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Most scientific studies only use male subjects. Here’s why that’s a terrible idea.

Pigeons, or
rock doves as people call them to be fancy, are fascinating
creatures,” said Rebecca Calisi, a professor of neurobiology,
physiology, and behavior at the University of California,
Davis. “An average person might view them as common or boring
or as pests, but pigeons have been unlocking secrets about
biology and reproduction for centuries.
Charles Darwin
even kept pigeons and was, in part, inspired
by them.”

Calisi is a co-author on a recent study in the journal Scientific
Reports
which looked at differences in the genetic
expressions of the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal—basically the
systems that drive us to make babies—of both female and male
pigeons. Gene
expression
is the process by which certain genes are
activated or turned on so that they express certain traits. The
classic example is eye color: a person may carry the trait for
blue eyes, but depending on the other genes they carry, that
trait might be expressed as blue, hazel, or even brown. This
study is unique not just because of its results, which create
sort of foundational framework that others can use to study
gene expression in the future, but also because the research
actually acknowledges something often ignored in science: that
females exist.

Women are woefully
underrepresented in science
, not just as researchers but
also as subjects. Even in animal studies, as many as eighty
percent of subjects are male (despite the fact that there are
roughly as many women in the world as men). Less than a quarter
of the subjects in clinical trials are women. And when trials
do enroll women, they’re generally studied only at their most
biologically “male-like” (when neither ovulating nor
menstruating). It’s a bit like trying to study rainfall on a
sunny day. Researchers say that they do this because the
ovarian
cycle
makes studying women “complex.” But, noted Calisi,
“This in fact is representational of what the female experience
is, so we need to come up with a way to study this.”

In fact, because we don’t study women, we often make them sick.
Women are far more likely than men to experience negative
outcomes from medication, in part because women metabolize
drugs differently. Even your typical flu vaccine, which is
calibrated for men, includes twice the dosage your average
woman needs. And the female focus hurts men too: women, for
example, are more likely to suffer from the disease multiple
sclerosis, but their symptoms tend to be milder. What is it
about women that both puts them at an increased risk for the
disease, but also ameliorates its symptoms? And can it be used
to help treat the disease in men?

“There’s sexism at many different levels, and this definitely
affects the rigor of the science that is conducted,” said
Calisi.

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