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.

Didn’t you used to be a nurse?

Didn’t you used to be a nurse?

I get this question more often than you might expect—and frankly, a little more often than I would expect.

I am a nurse who presently serves as the director of the National Library of Medicine. I’m the first nurse to direct the Library but not the first licensed health professional to do so. In fact, all of my predecessors have been licensed health professionals—specifically, physicians. I wonder how many of them were asked, “Didn’t you used to be a physician?”

The answer to the nurse question, by the way, is, “No.”

I am a nurse. I didn’t used to be a nurse.

I have an active license as a registered nurse. I am a member of the American Nurses Association. And though I might wait a beat to raise my hand when that call comes over the airline public address system—“Is there a health professional on board? We have an emergency.”—I sometimes do, doing what I can to help but always deferring to someone with more current clinical knowledge.

I don’t even think it’s possible to leave nursing behind. Nursing is as much a calling as a profession. The calling fuels the desire to be a professional with specialized knowledge, operating under a contract with society (Nursing’s Social Policy Statement: The Essence of the Profession, 2010).  One does not forget the knowledge, nor does one abandon the calling.

A commercial years ago used the slogan, “If caring was enough, anyone could be a nurse.” I care, but that does not make me a nurse. I’m a nurse because I possess specific, advanced knowledge about the diagnosis and treatment of the human response to disease, disability, and developmental challenges, and I apply that knowledge to caring for others.  Today, I demonstrate that caring and fulfill my contract with society as the director of the largest biomedical library in the world.

It takes 1,700 women and men to bring to society all the products and services NLM offers. But being a nurse gives me insights into and an understanding of health that help me channel their efforts in different ways. Being a nurse broadens my perspective on what constitutes relevant health information. Being a nurse drives me to connect the knowledge of how to manage a health problem with the skills needed to do it. It highlights that health is a team sport, not a solo pursuit, and that I must create the environment that lets all team members, including patients, their family, and friends, operate at the top of their skills. And as essential as trusted, quality health information is, being a nurse reminds me that information is only part of the equation. Personal motivation, a sense of self-efficacy, and the ability to act in accord with one’s values and outlook on life contribute mightily to someone’s willingness and ability to move toward health—and even how they define health.

Of course, I’m not the only nurse working outside a traditional clinical setting. Nurses do many things, but all fall under nursing’s contract with society: helping people, sick or well, by understanding their human responses to disease, disability, and development and partnering with them to move toward health informed by mutual respect and shaped by our combined talents and skills.

So, no, I didn’t used to be a nurse. I am a nurse. And my job as a nurse is to lead a library.

Come join me in my practice, add your skills and knowledge to the mix, and work with me toward the future of data-powered health.

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?

Learn More
Women scientists at NLM and throughout history.

Celebrating the Contributions of African American Scientists at NIH

The National Library of Medicine is proud once again to partner with the NIH Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion to celebrate Black History Month.  This year, we’re marking the occasion by hosting a photographic display celebrating African American scientists at NIH.  The exhibition will be on display through the end of February.

I was delighted to welcome the honorees and their families and friends to the exhibition’s opening ceremony on February 4. Christopher Williams, STEM education director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, acknowledged in his opening remarks the power of being in a room with over 200 people celebrating African American scientists. The event, he noted, “provides an opportunity for those who have been blazing the trails to connect with those who are just starting along the way.”

For Roland Owens, PhD, NIH Director of Research Workforce Development, those just starting out include black youth, hungry for role models. “The purpose of this poster project is to make it easier for everyone to see that there are black scientists doing great things for the world,” he said.

Who are those doers of great things?

Let me introduce you to the 14 black scientists from 10 different institutes and centers across NIH who continue to drive the science and our organization forward.

headshot of Marie Bernard, MDMarie Bernard, MD
Deputy Director, National Institute on Aging

 

posed photo of Darlene Dixon, DVM, PhDDarlene Dixon, DVM, PhD
Group Lead, Molecular Pathogenesis Group, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

 

headshot of Emmeline Edwards, PhDEmmeline Edwards, PhD
Director, Division of Extramural Research, National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health

 

headshot of Courtney Fitzhugh, MDCourtney Fitzhugh, MD
Lasker Clinical Research Scholar, National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute

 

headshot of Shawn Gaillard, PhDShawn Gaillard, PhD
Research Training Officer, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

 

posed photo of Gary Gibbons, MDGary Gibbons, MD
Director, National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute

 

Carl V. Hill, PhD, MPH, speaks from behind a podiumCarl V. Hill, PhD, MPH
Director, Office of Special Populations, National Institute on Aging

 

headshot of Alfred Johnson, PhDAlfred Johnson, PhD
Deputy Director for Management, Office of the Director

 

headshot of Zayd M. Khaliq, PhDZayd M. Khaliq, PhD
Stadtman Investigator, Cellular Neurophysiology Unit, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke

 

posed photo of Worta McCaskill-Stevens, MD, MSWorta McCaskill-Stevens, MD, MS
Chief of the Community Oncology and Prevention Trials Research Group, National Cancer Institute

 

headshot of Roland Owens, PhDRoland Owens, PhD
Assistant Director, Office of Intramural Research, Office of the Director

 

headshot of Anna Ramsey-Ewing, PhDAnna Ramsey-Ewing, PhD
Director, Office of Grants Management and Scientific Review, National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences

 

posed photo of Griffin Rodgers, MD, MACPGriffin Rodgers, MD, MACP
Director, National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases

 

posed photo of Fasil Tekola-Ayele PhDFasil Tekola Ayele PhD
Earl Stadtman Investigator, Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development

 

The exhibition honoring these scientists is currently on display in the Library’s Lister Hill Center (Bldg 38A). The panels recognize each scientist with his or her photograph, current position, and a quote about his or her career path.

I was touched and challenged by these scientists’ insights as I learned about their particular motivations, significant mentors, and notable experiences that shaped their research and their lives. I also marveled at their range of interests and accomplishments, though I couldn’t help but notice the common threads of tenacity, drive, and commitment to excellence that bound them all together.

I was also struck by the connection across generations as I toured the exhibit in the company of Gary Gibbons, MD, and Paule Joseph, RN, PhD. These two scientists represented different points on the career trajectory: Gibbons an accomplished cardiologist who has been the Director of NHLBI since 2012 (and my personal mentor since I arrived at NIH); and Joseph, a young scholar from the National Institutes of Nursing Research. As we strolled together among the panels and discussed the honorees, I felt grateful for the tremendous accomplishments of my colleagues featured in the exhibition, and I also felt excited and hopeful for the advancements yet to come from so many young, innovative researchers just starting out—and by those coming behind them, inspired by their stories. It leaves me optimistic and eager to see the bright future they will help usher in and makes me wonder what marks they will make on biomedical research and discovery.

Whatever they are, I expect NLM will be there to tell their story. The Library remains committed to showcasing the contributions of African Americans in health care and biomedical science. In fact, four of our History of Medicine’s recent exhibitions highlight those contributions:

  • Binding Wounds, an exhibition about African Americans in Civil War medicine
  • Opening Doors, stories of contemporary African American surgeons
  • Fire & Freedom, a look at power imbalance, food, and enslavement in the early days of the United States
  • The Politics of Yellow Fever, which includes the essential role Philadelphia’s free African American residents played during the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1793

You can see three of those exhibitions on display now at NLM. Two, Binding Wounds and Opening Doors, are set up in the Lister Hill Center (Bldg 38A) around the corner from the panels featuring our 14 scientist honorees. The third, The Politics of Yellow Fever, which just opened January 11, occupies the entryway to our History of Medicine Division.

If you can’t visit in person, check out the companion websites for each of these exhibitions. You’ll be glad you did—and grateful, like me, for the  contributions of African American healers, clinicians, and scientists.

Pearls of Wisdom

Building a career as a woman in biomedicine

Women scientists and researchers at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) are accomplishing amazing things.

NLM in Focus has featured a number of stories about such wise and wondrous women here at the Library, and at the NIH level, the Women in Biomedical Careers program works to promote women’s entry to and  sustained advancement within the biomedical sciences.

That program includes short videos titled “Pearls of Wisdom,” which present brief excerpts from interviews with women scientists. These clips, all running about one minute, offer messages from women scientists on how to build a career in the field of biomedicine.

This year, as the program turns its attention to leadership as a career path for women within biomedicine, I was asked to participate, along with several other NIH Institute and Center directors. The interview included questions about leadership, my career, and the mentors who helped me along the way.

The edited video won’t be ready for a while, but I was so jazzed by the process that I want to give you a sneak peek—both of what I said and of what I learned along the way.

Tops among those lessons: you can’t simply declare yourself a leader. Leadership is demonstrated and earned. One becomes a leader by taking on roles that call for leadership and by contributing within those roles, whether that’s in the trenches or out front, at the head of an initiative.

In addition, I’ve come to understand more fully that leadership is not the same as management. As trite as that might be, it’s also true. Leadership can exist in any position and at any level in the hierarchy, whether a manager or not. I see leadership as an authority granted by others—administrators, peers, or subordinates—that reflects one’s ability to inspire others and to knit together their ambitions and efforts to accomplish something. Stated another way: leadership is the ability to motivate, inspire, cajole, and engage talented people to contribute to a common vision and achieve a common goal.

As the interviewer’s questions moved on to my career, we spoke of how my career developed, its highlights and key challenges, and how I came to be at NIH. She also asked what career advice I would give my daughter (if I had one) or another young woman I cared about.

My answer: Find your passion and your career will follow.

I’m not sure where that insight came from, but it has stood me in good stead all these years. Passion has driven me to work until 3 AM polishing off a proposal and what has comforted me when that proposal wasn’t received as I had hoped. Passion has pushed me to learn more, to collaborate outside my field, and to engage with others when I might otherwise have worked alone. Passion has energized and stimulated my lifelong career, pointing the way toward new work opportunities, including some—like my current gig—that I could never have imagined years before.

The interviewer also asked about my mentors and mentees. I am blessed with many of both, and I hope I have told each of you what you’ve meant to me and thanked you for what I have learned from you. But her question reminded me that, while we may seek out mentors (or mentees), sometimes we’re gifted with them even when we aren’t looking or don’t realize we need them. Sometimes fate, luck, and timing take a hand, and it’s our job to seize the opportunity.

Take this interview, for example.

What started as a meeting on the calendar, an obligation to check off, morphed into an opportunity and a gift. This interview gave me the occasion to stop and look back on a career that has brought me tremendous satisfaction, even joy, and that look back has renewed my commitment to the road ahead.

I also hope it will help other women navigate their own road, because biomedicine needs women’s intellect, talent, ideas, and drive if we are to solve our leading health problems. While women have long influenced and enhanced the practice of medicine, we need to inspire a new generation of groundbreaking scientists and medical pioneers.

So what about you? How have women inspired you in your career? And what career advice might you give young women who want to work in biomedicine?