Quote Unquote: Gender Equity and the Female Lab Rat

Marla Berry, the chair of the Department of Cell and Molecular Biology at UH’s John A. Burns School of Medicine, specializes in the study of selenium, an essential trace mineral. As part of a new initiative by the National Institutes of Health to address gender bias in scientific research, Berry received a $100,000 grant to zero in on differences in how males and females handle selenium.
Photo: Odeelo Dayondon

Historically, most clinical studies have used a lot more men than women, probably because doctors were predominantly male, but also because of wanting to avoid variations in women due to things like the menstrual cycle. The same is true in laboratory studies. The vast majority of studies using mice have used male mice because they want to avoid that variability.


Studying only males does make it easier to identify effects, but some of them may be male-specific effects. And you certainly can’t extrapolate what you find from the studies in men or in male mice to women or to female mice.


Our lab has altered selenium transport in mice, so the selenium is not being moved properly from the liver to the other organs. We knew there would be neurological effects by doing this. We didn’t expect that, basically, the mice would get fat and develop all the hallmarks of obesity. They did, but only the male mice. We didn’t expect that at all.


We’re studying whether the effect (males becoming fat and pre-diabetic) is a hormonal thing by looking at what happens when you give these animals more testosterone. What we’ve seen so far is that they turn into little super mice.


Another thing we’re doing is castration studies, but I don’t really want to talk about that because I don’t want PETA all over me.


OK, it turns out if you castrate the mice, most of the effect goes away. It’s bizarre, and it will be publishable. But it won’t be extrapolatable to humans.


One of the implications of this research is, we should be looking at both genders in scientific studies. And the other side of it is, as with many nutrients, particularly things like vitamins and minerals, there’s a pretty narrow range between what’s the right amount, and what’s either too much or too little. Mega-dosing on supplements is probably not a good idea.


The number of women going into science has been increasing over the years, but the number of women moving up the ladder into higher positions is still nowhere near equity throughout the country. We are fortunate in that UH has  one of the highest percentages of women in leadership positions in the country. So we do have role models—some of whom I shouldn’t mention. Like, um, the former president of the university.*


What is my favorite nutrient? I guess I would have to say it’s selenium.  Margaritas aren’t a nutrient, are they?


Did you know? Selenium is an important antioxidant, but too much of it can cause depression, nervousness, hair loss, garlicky breath and foul-smelling fingernails.


* Mired in controversy, former UH president M.R.C. Greenwood retired in 2013, two years before her contract ended.


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