Q & A: Women in Research

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Prof. Janet Mann poses with dolphins in a bay in the background   Professor Garance Genicot
Professors Janet Mann (L) and Garance Genicot (R) have made immense contributions to the body of research in biology and economics, respectively. (L: Georgetown University photo; R: photo courtesy Garance Genicot)

March 31, 2018 — We have spent this Women’s History Month celebrating the work of the women who make Georgetown College the intellectually vibrant community it is today. To mark the conclusion of the month, we caught up this week with Janet Mann of the Department of Biology and Garance Genicot of the Department of Economics to discuss their latest projects, the state of women in academia and more.

What’s the primary focus of your research right now?

Janet Mann: I direct two long-term studies of wild bottlenose dolphins: One in Shark Bay, Australia, and another, launched in 2015, on wild bottlenose dolphins in the Potomac River

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For 31 years, I have been studying wild bottlenose dolphins in Shark Bay, Australia. This long-term project has followed over 1700 individual dolphins from birth to death. We study their behavior, ecology, reproduction, life-history, health, genetics, and social bonds. Dolphins have a very long period of dependency — sometimes nursing for up to 8 years — and it takes a young dolphin many years to acquire important hunting and social skills for survival.

Right now, we are focusing on several key areas. First, graduate student Caitlin Karniski is studying reproductive senescence in wild bottlenose dolphins and trying to understand how females adjust their behavior and investments with age. Graduate student Madison Miketa is focusing on the impact of extreme climate events on bottlenose dolphin behavior and fitness. Specifically, she is examining how dolphins were impacted by an extreme heat wave that lasted for 10 weeks in 2010-11 and destroyed ~80% of seagrass beds, which are critical hunting grounds for dolphins.  Madison is also examining the stability of long-term social bonds between adult females and what these bonds are based on. Taylor Cook, another grad student, is interested in dolphin “personality”, formally called “social phenotype” and is finding that dolphins have stable tendencies to be solitary or gregarious from infancy to adulthood.

Post-doctoral scientist Dr. Ewa Krzyszczyk is studying juvenile females and how they navigate the period between infancy and adulthood, and post-doctoral scientist Dr. Robert Rankin is examining network dynamics and what network changes predict death in dolphins.

Undergraduates are also working on projects. Sarah Powell, a senior, has just published a paper on poxvirus in dolphins in Science for the Total Environment. Ali Galezo (C’17) just published a paper on sex segregation in bottlenose dolphins in the journal Behavioral Ecology and is working on a second paper. She will pursue a PhD at Duke University beginning this fall. I am working on the development of sponge tool-use in wild bottlenose dolphins, and what factors help explain why daughters become tool-users but nearly half of sons do not.

The Potomac-Chesapeake Dolphin Project focuses on several key questions: What is the seasonal distribution and abundance of dolphins in the Potomac? Where do they winter? Why are they coming in to the Chesapeake and Potomac? We have a number of outreach and citizen science projects planned.

Garance Genicot: An important theme in my current research is inequality. I am writing a review on Aspirations with Debraj Ray, Professor of Economics at NYU, following up on our paper “Aspirations and Inequality” published in Econometrica in 2017. We have developed a theory of socially determined ‘aspirations.’ Aspirations are goals that individuals have for their children’s future and parents gain additional satisfaction when their children’s income surpass their aspirations. In our model, aspirations impact investments people make and therefore the income distributions. Reasonable aspirations motivate parental investments into their children, but aspirations that are too high frustrate instead of inspire. The income distribution itself affects aspirations. People look around themselves and their aspirations level are determined by what others have. Our paper explores the relationship between aspirations, growth and widening inequality. We show how inequality can be self-fulfilling and how aspirations can generate ever expanding inequality.

In another project, working with Laurent Bouton and Dario Sansone at Georgetown and Micael Castanheira at the Universite Libre de Bruxelles, we explore the incentives that different political systems give to politicians competing for votes to allocate governmental resources unequally to localities. We contrast different electoral systems — in particular majoritarian and proportional representation systems — and identify a new effect.  We call this the “Sprinkling Effect” and show that it can give incentives to politicians to geographically target some localities that are more electorally sensitive in proportional representation systems than in majoritarian systems. This is in contrast with the conventional wisdom that majoritarian systems give more incentives to politicians to treat localities unequally. We test the predictions of our model using the nightlight data —satellite images of nighttime light density across geographies — as a measure of government intervention.

Why is your research important?

JM: Much of what we know about dolphins worldwide comes from our research. They are the ‘mind in the waters’. Next to humans, dolphins have the largest brain size relative to body size. What are they doing with those brains?

Numerous communities benefit from our research: stakeholders (fishers, recreational and tourism industry), educators, students, scientists, and the public generally. Dolphins are excellent bioindicator species. They are visible indicators of ecosystem health. Dolphins are excellent umbrella and flagship species that can strengthen efforts to protect and conserve critical ecosystems (in Shark Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and in the Chesapeake-Potomac, the largest and one of the most productive estruaries in the U.S). Dolphins meet the flagship and umbrella criteria because they are relatively accessible, have anthropomorphic features that capture the public’s imagination, have large body size, and have ranges with extensive habitat complexity and biodiversity. Dolphins are an excellent way to increase STEM education because they are so attractive to students.

GG: The World Bank declared shared prosperity as a twin goal alongside fighting poverty. Thomas Piketty’s book on inequality was a blockbuster and widely discussed. Angus Deaton, who has done substantial work on inequality, received the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2015. Furthermore, inequality appears frequently in the public press and is a popular topic in current political debates.

The fact is that the democratization of living standards in developed countries has masked a dramatic concentration of incomes over the past 30 years. Across the world, despite recent progress, average within-country inequality of income is greater now than 25 years ago. While, many countries have seen a rise of their middle class, the top 1 percent of the income distribution has seen its share rapidly increase in most countries for which we have data. In other words, the very rich have gotten significantly richer than the very poor, regardless of which way you measure it.

In order to design policies that can be effective at reducing inequality, it is important to understand its underlying cause and what feeds it. This is what I study and where my work matters.

What does Women’s History Month mean to you?

JM: I have had great women mentors in the sciences. This is something that would have been difficult to pull off 50 years ago. I am actually the academic grand-daughter of Jane Goodall and Irven DeVore, two iconic primatologists who mentored my mentor, Barbara Smuts. I was also mentored as an undergraduate by Jeanne Altmann, considered one of the most admired women scientists in our field. It is important to communicate with the public as well. Jane Goodall is an outstanding public scientist and advocate, famous the world over. Millions of women are inspired by her story. If you haven’t caught Jane on the National Geographic channel, you should.

GG: Over the last few months, the economics profession has reckoned with evidence of sexism in economics forums, discrimination in teaching evaluations, suggestive evidence that women get less credit for co-authored work and experience more delays in the career-making peer-review publication process. This suggests to me that pausing once a year to highlight and publicize women’s work in economics may not be a bad idea.

In addition, the proportion of women seeking a PhD in economics has plateaued over the past few years, and female undergraduates seem much more likely to switch to other majors after introductory courses than their male counterparts. I would be delighted if highlighting my work could encourage more women to study economics.  

Interviews conducted by Patrick Curran and edited for length and clarity.

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