(Trans)gender issues

International attention has been drawn to the issue of gender differences this week by a Canadian couple who are trying to raise their child, Storm, as “genderless.” While the couple is taking a rather extreme approach by not revealing the sex of their baby to anyone, progressive parents around the world have been attempting gender neutrality on a smaller scale for years, changing the protagonists in children’s stories to gender-neutral pronouns, dressing their child in androgynous clothing, and giving them gender-free toys to play with. These well-intentioned parenting practices raise the age-old question of nature vs. nurture, asking whether gender roles are socially formed or biologically entrenched. Of course, the answer is both. While many facets of gender identity are created through social suggestions and pressures, it is difficult to accept that all differences between the sexes are determined by the vocal intonation used when children are infants and the directed encouragement they receive in school as adolescents.

From a more empirical standpoint, there have been a number of articles and books published in recent years arguing the extent to which gender forms our identities, and asking whether these identifiers are more socially or biologically driven. From the nature perspective, Louann Brizendine’s book The Female Brain argues that men and women are inherently and neurologically different. She asserts that a greater proportion of neuronal space in females is allocated to communication, empathy, and nurturing, largely driven by the presence of female hormones such as estrogen and progesterone, coupled with a comparative decrease in androgens in the womb. On the other hand, men, according to her, have a natural affinity towards building and map-reading, stemming from their greater visuospatial skills, as well as higher levels of aggression driven by increased testosterone. It should be noted that Brizendine’s book has been widely criticized for being too broad-sweeping, as well as receiving the much more serious accusation of being largely unfounded and based upon erroneous or unsupporting academic papers from which she takes her references.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Cordelia Fine’s book Delusions of Gender argues that nearly all differences seen today between men and women are a result of social factors and are largely fabricated by our cultural cloth. She blames early expectations placed upon the child and subtle (or not so subtle) pushes towards social studies and language arts for girls (not to mention pink ponies and Barbies), and math, science, and monster trucks for boys for the gender gaps seen in today’s technical and professional fields. She takes issue with Cambridge psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen’s research on the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” task I described in my previous post, suggesting expectation effects are to blame for the gender performance differences seen (females typically score higher than males). She also insinuates that researcher bias is at the root of another similarly designed task used in infants, in which female babies are reported to spend more time looking at faces while male babies gaze longer at toy mobiles.

It is incredibly difficult to parse apart the differences seen in our genders. Without a doubt, certain aspects of gender are socially entrenched, like shaming boys for being effeminate or choosing a nurturing career such as nursing, or discouraging girls from trying their hands at the male-dominated fields of engineering or computer science. However, it is ignorant to deny that there are hormonal and anatomical differences between the sexes that in some way influence and make up who we are as individuals. Differences in the size and proportion of neuroanatomical structures have been reported many times in the brains of males and females, and there is no doubt that the different balance of chemicals coursing through our brains and bodies has an effect on us.

An interesting and potentially revealing population that might provide great insight into this nature-nurture gender debate is that of transgender individuals, both pre- and post-transformation. In a fascinating article published this month in the New York Times, Chaz (formerly Chastity) Bono, the transgender son of Cher and Sonny Bono, reported differences in his attention, emotions, and interests after beginning hormone treatment in the course of his transition. Chaz reported feeling an almost immediately greater affinity for gadgets after starting his treatment and much less of an inclination towards talking or gossiping. However, he said that he did not notice these differences when he first began living as a man; it was not until he began taking testosterone that he noticed this adjustment. In the article, he states, “I’ve learned that the differences between men and women are so biological. I think if people realized that, it would be easier. I would be a great relationship counselor. I know the difference that hormones really make.”

Certainly these issues are not so clear-cut, and there are an infinite number of factors that influence where an individual lies on the spectrum of gender identity. An interesting and novel approach to this issue would be to study the truly unique and untapped perspectives of transgender individuals, for which there is currently a dearth in the literature. As for the baby in Canada? It will remain to be seen whether the experiment with Storm will result in a well-adjusted and unbiased individual full of opportunities, or just another confused adolescent struggling to find his or her place in society.


The fascinating perils of plastic surgery

Cosmetic surgery and striving towards perfection of the body are nothing new. The first plastic surgery techniques date back to 800 BC in India, and there are records of ancient Egyptians and Romans carrying out reconstructive procedures. Karl Ferdinand Graefe first coined the phrase “rhinoplasty” in 1818 in an attempt to de-stigmatize nasal reconstructive surgery, and there was a resurgence of plastic surgery research and development after the first and second world wars in the U.S. and Britain. In more recent history, silicone breast enhancements emerged in the 1960s, and the economic boom in the 1980s, coupled with a flurry of modern-day developments in liposuction procedures, saw a rise in shrinking waists and thighs. Nowadays, surgical enhancements have been featured so often on reality TV and the cover of Playboy that we wouldn’t dream of considering them shocking. Yet there is still debate surrounding these procedures, and two new studies have come out recently reporting on the side effects and efficacy of plastic surgery. One study explores the implications on the brain, while the other investigates the long-term impact on the body.

study on the cognitive-emotional effects of Botox from my own alma mater, USC, looks not at the physical consequences of undergoing the needle, but at Botox’s effect on interpersonal relationships and empathy.

Body language and facial expressions are a large factor in interpersonal communications, almost as important as language itself. Humans are typically very good at relating to one another by subtly and subconsciously mirroring posture and facial expressions during the course of a conversation. This helps both parties to better perceive what is being expressed and what the appropriate response is. By mimicking a partner’s appearance, you are able to internalize their emotion, as your brain perceives your new expression and interprets the correct sentiment associated with it. When a friend is crying, you know they are upset and adopt their down-turned mouth and furrowed brow to better relate and express your empathy. Alternatively, when someone smiles at you on the street, it is difficult to not smile back and feel an extra bounce in your step. This phenomenon is known as “embodied cognition” and involves the reciprocal relationship between the brain and the body.

However, the USC scientists posit that by paralyzing your facial nerves, Botox (or botulinum toxin) disrupts this process by preventing your face from creating the creases and crinkles that externally express and internally manifest as emotions. The rest of the world may not be able to tell your age or know about that summer you spent in Greece, but it also won’t know that you’re empathizing with them when they tell you that their dog died.

The researchers tested this theory by injecting participants with Botox or a placebo dermal filler and having them perform a common test of empathy. Individuals were shown a picture of a set of eyes and asked to guess the emotion that best matched the ocular expression. Participants who received the Botox injection performed significantly worse on this task than controls, though they were still able to perform with around 70% accuracy.

Study author Dr. David Neal eloquently summarized the results, saying, “When you mimic you get a window into their inner world. When we can’t mimic, as with Botox, that window is a little darker.”

The second study involves the long-term physical effects of liposuction, questioning its enduring efficacy. Long heralded as a quick and relatively noninvasive fix for targeting fat areas, a recent study published in Obesity by researchers at the University of Colorado brings this notion into question. Drs. Teri Hernandez and Robert Eckel reported that people who received liposuction as part of the study had their body fat percentage return to baseline levels within one year of the procedure, as determined by subcutaneous skinfold thickness and MRI scans. However, the suctioned fat did not return to the areas that it was removed from; instead the regenerated fat was redistributed to areas less typically associated with fat storage, such as the upper abdomen and arms.

Scientists think that the gross number of fat cells in your body remains relatively stable throughout your life, determined in infancy and largely dependent on genetics and early diet. Instead, differences in weight gain or loss are typically seen through the size or fullness of the fat cells. These cells also exist in a relatively stable regional proportion throughout the body, relegating where an individual tends to gain or hold weight. However, after liposuction, the remaining tissue from the targeted areas are too traumatized to generate new cells, yet the body still attempts to maintain the balance of its original number. Therefore, new fat cells return after you’ve deleted them, just not in the areas you would expect.

Despite this news, more than half of the control subjects in the study–women who were initially interested in receiving liposuction but agreed to hold off for a year to serve as study controls–still wanted to undergo the procedure.

(Thanks to Ryan Essex for the article on Botox.)

What it really means to get a PhD

Being part way through the first year of my own PhD program, I probably shouldn’t open my blog with a summary of critiques of the system. However a series of articles recently published in Nature, as well as the daily struggles, doubts and insecurities my friends and I frequently face and lament, makes me wonder about the shrewdness of this path that we have chosen.

Most notably, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of PhD candidates and degrees awarded in the last 15 years, coupled with a simultaneous dearth of jobs available in academia and other markets. According to Cyranoski et al. in the April 21st issue of Nature, there has been a 40% rise in the number of science doctorates earned worldwide since 1998. However, it should be noted that a majority of those have come out of China, which has actively and enthusiastically encouraged the doctorial boom, increasing PhD production by nearly 80% since the mid-90s. Fortunately, the demand and market for these positions in China is still high, fostering this culture of higher learning and expertise. But back in the US, the second highest producer of doctorates, the supply far outreaches the demand for academic positions.

Universities are no longer offering as many tenure track positions (which is a debate and system needing reform all on its own), and older professors are not retiring at the rate that was predicted back in the 1980s and 90s. Now only 15% of PhD graduates are in a tenure track, compared to 55% in the 1970s. Instead, graduates are turning to industry and the private sector to apply their knowledge and make a living. However, due to the flood of PhDs in the market, even that distinction can no longer distinguish you from the pack, and the system has been saturated with over-qualified individuals looking for fulfilling work in academia, and instead finding low-paying postdoc and research positions. In fact, PhD recipients now have a negligible advantage over their non-PhD counterparts in average annual salary, and are frequently being forced to settle for junior positions in labs or companies for which they are over-qualified. Finally, the initial intellectual curiosity and passion that are promised to lead us to eventual feelings of fulfillment and satisfaction in our careers are also appearing to be much of a farce. Individuals with a PhD are only mildly more satisfied with their life’s work, and complain that their benefits and salary are inadequate and a source of dissatisfaction.

So with all of this daunting and demoralizing information, why continue? I suppose it’s for that glimmer of hope, the light at the end of the tunnel that you will be one of the lucky ones. That naïve doggedness that got us into this position in the first place, and yes that misplaced passion and fascination with an arcane miniscule facet of the world in which we will (hopefully) one day become experts. And, if we do succeed in reaching those ivory towers, or whatever is left of them, the sense of contribution to society, degree of independence and intellectual challenge do still provide a high incentive and source of satisfaction for those who have paved the way and achieved before us.

On the flip side, there is also the hope that this perseverance and hard work will not be for naught. That even if we don’t achieve our dream positions, or anything resembling them, that it cannot be a disadvantage to have this added expertise. That the skills, both personal and professional, industrial and academic, that we have acquired during our own tenures will not fail us and will be able to provide a foray into another field if need be.

And in this current economy, let’s be honest, there’s not really anything else we’d rather be doing. After all, at least we’re not in law school.

(Thanks to Gonzalo Urcelay for the articles and Louise Cosand for the PhD illustration.)