Date February 7, 2019
Media Contact

New study reveals the ‘Hidden Figures’ of computational biology

Many women made significant contributions to population genetics as programmers but were not recognized as authors.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Inspired by the 2016 blockbuster “Hidden Figures,” Emilia Huerta-Sanchez, an assistant professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Brown University, and collaborators at San Francisco State University analyzed the contributions of women in population genetics.

By looking at all the studies published in a single population genetics journal from 1970 to 1990, they found that many female computer programmers responsible for developing and running computational simulations to test hypotheses explaining genetic differences with populations were recognized in the papers’ acknowledgements section rather than listed as authors. In fact, of the acknowledged programmers, 43 percent were women while only 7.4 percent of the authors were women. This difference was even more pronounced in the 1970s, when 59 percent of programmers recognized in the papers’ acknowledgements section were women. 

The findings were publish in the February issue of the journal Genetics. Huerta-Sanchez discussed the study’s key findings and implications.

Q: What are the main findings of your paper? Do you expect your findings from one journal to apply more broadly?

The main finding is that many women worked in research in computational biology in the 1970s and made significant contributions to papers but were not given authorship. I don’t think there is anything specific about the journal Theoretical Population Biology. In our interviews with researchers from that period, it is apparent that it was common practice not to consider female programmers and numerical analysts for authorship. 

Q: What inspired you and your co-authors to conduct this analysis? 

We decided to do this project after seeing the movie “Hidden Figures.” We were surprised that we didn’t know the stories of those women, and we suspected something similar may have been happening in our field as we had noticed non-author contributions in papers we had read. 

Q: Do you have any plans to continue this type of research?

We do. We plan to do the analysis in other journals and to conduct interviews with female acknowledged programmers to have a record of their type of contributions. We want to make their contributions known.

Q: In the paper, you refer to a few non-author programmers who were acknowledged in several papers. Why is that significant? What is the difference between authorship and acknowledgement?

These acknowledged programmers developed, ran and sometimes analyzed the results of computer programs, which typically would result in authorship credit today. Authorship is a significant marker of productivity in academia, today and in the 1970s. We know that in at least two cases, female programmers acknowledged in several papers left science to care for children and spouses.

Q: What implications do your findings have for young women considering careers in computational biology today? 

There are many stereotypes about women’s ability for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields because there aren’t as many women role models. We hope that by shining a light on the contributions that these women have made will change the misperception of women’s relative absence from STEM fields.