Nursing and Libraries – Powerful Forces in Motion

This month, NLM joins the Nation in celebrating Black History Month. Libraries play an important role in ensuring equity of access to information. From my career as a nurse, I know that libraries are important vehicles for delivering trusted information. To celebrate my dual allegiances to nursing and libraries, in this post, I am tuning into the voices of Black nurses to learn what libraries mean to them.

Black nurses have made huge contributions to the health and well-being of people and are foundational to the health care system as we know it today. Rhetaugh Dumas, PhD, RN, a psychiatric nurse and academic leader, once served as the deputy director of the NIH’s National Institutes of Mental health (1979-1981). Another psychiatric nurse, Chester A. Woffard, III, MSN, RN was a leading thinker in suicidology, particularly addressing the needs of nurses coping with suicide among colleagues. May L. Wykle, PhD, RN, devised critical intervention strategies for caregivers, with particular attention to self-care needs among minority elders. Loretta Sweet Jemmott, PhD, MSN, RN, is an expert in health promotion and created much of the evidence base for HIV risk-reduction interventions. I’ll bet every one of these nurses used (and still uses) the library often!

I asked some nurse colleagues to reflect on the role libraries have played in their professional and personal lives – and look what I learned!

Linda Burnes Bolton, DrPH, RN, FAAN | Senior Vice President and Chief Health Equity Officer | Cedars-Sinai Health System

Libraries have been my constant go-to place for knowledge and skills to support any task I took on. It was important to me to join a profession that would enable me to read, learn, and be of use to other humans — nursing was the answer to my prayers. Reading in the library and collecting journals from around the world was a way to learn about life, humans, and nurture my sense of purpose to be of use to others. Libraries are full of stories about human caring; they are a safe place to gain knowledge and to explore and imagine life’s possibilities. I treasure my memories of being in the aisles of public and private libraries in schools, after school, and now accessing the wise words and secrets held by libraries electronically.

Sheldon D. Fields, PhD, RN, CRNP, FNP-BC, AACRN, FAANP, FNAP, FAAN | Associate Dean for Equity and Inclusion Research Professor | The Pennsylvania State University College of Nursing

As a healthcare professional who is also a researcher, educator, and health policy specialist, I have leveraged the resources of the NLM many times. As an HIV prevention research scientist, I rely heavily on the biomedical literature databases such as PubMed to keep up to date on the research literature and for dissemination of my own work. As a nursing educator, the NLM training resources and courses on how to use various databases, as well as resources such as MedlinePlus and DailyMed for drug information have been most beneficial in my work with nursing students. The NLM supported National Information Center on Health Services Research and Health Care Technology is also a reliable source for all things health policy related. Having such reliable, up to date, and accessible resources from the NLM is critically important to all facets of my career. 

Paule V. Joseph, PhD, MS, FNP-BC, CTN-B, FAAN | Lasker Clinical Research Scholar Tenure Track Investigator | NIH Distinguished Scholar | Acting Chief, Section on Sensory Science and Metabolism Unit (SenSMet) | Division of Intramural Clinical and Biological Research (DICBR), National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) | Biobehavioral Branch, National Institute of Nursing Research (NINR)

During my PhD program, I realized how critical the library and librarians were in my scientific journey. The librarian at the UPenn Biomedical Library — who was also a nurse — played a crucial role in my PhD trajectory. It was the first time I had met a nurse who was also a librarian, and her intimate knowledge of nursing and the scientific literature helped me a lot. In my role as Principal Investigator, the librarians at NIH have been integral to the development of my lab as I have developed my clinical protocols and conducted literature searches for systematic reviews and meta-analysis. I have even co-authored papers with them. In addition, they are always available to train and share new tools to streamline the research process. The librarians have been very helpful in teaching the fellows and students in my lab about databases and guidelines to conducting reviews. When COVID-19 started and reports about COVID’s toll on taste and smell began to emerge, the NIH librarian (who knew what my lab studied) reached out and helped us tremendously by curating the literature on that topic. I am still using those resources as I develop a COVID-19 taste and smell long-hauler study.

Beverly Malone, PhD, RN, FAAN | President and CEO | National League for Nursing

As a nurse working on my doctorate, I had the opportunity to spend a summer in Washington, DC working with a Senator on many health-related issues. During that time, the Library of Congress became my refuge as I worked on my dissertation section on leadership and mentoring. Resources from the Congressional Library helped me understand the power of mentoring and recognize that nurses were sometimes left behind in terms of the mentoring process. Throughout my career, I’ve been inspired by the graciousness and generosity of spirit in people saying, “I see something in you that perhaps you can’t see in yourself.” But I know that I have been able to recognize this through what I learned at that beautiful, wonderful place called the Congressional Library. The library is where the literature revealed secrets to say, “Look at how fortunate you are to have been mentored all of your life.”

Monique Powell, MSN, RN | Nurse Manager, Cardiac Intensive Care Unit | Children’s National Medical Center

I think back on my freshman year at Howard University and one of the most memorable moments occurred in the Founders Library. I remember the first time I walked through the doors I felt this incredible sense of belonging and history. The library was named Founders in honor of the 17 men that help to found Howard University. This building holds an incredible collection of history for African Americans, and I felt privileged to be able to sit down at the tables and walk through the stacks of books. I had an assignment to research how the African American community has interacted with the medical community. As I researched this topic and used the microfiche machine to view documents, papers, and letters, I remember feeling that I had access to history in a way that I never had before. I remember coming across a personal check signed by Ruby Dee and Ozzy Davis sent to the Howard University School of Medicine to support the students — a piece of history that still moves me so many years later. My experience that day has stayed with me and encourages me to continue the work I am doing in health care and for my community. I am a proud graduate of an Historically Black College and University and feel honored to be able to serve my community as a nurse.

Asia L. Reed MSN, RN, CPN | Professional Development Specialist | Nursing Education and Professional Development | Children’s National Medical Center

The library has helped shape my educational destiny in so many ways. I have appreciated the academic library both online and in-person throughout my undergraduate and graduate nursing programs. The library offers free educational resources, caters to specific research needs, provides space for meeting with others, and supports personal and professional growth. Having recently graduated with my master’s degree in nursing education, the library contributed to my success by providing access to a variety of education resources and online databases that supported my needs. The articles I chose were directed toward my learning styles, which had a positive impact on my academic achievements. As a novice nurse educator, the library continues to play an important resource in my career path and for my pediatric nurse residents.

Reneè Roberts-Turner, DHA, MSN, RN, NE-BC, CPHQ | Director, The Department of Nursing Science, Professional Practice, and Quality Magnet® Program Director | Children’s National Hospital | Assistant Professor of Pediatrics | The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences

What I always loved most about being in the library is the quiet and calm I felt as soon as I walked through the doors. During my senior year of college, my mentor (who was an employee within the University of Virginia Wise Library) heavily influenced my decision to use my bachelor’s degree in Biology to pursue Nursing instead of medicine. I spent many hours reading about healthcare careers, in various books and journals, reading articles using the microfiche machine, and concluded Nursing was the profession for me. I also spent a significant amount of my time at Marymount University’s Emerson G. Reinsch Library, where I was introduced to the Washington Research Library Consortium and benefitted from the ability to borrow materials from other academic libraries in the Washington, DC area. As I pursued my doctoral degree via online classes, I felt the same satisfaction with the electronic library format. Although I’m not physically in the library, whenever I log on to the electronic library, I still feel a sense of quiet calmness.

Linda D. Scott, PhD, RN, NEA-BC, FNAP, FAAN | Dean and Professor | University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Nursing

Those who knew me as a child can attest that I always wanted to be a nurse. My earliest professional inspiration was Florence Nightingale, whom I mimicked as I provided nursing care to my dolls and even tried to replicate her uniform by wearing a blanket that served as a cape. My information came from books through my neighborhood Bookmobile. An astute Bookmobile librarian noted my hunger for learning and encouraged me to explore more about nursing at the public library. That’s where I learned a more complete history about the nursing profession and discovered a wider representation of nurses, including some who looked like me. Learning about Mary Eliza Mahoney and Mary Elizabeth Carnegie, and later Hattie Bessent and Rhetaugh Dumas—along with other nurses of color whose footprints are evident in the profession—turned my emulation of the nurses I admired into a belief in the possibility for myself. Library resources have not only been invaluable to me throughout my education and career, but they helped me see myself on the “path we tread.”

Ora Strickland, PhD, RN, FAAN | Dean and Professor | Nicole Wertheim College of Nursing & Health Sciences | Florida International University

I remember my parent’s library. It had encyclopedias, short stories, poems, and even medical books. Whenever any of us got sick, my mother would run to her medical books, and I took notice. All those books piqued my interest in becoming a nurse. Throughout my career, I’ve found that university libraries serve nurses very well because the librarians are good. I’ve been fortunate to frequent university libraries where librarians collaborate with the schools of nursing to set up library committees to review the library holdings in health care and related fields to make sure that their holdings are adequate and address the needs of nursing students. One library I have visited often throughout my career is NLM. I’d spend hours and hours at NLM; it’s a wonderful place. I also met some real scholars when I was at NLM. That’s what I miss most with the rise of the internet – because a library is also a community meeting place. It’s a place to meet other wonderful scholars and some of those scholars can end up being collaborators.

Retired Rear Admiral Sylvia Trent-Adams, PhD, RN, FAAN | Senior Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer | University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth

During my graduate education, particularly my doctoral program, libraries became my lifeline and my “go-to” place to help me problem solve and find resources that I couldn’t identify myself. Librarians gave me ideas that I hadn’t thought of and became my alternate support system outside of my department – and outside of my profession. Libraries have been very integrated into all the work I’ve done and the positions I’ve held throughout my career. Librarians deserve a lot of credit for my academic and professional success.

Mia Waldron, PhD, MSN-Ed, NPD-BC | Nurse Scientist, Nursing Science, Professional Practice & Quality | Children’s National Hospital | Assistant Professor of Pediatrics | George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences

Libraries were a steady feature in my life. I spent childhood summers in the Brooklyn Public Library reading fiction; I worked as a clerk in the Cardozo Law Library as a teen; and decided on the sorority to join based on histories read at the Schomburg Library. The decision to change my college major from pre-medicine to nursing was made after poring over career data found in the health sciences library over 30 years ago. The importance of knowledge, as a nurse, has proven invaluable throughout my career. In most instances, my first instinct is to turn to a library.


What a journey! Libraries are shaping the future of nursing and health care, and these nurses give us a glimpse into how all libraries, including the NLM, resonate with the dreams of nurses and provide support and skills to move forward in practice.

I am grateful to my colleagues for sharing their perspectives, and so proud of what the merging of these two forces — nursing and libraries — bring to the health of the world!

How have libraries influenced you and your career?

Biomedical Informatics and Health Equity: Using One to Improve the Other

Guest post by Kevin B. Johnson, MD, MS, Cornelius Vanderbilt Professor and Chair of Biomedical Informatics, and Professor of Pediatrics at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

I started Informatics in the Round for a lay audience seeking to understand the world of biomedical informatics. There are other podcasts out there about the latest and the greatest in research, but I really wanted to create a space where people could learn more about the field and hear from leaders who continue to inspire me.

Earlier this month, #ShutDownSTEM gave me the opportunity to bring together academicians and biomedical informatics leaders to outline what our role as informaticians should be in the fight against racism in all its forms. One of the leaders who joined me in that discussion and encouraged me to share this with all of you was NLM Director Patricia Flatley Brennan, RN, PhD.

I often refer to Dr. Brennan as the newly minted matriarch of our field. Her contributions to this recent discussion were, not surprisingly, incredibly insightful. The entire conversation can be found here.

As chair of the Department of Biomedical Informatics at Vanderbilt and an informatics evangelist, I want — no, I need — to share some highlights from this conversation in the hope of broadening the discussion. There is much we haven’t done that is clearly within both our skill set and reach.

Click on the image above to listen to the full episode.

How Bioinformatics Can Support an Equitable Future

I started the conversation by setting the stage for a discussion of how biomedical informatics can play a role in the fight against racism. As a medical specialty, the field is about aggregating and transforming health data to create knowledge, improve lives, and build a world with better health outcomes.

We’ve been an equal opportunity field that thinks of technology as the great equalizer when it comes to health care. But we’ve missed a key opportunity to embrace equity along with equality. In an equitable world, the benefits of informatics would not simply be made available to all equally; rather, we would recognize, embrace, and adapt solutions to the unique needs of the many in our society who cannot type, who don’t speak English, who fear giving out private information to the government because of historical missteps, or who have jobs that challenge our traditional care models.

To respond to the realities of our built environment, our field needs to understand where the people are and what they need. From a technology standpoint, this requires designing models that reflect more than just the average care needs. We need to build technologies based on an understanding of how diverse people are, as opposed to how similar we are. We need to think about the presumptions that we make, often unconsciously, and how our presumptions get built into technologies.

A challenge that we often face in the field of informatics is that we spend a lot of time on the technology side and don’t pay enough attention to the people side. Some call this the “softer side,” and it’s often pushed to the side with the intention to address it later. Unconscious bias can show up in very subtle ways, such as sending out a confirmation email and presuming that there will be a response or assuming that a patient even has a personal email address. And we often picture the nuclear family when we think about relationships.

We need to immerse ourselves in diverse stories and relationships so that we can see how technology fits into people’s lives and how to create tools to meet their needs. For example, how do we help young-adult graduates of the foster care system collect and summarize their past medical histories from what could be a dozen different parents? 

As we think about how health care systems are built and experienced, let’s take into consideration factors that impact who is represented at all levels of those systems. Our actions are rarely nefarious and are quickly corrected when called out as biased, in most cases. But, unfortunately, groups that lack diversity don’t have stakeholders who easily notice when actions leave underrepresented groups behind. Where is our diversity in science?

During our conversation, we heard difficult messages from two younger Black faculty. One expressed fear that the issues that might propel them into a career in data science and informatics were not issues that would be rewarded through extramural funding and promotion. Another was convinced that the perception of academia as slow to embrace change, skeptical of new ideas, and mired in red tape was off-putting to people of color who historically have seen those behaviors lead to discriminatory actions. 

Those are tough pills to swallow, but things we need to confront directly.

Throughout the conversation, we examined our privilege and how we can break down barriers and eliminate anti-Black racism with the goal of equity in mind. There is no single answer, but the best thing we can give to young people and to our colleagues is the capacity to be brave. We also discussed how people who experience privilege must be willing to use that privilege to build bridges and close the gap. We need to continue to be voices that say these issues matter.

As we strive for justice and meaningful change, we need to better inform ourselves about the perceptions of underrepresented groups that negatively affect their career choices. We need to narrow the research funding gap and examine the peer-driven study process, including biases in the review process and in publishing.

The National Library of Medicine uses grant mechanisms (G08, R01) to develop informatics to reduce health disparities and supports research that examines how information can be presented in culturally relevant ways. NLM’s data science work, including COVID-19 research, encourages researchers to develop techniques that illustrate the causes of and solutions to the health disparities that exist in the world today.

I encourage you to listen to the full discussion to hear more from our thoughtful panelists.  

And I leave you with this challenge: What will you do today, or this year, to build bridges and close the gap on your team, in your workplace, and in your community?

Dr. Johnson received his MD from The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore and his MS in Medical Informatics from Stanford University. He is an internationally known scholar and educator in clinical informatics, having served as a board-certified pediatrician and consistently funded researcher as well as chief information officer during his tenure at Vanderbilt.  

In addition to leadership roles in the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Board of Pediatrics, the American Medical Informatics Association, and the National Academy of Medicine, Dr. Johnson serves as chair of the 
NLM Board of Scientific Counselors and sits on the NIH Council of Councils.

What Does Black History Month Mean to Me?

Each year, in February, the United States celebrates Black History Month, commemorating the achievements of African Americans and recognizing their central role in the history of our country. While some advocate for yearlong awareness of issues that are often highlighted during Black History Month — such as voting rights and access to health care — I personally find that setting aside a specific time to reflect, as a nation, on these important matters can help prevent them from getting lost in the everyday conversation.

As I think about how NLM can better serve African Americans, I know we must take into account the fact that their health care experiences, which include issues of access and outcomes, frequently differ from those of other Americans. I find two initiatives at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), addressing the greater risk of maternal mortality among women of color and the health challenges related to heart disease and stroke experienced specifically by African Americans, particularly inspiring.

As I prepared this blog, a surprising insight, at least to me, was the connection between cardiovascular risk and maternal mortality. African American women in the United States have a pregnancy-related mortality ratio (number of pregnancy-related deaths for every 100,000 live births) of 42.8, which is more than three times the rate of white women. Furthermore, the high ratio of maternal mortality among African American women cuts across all socioeconomic levels. While there appear to be various factors that influence pregnancy-related deaths, cardiovascular disease, particularly risk factors such as high blood pressure, is implicated in many cases.

What can NLM do to foster health equity among African Americans, particularly African American women?

We can support research and open access to the literature that provides the foundation for developing clinical guidelines and informing clinical care. Key NLM health disparities and minority health information can be found on our MEDLINE®/PubMed® Search and Health Disparities & Minority Health Information Resources page. We developed this page in collaboration with the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities and maintain the content to ensure we’re providing the most up-to-date resources available. While accessible to anyone, this page is primarily for health care professionals and researchers and provides the following:

  • A link to a comprehensive PubMed search on minority health and health disparities
  • The complete details of the search, so users can see the strategy used and can add specific terms, such as maternal mortality and hypertension
  • A list of links to additional NLM resources, NIH resources, and other federal resources on this subject, as well as to associations, foundations, and research centers

The Library also has information for patients and their families. Our world-famous MedlinePlus® online resource provides, in plain language, direct-to-consumer information (in English and Spanish) about diseases, conditions, and wellness issues. For example, a search using the terms pregnancy, African American, and high blood pressure returns almost 100 short articles and fact sheets that discuss how to recognize and manage high blood pressure during pregnancy. Sometimes a MedlinePlus search provides a pathway to unanticipated, but related, health information, such as the link between heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.

The goal of reducing maternal mortality related to cardiovascular problems among African American women requires a concerted effort linking basic science, clinical care, and patient self-management. It’s also critical to develop strategies across the full spectrum of prevention, including primary prevention of cardiovascular problems among African American women; secondary prevention that supports the early diagnosis of women at high risk for pregnancy-related cardiovascular complications; and tertiary prevention that includes aggressive care interventions before, during, and immediately after childbirth to better manage the problems of women who experience cardiovascular-related complications during pregnancy. 

The effectiveness of NLM is centered around our development and distribution of scientific literature that leads to biological discoveries and supports clinical care strategies; our curation of massive genomic and molecular databases that support scientists trying to isolate genetic precursors of disease and identify promising targets for pharmacological intervention; and our outreach to clinicians, patients, and family members about the vast professional and consumer-focused resources available to promote health and self-management. 

Let me know what else we can do to better serve the health needs of all African Americans and improve pregnancy-related health outcomes for African American women. Together, we can make the health of African Americans a year-round focus.

The Power of 10: Women Leaders of NIH

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.

Science and Medicine Need Women

The first woman ever to be an institute director at NIH, Dr. Ruth Kirschstein, took the helm at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences in 1974. It took 17 more years for Dr. Bernadine Healy to become the first—and so far only—female director of NIH.

Today, I am one of 10 women serving as directors across the 27 institutes and centers at NIH—the most female directors NIH has ever seen at one time. Clearly, we’ve made some important gains, but as NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins has recently said, “We have not achieved the point where women have their rightful place in leadership.”

It’s not that women aren’t interested in science or in leadership. Instead, studies are finding that far too many women who enter the field abandon their careers, whether due to hiring bias, the wage gap, or sexual or gender harassment. We’re all losing due to that loss of talent and intelligence.

Science needs women, not just as laborers, but as thinkers, innovators, and leaders. It needs our different perspectives and our thoughts on what issues are worthy of research. It needs our different ways of attacking problems, interpreting results, and considering solutions. It needs our diversity to help reduce bias and to yield findings that are more generalizable. The problems science addresses are too large, too multifaceted, and too important to tackle using the talents of only 50% of the population.

It’s a fertile and shifting time. We are becoming increasingly aware of the systemic barriers that keep society and science from benefiting from women’s full contributions, but awareness isn’t enough. We must act. We must change.

NIH is working to do that. New policies and practices are in place to address sexual harassment at NIH, at the institutions we support, and anywhere NIH research activities take place. And NIH has just completed a survey of all staff and contractors to help assess NIH workplace climate and harassment.

It’s a start.

I’m proud to be a part of a group tasked with recommending what comes next. As part of the NIH Director’s Advisory Committee Working Group on Changing the Culture to End Sexual Harassment, I have the opportunity to help redress wrongs and improve engagement. Together my colleagues and I will be looking for ways the institution can promote a safe and inclusive environment.

On a personal level, I work to effect that change by nudging my colleagues gently or, if needed, bluntly, when implicit bias, traditional thinking, or even malignant motives stand in the way of fair judgment or women’s rightful progression in science. And I try to engage all my colleagues, regardless of gender, in working toward ways to dismantle the barriers that hold women back.

Just as with scientific research itself, we need everyone’s full participation in the solution.

What guidance do you have for me about how to take up this important mantle?

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Women scientists at NLM and throughout history.