A #Metoo moment in Science

When it comes to her research, Dr. Shauna Price has complete control. But over the years encounters with male superiors have challenged that control; forcing Price to re-examine her role as a woman and minority in the male-dominated world of science.

Shauna Price works well under pressure. A quest to collect ant specimens for her research has brought her to Panama, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Brazil, Argentina and Peru. She’s scaled trees, fashioned tools and created makeshift labs in rundown hotel rooms. On a research trip to Panama City, Price and her co-researcher found themselves surrounded by police, guns drawn.

“We showed them our permission, and it was okay, but it was a little bit heart-stopping,” Price says. She’s ridden boats to remote field sites in the Amazon, been mugged in Argentina, and bribed her share of police. All in pursuit of neotropical turtle ants, the population that she collects in order to study the factors that cause turtle ants to evolve.

Insect-obsessed since high school and encouraged by her parents, 39-year-old Price has carved out a career driven by a deep curiosity for insects, especially ants.

“I’ve known what I wanted to do for like 30 years,” she says. “I’ve wanted to do the same thing for ever and ever.”

The daughter of two aerospace engineers, the evolutionary biologist always felt supported, especially in science. Her mother emigrated from Thailand and carved out a high-powered career filled with travel and purpose. She was a strong female role model who encouraged Price to pursue her passion and fostered in her a sense of determination.

And risks in the field only added to that mindset.

While political corruption and natural elements challenge her research missions, the greatest threats to Price’s career lurk closer to home. In her early twenties she was sexually harassed by a direct boss, an encounter that permanently changed the way she lived and worked.

“There have definitely been experiences that have set me back or stumbled or caused me to question my place in science,” she says. “It has had cascading impacts on my life.”

Behind the walls of Chicago’s bustling Field Museum, there’s a larger-than-life picture of an ant and four foot-tall letters displayed against a window. ANTS, the sign says. This is the entrance to The Moreau Lab, a space dedicated to the study of ant evolution. Founded by Dr. Corrie Moreau, the lab uses ants and other insects to better understand the factors that influence evolution, like how microbial symbioses, geography and ant-plant associations influence the way ants change.

While most studies of ants focus on their social structures -- each ant takes on a very specific role: The workers work, the queens reproduce and the soldier defend -- Price is fascinated by the collective way that ants work to form a system.

“The colony becomes the individual,” she says. “No ant can exist individually, they always live in colonies, they are obligately social.”

Unlike people, who are social beings but capable of living alone, ants literally cannot survive without each other. And while the queen reigns supreme, ants make localized decisions and play their roles without heavy governing. It’s this decision-making structure that has inspired computer scientists to examine ant colony structures as a way to develop algorithms for use in artificial intelligence and robotics.

From her post at the lab, Price studies neotropical turtle ants, a tree-dwelling group of ants best known for their dish-shaped heads. Turtle ants use their heads as living shields, one unlucky member of each colony spends their life with head in hole, blocking the nest's entrance from intruders like other ant species and predators like birds or lizards.

Turtle ants nest in holes left behind by beetles, so they have very little control of the size or shape of their new homes. The beetles make holes of different sizes and shapes, and over time, the shape of the ants’ heads has evolved to fill available hole sizes. Some species use multiple heads to block a hole, while other species only use one head. These two groups are called generalists and specialists respectively.

Price is currently working to understand the evolution of the shape of the ant heads and how that relates to their level of specialization, and how that level of specialization has changed over time. Did generalist species come before specialist species? How often do generalists become specialists or vice versa? Overall, she’s finding that the generalists evolved first, able to fill all sorts of different holes, and once species specialized they tend to stay that way.

For Price, the ants are simple. It’s the human elements that threaten to stand in her way.

 

Sticking it Out

Price spent two years dealing with harassment from her boss. She thought about leaving several times, but she loved her job and knew it was the right step in her career, so she stayed.

“I kept trying to think that I could control it, that if I just dealt with it or had enough talks with him or change my behavior or something he would leave me alone or switch his thinking,” she says.

In a year dotted with #MeToo moments, Price finds herself revisiting her past more than ever. She’s frustrated that her story seems to be shared by many.

“I didn’t have the power to change my situation or I didn't have the strength to leave when I should have and I I felt so torn,” she says.

More than half of all women -- 54 percent -- have experienced “unwanted and inappropriate sexual advances” at some point in their lives, according to a 2017 ABC News-Washington Post poll. Nearly one third of women have experienced advances from male colleagues, and 25 percent say those men held positions of power.

Finally, Price reached a breaking point. But she never reported her boss. He was a colleague and important member of the scientific community and she worried reporting him would negatively impact her friends and colleagues.

“There's definitely some guilt or questioning about whether I should have exposed him,” Price says. Instead the fallout from that encounter shaped her career.

“I wanted to find an advisor who was either going to be a woman or a guy who I knew would just absolutely leave me alone,” she says. “So I ended up choosing a PhD advisor who was ill-suited to my research questions, just because he was a feminist and his wife worked in the department. So I ended up being fairly alone in my PhD.”

For a long time afterward a question plagued her: How could I let this happen to me? An only child and daughter of a successful woman, she says she often blames herself for the obstacles in front of her.

Back at the lab, things are improving, though Price still views herself as the “trailing spouse,” lagging behind her husband, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago. She says she’s still catching up from events early in her career. And more troubling, she knows she’s not the only one.

 

A History of Inequality/Joining the Movement

For over 30 years, women pursuing careers in the life sciences have compromised only 14.8% of full-time professors at top-tier research institutions, and women are less likely to receive tenured positions.

The Field Museum’s Women in Science Program is trying to change that. A series of speakers, workshops and events aim to promote females and minorities in order to close the gap. This month Dr. Jane Goodall spoke at a Women in Science Luncheon, an event intended to raise awareness of women in science and to raise funds for scholarship programs.

Price views herself as a female advocate and makes a point of showing up to meetings supporting diversity in science.

If you’re not part of the scientific community, you can still support women and minorities in science.

“Most people have implicit gender and racial biases that they should try to be conscious of in order to make space for women and minorities in scientific spaces,” Price says.

Take an online implicit bias test or check out these twitter memes which highlight the diversity of physicians and scientists:

#whatadoctorlookslike

lookslikescience.tumblr.com

And encourage young girls to pursue STEM courses. Price remembers a male teacher discouraging her from taking an algebra class when she was 12. She took the class and ended up with a B, but the experience had a lasting impact on her perception of her ability to do math.

For Price, the adventure continues. While she’s spending less time in the field, Price has a new challenge to tackle. She’s raising a daughter in a world still dealing with gender and race issues.

“I’ve heard this story too many times,” she says. “I don’t want my daughter to get the same messages.”


Ky West