July 27, 2020
Although science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) jobs
are linked to higher earnings, job vacancies in these fields continue to abound, and women continue to be under-represented in these positions.
Dr. Moriah Sokolowski, a Baycrest postdoctoral researcher, has been awarded a prestigious Banting fellowship to examine this problem from a cognitive neuroscience perspective. Specifically, she wants to know why people choose—and succeed in—STEM-related occupations and why women remain under-represented in this area. Only 70 Banting fellowships are awarded per year across all disciplines in the sciences and humanities across Canada.
This work is part of a broader research program on cognitive profiles that relate to occupation and how those profiles in turn relate to aging and neurodegenerative disease. Work in this area has already shown that education and occupation level can protect us against age-related cognitive changes and brain disease.
“Some have argued that women are under-represented in STEM because of fundamental differences between men and women in terms of cognitive abilities,” says Dr. Sokolowski, who is part of Dr. Brian Levine’s lab at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute (RRI). “But while some differences have been reported, particularly in spatial thinking, gender differences in cognition are not found across most skills that are critical for STEM jobs, such as math abilities and logical reasoning.”
Instead, Drs. Sokolowski and Levine predict that women’s under-representation in STEM may be a consequence of external factors – for example, encouraging students to rely on cognitive strategies that may come more naturally to boys than girls when solving problems in STEM, which may negatively impact girls’ self-image as competitive students.
Dr. Sokolowski’s Ph.D. research at the University of Western Ontario concerned mathematical thinking and brain function in children and adults. She was attracted to the RRI because of its global reputation for research on the brain and cognition.
“A person’s occupation is a measure of their attraction to specific mental tasks and skills,” says Dr. Levine, senior scientist at the RRI and professor of psychology and neurology at the University of Toronto. “Understanding the cognitive and brain factors related to occupation selection will help to reduce the STEM gender gap and improve our knowledge about brain function in general.”
Baycrest is a global leader in geriatric residential living, healthcare, research, innovation and education, with a special focus on brain health and aging. Baycrest is home to a robust research and innovation network, including one of the world’s top research institutes in cognitive neuroscience, the Rotman Research Institute; the scientific headquarters of the Canadian Consortium on Neurodegeneration in Aging, Canada’s largest national dementia research initiative; and the Baycrest-powered Centre for Aging + Brain Health Innovation, a solution accelerator focused on driving innovation in the aging and brain health sector. Fully affiliated with the University of Toronto, Baycrest provides excellent care for older adults combined with an extensive clinical training program for the next generation of healthcare professionals. Through these initiatives, Baycrest has remained at the forefront of the fight to defeat dementia as our organization works to create a world where every older adult enjoys a life of purpose, inspiration and fulfilment. Founded in 1918 as the Toronto Jewish Old Folks Home, Baycrest continues to embrace the long-standing tradition of all great Jewish healthcare institutions to improve the well-being of people in their local communities and around the globe. For more information please visit: www.baycrest.org
About Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute
The Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest is a premier international centre for the study of human brain function. Through generous support from private donors and funding agencies, the institute is helping to illuminate the causes of cognitive decline in seniors, identify promising approaches to treatment and lifestyle practices that will protect brain health longer in the lifespan.
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