News from the Fraser Lab

Fraser Lab DEIJ Journal Club - Gender Disparities in Academic Retention

Stephanie Wankowicz
31 January 2024
tags: #deij_jc

Our journal clubs aim to provide an environment for continued learning and critical discussion. Based on the discussion, we also brainstorm action items that individuals and labs can implement. Our discussions and proposed interventions reflect our opinions based on our identities and lived experiences. Consequently, they may differ from the discussions held by those with other identities and/or experiences. This journal club took place among the entire Fraser lab. Due to the size of the lab, we split into three groups. Each group had unique but overlapping conversations.

Discussion Leader: Mohamad Dandan, Daphne Chen, Tushar Raskar

Articles: Gender and retention patterns among U.S. faculty

Summary and Key Points: In academia, there is a notable gender imbalance. Despite significant strides in acquiring doctoral degrees, women remain underrepresented in tenure-track faculty positions1,2. Further, and even more surprising, this gap tends to increase as the tenure-track stage increases (assistant professor to full professor)3. This issue is more acute in prestigious institutions. This paper presents data showing that the commonly held belief that this disparity stems mainly from work-life balance is a misconception. Rather, the paper reveals that workplace climate and culture are significant factors.

To identify the underlying contributions to why women tend to leave tenure-track positions, the authors split the reasons for leaving into ‘pushes’ or ‘pulls’. Pushes include workplace climate (including gendered harassment), work-life balance, or work-related reasons (funding issues). Pulls are recruitment for attractive external positions. While push reasons are more common overall, these are more common for women. However, the challenge in addressing these disparities lies in the subjective nature of what constitutes push and pull factors in an academic career. Personal life experiences heavily influence perceptions of these factors, making it challenging to devise universal solutions. For example, people have different expectations of work-life balance, and these expectations are likely to change over time. Second, there is an often subtle difference in how conversations, friendships, and collaborations exist between two parties of the same or different gender. How to mitigate these differences is difficult as the reasoning for them is multifaceted. A conscious effort is needed, particularly from men, to be mindful of these dynamics. Such awareness and a willingness to step back can contribute significantly to narrowing the gender gap and creating a more balanced and inclusive academic environment. Below are some open questions we have after reading this article.

Open Questions:

  1. How does the definition of work-life balance vary among individuals in academia, and what strategies can institutions implement to respect these varying needs?
  2. In what ways does parenthood influence academics’ decisions to leave the field, and what alternatives do they often consider?
  3. How does having a dual-academic career impact the attrition rates, especially regarding gender differences?
  4. Why is there a larger attrition gap among women who are full professors, contrary to expectations?
  5. How does the prestige of an academic institution affect the attrition rates of faculty members?
  6. Would improving gender parity within departments alter the current distribution of academic attrition rates?
  7. What specific challenges and dynamics do parents in academia face, and how do these challenges differ from non-parent academics?
  8. How can academic institutions better support dual-career academic couples to mitigate gendered attrition?

Proposed Action Items:

  1. Explore the possibility of peer mentoring at higher levels of academia, especially for professors in tenure-track positions.
  2. During career development conversations, mentors could discuss potential careers that mentees are interested in in terms of their pushes and pulls. Reframing potential careers in terms of pushes and pulls may make for a more nuanced conversation compared to simple pros/cons, since pushes and pulls ask the mentee to prioritize which values and activities are more important for their particular career goals.


  1. Wapman, K. H., Zhang, S., Clauset, A. & Larremore, D. B. Quantifying hierarchy and dynamics in US faculty hiring and retention. Nature 610, 120–127 (2022).
  2. National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, Women, minorities, and persons with disabilities in science and engineering 2021 (2022).
  3. Kaminski, D. & Geisler, C. Survival analysis of faculty retention in science and engineering by gender. Science 335, 864–866 (2012).

Chalk talk guideines

James Fraser
24 January 2024

We recently drafted this guide for the chalk talks for faculty candidates to our search in BTS. We thought it might be useful to others, so we are posting it here.

  • The goal of the chalk talk is to get a sense of the potential directions of your lab. A good general rule is to map out the major themes and questions your lab will address in the first 5-7 years. The audience is faculty-only.
  • We will start with about 5 minutes uninterrupted for you to introduce the area and provide any brief background highlights. If you would like this 5 minutes to be from a projected set of slides, let us know and we will make arrangements. Alternatively, the entire content can be whiteboard. During the intro, we want to know:

    • What is your vision?
    • Why is it new, exciting, and important?
    • Why are you the right person to execute on it?
  • Our preferred format for the rest of the chalk talk is on whiteboard. We will provide markers and erasers. The rest of the talk generally, but not always, consists of mapping out 2-3 projects.
  • We will make sure you have ~15 minutes in the room to prepare and, if you choose, to pre-write anything on the board. Of course, you are welcome to refer to your notes during the chalk talk.
  • During the chalk talk, most questions will follow from the scientific content of your presentation. In addition, some faculty may ask you how these broad directions map to a grant strategy or to potential projects for a student/postdoc - but it is not essential to structure the directions around those potential questions.
  • Our goal is for the chalk talk to be a constructive brainstorming conversation that is full of new ideas!

How to moderate a session at a meeting

James Fraser
07 November 2023

To effectively moderate sessions at a meeting or a graduate program retreat, it’s crucial to manage time efficiently to ensure that the event runs smoothly and on schedule. This involves clear communication with presenters about the session rules, managing Q&A sessions judiciously, and being prepared to enforce time limits with a firm but fair approach. The goal is to create an environment where each speaker has their allotted time respected, the audience remains engaged, and the overall program adheres to its intended timeline. Here’s a guide I wrote for the recent QBC retreat for student moderators.

  1. Days-hours before the session send the presenters an email to instruct them about the “rules” for the session.
  2. Prior to gathering speakers figure out how questions will work. Will people just shout from their seats, will there be a microphone runner passing the microphone to people in their seats, or a few microphone stands for people to queue up at.
  3. Gather your speakers in the break before the session starts and ensure their laptops plug into the AV system. Tell each of them the following rules:
    • When you will give them a warning wave that they have X minutes remaining (usually 1 for a 5-10 min talk, 2 for a 10-20 min talk, 5 for a 40 min talk)
    • That you will stand up when they are at time (I often also threaten with a beach ball or some object at full time)
    • That their laptop will be unplugged if they exceed the time of the talk + questions
    • To plug in the laptop of the next speaker while the preceding speaker is answering questions
    • Note that powerpoint sometimes has issues when the presentation is already in full screen when you plug into the projector. Better to start out of presentation mode and start it AFTER plugging into the projector.
  4. There isn’t a need to do a long introduction for a session with multiple speakers (I reserve long intros for keynotes or single seminars). Simply state - our next speaker is X. Most speakers will start with their title anyways - so no need for you to read it. Keep it moving!
  5. At the end of the talk, you will stand up and moderate the q/a portion. They only get questions if they finish their talk with enough time remaining. If they went over time, NO QUESTIONS! If they encroach into the question time, then limit questions to 1 or 2.
    • if there are no questions after an awkward beat… YOU MUST ASK A QUESTION. It can be as simple as:
      1. I didn’t understand X, can you explain it again
      2. What would you do next?
      3. What is the type of data that can’t currently be collected, but you dream would answer this question
    • Chose audience members to ask questions:
      1. favour learners (postdocs/students), especially for the first question.
      2. keep in mind diversity of who gets to ask questions
      3. cut off questions at the full time with the line “It is wonderful to see such enthusiasm. Speaker X will be around later to answer questions. Our next speaker is Y.”

Here is an example email I sent for the Protein Society this summer, where I moderated a session:

Looking forward to meeting at the upcoming Protein Society meeting. As the session moderator for “RNA-Protein Machines: Ancient Synergies”, I am passing along some of the instructions here: 1. Session Preparation: Please make sure to be present in the session room at least 15 minutes before the scheduled start time. This will allow us to coordinate and ensure that there are no A/V hiccups. 2. Time Management: To maintain the session’s schedule, it is essential that each speaker starts and ends their presentation on time. I am an “activist moderator” and will cut you off if you go over time (maybe with some kind of beach ball or water gun)! 3. The following time limits have been set for the respective presentation types:

  • Senior Talks: 25 minutes for the presentation + 5 minutes for discussion
  • Young Investigator Talks: 12 minutes for the presentation + 3 minutes for discussion
  • Flash Talks: 2 minutes each for introducing your research/poster (with no Q&A session) Let me know if you have any questions and I look forward to a great session!

Michael Wall Seminar

James Fraser
29 September 2023
tags: #seminar

Longtime friend of the lab, Michael Wall, will be visiting and deliver a seminar on his pioneering work using diffuse X-ray scattering and molecular dynamics to study proteins.

November 2nd, 2023 4:00pm in GH S201

Diffuse X-Ray Scattering to Shed Light on Protein Dynamics

Michael Wall, Los Alamos National Laboratory

Dynamics in protein crystals gives rise to diffuse X-ray scattering – intensity beneath and between the Bragg peaks in diffraction experiments. Recent improvements in X-ray beamlines and detectors have created new opportunities for using diffuse scattering to understand protein dynamics. In this talk I will introduce some basic concepts about diffuse scattering from protein crystals and the connection to dynamics. I also will review some modern approaches to diffuse data collection, processing, analysis, modeling, and simulation.

Mike Wall

Fraser Lab DEIJ Journal Club - Racial Disparities in Academic Retention

Stephanie Wankowicz
09 August 2023
tags: #deij_jc

Our journal clubs aim to provide an environment for continued learning and critical discussion. Based on the discussion, we also brainstorm action items that individuals and labs can implement. Our discussions and proposed interventions reflect our opinions based on our identities and lived experiences. Consequently, they may differ from the discussions held by those with other identities and/or experiences. This journal club took place among the entire Fraser lab. Due to the size, we split into three groups. Each group had unique but overlapping conversations. Below are the major points discussed by each group.

Discussion Leader: Stephanie Wankowicz, Daphne Chen, Eric Greene

Articles: “Differential retention contributes to racial/ethnic disparity in U.S. academia”

Summary and Key Points:

The top ranks of academia, particularly tenured faculty positions, suffer from a glaring lack of racial diversity(1). The cause of this lack of diversity is commonly attributed to challenges in recruitment and retention. Recruitment involves increasing enrollment of students in undergraduate or graduate programs, while retention focuses on keeping people in the ‘academic pipeline’ as they transition from role to role. Insufficient recruitment is widely recognized as a critical contributor to the lack of diversity in STEM fields; however, retention also significantly contributes to this disparity (2-4).

This paper addresses these concerns by focusing on differential retention. They frame retention through a null model, which states that if all else was equal, given the number of academics at stage i in a particular race category, there should be a proportional number of academics in that race category at stage i + 1. They examine each NIH race category’s academic career trajectory trends (5). The authors then compare the distribution predicted by this model to what is observed in NSF survey data. This comparison allows them to ask at which stage each race tends to “fall out” of the academic pipeline. The trends presented in this paper represent a significant dropout of certain races when moving from one stage to another. This was most evident from the grad school to postdoc stage, with a significant dropout of Black and Hispanic academics.

Racial Categories:

This study utilizes the NIH racial categories, which are extremely broad. We discussed how these categories oversimplify racial groups in the United States. The international scholars in the lab also provided perspective on how racial categories are a region- or country-specific issue, with many countries not discussing the issue of race due to a much more homogenous society.

Academic Career Trajectories:

The study broke down the transition from each ‘stage’ of an academic career (graduate, post-doc, pre-tenure faculty, post-tenure faculty). While this analysis removes many confounding factors, the academic career path is not for everyone, and performing this analysis with only those who want to enter the next stage of academia may highlight differences.

However, given this paper’s clear trends and the lack of survey data on career goals, adding this category will likely remain the conclusion. While racism is at the core of these disparities, we discussed specific differences at each career stage and potential solutions.

We also discussed the relative need for more career guidance support for people in the postdoc phase, including financial and mentorship. University postdoc offices often try to support thousands of trainees with only 1-2 full-time employees (6). This lack of general support isolates trainees, especially considering that many inclusive social groups in graduate programs are not found at the postdoc level (7). This can cause a much more isolating experience.

The lack of funding or support for research projects can be more relevant at the postdoc and pre-tenure phases. Research focused on different racial categories, such as health disparities research, is underfunded (8). Further, there is bias in obtaining funding (9).

Internal Lab Support:

While most of these changes need to occur on an institutional scale, we also acknowledged the significance of peer mentoring in fostering retention and support among lab members. Although being social and building relationships with lab mates can mitigate this feeling, it does not eliminate the sense of not belonging. Recognizing the value of non-lab-related peer mentoring networks, such as connections with individuals from other labs or institutions, we discussed how these external support systems can contribute to a cohesive and well-functioning lab environment. Furthermore, creating a supportive environment can help individual members see their next step in academia and expose them to career options they would not have otherwise considered. We acknowledged the need for regular conversations about careers and the next steps, as many trainees (graduate students and postdocs) tend to put off considering their future to focus on their science, and PIs should be, but are not always, proactive in initiating these conversations.

Hypotheses and potential solutions for improving retention:

We discussed the socioeconomic factors that present significant obstacles for individuals pursuing careers in higher education. These factors include the affordability of college education, wage loss during postdoctoral training, reliance on family support, costs associated with grad school interviews and applications, and the increasing financial burden of each education stage (on top of the cost of moving between educational stages). We also noted that gender plays a prominent role in many of these transitions, especially grad school to postdoc, postdoc to pre-tenure, as this is when many people in the canonical ‘academic pipeline’ have children (with fewer parents pursuing a postdoc, especially with women, as childbearing work falls disproportionately on women) (7). Moreover, the hard work of childbearing falls disproportionately on women, which presents a broad gender-specific barrier to advancement. More detailed data would provide valuable insights into the career trajectories of those opting out of academia, furthering our understanding of the challenges and reasons behind their decisions.

Open Questions:

  • How does the dropout rate from one step to another look among only those who desire to continue in academia?
  • How different does this trajectory look for different genders?
  • Why do people not move on to a postdoc or pre-tenure position?
  • There are also significant dropouts observed from pre-tenure to tenured positions. Why are universities not supporting their pre-tenure faculty through the tenure process?
  • What impact does observing a historically underrepresented professor not getting tenure have on an institution’s student population?
  • We’d love to see follow-up analyses of this data set, particularly how these trends hold up/change for different disciplines and/or institutions. Can we identify and learn from those demonstrating positive progress toward inclusive academic retention?

Proposed Action Items:

  • Advocate for increased funding and support of the postdoctoral affairs office.
  • Waiving application fees for graduate school and/or University providing travel funding up front (instead of through reimbursement)
  • Provide resources or opportunities for trainees to form peer mentoring networks, such as socials/mixers, funding for groups based on specific career/research goals, etc.
  • Bringing awareness of these racial disparities to admission committees, hiring committees, and hiring managers.


1) Research: Decoupling of the minority PhD talent pool and assistant professor hiring in medical school basic science departments in the US 2) How Gender and Race Stereotypes Impact the Advancement of Scholars in STEM: Professors’ Biased Evaluations of Physics and Biology Post-Doctoral Candidates 3) Academia’s postdoc system is teetering, imperiling efforts to diversify life sciences 4) Tenure Decisions at Southern Cal Strongly Favor White Men, Data in a Rejected Candidate’s Complaint Suggest 5) Racial and Ethnic Categories and Definitions for NIH Diversity Programs and for Other Reporting Purposes 6) Growing Progress in Supporting Postdocs 7) Academia’s postdoc system is teetering, imperiling efforts to diversify life sciences 8) Role of funders in addressing the continued lack of diversity in science and medicine 9) Fraser Lab DEIJ Journal Club - Blinding Grant Peer Review