March is Women’s History Month – a time to commemorate women’s vital contributions to our history and progress as a nation. At NIH and NINDS, March is an opportunity to celebrate women at all career stages as scientists, innovators, and leaders. This celebration is paramount to all of our efforts to fulfill the NINDS mission: seeking fundamental knowledge about the brain and nervous system, and using that knowledge to reduce the burden of neurological disease for all people.
NINDS staff are part of this celebration of women’s contributions, power, and innovation in science. NINDS Scientific Review Officer Lataisia Jones, Ph.D., is featured in the Smithsonian debut of #IfThenSheCan – The Exhibit, a collection of 120 life-size 3D-printed statues that are a diverse coalition of contemporary women STEM innovators and role models leading a variety of fields. And, in a recent interview with NINDS Deputy Director Nina Schor, M.D., Ph.D., she discusses her career, her research, her poetry and her current work in equity and diversity.
We also congratulate women scientists among grantees who have received prestigious NINDS awards recognizing their contributions to research and mentoring. For example, the Research Program Award (R35) provides support for eight years to investigators across career stages who have demonstrated productive, rigorous track records, allowing them to redirect their time away from the administrative burden of writing and managing multiple grant applications and toward engaging in the lab; and the Javits Neuroscience Investigator Award (R37) provides up to seven years of support to investigators with a history of talent, imagination, and pre-eminent scientific achievement. In 2021, NINDS recognized these outstanding female investigators with Javits awards:
- Hulya Bayir, M.D., University of Pittsburgh. Dr. Bayir’s work examines mechanisms underlying traumatic brain injury in children, focusing on how oxidized phospholipids play key roles in the execution of cell death pathways.
- Elizabeth Jonas, M.D., Yale University. Dr. Jonas leads a research program with a long-standing interest in understanding the mechanisms of mitochondrial physiology and pathophysiology, the healthy regulation of which is key to energy efficiency in the nervous system.
- Kathleen Millen, Ph.D., Seattle Children’s Research Institute. Dr. Millen's research seeks to identify the events that regulate cerebellar development, using the power and strengths of both mouse and human genetics with embryological analysis in mice and other model vertebrates.
In 2021, 185/666 (28%) of NINDS R01 awardees were women (for context, NIH-wide data can be found in the Data Book). Of those categorized as early-stage investigators, 31/82 (38%) were women. These numbers are not where we want them to be, but we hope (and the ESI data suggest) that we are building towards a diverse workforce that more closely represents the scientific community as a whole.
Since 2017, NINDS has recognized outstanding mentors at all career stages through the Landis Mentorship Award, an annual award named in honor of former NINDS Director Story Landis, Ph.D. Conducting sustained, rigorous, cutting-edge scientific work goes hand in hand with strong mentorship. Empowering trainees can instill a life-long passion for research and enable intellectual growth, with lasting impacts that extend far beyond an individual lab. A towering intellect, extraordinary mentor, and the first woman selected as NINDS Director, Dr. Landis generously provided her time and energy to support countless scientific investigators as they navigated the professional landscape of biomedical research. In 2021, NINDS recognized several outstanding female mentors:
- Alexandra Nelson, M.D., Ph.D., University of California, San Francisco. Dr. Nelson exudes a joy of science and fosters this joy in her trainees while simultaneously maintaining a strong focus on scientific rigor. Several trainees expressed their approach to addressing difficult situations by considering “what Alexandra would do.” A clinician-scientist, Dr. Nelson seeks to understand the cellular and circuit basis of motor control, particularly in movement disorders.
- Emily Plowman, Ph.D., CCC-SLP, University of Florida. Trainees feel empowered in Dr. Plowman’s lab, lauding her thoughtful and individualized mentoring approach. They also appreciated her active development of a culture of respect for all individuals. As a clinician-scientist, Dr. Plowman’s lab aims to improve the detection and clinical management of upper tract disorders associated with speech, swallowing and breathing function.
- Kate O’Connor-Giles, Ph.D., Brown University. Dr. O'Connor-Giles concentrates on helping individuals to achieve their goals, as well as instilling the need for and practice of innovation, rigor, and resilience. Her research studies how synapses form, how they are organized for specific release properties, and how they are reorganized to modulate circuit function.
In addition to ensuring recognition of exceptional female investigators, NINDS is also committed to making neuroscience welcoming and equitable for women and to evaluating instances when as an Institute, we can do better. When we learned that the selection criteria for the Javits award had resulted in significant gender disparities among awardees, NINDS modified the criteria in 2014. The current criteria focus on the quality and impact of the investigator, rather than on rigid eligibility criteria. Following this change, since 2014, 30/69 (43%) of Javits awardees have been outstanding female investigators.
The NINDS Office of Programs to Enhance Workforce Diversity (OPEN), led by Michelle Jones-London, Ph.D., has established various strategies to build a more diverse neuroscience workforce. As one example, Broadening the Representation of Academic Investigators in NeuroScience (BRAINS) is a national program dedicated to advancing diversity and inclusion in neuroscience, and is supported by an NINDS R25 (NIH Neuroscience Development for Advancing the Careers of a Diverse Research Workforce). Co-Directed by three women (Sheri Mizumori, Ph.D., Joyce Yen, Ph.D., and Claire Horner-Devine, Ph.D.) at the University of Washington, the program has already had a lasting impact. This is just one of many stellar programs whose leaders are strongly committed to mentorship and invested in promoting a more diverse biomedical workforce, including women in STEM.
More broadly, in 2007, NIH established the Working Group on Women in Biomedical Careers, recognizing that, as a leader in the biomedical community, it has an important role to play in overcoming institutional and environmental barriers to advancement at all career stages for women. Over the years, the group has taken action to retain scientists when they require accommodations to successfully balance their research with family responsibilities. And this work continues: NIH recently issued a Notice of Special Interest (NOSI) to promote re-entry and re-integration into an active research career after an interruption for family responsibilities or other qualifying circumstances, such as the adverse effects of an unsafe or discriminatory environment. This NOSI announces the availability of funding through administrative supplements to support a mentored research training experience that provides scientists an opportunity to update or extend their research skills and knowledge and prepare them to re-establish their careers in research.
Ensuring a vibrant, talented, and diverse community of neuroscientists is just one of the cross-cutting strategies outlined in our 2021-2026 NINDS Strategic Plan. This month and all year long, we will strive to honor women neuroscientists and to foster equity and inclusivity in neuroscience for women and for all people.