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Why does biophysics attract a disproportionate number of women?

7 June 2021

A welcoming environment, multidisciplinarity, and a critical mass of women at least partly explain the numbers.

I earned my PhD in physics in 1993 at Cornell University for work on diffusion of proteins and lipids in cell membranes. My choice of research area was largely random: I had worked in another area for a summer, but the adviser was a poor match and I worried—mistakenly, it turns out—that the field would limit me to military-related research. So I kept looking around. The only biology course I’d had was in high school, but biophysicist Watt Webb had funds to support me, and I imagined that research results from biophysics could be a force for good in the world. A student in Webb’s group told me that he helped students when they needed it but also gave them independence. That sounded good. I became another woman in biophysics.

Biophysics is one of just two physics subfields that attract a disproportionate number of women: In 2019, 12% of female physics PhD recipients in the US did their dissertation in biophysics compared with 6% of males. Astrophysics similarly has a higher showing of women than men, 22% versus 13%. For comparison, consider condensed-matter physics, with 21% of the new male PhDs versus 15% of the females.

Overall, the percentage of physics PhDs awarded to women in the US is about 20%. That proportion grew from 6% in 1980 to 20% in 2012; since then, it’s fluctuated but never exceeded 20%. (Data are from the Statistical Research Center of the American Institute of Physics, which publishes Physics Today.)

So why does biophysics attract more women than most subfields of physics? To Sarah Keller, a biophysicist on the University of Washington’s chemistry faculty, the answer is easy: “It is entirely because there are fewer assholes in biophysics,” she says. “It is not because women who are physicists have more affinity to biology.”

Female students working in Sarah Keller's lab
Graduate students analyze data in Sarah Keller’s lab at the University of Washington. (From back to front: Chantelle Leveille, Caitlin Cornell, Brenda Kessenich, and Scott Rayermann.) Credit: Dennis Wise, UW

Exciting research is possible in all subfields of physics, continues Keller, whose group focuses on phase behavior in lipid bilayers (see Physics Today, February 2018, page 21). So factors like professional work culture play a huge role in the career decisions people make. Subfields with good mentoring attract talent, she says, while those with a high density of jerks repel it. As a graduate student, she paid attention to the fields other students chose. “The most aggressive and egotistical students were not choosing biophysics,” she says.

Keller was attracted to a biophysics lab because she saw that its members functioned well as a team. Then, when she attended Biophysical Society meetings, she “realized that strong teams were common in biophysics” and was able to imagine building a career in the field. A critical mass of women—typically considered to be about one-third—helps create a good work environment, says Keller. “And having leadership representation is crucial.”

“I’m in biophysics because of Sarah Keller,” says Aurelia Honerkamp-Smith, an assistant professor of physics at Lehigh University, who did her PhD work with Keller. “She made me feel that I could not only work on something interesting but be a part of a community.” Biophysics has enough women so “I don’t feel like an outlier,” she adds.

Support networks

Work environment and culture vary by subfield, and people who are more and less welcoming can be found everywhere. Studies show that when a work environment is made friendlier for women, it’s actually better for everyone. (See, for example, the Center for Creative Leadership’s 2017 report “What Women Want—and Why You Want Womenin the Workplace” and the 2010 book Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do by Claude Steele.)

Physics pushes everyone away, says Jennifer Ross, who chairs the Syracuse University physics department; her research focuses on how cells organize their interiors. She explains, “You have to be stubborn to persist in a field that is culturally repulsive.” The subculture for experimental physics has a special “machismo,” she adds. “You have to be able to crawl under equipment and lift heavy things.”

Sharona Gordon, a University of Washington professor who investigates protein dynamics, says she has “faced incredible harassment and discrimination.” When she was an assistant professor, a senior married colleague asked her daily if he could be her boyfriend, she recalls, and when she was nursing her baby the colleague asked if he could be next. If it weren’t for the men and women “who stuck out their necks for me when they didn’t have to,” she says, “I wouldn’t have stayed in science.” Some of the men in biophysics have always made biophysics welcoming, she continues. “As a consequence, a small number of pioneering women didn’t just cower in the lab. They blazed the field.”

Gordon has become a go-to person for others who need someone to stick out their neck. “I do it all the time,” she says. She’s also worked toward equity in other ways. For example, as editor of the Journal of General Physiology from 2014–19, she required that reviewers for every paper included both men and women.

Others have also strived to make the field more welcoming for women. In 2005, Keller cofounded a group dubbed “Membrane Chix.” The original eight members meet annually to identify women to nominate for lectureships and awards. The full group, which now numbers about 150, give one another advice and serve as a mutual support system. “We talk about who are good collaborators and who to avoid,” says Erin Sheets, an associate dean of faculty development for the Swensen College of Science and Engineering and professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Minnesota Duluth. “It’s so nice just to be yourself with no pretenses.” Sheets investigates single-molecule interactions in living cells.

In 2013, Ross started a group now called “Humans of Soft Matter,” which people can request to join. The group’s 200 mostly female members gather virtually to exchange ideas and advice, advertise positions, spread news of achievements, and amplify voices to right injustices, she says. Someone might post, for example, that no women or people of color have been invited to give talks at some particular conference. A prestigious group member, perhaps a National Academies member or fellow of the American Physical Society (APS), might then prod the conference organizers to diversify their speaker lineup.

Welcoming for women

Taviare Hawkins, math and sciences division chair at St Catherine University in St Paul, Minnesota, attended a Biophysical Society meeting for the first time in 2011 as a postdoc. She had recently moved into biophysics from nonlinear systems analysis. “Seeing other Black and brown people at those meetings was a dealmaker for me,” she says. “There were lots more women than at APS. Biophysics is actively more welcoming.” Hawkins’s research focuses on characterizing microtubule rigidity. (She describes her curvy career path in an interview with Physics Today.)

Margaret Cheung, a theorist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory who models the structural dynamics and assembly of proteins, sought out biophysics and the places she has worked based on the environment being welcoming for women. As a graduate student in the late 1990s, she says, “I was one of just a few women. There was strong pressure that if I failed it would be because I was a woman.”

Virtual meeting of the Biophysical Society officers
Biophysical Society officers at their annual business meeting in February 2021. (Clockwise from top left: Past president Cathy Royer, treasurer Kalina Hristova, secretary Erin Sheets, president-elect Gail Robertson, and president Frances Separovic. Treasurer-elect Samantha Harris is not pictured.) Credit: Harris Povich, Biophysical Society

Cheung, Keller, and many of the other women interviewed for this story have been involved in both APS and the Biophysical Society. Several note that among physicists, biophysics is sometimes looked down on as not being “real physics.” Cheung says that through her work in APS she was able to promote her field of science. And being named an APS fellow gave her credibility in the wider physics community.

Of the Biophysical Society’s roughly 7500 members, 34% are women; by comparison, just 17.3% of APS’s nearly 50 000 members identify as female. For the first time in its 63-year history, all the executive officers at the Biophysical Society are women.

Scientists find their way into biophysics through physics, biology, chemistry, math, and many engineering fields. The field someone chooses in graduate school is often “a diffusion trap,” says Gordon. “People are randomly diffusing to different fields. And they stay where they feel welcome.”

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