Office of Public Affairs

USM professor improving science by battling bias

Heather Shattuck-Heidorn

When University of Southern Maine professor Heather Shattuck-Heidorn opens her new lab in 2020, she expects it will be a nationwide first.

The human biolab, to be located on the Portland Campus, will be a rich place for the training of fundamental biotech skills. But it’s her chance to run it — as a member of the Women and Gender Studies program faculty — that makes it really groundbreaking.

As a biological anthropologist, Shattuck-Heidorn studies the intersection of science and society.

“We have a cultural narrative of science as an objective, value-free enterprise,” she said.

“Human evolutionary biology has a long history of shoddy science that was heavily influenced by cultural conceptions,” she said.

Scientists need to ask the right questions while collecting and interpreting data with the widest possible awareness, she said.

“It means better science,” she said.

For instance, the medical community is learning that its understanding of women’s cardiac issues lags behind its understanding of men’s. The reason is that men were considered the default choice among researchers examining heart problems.

“White middle-class men were the norm, and other people are deviations from the norm,” Shattuck-Heidorn said.

She earned her bachelor’s degree at USM, graduating Magna cum Laude in 2009 with a Geography-Anthropology B.A. 

In 2013, she earned a master’s degree in Human Evolutionary Biology from Harvard University. In 2017, she earned a doctorate in Human Evolutionary Biology and had a secondary field: Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality.

“I was the first person from the natural sciences at Harvard to also get a secondary field in women and gender studies,” she said.

She co-founded the Harvard GenderSci Lab. It’s “a collaborative, interdisciplinary research lab dedicated to generating feminist concepts, methods and theories for scientific research on sex and gender,” according to its website. “Through research, teaching and public outreach, we work to advance the intersectional study of gender in the biomedical and allied sciences, counter bias and hype in sex difference research, and enhance public discourse surrounding the sciences of sex and gender.”

She continues to work as the Harvard lab’s assistant director. But after years of teaching at USM on a part-time basis, her full-time job is here at USM.

“What USM is doing is at the cutting edge of what women and gender studies programs and departments are doing nationwide.”

In the lab at Harvard and in the still-to-come lab at USM, diversity becomes a way to overcome bias, she said.

“We all have biases. Having representation from different viewpoints helps increase objectivity,” she said.

Eventually, she hopes to introduce her USM students to the lab at Harvard. She also plans to use the fundamental science to help forge new ties with the community.

“The methods that I use in the lab are used by a lot of the biotech industry in Southern Maine,” she said.

Story by Daniel Hartill, USM Office of Public Affairs