By Emily Sullivan, Student Professional Development Support Fund Recipient
Warm, sunny Washington D.C. was the backdrop as scientists, clinicians, and policymakers from around the world gathered for four action-packed days of sharing science and networking at the 2019 meeting for the Organization for the Study of Sex Differences (OSSD). Originally founded through the Society for Women’s Health Research (SWHR) in 2006, OSSD is now an independent non-profit educational organization which aims to facilitate interdisciplinary research and promote the field of sex/gender differences research through education, mentoring, and outreach.
The opening Sunday morning session was hosted by representatives from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Office of Research on Women’s Health (ORWH), who described key policies and programs overseen by the office. After illustrating the actions that ORWH has taken in terms of strengthening research on health conditions that affect women and the organization’s work in developing opportunities for women in biomedical careers, there was time for participant questions and discussion. Dr. Janine Clayton, Director of ORWH, set the tone for the 2019 OSSD meeting by stating - “Society needs science. Science needs women”. The mornings and the afternoons of OSSD were filled with parallel sessions in which the organizers had lined up a diverse set of talks ranging from transplacental signals to sex differences in clinical treatment of opioid use disorders. The evenings of the first two days were filled with poster sessions held in two conference rooms with many rows of posters – eager graduate students (myself included), postdoctoral students, and professors gathered, excited to share with colleagues our findings.
What I found remarkable about OSSD was the multiple trainee events. For instance, the Trainee-Mentor Lunch held on the third day of the conference sought to bring together doctoral students and postdocs with experts to discuss a number of timely subjects. Trainees had the opportunity to choose from 11 different tables and six different topics including “Dealing with toxic environments and harassment in the early career”, “A career in Academia as a woman in science”, and “Writing sex differences without sexism”. Having the occasion to ask experts their opinion, hearing them share stories, and learning how they navigated difficult situations, was an invaluable experience. The Trainee-Mentor lunch was followed by an optional educational event entitled “Ally Skills: How to Stand up and Step In” which was hosted by the charismatic Dr. Sherry Marts, President and CEO of S*Marts Consulting LLC. Dr. Marts defined and discussed diversity and inclusion and led the attendees in an activity in which we had to deliberate how to handle the problematic scenario we were provided. Since this was an optional event, I was utterly amazed by the number of people who attended and participated in the workshop (especially given the beautiful weather and the proximity of the conference center to many of the D.C. monuments and museums!).
The final awards reception began with a capstone lecture by the renowned Dr. Joan Roughgarden. In her captivating talk, “The Gender Binary in Nature, Across Human Cultures, and in the Bible”, Dr. Roughgarden provided evidence of the extensive variation in gender expression and sexuality found in the animal kingdom. She presented examples of how nature provides support neither for universal distinction between male and female categories nor universal existence of two fixed genders within species. Thus, these examples challenge the traditional Darwinian biological explanations of animal behavior. Dr. Roughgarden delved into human gender expression and sexual orientation among people in all cultures throughout the world. She concluded her riveting talk with specific examples located in the Bible containing references to variation in gender expression and sexuality to promote full inclusion of gender-variant people. Following Dr. Roughgarden’s talk and the presentation of awards, the night continued with a jazz band and delicious food.
In a field that has been traditionally dominated by men, it was wonderfully refreshing to attend a conference held by incredibly intelligent and successful women. Meeting these women who can make such a profound impact on academia, industry, and policy was thoroughly inspirational. I highly recommend attending the annual OSSD conference to any person who researches sex/gender differences, and I honestly cannot wait for the 2020 OSSD meeting which will be held in the charming Marina del Rey, CA!