Michigan Minds Special Series: Women in STEM
In this episode of Michigan Minds, Pamela Raymond, Stephen S. Easter Collegiate Professor Emerita of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology in the College of Literature, Science, & the Arts, discusses her research investigating retinal stem cells in zebrafish to uncover properties of human neural stem cells. And because this episode is part of a series focusing on women in STEM, Raymond also talks about her advocacy for gender equity in science throughout her career, and the optimism she has for the future.
Raymond, who is now retired from active faculty duty, explains her research, which explores how neurons are generated and why certain kinds of animals, like zebrafish, continue to grow throughout their lives as if they are constantly regenerating neurons.
“Fish don’t have an adult body size—the older they get, the bigger they get. They just keep growing. If you have a bigger body, then your brain is bigger, too. So the question comes: well, how does that happen?”
“Fish keep adding neurons to their brains throughout their entire life. That’s not true of us, of course,” she says. “Our mental capacity decreases because we keep losing neurons.
Raymond was interested in one particular part of the nervous system: the retina. “In your eye,” she explains, “the neural retina is basically a little piece of brain that’s pushed out from the skull toward the periphery, and sits there as two little cups filled with neurons that are catching visual signals and sending information to your brain.”
Eventually, she decided to focus primarily on the regeneration of neurons in fish.
“What happens if you damage the brain or the retina? If we lose neurons through damage or disease, we can’t make new ones, but if you kill a neuron in a fish’s retina, it just makes a new one to replace it,” she says, adding that later research determined where those new neurons come from during regeneration.
Raymond also recalls an awkward situation when she became chair of her department and received an inappropriate anatomica heirloom from a colleague, and how that experience resulted in her commitment to achieving more gender equity in the department. She implemented a program, which is still in place, to educate colleagues about unconscious bias, and became devoted to mentorship and raising awareness of the need for more female scientists and professors.
Her advice for women and girls starting out on their paths into STEM programs is to find a supportive community and help others along the way.
“It’s important to seek out others who share the same kinds of commitments that you do. I think everyone needs to have a network.
“Everyone needs to feel that they belong, and I think it’s important to be able to feel like you don’t have to change yourself to fit someone else’s mold,” Raymond says.
She is optimistic about the future of gender equity in STEM, as she has witnessed many changes throughout her career.
“When I was a junior faculty member, I did not get involved in ‘women in science’ issues because I knew very well that if I did, I would be ostracized by my peers and looked down upon. It’s only when I had the position of being full professor and chair of the department, a position of authority, that I could in fact engage in trying to make things better.
“In the 50 years that I’ve been in academia, there really has been a change, and it has accelerated in the last 10 years. And I think that’s really encouraging. I think that the next generation is going to have much more equality in gender. Now, we have to work on racial equality as well. I think that’s our next challenge in science.”