Sunday, September 07, 2014

Story behind the paper: Bonnie Baxter on "A tale of salt and gender" #STEMWomen #Halophiles

After posting A tale of salt and gender: participation of women in halophile research I sent the post to Bonnie Baxter, one of the authors of the article I discussed and I asked if she would be interested in writing a guest post about the "Story Behind the Paper" (for which I have a whole series).  I am so so pleased that she said yes.  I have followed Bonnie's work for many years but this is her first guest post here.  I hope there will be more.  She is a wonderful and brilliant scientist and educator.

Guest Post by Bonnie Baxter
Salty Sisters: The Women of Halophiles

Bonnie Baxter and Nina Gunde-Cimerman at the north arm of Great Salt Lake (2008)

I was drawn to the western US, the extreme landscapes, and ended up at the only liberal arts college in Utah. I had wanted a career doing science with undergraduates, and I set about exploring the microbiota of Great Salt Lake. Since few had studied this incredible spot, I quickly became the go-to person for studies on the lake, and these collaborations and grant projects eventually evolved into an organization I direct called Great Salt Lake Institute. We are dedicated to research, scholarship and education efforts on Great Salt Lake.

There had been no microbiology done on Great Salt Lake since 1979. This is why there was much excitement concerning our emerging data, and in 2004, I was invited to speak at the triennial International Halophiles conference in Slovenia. Halophiles are microbes that thrive at high-salt, and the people who study them maintain an interesting balance of field-work and lab work. I had been to large meeting on DNA repair, DNA replication, nucleases and the like, but I had never met a group who were centered on a theme that connected them around the planet. 

From my first Halophiles meeting (I’ve since attended 2007 in Colchester UK, 2010 in Beijing and 2013 at University of Connecticut), I felt an unusual level of support from the elders of this group. And I noticed that, unlike the NASA meetings or biochemistry meetings I attended, there seemed to be a nice balance of men and women. There were a group of folks who had participated for a long time, without a membership organization, and these people maintained the notion of mentoring in the field. It is this spirit that drew all of us younger folk to participate. 

At each of the International Halophiles conferences, there is typically a history talk that brings forth work from past scientists from the field. After an evening in Beijing, I lamented to Aharon Oren, who studies microorganisms of the Dead Sea, that I found his history talk very engaging, but he seemed to overlook the contributions of women. So he challenged me to give the next history talk in Connecticut. By the next morning, at our shared 6 am breakfast, Aaron gave me a list of 20 or so women he thought has contributed great things to the halophile field. I had been given a challenge, and I accepted. I invited an accomplice to the project, Nina Gunde-Cimerman, from University of Ljubljana, Slovenia, and we began our research.

Bonnie Baxter says "My daughter thought it was more appropriate if we dressed this way for the talk.  But this is not the way female scientists do their work…"

Given my connection to Great Salt Lake, I’ve been asked to give an unusual number of keynote addresses and special talks (for a professor at a liberal arts college). I have often been the only female speaker at a meeting, or the only woman on a national committee. Since graduate school, I have held an interest in exploring why there are underrepresented groups in science. Why is retention in STEM fields different for men and women? Why are women underrepresented as physics or mathematics professors in the US, but hardly at all in Russia or Italy? This is what drove me to undergraduate science, fixing these problems and better understanding them. 

In the summer of 2013, Nina and I gave the opening talk at the International Halophiles conference at UConn, entitled “Salty Sisters: The Women of Halophiles.” The talk included our analysis of the participation of women in these conferences since 1978. 

After reading many studies of women underrepresented as speakers, we were shocked that our numbers were very different. It appeared that the halophile organizers had done an excellent job of gender inclusion, relatively speaking. Following the talk, and for weeks afterward, many scientists (male and female) approached us, telling us their experiences as women in the field or discussing how important this topic was.

Nina Nina Gunde-Cimerman and Bonnie Baxter

We were thus inspired to publish a manuscript from the lessons we learned. As we looked at recent comparative studies, we learned more, in particular, the gender bias involved in speaker or author invitation. Please see the manuscript introduction for this important overview. Several publications pointed at the underrepresentation of women in invited speakers or authors for invited reviews. In problem-solving mode, Casadevall and Handelsman (2014) demonstrated that the inclusion of women on the organizing committee is critical to a balanced speaker docket.  

Bonnie, Aharon and Nina, Beijing 2010

What we learned as we analyzed the conference participation in our field, is that we were doing quite well in gender balance of invited speakers, 36% of the speakers were women since 1978! And indeed, women had been included in many of the organizing committees. We saw a 10-16% increase in female speakers when this was the case. We also came to understand that there was a small group of scientists who were committed to holding this conference with no organizational funding. This led to cooperation, collaboration, avid mentorship and strong friendships. This was a group that welcomed women, young scientists and peoples of all nations. I daresay that this is not always the situation in a particular field as the “village elders” may work by competition, not cooperation. These halophile elders, for example, worked to get external funding at each meeting to bring graduate students and post-docs to the conferences with little cost. 

Recent studies on gender bias in science are focused on numbers we can measure and methods to resolve the problem. Jon Eisen has been a strong proponent for what is becoming a national movement to require organizing committees to have written policies that include gender equity.  Scientists, male and female, should request this document and refuse to participate if it is not produced. 

The co-authors and I were so pleased to report a positive example in a sea of negative ones. I hope that this groupsof salty scientists can inspire others to build communities of inclusion as we learn from each other in exploring the natural world.


  1. While I never completed my education, your work and the general efforts to include women in STEM will make a difference for my granddaughter. Thanks!

  2. You are, more people get to find out what I have known for years!


Most recent post

My Ode to Yolo Bypass

Gave my 1st ever talk about Yolo Bypass and my 1st ever talk about Nature Photography. Here it is ...