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Rebecca Jordan-Young, Women's Studies

Rebecca M. Jordan Young

With her training in epidemiology, measurement, and study design, Jordan-Young takes a fresh look at the research that has for decades supported the "brain organization theory," which purports that males and females have different brains because of early exposure to different hormones. Putting the various studies done over the years on one conceptual plain – a technique frequently used in epidemiology when direct experiments are impossible – allowed Jordan-Young to conclude that the scientific standards behind them have not been up to par.

"The whole body of work looks like it provides overwhelming evidence that early hormones 'sex' the human brain," she says. "But when you look at the studies, not only is the evidence not overwhelming, the studies don't support each other, and often even contradict each other. There's no clear pattern in the data after 35 to 40 years of studying the issue."

Her findings have potentially revolutionary implications not just for scientists, but for how we think about gender and sexuality as a society. "Some ways that the studies are used have been really loaded and sloppy," Jordan-Young says. Purported differences in the brain are drawn upon to explain everything from a person's sexual orientation, to why there are more men than women in mathematical fields, to why a particular woman is more "nurturing" than another.

The problem with that, Jordan-Young says, is that across the studies, researchers seldom took time to define what they were measuring when they were looking at traits that were "masculine" and "feminine." How these were quantified and coded varied widely over time and across studies, and as a result, studies weren't measuring the same traits. "All these things that are supposedly set by hormone exposure are a moving target," she says. "And researchers don't acknowledge that."

Jordan-Young's own career began in research. After receiving her bachelor's degree in political science at Bryn Mawr, she spent several years doing HIV epidemiology studies and prevention work with with drug users and street-based sex workers through outreach programs in Washington, D.C. "I had a lot of experience with seeing how different ways of asking questions – how training interviewers in different ways, or slightly changing the questions or the responses people were allowed to give – can dramatically change the sorts of results you get," she says.

Eventually, she became frustrated with the gap between established research methods and her ground-level experience, which prompted her to begin her own study of research design at Columbia University. There, she became focused on gender theory and science and technology studies, the study of scientists and the way they conduct and interpret their research.

Since earning her PhD in sociomedical sciences in 2000, Jordan-Young has pursued a parallel path of HIV epidemiology, serving as a principal investigator and deputy director of social theory core at the Center for Drug Use and HIV Research of the National Development and Research Institutes, and research around the science of gender and sexuality.

Going forward, Jordan-Young says it's time for researchers to break out of the habit of trying to pin down fundamental differences in biology and dividing groups by sex. "Thinking in terms of sex differences is convenient, but it's very often not really the best way to divide people – in terms of cognition, interests, or skills," she says. "The habit of always focusing on sex keeps us at a very general level. Really good biological behavior work supports the idea that there's a lot more human variety than we currently recognize."

Accordingly, her next project, under a grant from the Foundation for Veteran, Worker, and Environmental Health, is to lead a scientific working group that will focus on how to do health studies that take gender disparities in health seriously, without relying on sex difference as a basic mechanism.

This spring, she'll be teaching an advanced seminar in science and sexualities. "I don't have the typical trajectory of an academic," says Jordan-Young, who took on an adjunct appointment in the women's studies department in 2001 and joined the faculty full-time as an assistant professor in 2004. "But I fell in love with teaching and with Barnard."

Jordan-Young is pleasantly surprised by the popular response Brain Storm is already eliciting. "It feels like this is a moment in time that people are ready to take a critical look at a very accepted and familiar story," she says. "It's fun for me to feel like I'm in a place and time where people are ready to do more creative thinking." — J. Collins