handling the business side of Pueblo Science: "I've never thought of myself as a woman in science. I just want to do something I'm passionate about."

Where do all the female undergraduates go?

For researchers given the task of assessing the role of women in Canadian scientific research, one of the toughest parts was extracting data from publicly funded institutions.

The roadblocks came when they attempted to determine why women's numbers fall off as they move through academic careers.

In 2010, Ottawa asked the Council of Canadian Academies, an independent non-profit group, to report on the status of women in Canadian scientific research. The council convened an expert panel, which last fall released a report entitled Strengthening Canada's Research Capacity: The Gender Dimension that showed women were underrepresented at top levels of scientific research.

The expert panel sent questionnaires to 57 universities across the country asking, among other things, for a gender breakdown on post-doctoral students, completion rates for male and female post-doctoral students and success rates for men and women applying for university teaching jobs up to the level of assistant professor.

About 14 institutions replied, said Janet Bax, the council's program director. Many said they didn't have the data to answer the questions posed or referred the panel elsewhere.

One of the report's authors, Michael Wolfson, ran into the same problem when he contacted Canadian granting institutions. They told him they keep figures on who receives grants, but don't track who was turned down.

"The granting councils and the people responsible for managing the multi-billion dollar investment in Canada's scientific research program … ought to be collecting data that would enable them to understand what's going on," said Prof. Wolfson, a statistician who holds a Canada Research Chair at the University of Ottawa.

For example, in the life sciences field, which includes biology, zoology and biochemistry, the report found that women comprised nearly 70 per cent of undergraduates. Yet, the percentage of full professors in the same field is 79 per cent male and 23 per cent female. Where did all of the female undergraduates go?

"It's very clear evidence that at some point in the system, it's very broken," said Barbara Orser, a professor at the University of Ottawa's Telfer School of Management, adding that the numbers speak for themselves.