Women’s History Month
Women in Leadership at NIH Offer Perspectives
In honor of Women’s History Month, the Record caught up with several women—lab scientists, administrators, clinical investigators, veterinarians—in various leadership roles at NIH.
We learned about their backgrounds, how they came to be at NIH, some of the best advice they’ve received and some of the challenges they continue to face pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and math. These are the first in the series.
Perseverance Is Key
The best advice Dr. Payel Sen ever received is the same counsel she now dispenses to others.
“There are two key factors that have led me to where I am in the field,” she says. “One is learning and the other is persistence. I try to tell my trainees to take this opportunity to learn as much as possible and then be persistent. Set a goal and just keep at it. That’s pretty much the magic formula—persistence. Everyone is smart, in their own way, but few have explored the depths of conceptual understanding through deliberate persistence.”
Sen put her words into action about 19 years ago when she emigrated from India to the U.S. for grad school in pursuit of her Ph.D.
Early on in school, she’d had several teachers who had piqued her interest in science. Her first choice for college waitlisted her, however. But, she didn’t let the disappointment and temporary delay stop her, not only graduating college but also earning a Ph.D. in molecular biology, microbiology and biochemistry and moving on to postdoctoral training at the University of Pennsylvania. Her perseverance paid off. She joined NIH in 2019 as a Stadtman tenure-track investigator.
Over the last two decades, Sen observes, a lot has changed for career scientists.
“If I compare the biomedical field [19 years ago] versus now,” she notes, “I think the competition has gotten tougher. It’s now more difficult to publish. You need lots of data analysis. Big data—that entire revolution—has completely changed things. It has become more competitive, but it’s also become highly innovative. There are so many technologies now.”
Still, she advises her trainees to “just keep swimming. What’s true in science also applies to life in general—you may not always get good results, or there might be disappointments and things may be slow at some point. But eventually, in retrospect, everything makes sense. All the effort that you put in makes sense. The whole point is to just keep going.”—Carla Garnett
Protecting People Is Priority
Working as an infectious disease specialist during the Covid-19 pandemic was a nerve-racking yet fulfilling time for Dr. Emily Erbelding. She and her staff were laser-focused, collaborating across government “in constant planning to move the vaccine development effort forward,” she said.
“It was a lot of work and a lot of pressure, because of the public health consequences and the impact the epidemic was posing for the American people and worldwide.”
Meanwhile, Erbelding worried about the physical and mental health of the more than 200 staffers she manages in the Division of Microbiology and Infectious Diseases (DMID). Some caught the virus; all were constantly anxious about becoming exposed.
But looking back, she is grateful for the mass effort that led to launching the first phase 1 trial of the Moderna vaccine so quickly. “I’m proud we were able to move as fast and be as flexible and nimble as we were back in 2020.”
Erbelding is an infectious disease physician who treated patients and taught at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine before coming to NIH. When the opportunity arose to shift to government and remain in public health, she leapt at the chance, arriving at NIAID in 2010 as deputy director of the Division of AIDS.
“I always liked biological science and anything related to health,” she said. “The life of a cell and the processes, particularly when they cause disease, always fascinated me.” Ultimately it became her career path.
Erbelding is glad to see more women pursuing science careers. In DMID, most of the scientific staff are women, she noted, which she attributes to a work culture that increasingly values work-life balance.
It’s concerning though that many women scientists still can’t envision themselves advancing in their careers. She said, “I think for younger women, or people from a non-white demographic group, if they don’t see others like themselves represented at the top, they might not set goals that would allow them to progress to leadership positions.”
For junior employees, Erbelding recommended finding a mentor, preferably more than one. Ask how they got where they are, what hurdles they cleared, how to make progress in that area of science.
“Don’t be shy about trying to initiate those sorts of conversations that might lead to really good advice.”—Dana Talesnik
Former Intern Returns to NIH
In 1998, Sadhana Jackson first arrived at NIH as a senior at Gaithersburg High School. She was part of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute-NIH Research Scholars Program that brought high school students to conduct research in NIH labs.
Following college, medical school, pediatric residency and two fellowships, Dr. Sadhana Jackson returned in 2015 to conduct research and provide patient care as a pediatric neuro-oncologist at both the National Cancer Institute and National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
One of her proudest professional achievements was completing her pediatric neuro-oncology training.
“After a long road of 15 plus years, I felt more than satisfied to have accomplished so much over time,” she said.
Jackson first became interested in science as a career in the 7th grade. She attended “Having Fun with DNA,” an all-girls summer camp.
“We learned what DNA was, all about DNA fingerprinting since many exciting criminal cases were using this technology, and how best to extract DNA from varied cells,” she recalled. Jackson and her fellow campers also learned what it takes to become a professional researcher.
In addition to caring for neuro-oncology patients and leading a lab focused on the challenges of drug delivery due to the blood-brain barrier among malignant gliomas, Jackson led the Power of an Inclusive Workplace Recognition Project.
Through NIH UNITE (www.nih.gov/ending-structural-racism/unite), the Recognition Project focuses on diversifying art within NIH buildings and digital spaces. The artwork is meant to highlight the diversity of NIH staff and reflect the diversity of our nation to promote a sense of inclusivity and belonging.
“After walking down these hallways seeing the monotonous portraits, my UNITE team and I put in hard work and energy to jump start these efforts,” she said. “I really enjoyed working with the medical artists to capture NIH staff portraits that could be beautifully displayed across buildings 1, 10 and 31. I look forward to seeing more artwork around campus that reflects the richness of our staff and those we serve.”
Jackson receives emails from staff who are happy to see more diverse portraits around campus. They tell her they are starting to “feel seen” in the NIH historical lens.
“Being seen is experiencing a close bond or relationship with a person or place,” she wrote in an April 2022 op-ed in STAT. “Identifying common ties provides a foundation of belonging and togetherness that motivates positive interactions and potentiates constructive systemic changes.”
For those considering a career in science, Jackson advises, “Keep your head up, despite setbacks and disappointments. Stay confident and know persistence always wins the race.”—Eric Bock
Safeguarding Research Animals
Java, an 18-month-old mini beagle, snuggled up to Dr. Lisa Portnoy on a video chat to discuss her career. Adopted by Portnoy, Java is now a stay-at-home pet after training vet technicians for nine months in New York.
Portnoy’s other beagle, 6-year-old Hootie, is a therapy dog who came to NIH for a research study but wound up unable to participate, so she adopted him too.
As for Portnoy’s career, she reviews Clinical Center animal care and use protocols to make sure research animals are treated humanely. “We cover a handful of other groups [smaller ICs without their own animal programs] plus the Clinical Center investigators,” she said.
For Portnoy, a veterinarian and a diplomate in the American College of Laboratory Animal Medicine, working with animals seemed a natural choice. “Some of us are more comfortable working with animals,” she said. “I like them all, even the creepy crawlies.”
Reflecting on how the biomedical workforce has evolved since she entered it, she said, “More and more women are now becoming veterinarians and researchers running their own labs. We’re taking over.”
Her advice to budding scientists stems from a hard lesson she learned. Portnoy had expected to easily get accepted to in-state veterinary school in Michigan but didn’t get in on her first try because, at the time, she lacked large animal background training. Do your homework, she advised. Look at requirements before you apply.
Portnoy has worked at NIH for almost 20 years. She conducts site inspections of animal facilities and trains investigators. “We’re making sure we’re living by the letter of the law,” she said. “There’s a lot of inspection and oversight, contrary to what the public might think.
“We care greatly about our animals, and it just kills us when things don’t go well, especially when we think we’ve done everything we can do to prevent any untoward event.”
When Portnoy trains investigators, she tells them that while all white mice might look alike, handle each with care. “What you do with an animal is with his or her one and only little life,” she said. “Honor that life.”—Dana Talesnik