UAB researcher Constanza Cortes, Ph.D., edits “Women in Neuroscience”

This special issue of the Journal of Neuroscience Research puts a spotlight on research by women neuroscientists and the challenges and hurdles they face.

Cortes2Constanza “Connie” Cortes, Ph.D.“Women in Neuroscience,” a special issue of the Journal of Neuroscience Research that published online last fall, was edited by Constanza “Connie” Cortes, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the University of Alabama at Birmingham Department of Cell, Developmental and Integrative Biology. Cortes did much of her editing work while moving her lab from Duke University to UAB in 2019.

Each of the 26 research articles has either a female first author — the researcher who has done most of the work — or a female last author, the lab chief. The issue also features seven commentaries and perspectives written by women neuroscientists on topics that include voices of women in neuroscience, an examination of the gaps female neuroscientists face as of 2019, gender inequality in academia, and the lessons that one minority woman learned in her journey from the Caribbean island of Dominica, which has a population of about 71,000, through her Ph.D. and postdoctoral neuroscience work in the United States. 

In her commentary, Cortes notes that multiple studies have shown that women do not receive equal recognition for their research achievements, are much less likely to be invited to serve as manuscript reviewers and be featured in “News & Views” articles, and are much less inclined than men to self‐promote. “Let us change that!” she said, pointing to a number of important resources and initiatives for women scientists.

The commentary written by Saima Machlovi, Adriana Pero, Sabrina Ng, Margaret Zhong and Dongming Cai, M.D., Ph.D. — all neuroscientists in New York City and state — takes a hard look at the challenges and hurdles female scientists continue to face in their career advancement. These include the discrepancy in societal obligations between men and women, particularly concerning child-rearing, subtle biases and stereotypes against women scientists in the workplace, sexual harassment, whether blatant or through microaggressions, and pay and resource inequities between men and women.

“What can we do better?” they asked. “It is critical to identify barriers that prevent female scientists from career advancement. It is clear that bias and discrimination against women in science has not been adequately addressed … Mentoring and strong leadership to support and promote women’s work and sense of voice have been among the most important factors in retaining women scientists in the field. Female role models are particularly critical for recruiting young women scientists and rising stars into the science field and keeping them there.” 

Cortes undertook the job of editing the issue when former journal editor-in-chief Eric Prager, Ph.D., said, “I have an idea; but nobody is crazy enough to do it.” 

“To me,” said Cortes, a member of the journal’s editorial board, “it was so important that I took the time to do it.” She sent out the invitation for articles in March 2018, with the intention to publish on International Women’s Day, March 8, 2020. As COVID-19 emerged, publication was delayed. 

“Diversity is as much about excellence as it is about equity,” Cortes wrote in her commentary. “As a minority, junior, female faculty myself, I agree and live by this statement, which is why I took on the challenge of creating this special issue featuring women in neuroscience.” Cortes, a Latina from Chile, says she hopes the special issue — which generated a tweet-storm of support — will contribute to ongoing efforts to address challenges and obstacles faced by women in neuroscience, and will serve as a tool, example and conversation starter.

The topics for the 26 researcher articles in the special issue are Neurodevelopment/Early Life, Neurodegenerative Diseases, Aging, Reproduction, Depression/Substance Abuse, and Integrated Connectome. 

The Cortes lab at UAB focuses on Alzheimer’s disease and brain aging, and how exercise can help protect the aging brain.