The Power of 10: Women Leaders of NIH

Faces of the 10 NIH women institute and center leaders.

For the first time in NIH’s history, we have 10 women leading institutes and centers.

Now, when the directors of NIH’s 27 institutes and centers meet, more than a third of our voices are female.

Individually, we bring to leadership our personalities, professional expertise, and personal power.

Together, we bring what I call the “Power of 10.”

We spoke with each leader to hear about her experiences and insights on being a female director of an NIH institute or center. We heard about advocating for more women and diversity, advice for work-life balance, what’s happening at the center- and institute-level in terms of women in leadership, plus a few telling anecdotes, and the three M’s. At the end of this post, I share some of my own thoughts on the “Power of 10.”


Ann Cashion, PhD from NINR

Ann Cashion, Ph.D., R.N., F.A.A.N.
Acting Director
National Institute of Nursing Research (NINR)

A seat at the table:
I think presence is important—just being there whether at the scientific directors’ table or the institute directors’ table. Even if you don’t say something, you make others accountable by your presence.

Nursing’s unique path:
By virtue of the demographics of the nursing field, our intramural and extramural leaders are primarily women. Yet, I’m always careful with that because I think diversity goes both ways.


Nora D. Volkow, M.D. from NIDA

Nora D. Volkow, M.D.
Director
National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)

Not taking anything for granted:
Being a woman in an academic environment dominated by males has made me incredibly perseverant. For example, to achieve tenure, I had to have almost double the number of publications that my male colleagues had and to get the highest ratings. That leads you not to take anything for granted.

A shift in perspective:
It’s not that in the past males set off their brain to say, “No, we don’t want women.” It was a system that generated conditions that were not welcoming to women and one that was not questioned for there were very few women that could raise their voices and be taken seriously. The increasing presence of women in academia, including those in leadership, is changing the dialogue as the value of their contributions continuously expands. Women also bring a diversity of perspectives that enriches and strengthens institutions.

Women in leadership positions beget more women leaders:  
Women in leadership serve as an example to other women that this is possible. When someone has demonstrated that something is feasible, it becomes a reality and you don’t question it anymore. I think that this is probably one of the most important ways by which having women as directors of institutes or centers has helped advance the leadership position of women in science.


Diana W. Bianchi, M.D. from NICHD

Diana W. Bianchi, M.D.
Director 
Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD)

Women leaders are on the rise everywhere:
Having had the privilege of testifying at a House Appropriations Subcommittee meeting in April, it was very noticeable to me that nine of the 13 representatives on the committee were women. And indeed, one of the members of Congress was eight months pregnant. This created a perceptible difference in both the tone and the types of questions asked. . . We at NIH are a reflection of diversity that’s occurring in Congress as well. It’s a very exciting time to be here.

NICHD as a leader in women’s health:
So many people think that we focus exclusively on the health of children. We have made a strategic decision to better articulate our focus on women’s reproductive health. About 30 percent of our research portfolio is in reproductive health, and that is primarily in gynecologic health, contraception, and pregnancy-related issues. From a leadership perspective, we have made a decision to increase the support of science not only on disease or atypical conditions but even on menstruation and endometrial biology—what needs to occur for normal health or typical health.

The significance of more women around the table:
By having more women around the table, there’s clearly an opportunity for women’s voices and women’s opinions, but I think it does connect to more of a focus on women’s health.


Andrea T. Norris from NIH CIT

Andrea T. Norris
Director
Center for Information Technology (CIT)

Progress through diversity:
There has been a concentrated push to increase the diversity at NIH—not just male/female, but other backgrounds and ethnic diversities. It makes for better leadership and better management decisions. I see this every day. I give tremendous credit to the NIH leadership for really valuing that diversity. It absolutely makes a difference. And you can’t make much progress without it.

An exciting time for women leaders at NIH:
I encourage women to look at the role of technology in the health sector and in biomedical research as an incredible career opportunity. This is such an exciting time for innovation at the intersection of biomedical, medical, and technology domains. It’s dynamic and fast moving. Whether you have scientific skills, business expertise or know technology, there’s a role—an important role—for you in this space, especially here at NIH.


Judith Cooper, Ph.D. from OD

Judith A. Cooper, Ph.D.
Acting Director
National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD)

Approaches that allow for healthy work-life balance:
I support a healthy work-life balance through encouraging flexible work schedules and ad hoc teleworking, allowing the voicing of concerns and grievances via an open-door policy, and creating a work environment and meeting style where all and diverse voices around the table are heard.

Advancing and supporting others:
As I advanced in my career at NIH, I tried to bring up deserving individuals with me by offering leadership training opportunities or activities with the potential for advancement, both within and outside NIDCD. As I step down from my year-long stint as acting director, I appreciate the insights and opportunities this role has provided, and I look forward to continuing as deputy director, sharing my experiences with and paving the way for Dr. Debara Tucci, who will be NIH’s newest female IC director when she arrives in September.


Noni Byrnes, PhD from CSR

Noni Byrnes, Ph.D.
Director
Center for Scientific Review (CSR)

An honor and a responsibility:
I was stunned at how many women came up to me when I was selected as the director and told me that they were just thrilled that I had been chosen. I’ve never thought of myself as a role model, so I consider it to be a real honor and responsibility.

On being a leader and a woman of color:
One of the issues that sometimes minorities, and especially women of color, face is the questioning of credentials. I appreciate that it can be pretty damaging to be qualified with significant accomplishments, but then be questioned as to whether or not you got the position because of the boxes that are checked. There’s always a little bit of that. You can spend your time internalizing those negative thoughts, or you can move ahead to advance science and advance the mission.


Martha J. Somerman, DDS, Phd from NIDCR

Martha J. Somerman, D.D.S., Ph.D.
Director
National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR)

Having a family:
I have talked more to women about having a child and a career. I’ve shared how I read my journal articles out loud to my newborn son. They need to hear your voice. One of the interesting things is that now when I talk about having children, I talk to men, too. The conversations are not necessarily based on gender.

 More women in leadership at NIDCR:
In terms of recruiting for our intramural research, I think we’ve done a great job increasing the number of women in leadership positions over the last five years, and we have diverse research teams. Our institute also offers intramural and extramural fellowships that enhance diversity. It’s an area I pay a lot of attention to. We’re being more proactive.


Helene Langevin, MD from NCCIH

Helene Langevin, M.D.
Director
National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH)

Re-entering the workforce:
I’m thrilled with what the NIH Office of Research on Women’s Health is doing to help women re-enter scientific professions and research careers after having taken time off for family reasons. I had personal experience with this. I chose to leave academia for six years when my children were babies and was fortunate that I was able to come back with tremendous support from mentors—some women and some men—who helped me re-enter my academic career. But I know how difficult it is and that not all women are as fortunate as I have been. We need to do more to help. I think this can apply to men as well, but women bear a special burden with pregnancy and the actual bearing of children can physically be very hard.

Managing stress and a scientific career:
One of the things that NCCIH is interested in is helping people manage stress. I think being able to manage stress and stay healthy throughout pregnancy, taking care of small children, and pursuing one’s career is difficult. You need help from all directions, but also help from the scientific and academic environment and the funding agencies. . . Advancing one’s scientific career is important, but staying healthy through that process is very important, too.


Linda S. Birnbaum, PhD from NIEHS

Linda S. Birnbaum, Ph.D., D.A.B.T., A.T.S.
Director
National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS)

On the three M’s:
I think about the three M’s: mentoring, modeling and—you’re going to laugh—mothering.

Mentoring:
In mentoring, it’s extremely important that you mentor more than your students and your postdocs, for example. You mentor people around you and even people above you.

Modeling:
Modeling is setting an example. I’m frustrated by people who think that it’s really great that all they do is work. I can remember years ago when I had three little kids at home and I didn’t take anything home with me because there was no way I could get anything done. I was very efficient when I was at work. I didn’t spend a lot of time chitchatting or going for coffee. The other thing with modeling is taking time off. It’s especially positive for the younger people to see their director out of the office.

Mothering:
And then there’s mothering. . . I really take an interest in the people in my institute. Part of good mothering is knowing when your children need help and letting them make their own mistakes and fly when they’re ready. At work, I let people explore new options.


Patricia Flatley Brennan, RN, PhD from NLM

Patricia Flatley Brennan, R.N., Ph.D.
Director
National Library of Medicine (NLM)

Driving research and discovery:
Engaging with women leaders in partnership with our male colleagues sends a powerful and strong message. It’s not that we stand apart, it’s that we stand among.

We subtly but persistently bring perspective into the conversation at the NIH leadership table. It’s one thing to say that we need to hear the voices of women. It’s another thing to hear them and keep hearing them.

It’s becoming clearer every day that health is a complex interplay of person, environment, biology, and action. Women bring a lateral understanding of how to engage across these four elements to drive research and discovery in a way that improves human health.

The magnificence of magnification:
The “Power of 10” means that each of our contributions to the leadership of NIH are magnified 10 times over.

Author: Patti Brennan

Director, US National Library of Medicine

2 thoughts on “The Power of 10: Women Leaders of NIH”

  1. I like what Dr. Volkow said about a shift in perspective. When I was 10 I fell and hit my head and had to get stitches. When the doctor in the ER came to stitch me up I thought she was a nurse because I had never seen a woman doctor before. Fast forward to recent times- I read an anecdote where a mom and her young son were talking about what he wanted to be when he grew up. When she mentioned doctor, he said “Boys can be doctors too?” because all he had seen were women doctors! True change in perspective! It’s great to see so many leaders who are women.

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