What does a scientist look like?
A 2018 study that compiled over 20,000 pictures drawn by school-aged children found that students are increasingly drawing females when asked to sketch a picture of a scientist. Alzheimer’s disease researcher Kacie Deters, Ph.D., finds that encouraging, and asks parents and teachers to take things a step further. “When we actively promote interest in the sciences early on, more children will be able to picture anyone as a scientist. And when we encourage women of all backgrounds to pursue careers in science, kids will come to understand what a scientist really looks like.”
March 8 marks International Women's Day, a global initiative dedicated to celebrating women's achievements, while calling for a more gender-balanced world. We spoke with scientists Drs. Kacie Deters and Elizabeth (Beth) Mormino about their work and perspectives on being leaders in the research field.
Dr. Kacie Deters, Alzheimer’s Association funded researcher, postdoctoral fellow, Mormino Lab: I was Pre-med as an undergraduate student and became really interested in biology, which I decided to pursue as my master’s degree. That was when I became exposed to dementia research and started learning more about the different types of dementia. I’ve always been trying to answer that huge question: “Why do we forget?” Somewhere along the way, I fell in love with Alzheimer’s disease research.
I’m of mixed race, black and white, and I’m very interested in racial and ethnic disparities in Alzheimer’s. In Beth’s lab, I’ve been able to put 100 percent of my drive to research into practice.
Dr. Beth Mormino, principal investigator, Mormino Lab: I was always interested in science and math in school. In undergrad, I had the opportunity to use brain imaging technologies, learning how to explore the brain and how it works. At the time, I was working on brain imaging of developmental disorders: autism, epilepsy, ADHD. I became fascinated with studying pictures of the brain, and this work ultimately put me on the path to neuroscience. I truly became enamored by Alzheimer’s disease imaging during grad school at Berkeley, when positron emission tomography (PET imaging) really started taking off.
A Passion for Research
Both became intrigued by the idea of combining different imaging technologies to focus on the early detection and monitoring of Alzheimer’s disease.
Dr. Beth Mormino: How can we combine our imaging discoveries with other data to predict risk of developing Alzheimer’s? That is a question I want to answer. We use brain scans to visualize changes in the brain, such as the amyloid plaques and tau tangles that characterize the disease, and focus on identifying biological markers that develop decades before a person is diagnosed with the disease.
This is where genetics comes into play: the idea of combining imaging and biomarkers to understand a person’s future risk of developing Alzheimer’s.
Dr. Kacie Deters: Genetics account for an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease. We have seen the research: there is a difference in the effects of genetic risk factors based on a person’s race.
I have read a lot of data about Alzheimer’s findings in the white population but far fewer studies in the black population. Why are African-Americans at a higher risk? Considering the fact that a large portion of the U.S. population is of mixed race, like myself, I am very focused on disparities research in Alzheimer’s disease.
Dr. Beth Mormino: Kacie and I both geek out about data and everything we can learn from it, so seeing the kind of imaging work we do starting to be used in clinical trials is really exciting. Sometimes scientists can feel removed from the real world, but our connection to this disease is a huge source of motivation. Seeing our work making a difference in the world – helping real people in need – is incredibly gratifying and important to us.
Making Strides as a Female Researcher
Having examples of other women in the field of Alzheimer’s disease research is hugely important, whether these are mentors, colleagues or peers in the field.
Dr. Beth Mormino: While there are a lot of women attending neuroscience conferences – and more and more younger women, which is fantastic – it is still pretty uncommon to see a lot of female keynote speakers at these events. I’ll admit that it can be sort of jarring not to see as many examples of women in senior positions when thinking about the next stage of your career.
Of course, there is a flip side. I am lucky to have had exposure to very successful women in my field, including Dr. Reisa Sperling, who I worked under during my postdoctoral training. Working with a female leader in the Alzheimer’s research field had a huge impact on my career, but I know that kind of opportunity isn’t one every researcher has access to.
As a mother and a scientist, I have found that there is also the ever-present challenge of what people think your role should be as a woman. Even when working in a progressive academic field full-time, female scientists are exposed to a different set of expectations than their male counterparts. These expectations may influence the decisions of some female scientists; I imagine that some women may wonder how far they can rise in their careers. And they shouldn’t have to.
Dr. Kacie Deters: I agree. As a minority, I didn’t have any senior minority female mentors until recently, working with Dr. Lisa Barnes at Rush University Medical Center. But I am so fortunate to have women ten years ahead or behind me to work with and look up to.
In my experience, women seem to doubt their accomplishments or question their success more than their male counterparts. Fight the imposter syndrome! People like Drs. Reisa Sperling, Lisa Barnes and Shannon Risacher, one of my Ph.D. mentors, who have achieved so much have motivated me to stay on the path that I know I am meant to be on.
Dr. Beth Mormino: There are so many leaders who have had a huge influence on my career: Drs. Dorene Rentz, Jill Goldstein, Susan Resnick, Denise Park. Whether it has been on a personal or professional level, it has been amazing to get to know my fellow scientists, listen to their advice or see their career trajectories. These women are great examples of what a scientist should and can be.
The Future is Female
Drs. Mormino and Deters agree that women have so many strengths that feed into the field of scientific research: multitasking being key.
Dr. Beth Mormino: How are women not suited to becoming leaders in this field? Women are amazing communicators who work well under stress. Women are curious, driven, intelligent and have an amazing team-building approach to their work. All of these qualities make for a terrific scientist.
I have felt completely supported in my field by both my male and female colleagues, and there are more and more sources of help for people juggling their career and their family life. It’s very encouraging. I think it’s just a matter of time before the gender norms and expectations of the past wash away.
Dr. Kacie Deters: Female scientists are being heard, but we need to continue to speak up. We need to integrate ourselves into conversations and continue to hold our ground.
Seeing the women I've worked with so closely killing it in the research game, receiving grants, having their work published, receiving honors and awards, getting speaker invitations and nominations … it is so inspiring and encouraging. It’s the reason I always strive to be better and continue to work as hard as I can.
Dr. Elizabeth Mormino completed a Ph.D. in Neuroscience at UC Berkeley, where she performed some of the initial studies applying Amyloid PET with the tracer PIB to clinically normal older individuals. In 2017, Dr. Mormino joined the faculty at Stanford University in the department of Neurology and Neurological Sciences. Her research program focuses on combining imaging and genetics to predict cognitive trajectories over time, and the integration of novel PET scans to better understand human aging and neurodegenerative diseases.
Dr. Kacie Deters received her Ph.D. in Medical Neuroscience from the Indiana University School of Medicine, where her dissertation focused on the role of neuroimaging, genetics and biomarkers to better understand the underlying brain changes in tauopathies. She joined the Mormino Lab in July 2017 as a postdoctoral fellow and shifted her scientific focus to better understanding disparities in risk factors for cognitive decline. She is the awardee of the 2018 Alzheimer's Association Research Fellowship to Promote Diversity (AARF-D).
Genetics and Alzheimer’s
Women and Alzheimer’s