Northern San Diego County is a scientific mecca, home to some of the world’s leading biotech companies, renowned research institutions and a world-class university. But the Salk Institute for Biological Research, perched on a cliff above the Pacific Ocean in La Jolla, is distinguished even among its neighbors. Jonas Salk founded the institution in 1963 as a kind of second legacy, after the millions of lives saved with his polio vaccine. He envisioned it as a place where scientists would work in open, collaborative laboratories, free from university bureaucracies: They would be professors, supervising graduate students and postdocs, but with no teaching requirements. He recruited 10 of the top men in biology to join him, including Francis Crick, newly famous for discovering, with James Watson, DNA’s double helix. In a 1960 letter, Watson called the idea “Jonas’s utopia.”
By 2017, the biochemist Beverly Emerson had worked in this utopia for 31 years. She was, at the time, onto an exciting idea — a novel approach to understanding tumor growth — but her 66th birthday was coming up, and with it her contract with Salk would expire. To renew it, the Institute required that she have enough grant money to cover half her salary. She didn’t.
Emerson had pinned her hopes on a new funding initiative she was developing with the Salk’s president, Elizabeth Blackburn. So when she went to meet with Blackburn that fall, she thought it might be about their progress. Instead, she found Blackburn flanked by the Salk’s chief finance and science officers. “You and I have had long careers,” Emerson remembers Blackburn saying. She knew it was over.
Emerson broke the news to her lab employees and turned to the work of shutting down experiments. On her final day, she took one last look around; she had spent 40 years going to a lab almost every day, and couldn’t imagine a life without one. The Salk made no announcement of her departure. It was Kathy Jones, another professor, who sent around an email letting colleagues know Emerson was leaving, and thanking her for her years of service.
Emerson suspected funding wasn’t the only reason her tenure at the Salk ended so unceremoniously. Two months before that final meeting, she and Jones and Vicki Lundblad — three of the four women among the Institute’s 32 full professors — filed state gender-discrimination lawsuits against the Salk, claiming that an “old boys’ club” of senior faculty restricted their access to funds, laboratory resources and influence. Select male faculty, they said, effectively ran the Institute and were showered with private donations, while women were forced to fire essential staff and were shut out from power.
At the time, women made up just 16 percent of the Salk’s senior faculty and 32 percent of assistant professors — a striking statistic, given that the biological sciences are one of the only scientific fields in which women earn more than half the doctoral degrees. This state of affairs wasn’t unique to the Salk: Women make up a similar share of senior faculty at similar research institutions, and just 28 percent of tenured biology professors at elite public universities.
Jones started at the Institute on July 1, 1986, when she was 31. She was one of two new hires for the Salk’s regulatory biology department. The other was Emerson, who was still en route, driving cross-country with her mother, writing grant applications by the light of motel signs. On her first day, as Jones made her way through the Salk’s campus to meet with the president, she was dazzled by its grandeur. Two teak-accented buildings enclosed a marble courtyard, amid orange trees, terraced pools and a grand ocean view. But as she waited outside the president’s office, she says she had an encounter she would later think of often. A woman who introduced herself as Carolyn Stinson, the Institute’s director of program analysis, shook Jones’s hand and then blurted out a warning: “You need to understand that at the Salk Institute, women do not get the same pay as men,” Jones remembers her saying, “and they do not get anywhere near the same resources.”
“I didn’t know her from anybody,” Jones recalls. “She just walked up and said that.” (Stinson could not be reached for comment.) But Jones didn’t give the warning much weight; her first thought, she told me, was, Well, it’s not going to be like this in 10 years. Her hiring itself felt like proof that the world had changed; any inequities would fade away as out-of-touch older scientists retired or died off.
It had been two years since Suzanne Bourgeois, the wife of one of the Institute’s founders, started the regulatory biology department, which was located in the basement of one of the two Salk buildings. The only other professor in it was Pamela Mellon. Emerson and Jones didn’t take much notice that their all-woman department was cloistered in the basement, or that senior female faculty had relatively small labs. But Mellon, who was slightly older and further along in her career, noticed, and was concerned. The senior women, she recalls, “were secondary. They weren’t consulted. They weren’t invited into joint grants. They weren’t in the leadership.” She left the Salk for U.C. San Diego in 1991. “I could see even then that I was not going to be in the leadership,” she says. “That was not going to happen because of my gender.”
[Read about public attacks on the work of social psychologist Amy Cuddy.]
Jones and Emerson pitied the older women. But they imagined their own exceptional scientific work, and the changing culture around them, would ensure their bright futures.
Early on, Jones worked to decipher how H.I.V. uses a specific protein to duplicate itself. By 1997, she felt sure she was on the verge of figuring it out. “I remember driving down the freeway, and thinking to myself, Don’t get in an accident, because then no one will know the answer to this!” she recalls. When she gave birth to her second child, she took her work with her to the hospital. The resulting paper, published in Cell in 1998, put her name on the map.
By then, Bourgeois had retired, leaving Emerson and Jones alone in a department of two. They wanted to search for new hires; the administration, they say, suggested they instead shut down their department and join a different group. Inder Verma, a lauded cancer biologist, told them he’d decided to allow them to be part of his group, housed in the lab next door — a merger that would give him authority over their space. He’d asked if any other department would take them, they remember him saying, but “nobody wants you.” (Verma declined to be interviewed, but said he had no recollection of this conversation.) “Not the most attractive invitation,” Jones recalls. They said no.
After that decision, the women say, the Salk reconfigured the building. Verma’s department took over space on their floor. “We were used to hearing insults toward women,” Emerson says, “but this really showed their power — and that we had no power.”
It was a conflict over 200 square feet of laboratory space that once led some of the country’s leading universities to focus on the progress — or lack thereof — of women in science.
On paper, Nancy Hopkins had a charmed career. As an undergraduate at Radcliffe College, she was handpicked by James Watson, of Watson and Crick, for mentorship. In 1973, she was hired as an assistant professor at M.I.T.’s Center for Cancer Research, and was quickly promoted to receive tenure. But in the early ’90s, when she began a new set of genetics experiments using zebra fish and requested an extra 200 square feet for aquariums, the faculty member in charge of facilities refused.
Hopkins, then in her early 50s, had a feeling her lab was already smaller than those of her male peers. For a year, she fought for more space — a battle that culminated with her measuring the entire department. “I literally got a tape measure and measured every lab in the building,” she told me. She found that her space was 500 square feet smaller than the average male junior professor’s, and from 1,500 to 4,500 square feet smaller than her male fellow full professors’. The person in charge refused to look at her data. “Here I was measuring the goddamn laboratories,” she says, “and I brought him the measurements, and he wouldn’t even look at them.”
She began to notice that other women seemed just as invisible as she felt, while men whose science didn’t seem any better were lauded as geniuses. But it was years before she named this problem in her mind; she thought of discrimination as something that ended when women were allowed to hold jobs like hers. “It’s hard to believe anyone could be that naïve, but I was,” she says. At the start of her career, her science seemed to speak for itself, and her talents were encouraged by great men in her field. Now that she considered herself their equal, she was confronted with all the ways they seemed to disagree.
The question of whether women could, or should, be a part of the scientific profession was as old as the profession itself. According to Londa Schiebinger, a historian at Stanford, it was during the Enlightenment era in Europe, as science was transformed into a profession and universities and academies formed, that a fork in the road was reached, and women were formally excluded from Western science. Earlier, they’d been among its practitioners, but by 1911, Marie Curie was denied entry to the French national academy despite having shared a Nobel Prize. (The same year, she became the first person ever to win a second.) After a long debate, the academy concluded that it should “respect the immutable tradition against the election of women,” so as not to “break the unity of this elite body.”
[Read about the secret history of women in coding.]
Later in the 20th century, as Hopkins and other women were allowed into the “elite body” of academia for the first time, they found that cultural and structural barriers remained. Frustrated, Hopkins drafted a letter to Charles Vest, the president of M.I.T., calling for action. It was eventually signed, and added to, by 16 of the 17 tenured female faculty members in the School of Science (there were 194 tenured men), and became the basis for a 1999 M.I.T. report, written by Hopkins and other science faculty, documenting how women in the sciences had access to fewer resources than their male counterparts. Almost none of the junior female faculty, the report found, believed “that gender bias will impede their careers.” It was after receiving tenure that “many senior women faculty begin to feel marginalized, including those who felt well supported as junior faculty. They sense that they and their male colleagues may not be treated equally after all.”
Hopkins’s report catalyzed significant change at M.I.T. Vest convened meetings with eight other universities, all of which committed to support female faculty, using policies — collecting equity and inclusion data, providing support for faculty with children — recommended in the report. Hopkins submitted a two-page grant application to support her zebra-fish research, and was offered $10 million — two million more than she needed. “Once you raise money that easily, that fast, guess what? Your research gets easier!” she says. “I got elected to the National Academy. I became, like, a real person.”
But a few men in her department, she says, never spoke to her again. In 2005, she attended an invitation-only conference in Cambridge, where Lawrence Summers, Harvard’s president at the time, wondered aloud whether the scarcity of female scientists at elite universities might be a function of “intrinsic aptitude.” Hopkins immediately closed her computer and left the room. “I think what’s so painful about it is that we’re scientists and we’re supposed to be interested in the truth,” she says. “If it’s true, O.K., it’s true. But then show me the data. And this is a topic on which you cannot show me the data.” For Summers to ask the question “was not science,” she says. “It was not interesting.”
The women in the Salk’s regulatory biology group had not believed that Inder Verma’s patronage was their only option. But when they began, with the Institute’s permission, recruiting for their department — inviting prospective hires to give talks on their research — Jones says most of the senior male faculty would not attend, making it impossible to get approval for a final decision. “Are you tired of your seminar series yet?” Jones says Verma asked her, after yet another interviewee had come and gone without his input. (Verma says he does not recall this conversation.)
If anyone typified the male “rock star” scientists said to have held sway over the Salk, it was Verma. As of 2015, he was the Institute’s highest-paid scientist — and one of its most famous, known for developing the technique of retroviral gene therapy for cancer treatment. His reputation was important for fund-raising. Among biologists, the Salk was sometimes known as “Inder’s Institute.”
Some current and former Salk employees identified Wylie Vale, Ron Evans, Stephen Heinemann and Rusty Gage as the men who, along with Verma, seemed to enjoy extraordinary resources and status (though only Verma was mentioned in the lawsuits). These men, titans in their fields, spoke often at faculty retreats, and on milestone birthdays would reign over symposia in their honor. Parties would be advertised via posters photoshopped to depict them as larger-than-life personas: Gage’s head on a muscled body beneath the text: “The Ultimate Gage Fighter”; Vale as a mafia don with a cigar hanging from his lips. Each researcher at the Institute is responsible for funding his or her own work, and grants and donations seemed especially easy for these men to access. As Salk presidents came and went, it became clear to Jones and Emerson where the real power lay.
When Richard Murphy was brought on as president in 2000, he established, partly at the urging of senior female faculty, a committee to explore the status of women at the Salk and produce a report similar to M.I.T.’s. It concluded that while salaries and promotion rates were roughly equitable, the representation of women on the faculty was as at many similar institutions well below what it should be, compared with the applicant pool, and that women were being promoted more slowly than their male peers. The committee recommended several policy changes, including actively recruiting more women, and in 2004, the Salk hired Vicki Lundblad, a well-known biologist who studied telomeres.
Murphy left the Salk in 2007 and was succeeded by William Brody, a radiologist who had been president of Johns Hopkins. Soon after he was hired, Emerson attended a faculty retreat where, she says, Verma asked if the new president wanted to say anything to the assembled faculty. Brody began by noting that many friends had asked why he took the job, as the Salk had a reputation for short-tenured presidents. His plan, he said, was simple: “I’m going to let the faculty run the Institute.”
“I knew what that meant, and my hopes were sunk,” Emerson recalls. “The faculty does not mean the whole faculty.” (Brody denies that this happened.)
The Institute’s new recruit, Lundblad, soon found herself hemmed in too. Karl Willert, a U.C.S.D. biologist and old friend, remembers how excited Lundblad had been to be in California, working at Salk. But he watched that enthusiasm slowly erode. “She became really upset about how things were run over there,” he says. “Everyone knows that Salk could get awarded 10- or a hundred-million-dollar donations or grants. I think she oftentimes felt like she wasn’t included in that and was sort of on the sidelines.”
In 2014, according to Lundblad’s complaint, Brody called her into his office and told her that a group of senior faculty had decided she was “in a downward spiral,” and that “the field has passed her by.” This felt shockingly out of step with what she was hearing from her peers. Reviewers of an N.I.H. grant proposal a year earlier had described her as a “key player” and “established leader” in her field. (Through a lawyer, Brody denied this account, saying that any discussions he had about productivity were “only in terms of facts and metrics, not judgment.”)
A few months later, Lundblad applied to hire a lab worker who was fully funded by a fellowship; her request was denied. She eventually got the decision reversed — but later that year, it happened again. Jones and Emerson were also having trouble staffing their labs. Emerson was told she was underfunded and asked to fire three of her five workers. In 2015, after Jones and one of her postdocs had spent five years identifying what seemed like a potential cancer treatment, she was pushed to fire the postdoc.
“It was like being in ‘Lord of the Flies,’ but with this incredible Dilbert overlay,” Lundblad says. In 2015, one of Jones’s former postdocs came to visit and was shocked by the state of the lab: “It looks like you’re almost extinct,” she remarked.
In 2014, Emerson was elected faculty chairwoman, only the second woman ever to hold the position. From this position of ostensible power, she asked the external relations office to diversify its matchmaking between scientists and donors. In a meeting, when she solicited input from the faculty on fund-raising, Brody, she says, told her to stop — she was just “confusing” the development office. According to her complaint, he reviewed a plan she presented on including more women in leadership and responded that “boys run committees and boys choose boys.” (Through his lawyer, Brody denies these comments as well.)
Emerson found herself thinking back on the older women whom she and Jones once pitied. “Thirty-one years later, we are the ones that we saw through those young eyes,” she says. “Nothing’s changed. Even after a successful career.”
Elizabeth Blackburn, a Nobel Laureate in physiology/medicine for her discovery of telomerase, had for years spoken out about issues facing female scientists at all levels. So when it was announced in 2015 that Brody was retiring and Blackburn would be the next Salk president — Emerson had sat on the hiring committee that helped select her — the women were sure this promised relief. Lundblad had done her postdoc in Blackburn’s molecular biology lab at Berkeley, and Emerson and Jones had known her for years. “All of us thought, Liz is coming — thank God this is over,” says Jones.
Blackburn, they say, said she would work with them to secure funding. She initiated a strategic planning effort meant to lay the groundwork for the Salk’s next 50 years. The faculty was split into committees; the mandate for Emerson and Lundblad’s group included assessing the state of faculty culture and diversity.
Working with four colleagues, they found that the Institute had hired 3.75 men for every woman since 2010, and that there was a gender-specific skew in lab size: senior women had three of the five smallest spaces on campus, despite raising twice as much N.I.H. funding per employee as men. “When I saw that report, I just felt physically ill,” Jones says. Lundblad says, “It’s not that they haven’t hired women, but they have failed to retain them, they’ve failed to hire enough, failed to promote. Salk has not provided a work environment that allows women faculty to flourish.”
Emerson, in her complaint, says she expected the full findings to be presented to the board. Blackburn, in a statement, says that while she considered presenting the reports to trustees, their volume and early-draft nature meant they were summarized and discussed in later meetings: “Somewhere along the line,” Emerson says, “she probably learned how the place is run and had to run it that way.”
In the spring of 2017, Jones and Lundblad both spoke at the annual faculty retreat, a sumptuous affair in Borrego Springs where faculty members present new research to their colleagues. It was only the second time in 14 years that Lundblad had presented anything, and Jones’s third time in 30. Afterward, Jones says, one of the junior faculty congratulated her, saying it was one of the best talks he’d heard at Salk. “It was very bittersweet,” Jones says. “I felt like, Oh, I missed this. I missed this excitement, this potential for collaboration with colleagues.” The two women drove home to San Diego together, wondering what to do next.
When Lundblad got home, she looked at her husband and said, “I think —” He understood the look on her face and finished her sentence: “It’s time.” That summer, Jones and Lundblad both filed gender-discrimination lawsuits against the Salk. Emerson filed a week later.
Salk responded swiftly to the first suits, with a statement in July 2017 that said Jones and Lundblad’s performances had “long remained within the bottom quartile of [their] peers,” that in the past 10 years they had “failed to publish a single paper in any of the most respected scientific publications (Cell, Nature and Science)” and that they had fallen short of the median 29 papers published per faculty member over the past decade.
This statement prompted scientists across the country to rally to the women’s defense. To many, the use of Cell, Nature and Science as benchmarks of excellence was particularly galling. Some well-known scientists boycott those “prestige” journals to protest their perceived clubbiness and inflated status. Carol Greider, the telomere biologist who shared the Nobel Prize with Blackburn, defended Lundblad on Twitter, saying, “Contrary to Salk press release character smear, Vicki Lundblad is outstanding, creative LEADER in Telomere field.” Soon after, she drafted a letter titled “Not Just Salk,” signed by 37 prominent researchers, including two other Nobel Laureates, and published in the pages of Science. “The next generation of scientists is watching,” it said, “and many are choosing not to pursue a career in science, where they feel they will not have support.”
Bias and discrimination can be hard to quantify, especially with a sample size of just three women, and the Salk mounted a case against the women’s claims. In a statement through an external communications firm, the Institute stressed that faculty are responsible for bringing in their own funding, and these women didn’t supply enough to support larger labs. It said that the plaintiffs’ salaries were on par with their peers, and that they were supplied with institutional funding to bridge gaps in resources. It also disputed the lab-size analysis, which was leaked to Science in 2017, describing it as an unfinalized draft “prepared in large part by the now-plaintiffs.”
Former Salk employees generally agree the Institute is “clubby” and run by a few powerful men. But it’s a question, for some of the men, at least, whether gender is the most important criterion for entry. “To be perfectly honest, I didn’t see it affecting women more than men,” a former junior faculty member — a man who worked there for nine years — told me. (He requested anonymity to preserve working relationships at the Salk.) “It was just the way the Salk worked. There were a few people who had very good connections with the Salk office, and then other people were not put out in front of donors.” He, too, was forced to fire staff, he said, even though he knew one of his colleagues, who had the same amount of funding and many more employees, was not.
“There was a general suspicion that a small number of people were benefiting a lot from certain donors or funding agencies,” another male former faculty member said. “I never felt discriminated against. I just felt like I wasn’t on the gravy train.”
Emerson and the other women agree that the Salk hierarchy is inherently unfair, but say it’s not an accident that senior women are consistently found at the bottom. All the female former faculty members and research staff interviewed were in agreement on this. “It was especially unfair for women,” Mellon says. “There’s no question in my mind. We were made to feel on shaky ground to be there as scientists in the first place.” Holly Ingraham, now a professor of pharmacology at U.C. San Francisco, was a postdoc at the Salk when Emerson and Jones were hired. Years later, when she returned to visit, she was shocked to see their labs. “They were in the worst space that Salk had to offer,” she recalls. “So how did that decision get made?” When she heard news of the lawsuit, she wrote to Emerson that while “similar problems exist everywhere,” key figures at the Salk had “instilled a culture that consistently stacked the odds against women.”
Blackburn stepped down from the Salk’s presidency in January 2018, five months after the suits were filed, and returned to her research at U.C.S.F. She is bound by a nondisparagement clause, but she did tell me that “the way we lose the talents of women because of all these things that go on in careers, it’s just extraordinary. It’s a very bad, bad thing to lose all that training and talent.” She added: “Often these situations which go on in a woman’s career — workplace situations — they don’t seem big. But I heard someone say a marvelous thing in this context: ‘A ton of feathers still weighs a ton.’ ”
Doctoral programs have churned out female Ph.D.’s for decades — women have earned the majority of biosciences Ph.D.’s since 2009 — but they remain underrepresented on the faculties of top American universities. Hopkins, who continues to spend much of her time speaking about gender equity, says she’s stunned to see how few women wield real influence in science. “I think it’s hard for us even to recognize how little power women have at the top, where the big money resides, where the real power resides,” she says.
Those who do make it into prestigious positions sometimes find that efforts at equity don’t include them. “I know a lot of men who sincerely promote gender-equality opportunities for women, but all their efforts are devoted toward younger women,” Emerson says — because it’s less costly. “But I want what my male colleague has, and that will cost a few million dollars.”
Science is, in theory, a meritocracy, in which results should speak for themselves and buoy their authors to the top. The problem is that nobody knows the best way to measure the merits of a scientist’s work. Data-driven metrics have become increasingly popular: The “h-index,” for instance, was created in 2005 as a measure of an author’s overall number of publications and how often that work is cited. But citation practices vary widely even within disciplines, and citing yourself can artificially drive your number up. The h-index often becomes a measure of quantity, not quality.
By some metrics, formal institutional decisions such as hiring at the junior levels, time to promotion and salaries are at or are approaching equity. Some reports have found grant and publication-review processes are largely gender neutral. But something is still holding women back, or driving them out.
The number of women drops off at every increasing level of rank in academic science, but in biology, an especially large drop comes between earning Ph.D.’s and applying for tenure-track positions — a competitive bottleneck that frequently coincides with people starting families. Yet a growing body of research indicates that those women who do apply face barriers to inclusion. A famous 2012 experiment, in which equivalent résumés with male and female names were evaluated for lab manager jobs, found that the man was rated as more qualified and offered a higher salary. A 2017 Harvard Business Review analysis found that female postdocs were systematically undervalued for their work, taking a year longer to receive an N.I.H. grant than men with equivalent publication histories. And a 2018 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found that up to 40 percent of female science students had been sexually harassed by faculty or staff.
“We are going into a setting that we did not create, we did not define,” says Shirley Malcom, who directs education and human resources programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “You can’t make the assumption that the same structures are going to be accommodating and supportive of different players.”
Soon after her dismissal, in early 2018, sitting on her couch at home with the latest issues of Science and Nature on the coffee table, Beverly Emerson told me she was not done with science. She showed me the pipettes, painted with her initials, that she’d brought home from her lab. Later, a position at Oregon Health & Science University would let her continue to work on her projects. But she won’t be getting all the benefits of an elder stateswoman. Emeritus professors often stick around institutions for decades; some former researchers still drop into the Salk for lunch.
Jones and Lundblad settled their suits in August 2018, about a year after filing. The details of the settlement are confidential, and both women are forbidden to make any further comments to the media. (All interviews for this story took place before the settlement.) But they both retained their employment at the Salk, and are expected to stay there for the foreseeable future. Emerson continued her suit alone for several more months, but in November 2018 she also settled. The Salk admitted no liability in connection with any of the settlements. Emerson hoped, she’d said, that the lawsuit would lead to better outcomes for the current generation of women. There are more now: Clodagh O’Shea was promoted to full professor in February 2018, the first woman to achieve that rank since Emerson in 1999. And the institute has hired others: Susan Kaech from Yale, and Kay Tye from M.I.T.
Nearly everyone who has worked there — including the women who sued it — say the Salk Institute has lived up to its founders’ promise in many ways; the lack of bureaucracy facilitates real scientific breakthroughs. But the lawsuit’s claims suggest the lack of formal governance also made a push for equity impossible, and let a power structure formed in the ’60s survive to the present day.
On April 21, 2018, Dan Lewis, the chairman of the Salk’s board, sent a notice to Salk employees announcing that Inder Verma had been placed on administrative leave pending an investigation of allegations of sexual assault. “Dr. Verma has made extraordinary contributions to scientific research,” he wrote, but “Salk will not condone any findings of inappropriate conduct in the workplace, regardless of one’s stature or influence.” The stories published soon after suggested otherwise. As reported by Meredith Wadman in Science that month, eight women, including Emerson and Mellon, accused Verma of sexual assault in a variety of professional situations: pinching the buttocks of a woman who had come to interview for a faculty position; forcibly kissing a young scientist in his lab in 1992; grabbing and kissing Emerson in the Salk library in 2001. The incidents spanned four decades, from 1976 to 2016. In the late 1980s, Mellon reported to the Salk’s human resources department that Verma had once grabbed her breasts at a faculty party, and didn’t let go until she kicked him in the shins. She was told she needed counseling, and, she told me, was asked not to share her claim with anyone later. In a statement, Verma wrote that he had “never inappropriately touched, nor have I made any sexually charged comments, to anyone affiliated with the Salk Institute,” and has since produced a statement of support signed by 56 former students and postdocs.
In the same email announcing that the Salk would take these alleged claims seriously, Lewis announced that Rusty Gage, long one of the Institute’s stars, would be the next president. Verma resigned two months later.
Anila Madiraju came to the Salk in 2015 as a postdoc, after completing her Ph.D. in cellular and molecular physiology at Yale. Since she was 13 — when she would tag along with her father, a cancer biologist, to his lab — her dream has been a career in academic science, and the Salk seemed like an institution that embodied scientific freedom and creativity. She says she has been treated well there, and her current adviser is one of many excellent male mentors she has had in her career so far.
And yet at every stage in her career, the future has seemed less certain. “It’s hard already,” she says, “even before you throw gender into the mix.” She’s watched successful students fail to land tenure-track positions, or be hired as assistant professors only to struggle with funding. She’ll be applying for jobs in a year or two, but worries about a lack of opportunity, even considering alternate careers. When Science reported on the claims against Verma, she read the story three times.
The younger generation at Salk, she says, seems committed to a fair playing field, and ready to work to create one. People are talking more about issues like discrimination and harassment. The Institute has created an Office of Equity and Inclusion, and Madiraju says she has noticed an effort to highlight the achievements of women staff and professors. “It makes you feel like, I do have a place here,” she says, “and that they are making it clear that the way science is being done — that the face of science — is changing.”
Of course, in 1986, when Jones assured herself that things at the Salk would change with the departure of the old guard, Inder Verma was 39, only eight years older than she. While a 66-year-old Emerson was dismantling her life’s work, Verma gave three hourlong lectures on the occasion of his 70th birthday.
Reading through the lawsuits and reports about the Salk was heartbreaking, Madiraju says. What shocked her most was the names of the women involved, names she had known for years. Her father knew Emerson and Lundblad’s work, and at his recommendation she had read their papers during her early years as a scientist. “You’re grasping wherever you can for role models,” she says, and these women’s work was considered groundbreaking. “What is the definition of a good scientist if people like Beverly Emerson and Lundblad are not good scientists in the eyes of Salk?”
Mallory Pickett is a journalist in Los Angeles who writes about science, the environment and technology. She last wrote for the magazine about the visual-effects industry.