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This Spring, NOVA Explores Hidden Topics

Fighting For Fertility
Chemist Raychelle Burks
Courtesy NOVA


NOVA pulls back the curtain in April on two shrouded topics: rampant gender discrimination in the sciences, especially for women of color, and the heartbreaks and hope experienced by people struggling with infertility. While the films expose deeply personal and harrowing issues, they each deliver a message about the power of knowledge.

“Scientific research has such enormous power to influence all our lives,” said Julia Cort, NOVA co-executive producer, “It’s crucial that the scientific enterprise—and its benefits—be equitable and inclusive for all. Both these films highlight people working to make that ideal a reality.”

NOVA is known for telling powerful stories that demystify scientific discovery. “But we also have a role in helping the public understand how science is done, which is a very human activity and therefore, imperfect,” added Chris Schmidt, NOVA co-executive producer.

Picture a Scientist exposes longstanding discrimination in universities and laboratories, ranging from outright harassment to subtle slights. Data today show that fewer than 30% of STEM professionals are women and even fewer are women of color.

“There’s an interesting irony in science,” said Sharon Shattuck, co-director/producer of Picture a Scientist. “Many scientists believe that science is the one realm that’s free from bias.” Research—and the film—show that this long-held belief is a myth.

The film follows three women—two of whom are affiliated with universities in Boston—who lead viewers on a journey into their difficult workplace experiences.

“Blatant harassment, like sexual coercion, come-ons and assault account for about 10% of the harassment that women face,” said Ian Cheney, codirector/producer of Picture a Scientist. “The other 90% is more subtle—insults and exclusion, which long-term, can be just as damaging.”

Audiences meet geologist Jane Willenbring, who filed a Title IX complaint with Boston University, saying she was humiliated and demeaned by the professor who led her research team to Antarctica. Biologist Nancy Hopkins recalls her battle at MIT to document the disparities in men’s and women’s salaries and lab space. And both women recount the steps they took to right the wrongs.

In Fighting for Fertility, NOVA explores barriers—from the social to the biological—and the state of assisted reproductive technologies for the roughly 10% of people who wish to have children but are struggling with infertility. People in the film share their stories of navigating falling sperm counts, egg freezing, in vitro fertilization (IVF), and inequitable access to fertility treatments.

Fighting for Fertility Director Larkin McPhee says people struggling with infertility are often lost in a very private struggle. “The world of assisted reproduction and IVF is like entering a black box,” she said. “It can be overwhelming and difficult to navigate.”

One goal of the film is to open people’s eyes about the higher rates of infertility among Black Americans, McPhee said.

“I hope the film provides the impetus to expand fertility treatments to all Americans, not just those who can afford it,” she said.

In both films, science sheds light on the future. “That’s what science is about: helping us see the world in new ways,” said Picture a Scientist’s Cheney. “I hope viewers come away with a strong sense that these problems can be fixed,” he said.

Watch Picture a Scientist on Wednesday, April 14 at 9pm and Sunday April 18 at 6pm on GBH 2 and Thursday, April 15 at 12pm and Saturday, April 17 at 1pm and 8pm on GBH 44.

Watch Fighting for Fertility on Wednesday, April 28 at 9pm on GBH 2 and Thursday, April 29 at 12pm on GBH 44.
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