School of Medicine

Washington People: Robyn Klein

Robyn Klein (right) shares a laugh in the lab with graduate student Allison Soung. (Photo: Matt Miller)

Neuroimmunologist promotes diversity in science

From the WashU School of Medicine News

In 2016, as Robyn Klein, MD, PhD, and Jessica Williams, PhD, then a postdoctoral fellow in Klein’s lab, looked over the program for an upcoming international neuroimmunology meeting they were planning to attend, one thing jumped out at them: Only 13 of the 85 invited speakers were women.

“Robyn told me later that she just couldn’t get past the look on my face when I saw how few women there were,” Williams said. “So within the next week, she decided to take a stand.”

Klein, vice provost and associate dean for graduate education for the Division of Biology & Biomedical Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, emailed the organizers to demand an explanation. One wrote back to say that there simply weren’t as many accomplished women.

“That really got to her,” said Anne Cross, MD, a professor of neurology and a longtime collaborator of Klein’s. “So she contacted all of her friends in neuroimmunology – men and women – and came up with a game plan to figure out whether there aren’t as many qualified women as men in the field. And she showed, pretty conclusively, that it wasn’t true.”

Her findings prodded the conference organizers to double the number of female speakers. Klein continued to investigate, eventually publishing a paper in Nature Immunology showing accomplished female scientists are routinely overlooked by neuroimmunology conference organizers worldwide.

It was the latest skirmish in Klein’s lifelong battle against the idea that women don’t belong in science. Today, she is a recognized expert on the brain’s immune system, and a founder and director of the university’s Center for Neuroimmunology and Neuroinfectious Diseases. But at one time, she was a bright kid growing up in a family and a community where she was told that girls didn’t do science.

“It was difficult for me to decide to become a scientist, because I had been raised to believe that science wasn’t a suitable path for me,” said Klein, a professor of medicine, of pathology and immunology, and of neuroscience. “I had very negative interactions with some male science teachers in school. My family made it clear that it would be more appropriate for me to pursue some of my other interests, like writing.”

Klein, who grew up in New Rochelle, N.Y., just north of New York City, felt hemmed in by such ideas. When she heard, while still in middle school, that Barnard College was hosting an informational session at her high school, she hopped on her bike and rode over. The all-women’s school in New York City was well-known in Klein’s hometown.

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