Mapping Out a Feminist Bioscience: Interview with Sari van Anders (Part 1)

Doing Feminist Bioscience: Interview with Sari van Anders from KT on Vimeo.

Bio: Dr. Sari van Anders is an associate professor of Psychology & Women’s Studies and affiliate faculty member of the Program in Neuroscience; the Reproductive Science Program; and the Science, Technology, and Science Studies Program at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor. She is also the incoming editor of the Annual Review of Sex Research. Dr. van Anders earned her PhD in Biological and Cognitive Psychology at Simon Fraser University. In her social neuroendocrinology lab, she conducts feminist-informed research on the social contexts of hormones and intimacy. She has received grants from the National Institute of Health, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Institute for Research on Women and Gender Program, the American Institute of Bisexuality, and many others. Her work has appeared in numerous journals including Psychology and Sexuality, Archives of Sexual Behavior, Journal of Sex Research, Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology. We are very pleased to have her here with us.

Transcript

KT: What is feminist neuroscience? Methodologically, what would a feminist-informed research program in neuroscience (or psychology) entail?

SVA: It’s a great question, and I get asked it a lot. A key thing is in defining what we mean by feminism. One of the ways I define feminism, which is built off of many feminist scholars, is that feminism pays attention to gender equity and related social identities or social locations. You can ask what that has to do with science, and I think the key is that feminism also argues that most of our cultural infrastructures, our structures, and our endeavors are part-and-parcel rooted in underlying issues, including gender equity. Since science is a human endeavor, one of the issues in doing science is thinking about how gender inequity (and inequity relating to other intersecting identities like race/ethnicity, class, ability, nation, sexuality) may be implicated. Some feminist science scholars have looked at how gender bias or other biases affect how people do science; some have examined how it affects the ideology or rhetoric we use in science, and some people have looked at how they affect the topic choices scientists get to. Although we talk a lot about random selection in science, scientists aren’t randomly assigned to their topics, and we pick things that interest us and resonate with us. In fact, that’s one of the things people think  makes science so successful, because scientists seek out their curiosities (shaped by ethical guidelines, granting agencies and so on.)

What would a feminist neuroscientist look like?

A feminist neuroscience would have us keep in mind gender equity and equity based on intersecting social locations.

How might that play out? We recently saw in the NIH’s call for incorporating females, as well as males, in studies. People had been ignoring females, or not including them. That’s a really basic but fundamental way to think about inequity; if we think females aren’t important, that they’re too different, too variable, or too problematic and messy, then we don’t include them. That’s a very obvious example of what we might call bias in science. But we might also think about the way we communicate our science, what happens at breaks at conferences, how we recruit research assistants, or in underlying ideologies. There have been a lot of assumptions about hormones and gender that has really colored the way we do our research but that might not be rooted in empirical thought.

KT: Given the epistemological differences that may exist between different disciplines/approaches, how might someone not already in a strong feminist science lab begin incorporating such elements into their research while keeping it readable/acceptable by their diverse audiences?

SVA: That’s a good question, and I think there’s two things in there: how do we do feminist neuroscience and how do we communicate feminist neuroscience. One useful way of thinking about doing feminist neuroscience in the lab, particularly if you’re in a lab that isn’t rooted in feminism, is to think about small incremental steps you can do. For instance, when I was doing my graduate work, we asked questions with check boxes; we had maybe two, three options. One of the small incremental changes I made was to make sure there was a way for people to self-identify, that is, making sure people were able to provide their options, to self-name, rather than limiting their choices. For instance, people of color who identify as biracial or multi-racial have articulated their discontent and discomfort with having to choose racial identity categories that don’t match onto their own. So, allowing people to write their answers could go a long way in doing work that maps onto reality, the reality of people who identify as mixed race, for instance, but also can engender good feelings. Small incremental changes can be big changes, and trying to overturn everything in a lab you don’t run is probably not a recipe for success!!

In terms of communicating to other people, I was actually reading a book, Writing Science, and one of the things the author does is really make clear how you need to think about your audience and the schemas they hold; by schemas the author means ideas and beliefs. For instance, if you’re talking to people who know what pre-theory is, you don’t necessarily need to explain it. If you’re talking to people who don’t know that concept, you need to step back and explain it before you go on. As you can imagine, we live in a world that is neutral to feminism at best and generally anti-feminist. I’ve been thinking more about this lately, thinking about whom my audience might be. It’s usually people who are not fluent in feminism and who might actually be hostile. So knowing these are the schemas I’m working with, I can think about how to slowly introduce language that might be less contestable, that might be less trigger-y for a scientist, and which might be more bio-legible.

I want to use language that they’re going to understand and sometimes to bridge what they do understand with what I want to introduce through feminist scholarship because of course, feminist scholarship has its own technical language that is very useful, but that needs to be contextualized to be comprehensible.

KT: I think you’ve achieved such great success with that. You’ve talked to behavioral neuroendocrinology people, psych people, and sociology too!

SVA: I’m actually very excited about that. On the one hand, it’s like I’ve been able to move forward on that in terms of doing interdisciplinary work and speaking to audiences. It hasn’t been easy, and it’s been a lot of work, and I’ve made a lot of missteps along the way. I’m sure I’m going to keep doing that (not on purpose!), but it’s become so much easier the more I try. It’s as though the more I work at it, the more I’m able to speak to different audiences. But one of the pitfalls actually is the more fluent I become in languages, the more I forget how one group will be so enraged at the jargon (and that’s usually scientists at feminist scholarship), and I’ll just forget who knows what. It’s not like I’m trying to assume everyone knows the same thing, but sometimes it’s hard to keep track of; for example, “context doesn’t have a meaning for this group, and it’s entirely loaded with meaning for this other group.” It’s been very exciting to see myself making progress and seeing all the ideas feminist scientist scholars are trying to introduce gaining a foothold. The further I go and the more fluent I get, different challenges come up. That’s exciting.

KT: I noticed in your papers that you occasionally use the term “gender/sex,” as opposed to “sex” or “gender” separately. Can you tell us when and why you this term?

SVA: I’m happy to. I’ve been using gender/sex, or trying to, for quite some time, and editors often won’t allow me to; they’ll get annoyed by it. But the reason I do it is that I’m looking at hormones in adults, and I’m typically looking at a snapshot. I don’t know if what I’m studying has to do with gender or sex. By which I mean if I see a hormone associated in women but not men, I don’t know if that association exists because of innate, evolved, hormonal factors or if it’s socialized, experiential, and culturally specific.

I use gender/sex because I don’t mean gender or sex; I mean some amalgam of both.

I think what’s been interesting is a lot of people use race/ethnicity to mean that we’re talking about a social construct that is sometimes seen as phenotypic or biological, as well, but trying to bring it together so that we’re never just talking about racial differences (which would be really problematic). I want to bring that to gender & sex, so I use gender/sex to remind us that we are usually studying both for any difference that we find, even in biology. If I find a biological difference between women and men, I have no idea whether this is a biological difference that resulted from social experiences or from genetic difference. Gender/sex is shorthand reminder.

That’s not to say that we can’t use sex or gender. Sometimes we do mean one or the other. If we’re talking about XY versus XX, we might be talking about sex, and I think that’s perfectly appropriate. I don’t think it’s appropriate though when we use sex as shorthand for when we’re talking about differences in neural activation because then we are implying that these are sex differences, that they are inborn or genetic (and the public certainly understands that implication). I do think gender/sex is a nice shorthand to get across that we usually don’t know whether we are studying gender or sex.

Screen Shot 2014-08-06 at 7.16.42 PM

(Mesquita, B., Barrett, L.F., & Smith, E.R. (Eds.). (2010). The Mind in Context. New York: Guilford Press.)

KT: You have a chapter in The Mind in Context where you talk about the role of social contexts in modulating hormones and the place of evolution in understanding why they do. What is the Steroid/Peptide Theory of Social Bonds and what paradoxes does it help resolve in sexuality research?

SVA: One of the things I’ve been trying to communicate lately is the importance of involving social construction in our research, even in biological research. Obviously, science is pretty antagonistic towards incorporating social constructions because people see social constructions and biosciences as orthogonal. One of the things I’ve been trying to do is show how paying to social constructions matter.

Some of the arguments I’ve used, for example, are that we need to pay attention to all species specificity. Anything that is specific to a species, we need to pay attention to, even when we’re interested in how it crosses over. For example, if we’re studying an animal model, we need to know what’s specific about it so we can know what trends travel to humans. If we’re doing comparative research, studying all kinds of animals, we need to know what generalizes and what doesn’t. When we study humans, I would say that one of the things that separates humans apart is social constructions. All sorts of animals have social behaviors, social contexts, social groups, social experiences, but social constructions are pretty human-specific. For example, I study human sexual desire. One could think, when I study sexual desire what am I studying and is this the same thing across the people I study? For example, for heterosexual women who have been socialized to think of desire as something for their partners, are they experiencing desire in the same way their heterosexual male partner is experiencing desire?

Another way to think about it—we know that in penis/vagina intercourse, men are much more likely to experience orgasm than women.

Is intercourse the same even when both men and women are engaging in intercourse? Are they having the same sex or are they engaging in a person-specific, gender-specific experience?

Paying attention to the ways in which social experiences and messaging changes those experiences—sexuality, desire—can be useful to understanding how hormones may be related to them. For instance, if we think that testosterone may be linked to pleasure, not all sexual experiences are equally bringing pleasure for heterosexual men and women. We should not expect sex to be associated with testosterone (T) in the same way across genders.

I find that bringing social constructions into my research makes sense of paradoxes. You asked about the paradoxes, so for example, people have found that hearing infant cries increases testosterone, but we tend to think as a culture—and as scientists—that anything to do with parenting should be associated with low T. So we have this schema—this social construction of parenting—that it’s all lovey-dovey and warm, but parenting can also involve challenging behaviors, like defending infants, if we think about it cross-species or even when we see our kids getting threatened by someone else. We would feel not like “I need to hug my kids,” but “I need to go defend my kids.” We can imagine how understanding the ways we envision these behaviors and whether they are really one things or multiple types of things held under the same umbrella but are actually different things, may be associated with hormones in different ways, while this overarching umbrella concept might not be.

Is parenting associated with low T or are certain kinds of nurturant, warm kinds of parenting associated with low T, while infant defense is associated with high T?

Again, thinking about social constructions is really helpful in teasing out hormone-behavior associations, but I would also argue that anytime we’re studying human behavior we need to understand how social constructions are implicated.

KT: Testing this S/P model, you’ve challenged the traditional “pre-theory” association between testosterone (T) and masculinity, providing a more nuanced perspective as to the role of T in parenting behavior, for instance. Can you tell us a little more about these findings?

SVA: With the Steroid/Peptide Theory of Social Bonds, what I’m trying to do is clarify how the empirical evidence doesn’t suggest that T is linked with behavioral masculinity, but instead suggests T is linked to competition and nurturance, positively with competition and negatively with nurturance. When we looked at maleness and masculinity as the frame, that’s actually resulted in very messy results, like with the parenting studies I talked about and with some things with desires.

Screen Shot 2014-08-06 at 7.11.07 PM(van Anders, S. M. (2013). Beyond masculinity: Testosterone, gender/sex, and human social behavior in a comparative context. Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology, 34(3), 198–210. doi:10.1016/j.yfrne.2013.07.001)

One of the key things that as scientists we don’t always think about is that we have hypotheses that are derived from theories, but theories need to be built from observation. How do you get observations before you have theories? What comes before the observations? The notion is that it’s pre-theory, which are these cultural/social stereotypes we have about the world. Articulating those can be useful because they push us to realize the biases, the assumptions, that might be driving our science that we haven’t tested. People usually don’t formally test pre-theories; they often use it as assumptions to build other theories.

In the S/P Theory of Social Bonds, I try to articulate the pre-theory that T drives masculinity, so that we can actually show through an alternative theory—which is the S/P theory—that T is linked to competitiveness and nurturance instead, and how empirical evidence actually supports one versus the other.

What I’ve done is to marshal the evidence. I’ve done many of the studies myself. I didn’t really set out to show this; instead, what I kept finding were results that didn’t fit our dogma or pre-theoretical notions about how T and behavior were linked. I kept doing studies teasing it out and making more sense of it, and so the S/P Theory grew out of a lot of studies that I was doing and drives a lot of studies that are ongoing or about to happen in our lab because it makes so much more sense of the findings. I think the interesting thing is that articulating pre-theory can help us make better scientific theories and generate better scientific hypotheses.

KT: What about the role of T in sexual desire and intimacy?

SVA: Sure. I’m focusing more on T right now. We have found that T is positively correlated with solitary sexual desire, which is the desire, for example, to masturbate, and that’s the direction a lot of people would think. But we have found that it is negatively correlated with dyadic desire, or the desire to be with another person. One of the things we’ve been doing to understand this because it replicates a lot of other findings. We’ve been trying to understanding how that could make sense and that relates back to what I was saying before.couple
(Public domain clipart from ClipartPal: http://www.clipartpal.com/_thumbs/pd/holiday/valentine/valentine_couple.png)

What are women wanting when they say they want to engage in sex with a partner? The assumption is that they want pleasure or orgasm, but as I was saying, heterosexual activity is actually not the greatest way for women to experience orgasm, or at least orgasm is not frequently a part of it. Now of course pleasure and orgasm are not the same thing, and there’s a lot of ways to experience pleasure, but we’ve been interested in this disconnect. We’ve been theorizing that one of the reasons why dyadic desire is negatively correlated with T is that sometimes desire, even sexual desire, is actually meaning desire to feel close to a partner. We don’t think that women naturally only want to feel close to their partners and don’t want orgasm at all, but just that given the limited options (and given that women, like men and all gendered diverse people, are rational beings), what they may be wanting out of intercourse or sexual activity with a partner may actually be what they are getting. This may be the closeness, as opposed as orgasm or as much sexual pleasure as we might expect. That’s one part.

Another part that’s interesting is that bringing in the S/P Theory of Social Bonds and thinking about social constructions is helping us understand that intimacy has many forms, so when we think about sexualities, some form of sexualities are partially erotic, (genital pleasure), some are more nurturant (closeness, warmth), some may be about power.

There’s so much going on when we’re talking about sex that even when we measure sexual desire, which we think of as a very specific construct, we need to be more detailed and operationalized it more to understand what we’re actually measuring and what people are actually answering.

See Part 2 for more on the implications and future of gender/sex research.

Mapping Out a Feminist Bioscience: Interview with Sari van Anders (Part 2)

Doing Feminist Bioscience- Interview with Sari van Anders (Part 2) from Kathy Trang on Vimeo.

Bio: Dr. Sari van Anders is an associate professor of Psychology & Women’s Studies and affiliate faculty member of the Program in Neuroscience; the Reproductive Science Program; and the Science, Technology, and Science Studies Program at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor. She is also the incoming editor of the Annual Review of Sex Research. Dr. van Anders earned her PhD in Biological and Cognitive Psychology at Simon Fraser University. In her social neuroendocrinology lab, she conducts feminist-informed research on the social contexts of hormones and intimacy. She has received grants from the National Institute of Health, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Institute for Research on Women and Gender Program, the American Institute of Bisexuality, and many others. Her work has appeared in numerous journals including Psychology and Sexuality, Archives of Sexual Behavior, Journal of Sex Research, Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology. We are very pleased to have her here with us.

Transcript

(See Part 1 for more on feminist neuroscience and on Dr. van Ander’s research.)

KT: So far we’ve focused on T, but I know you’ve also written about oxytocin and made the case for why we shouldn’t think OT = good. Why is this?

SVA: That’s a great question. One of the things with the S/P theory of Social Bonds is that we’ve been arguing that oxytocin seems to be related in a lot of ways to closeness or trust. There’s a lot of fascinating work on that from social bonds to attachment to pair bonds, but those things aren’t universally good. I think there are a lot of interesting feminist critiques right now on this. In a world where we think being pair bonded is better than not, we can see that obviously oxytocin would be seen as good because it’s seen as related to pair bonds. However, you could overlay this with political understandings that criticize single women and men for wanting too much sex, which I don’t think are true, but our culture attacks. It privileges coupledom, and it privileges certain types of relationships over others.

One of the things we’ve been arguing in the paper you referred to is a feminist lens would help us realize that trust isn’t always good. Who do you trust and when? For women and men, trusting sexual partners can be good when it’s deserved and a bad thing when it’s not. There’s also some very intriguing evidence that oxytocin might be an emotional amplifier (Jennifer Bartz), and one of the reasons to think about that is that if you feel close to a partner, oxytocin might make you feel closer; but what if you feel dislike of a partner? If oxytocin is an emotional amplifier, it might increase that. Or you could think about one of the ongoing tropes—with the UCSB shooting—we see this play out with this obsessive belief that you have the right to women’s sexual bodies. I know this is a more extreme example, but what does oxytocin do to that? Does it make you feel even more obsessive? Do you feel closer to people you shouldn’t feel closer to or that you have no right to feel close to?

I think there’s all sorts of questions about what oxytocin can do, but because it’s mainly been studied in how can it promote this pair bond or not, as opposed to whether it can promote something negative or not, we end up having a limited view of its potential outcome.

As one more point I want to make, there’s evidence that oxytocin promotes closeness to in-group members. Again, you can think of that as the amplification. It makes you feel closer to people you already feel close to, while promoting this derogation or devaluation of out-group members. So one of the things we’re arguing is that oxytocin may be the love hormone, but it could also be the racism hormone. It sounds sort of out there, but possible if it’s promoting out-group derogation–one of the things that underlines separation, nationalism, and all these other problematic isms. “This group of ours is better; the other is problematic.” Oxytocin seems to be one of the hormones that influences that process.

The idea that we’ll have people be given oxytocin sprays should raise flags for people who understand that closeness is relative, and there are other sides to the closeness coin. There are times when you shouldn’t feel close, times when you shouldn’t feel trust, and times where we want there to be less discriminated closeness. That’s what a lot of research on pair bonds is about; oxytocin promotes selective affiliation. There’s all sort of things to have caution.

One of the reasons I wrote that paper was because I was starting to hear at feminist conferences people talking about oxytocin as this love hormone, kind of tongue in cheek, but still with this kind of “maybe this is the hope that will save us,” and I thought there was so much more about the research that wasn’t making it into others’ toolbox of understanding.

KT: So I have to ask, are there any plans in your lab to do research on oxytocin?

SVA: Right now, oxytocin can only be measured by blood. We’ve tried to develop a salivary assay with no luck, and I know a lot of people have tried. I know a few labs that measure it from urine or saliva, but a lot of us can’t seem to replicate their findings or get it to work in our lab for whatever reason. I know I only had limited money to throw at it, and at some point, I said that’s enough.

I’m also so fascinated by T, and, as I was saying before, scientists don’t get randomly assigned to their studies. You develop an intuition about what you’re studying. By intuition, I mean hunches based on research, and so I feel close to T. I feel like I have a good grasp on it and a good understanding of it. To an extent, I feel this with oxytocin, but less so. Also, we don’t do blood in our lab right now. Saliva works really well for T, and a lot of what we do is field research, meaning people may go home and engage in sex then take saliva samples before and after; blood wouldn’t really work, so methodological limitations are also what’s driving this. If we could measure it reliably in saliva and I could know it for sure, I’d be doing it in a second.

KT: Building on our discussion on oxytocin, what should the clinician or layperson take away from your research? 

SVA: That’s a great question. One of the things is that we tend to think of hormones as static, predetermined, and causal. One of the key things I would love to have people understand is that hormones are responsive, situated, and in a reversed relationship, where hormones can influence behavior, but actually as we’re finding humans, behavior also influences hormones. I’d love for people to understand that.

I’d also love feminist scientists and people all over to stop talking about T as though it were the driving essence of masculinity, as though it were what made men, men. I think it would be great if we could decouple those two because that’s what our evidence tells us. T does the same things in women and men. That’s not to say it doesn’t play out differently depending on socialization, but understanding that T and behavioral masculinity aren’t one-to-one would be really useful.

With clinicians, for example, taking one sample of T, we get some understanding of trait levels, but we also lose the variability that we need to know. I think that there would be two- take-homes: 1) Behavioral masculinity and T are not one-to-one, 2) hormones are responsive, dynamic, and situated, not just causal.

KT: Here at the FPR we’re really interested in understanding that interaction between culture and biology. What insights, if any, do you think a cross-cultural (or anthropological) perspective can provide for social neuroendocrinology? Is collaboration possible? 

SVA: One of the great things about social neuroendocrinology is that it already incorporates biological anthropology. There’s a lot of fascinating research being done by biological anthropologists, for example, Lee Gettler and Peter Gray on fathering and testosterone, or people on competition and status, and they’re doing work cross-culturally, which is great. One of the downfalls of psychology is that its mainstream is not seen as cross-cultural. We don’t get training in cross-cultural methods, and one of the main criticisms of psychology is that it focuses on WEIRD populations (White, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic—and you could add heterosexual, citizen, able-bodied, etc.). I’ve been very fortunate in that there is social neuroendocrinology work being done across the globes. One of the things I add is by doing lab experiments and manipulations, which anthropologists don’t typically do, so it’s a nice mix, actually. We have experiments, manipulations, field studies, observations, cross-cultural insights, and so on. They are all kind of coming together to help us understand a picture that would otherwise be very incomplete or partial.

KT: Within the past few years, I feel like we’ve seen a stronger push to incorporate sex/gender into our studies (e.g., NIH requiring testing of animals of both sexes, Stanford’s Gendered Innovations project), but also a critique of that gendering practice (e.g., Sarah Richardson’s Sex Itself, Rebecca Jordan-Young’s Brainstorm). I wonder what your thoughts are in the place of feminist neuroscience in keeping balance between engendering our research programs and infusing them with unwarranted pre-theories about sex/gender (whether in favor of biological determinism or cultural relativism)? 

SVA: That’s such a good question, and of course, a timely one, with the NIH’s call.

I’m Canadian originally, and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research has an Institute of Gender and Health, which does a lot of work around gender and sex, as well. They do a lot of training, and that’s one of the things I’d love to see.

The tricky part is that we want to pay attention to gender/sex, but we don’t want to overestimate its importance and make everything about gender/sex when it’s not.

For example, if we think we need different medical doses for women and men because of their different sizes, what we really need to be paying attention to is different sizes because there are some small men and some big women. We don’t want to over-focus on gender and sex, but we don’t want to under-focus on it and assume it doesn’t matter. I think that lies at the core of your question—how do we pay it the attention it deserves without overestimating it.

I think I really like IGH because they do so much training, and almost no scientist is trained to think about gender or sex. They’re barely trained to think about sex and almost completely not trained to think about gender. The idea that we’ll mandate it and expect it to be accomplished in meaningful and useful ways might be a big ask, without the training to support it and back it up. It’s like if we asked people to pay attention to some variable they don’t know anything about and expect them to self-educate, but we know we live in a world where some are not interested in feminism; and scientists see some feminist scholarship as antithetical to science, so I think training is a big answer.  As a PI myself, I know no one likes to be trained in anything, but I like IGH’s model where they have training modules for students, training opportunities for PIs, and so on. I think that’s really useful. I also think that this issue of constantly paying attention to gender and sex, when it matters, when it doesn’t, needs to be more part of the language.

It’s not that gender and sex are not always primary variables, but they should be thought of as potentials. We need room in science for when they don’t matter and have room for when they do. We need a push on both of those. I think often the push, as you say, is this sense of “we need to pay attention to sex differences because we need to pay attention to females because females are so different from males and males are the standard,” and I think that language reifies cultural assumptions that men are from Mars and women are from Venus. It’s a major problem because we end up in this circular process where our science contributes to that belief of, “oh look we have to study them; they’re so different,” then people start thinking about them as so different and we arrive at “look! we have to study them; they’re so different.” I think that balance is important, and the way to that is fraught, but in our communications and in our mandates, articulating that balance and offering training/education so that people can actually be prepared to engage with gender and sex in sophisticated ways is important.

KT: Finally, if you were to envision a conference that really attempts to push at the frontier of sex/gender study or alternatively rethink the direction it should take from an interdisciplinary perspective, what do you think are the key topics that should be addressed at this conference? 

SVA: It’s a great question and as part of some work I’ve been doing, I’ve been reading some interdisciplinary collections that have people talking from multiple levels of analyses and multiple disciplines and who are thinking about how to do this, how to bring together humanist, social, life sciences, medical scientists, and so on. How do we think about talking across these disciplines? I think one of the problems is that when we bring people from multiple disciplines together who don’t know how to talk to each other and who don’t know the differing base assumptions they may have, it kind of pushes them more apart. It’s kind of like some research I read about, how people who go do study abroad experiences and haven’t been prepared appropriately end up feeling very distant from the culture they go to. It’s actually worse! They’re more culturally insensitive (“Argh! Why don’t they have the burgers I want!”), as opposed to understanding what it means to go to that culture. So I think part of the problem or part of the challenge is how to bring people together without that ending up pushing them apart.

I think it’s important to have people who are actually devoted towards not only thinking across disciplines, but also listening across disciplines; people may love to think about their own research, but some may be less interested in listening to what others are saying. I think that is not always the most common factor among scholars and academics.

One could imagine it going in a epistemological level, so what are the base assumptions of our discipline? Science—we believe that we are objective, repeatable, falsifiable, and so on. What are the base assumptions of this and how do those matter for understanding gender and sex?

We could think about epistemic or methodological. What does it look like when we do research and how is gender/sex mattering there, in our labs, in our libraries, in our grants? We can think about the infrastructure separately or in relation to our grants, departments, and tenure-process. It’s funny because I’ve heard people on different sides talk about how we need to actually stop trying to have some sort of grand shared understanding. So, people have been arguing for quite some time that we need to integrate disciplines and have an interdisciplinary understanding, but there are those saying that that’s not working. However, I feel like there are some of us who are coming up, who were trained when people were calling for that, and we heard that call. Our training or our informal training reflected that, so I do feel there’s a new generation of scholars who have been thinking about these issues for longer than when they come to a joint conference.

There’s a part of me now that sees it as a time to bring together people because we have a lots of bridges. Before we were trying to bring together islands and pull these islands together. Now we have bridges, people who have been trained to think across disciplines. Recognizing that and articulating that is useful.

For example, I sometimes say one of my skills is feminist science translation; I’m bilingual, and I think of it as a real skill. Being able to communicate what both groups are saying to each other is not easy, just as translation of real languages is not easy and is a real skill. I think we’re having more of those people.

Making sure a conference has lots of bridges, especially relative to the number of islands. No one thinks of themselves as an island, but very few people are doing work that really transfers out of their disciplines. There are few people doing lab/bench science who are also engaging critically with gendered culture, for example. It’s mostly separate. How to bring them together is key and I do think those bridges, those translators, are useful. To that end, I think, it’s not an answer to you right now, but thinking continually about training people who can speak across disciplines is going to be key to doing good interdisciplinary work in any field, but especially in terms of thinking about gender and sex, which is so inherently interdisciplinary, and especially for thinking about feminist science.

KT: Well, that concludes my interview. Are there other take-home messages or messages you want to add for our viewers?

SVA: I guess the thing I would say is that it’s a very exciting time to do this work, at a time where there’s so much interest in feminist science. I lead a website called GapJunctionScience, which is a site to bring together people interested in feminist science and what that means. Your conference sounds like a great place. There’s so much interest going on. I just came back from a NeuroGenderings conference in Europe, and there are a lot of people interested in feminist science. I think there have always been people who saw the two coming together (Anne Fausto-Sterling, Sandra Harding, Helen Longino, etc.). Increasingly, there are more people joining into that perspective and people starting to do work in their lab that is feminist, including me and many others (Patricia Gowaty being the pioneer in this). I think it’s a very exciting time, and I’m very excited about the conference you’re developing.