An Unexpected Career in Sex and Gender Biology
I never thought my research would focus on sex hormones driving inflammation. I am an immunologist and my research interests had always been in defining mechanisms that drive inflammation in asthma. When starting to branch out from my mentor’s lab, my research interests surprised me when they evolved to determining how sex hormones impact inflammatory pathways associated with asthma. My transition is unusual, but it shouldn’t be.
When we exclude sex as a variable in our biomedical research, we neglect insights into mechanisms driving disease, patient populations to target for therapeutics, and variations in clinical management. The NIH and other funding agencies now require sex and gender as variables to be addressed in grant applications.
Sex as a biological variable is striking in asthma. As children, boys have increased asthma prevalence compared to girls, but as adults, women have an increased asthma prevalence compared to men. Armed with this knowledge, I dichotomized prior data generated in our laboratory based on gender and quickly showed that T cells from women functioned more robustly than T cells from men. Using this as preliminary data, I received a BIRCWH K12 award in sex and gender biology and launched my research into how sex hormones modulate airway inflammation in asthma. The K12 support provided me the time, resources, and expertise needed to successfully fund two ongoing studies.
So how can you start incorporating sex and gender as biological variables?
- Start simple – analyze your prior data with sex and gender variables in mind or comb the literature for epidemiological evidence of gender differences.
- Look beyond estrogen – other hormones may be regulating your pathways of interest.
- Consider other variables – many other metabolic, circadian rhythm, or genomic factors may drive the sex and gender differences in your research.
- Share your data and findings – many researchers neglect to think about sex and gender as variables. Sharing your data will educate other researchers of the importance and establish a niche for you within your field.