Grants are a Girl's Best Friend

A $20 million endowment is helping USC mend the “leaky pipeline in the careers of women in science and engineering.”

An anonymous gift of $20 million has galvanized a sexual revolution in the sciences – helping USC compete with other universities for top women scientists and engineers.

The endowment is helping mend what chemistry professor Hanna Reisler calls “the leaky pipeline in the careers of women in science and engineering” by funneling thousands of dollars in research grants, fellowships and child-care subsidies to recruit and retain women in what have traditionally been male-dominated fields.

Funds totaling $675,000 have already been awarded in the first year, says Reisler, who coordinates a group of faculty known as the Women in Science and Engineering Networking Group – or WISE – which advises the administration on programs worthy of support.

“We have long known that women continue to be unequally represented in many fields,” says USC provost Lloyd Armstrong, Jr. “This is particularly true in science and engineering, where the demands of an academic career must be balanced against family needs, such as raising children, which may cause career interruptions. Our goal is to create a supportive environment and implement a variety of programs that will encourage women to come to USC and develop successful careers here.”

The effects are already palpable, says Armstrong, pointing to Judith Ann Hirsch of Rockefeller University, now an assistant professor of biological sciences at USC and the first woman recruited under the program. Hirsch, who studies the visual cortex of the brain, brings with her two National Institutes of Health grants.

Armstrong recently announced the 21 other 2001 recipients of WISE awards. They include eight junior faculty members in computer science, chemistry, biology, earth science and kinesiology receiving supplemental research grants; one postdoctoral fellow, chemist Delphine Chastaing; four outstanding incoming graduate students awarded two-year supplemental fellowships; three doctoral students and researchers receiving child-care subsidies; and nine women in biology, kinesiology, earth sciences, physics and various engineering departments receiving faculty support grants.

In addition, the Office of Summer and Special Programs received funds for scholarships to its USC Summer Science Program for Middle School Girls, a residential program on Catalina Island.

Illustration by Regan Dunnick

The Young and the Estrus

Fifty-one percent of the world’s population already knew it, but USC neuroscientists have proven it conclusively: the basic mechanisms of learning in the female brain wax and wane with the menstrual cycle.

“What we’ve shown,” says biologist Michel Baudry (left) of the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, “is that the female sex hormone, estrogen, appears to be critical in controlling the cellular process that is at the basis of learning and memory.” In other words, the female brain works differently during estrus.

The USC study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, demonstrates a strong link between levels of estrogen in the bloodstream and the magnitude of a brain process called “long-term potentiation.” LTP refers to activity-dependent changes in the connection strength between nerve cells. These connections are believed to be the basis of “declarative” memory – or memory for specific facts, locations and events.

Baudry and neuroscientists Richard Thompson and Michael Foy meticulously traced the effects of estrogen on the complex cascade of cellular and molecular activity known as the MAP kinase pathway (a process central to LTP) in the hippocampus, the brain’s central clearinghouse for declarative memory.

They concluded that fluctuations in estrogen have a significant effect on this critical cognitive pathway. Whether women suffer cognitive impairment during menstruation, when estrogen reaches its low point, remains unanswered. “Maybe women compensate with different strategies; the human brain is very flexible,” says Baudry, the study’s senior author.

Though the data comes from studies of rat brains, the USC researchers believe the same rhythmic relationship between estrogen levels and memory acuity almost certainly applies to women. Cognitive and behavioral studies have demonstrated significant changes during the estrus cycle of the rat. “Anecdotally, of course,” Baudry says, “many women will tell you they don’t think that their brain works the same during different phases of their cycle.”

– Matthew Blakeslee

Photo by Irene Fertik

Third World-Wide Web
Women of the World, Connect!

From hand-pressed posters to high-speed hyperlinks, Doe Mayer leaves no page unturned in her campaign to combat ignorance and improve the health of women in rural Africa. The USC media expert directs Women Connect, a family-planning and reproductive-health project funded by a $1 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation with additional support from USC’s Annenberg Center for Communication.

Using a two-pronged approach of high- and low-end media, Women Connect has helped disabled women in an isolated Zambian village find a way to distribute information on critical health issues like HIV and AIDS. It helped a Zimbabwean women’s group set up an Internet café. In Uganda, it subsidized training in electronic research so a women’s group could disseminate up-to-date health information to rural communities. Other groups have learned to use e-mail and listservs to galvanize public pressure, says Mayer, who holds joint appointments in the USC School of Cinema-TV and the USC Annenberg School for Communication. “They can successfully disseminate health-oriented messages – like how to have safe sex and how to protect themselves from HIV/AIDS. As the message is passed along from woman to woman, they make life better for their communities, themselves and their children.”

Before Women Connect stepped in, the Uganda Women’s Network was stuck in a rut, says program director Sheila Kawamara. “Our campaign had largely been one of talking to ourselves or to the already converted. We [now] realize that we have pointed fingers and not understood people’s problems and realities. There is a strong and urgent need to look at issues from the eyes of the people we are trying to reach,” she says. Mayer’s team encouraged the Ugandan group to do public opinion research, and use the data to shape messages likely to prompt behavior changes. Women Connect helped Kawamara target audiences and design communication campaigns using posters, radio, theater, brochures, T-shirts and even jingles. “We taught them to use the Internet to gather the research needed to develop and back up their messages, to lobby for policy changes and to link with other groups and donors,” Mayer says. “They determined for themselves what they needed to say; we improved their ability to spread the word.”

There have been unexpected benefits too. A woman who cleaned floors at the Internet café in Zimbabwe learned how to surf the Web, becoming so adept she now teaches those same skills to other women – and earns a better salary doing it.

Photo by Michele A. H. Smith

Truth or Business Consequences

Others may see the Enron collapse as a parable of millionaire greed, creative accounting and government inattention. USC leadership expert Warren Bennis sees it as emblematic of a more integral flaw: a corporate environment that shuns honesty. In a February 17 New York Times editorial headlined “A Corporate Fear of Too Much Truth,” Bennis argued that the very nature of major American corporations works to block transparency. “Most are conveniently designed so that everyone seems to know what’s wrong – but nobody admits it or tells anyone else,” he wrote. “No organization can be honest with the public if it is not honest with itself.”

Illustration by A. J. Garces

Other Stories

Think Global, Live Local

USC's New Residential College

Chambers of the Art
Julliard String Quartet


ABC's of Lung Health
Vitamin's Role in Children's Pulmonary Development

Slip of the Lips
Turning A Brain Theory on its Ear

Muscling in on Alzheimer's
Protein Power


Rogues in Shining Armor
Capra's films argue press stereotypes

Jazzed About Teaching
Jazz Trumpeter Ron McCurdy releases CD


Grants are a Girl's Best Friend
$20M goes to Women's careers Science, Engineering

Young and the Estrus
Neuroscientists link estrogen levels and memory

Women of the World, Connect!
Third World-Wide Web


Water Works
Microscopic Robots Unleashed on Pathogens

A Microbe Moveable Feast
Bacteria dine on DNA


Marshall Arts and Sciences
A Fourth Trojan Receives Marshall Scholarship

In the Mood
One Little Helpful Enzyme, A Lifetime of Solutions

In Tune With Science
Elaine Chew harmonizes music and engineering