Guest Post by Tingzhu Teresa Meng, NC School of Science and Math

How do scientific research and social commentary relate?

The answer became clear during my conversation with Rotem Ben-Shachar, a PhD candidate in the Computational Biology and Bioinformatics program at Duke, who is interested in understanding the infectious disease dynamics of dengue fever. But she’s also pondering the reasons why female scientists are leaving prestigious career paths.

Rotem Ben-Shachar

Rotem Ben-Shachar is a PhD candidate in computational biology and bioinformatics.

Ben-Shachar, advised by Katia Koelle, is utilizing mathematical and statistical methods to research dengue, the most prevalent vector-bourne viral disease in the world. Dengue can be caused by any of the four serotype (related strains of viruses) transmitted by mosquitos. Early recognition of infection and subsequent treatment of dengue infection can significantly lower the risk of severe clinical outcomes. The mechanism of progression to severe dengue, however, are poorly understood.

Ben-Shachar’s dissertation focuses on how dengue causes severe disease. Prior to her research, there was no model of this means. Ben-Shachar has recently finished creating the first “simple target cell limited model” of the immune response trigger when the dengue virus infects the host cell. Her model is consistent with current knowledge of virological indicators that predict the onset of severe dengue. Now she wants to determine the model’s accuracy by statistically fitting it to recent serotype-specific viral load data from infected patients. Finally, she plans to investigate how dengue control strategies influence the evolution of virulent dengue virus such as dengue serotype 2 virus. Her work will offer crucial information about a virus that causes 390 million infections and 12,000 deaths annually (Source: WHO).

Ben-Shachar also examines the phenomenon termed “the leaky pipeline,” which refers to the continuous loss of women in STEM fields as they climb the career ladder. Ben-Shachar’s first experience of gender bias was during college when a male student declined to be her partner for an advanced mathematics project. Since then, she has become increasingly aware of gender discrimination and the confidence gap between male and female scientists. She began her focus on women in science during a writing workshop at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies.

Tingzhu Teresa Meng

Tingzhu Teresa Meng

In her recently published article in New Republic, “Women Don’t Stick with the Sciences. Here’s Why,” she details her interviews with female researchers at Duke and supports her interpretations with conclusions from previous studies. For instance, she explains that “the leaky pipeline” results from “a combination of social, cultural, and psychological factors” that all contribute to the confidence gap that “plagues female scientists.”

She believes that eliminating gender stereotypes can solve this problem. Ben-Shachar agrees that current efforts to engage girls in STEM are empowering girls and allowing them to view themselves as future scientists.

Thanks to our discussion, I have realized that scientific research and social commentary both strive to understand and solve major issues facing the world and both require skills such as careful observation, analysis and inquiry. Therefore, these seemingly unrelated interests have much in common.