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Following in their footsteps

A unique lineage of four women in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT discuss their 'special responsibility' to help others succeed in academia
A unique lineage of four teachers and students, in MIT's Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. From left: Professors Mary Potter and Nancy Kanwisher; Assistant Professor Rebecca Saxe; and postdoctoral associate Liane Young.
A unique lineage of four teachers and students, in MIT's Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. From left: Professors Mary Potter and Nancy Kanwisher; Assistant Professor Rebecca Saxe; and postdoctoral associate Liane Young.
Photo / Peter Dizikes

By her own account, Nancy Kanwisher ’80 PhD ’86 barely made it through graduate school at MIT. Today, Kanwisher is MIT's Walter A. Rosenblith Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience. But for two years as a doctoral candidate, all of her research projects failed. "You can be smart and have good ideas, and get crummy data," Kanwisher said Saturday during a panel discussion about women in science. "My experiments were bombing." More than once, her adviser, psychology professor Mary Potter, talked Kanwisher out of quitting.

And then there were Kanwisher's outside interests. One summer in the 1980s, Kanwisher took a month off from her studies to file journalistic dispatches from the war in Nicaragua. The next summer, she got a proper fellowship — not for brain research, but at a journalism program in San Francisco.

Potter not only tolerated these activities, but edited an article Kanwisher wrote about her experiences in Nicaragua. Yet when Kanwisher asked to pursue a third writing project, Potter lost patience. "You have to decide whether you want to be a scientist or not," Potter told her. Kanwisher chose science, and now, a quarter-century later, she is acclaimed for research showing how parts of the cortex become specialized for certain cognitive functions, like the recognition of faces and places. Yet without Potter's "nudge," she recalled, she quite likely would not have pursued a career in the lab. The mentoring made the difference.

On Sept. 26, Potter and Kanwisher joined forces with two colleagues at MIT to talk about guiding women through the pitfalls of academia, as part of a conference — "Futures of Race and Gender in Science" — that marked the 25th anniversary of the Program in Women's and Gender Studies. Speaking on the event's first panel, "Mentoring Women: Four Generations of Women Scientists at MIT," Potter and Kanwisher were joined by two colleagues from the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences: Assistant Professor Rebecca Saxe PhD '03, who did her doctoral work under Kanwisher's supervision, and post-doctoral researcher Liane Young, who now works in Saxe's lab. This may be the only such continuous four-generation teacher-student link of women at MIT; it was the first time these four researchers had gathered in one place.

Together, the four women represent an intellectual arc showing one way their field has developed. Potter created innovative studies of the cognitive processes behind our rapid comprehension of images or words. Kanwisher has used new technologies to locate those kinds of processes in the brain. Saxe examines how the brain develops abstract ideas, while Young is studying the neural structure of moral judgment.

An answer for attrition?

The gathering of this quartet highlighted why mentoring has become a major issue for women in science: their numbers dwindle in the upper ranks of academia. According to the National Science Foundation, women have earned about half of all bachelor's degrees in science and engineering nationwide since 2000. Yet as a 2006 report of the National Academy of Sciences showed, only about 15 percent of full professors in social, behavioral or life sciences are women — and these are the fields where women are most prevalent.

"There is a leak in the pipeline," said Potter at the event, held at the Stata Center. Reversing this attrition rate is a pressing matter throughout academia — which is why, Potter stated, "mentoring is terrifically important," and that there is a "special responsibility for women to mentor other women."

Productive approaches to mentoring can vary wildly. Potter, as Kanwisher put it, used a combination of "understanding" and "fierceness" as an adviser. But when Kanwisher was advising Saxe, she perceived a different problem. In Kanwisher's view, Saxe's work was original enough that she should get out from under her adviser's wing, and run her own lab. How did Kanwisher make that point? "She didn't speak to me about science for two years," Saxe told the audience, drawing some disbelieving laughs.

A generational divide within the panel did indicate the extent to which it has become more common for women to mentor female PhD candidates in science. When Potter joined MIT as a professor in 1967, there were fewer than five women faculty members in the School of Science, and when Kanwisher enrolled at MIT, only about 15 percent of undergraduates were women. But Saxe and Young have entered the lab while surrounded by other women. "My undergraduate, PhD and post-doc advisers have all been women," said Saxe. "But I don't think I intended it that way. I just chose scientists I wanted to work with."

An additional approach to advising is the creation of formally organized mentoring programs — which help aspiring PhDs and junior professors by assigning them faculty mentors who can be consulted in addition to principal thesis advisers. In a discussion following the panel, Sally Haslanger, a philosophy professor and director of the Program in Women's and Gender Studies, noted that the American Economics Association has created a national program of mentoring, including workshops and meetings at conferences, to let women connect with other women in the profession.

At MIT, about 45 percent of undergraduates are now women. Whether they have sufficient opportunities to pursue PhDs remains open to question, said Potter. "We are closer to a meritocracy now," she said, noting that the situation has improved since MIT publicly acknowledged in a 1999 report that it had not provided equal resources for female scientists, especially senior faculty. Still, Potter added, "Even if we would like to think this gender issue has been solved, frankly it has not. It's still there."

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