NIH Record - National Institutes of Health

NIH’s First Latina Scientific Director Nápoles Retires

Dr. Anna Nápoles, NIH’s first Latina scientific director and only the second scientific director at the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, retired early this year. 

Since taking the helm in 2017, Nápoles expanded the nascent division’s research programs with robust research and training to advance the science of minority health and health disparities.

Dr. Anna Nápoles
Dr. Anna Nápoles

Today, the division holds the institute’s first tenured senior investigator, who was recruited as a tenure-track investigator, and six Stadtman tenure-track investigators, along with a host of fellows and trainees. Through its three branches, researchers are making discoveries in social and behavioral sciences, population and community health sciences, and epidemiology and genetics. The division also hosts the Neighborhood and Health Laboratory of Dr. Shannon Zenk, director of the National Institute of Nursing Research.

Known as a magnet for attracting underrepresented trainees, Nápoles enabled her science leaders to build their training and mentoring programs, while hosting scholars in her own lab. Her enthusiasm for next-generation researchers from diverse racial and ethnic communities reverberated beyond NIMHD, and she was regularly invited to speak about her journey and career as a woman and Latina scientist. 

As a cultural change agent, Nápoles facilitated a bold collaboration that created the Global Burden of Disease U.S. Health Disparities Collaborators at NIH project, which involves several NIH entities and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. The first findings, which capture estimates of life expectancy by race and ethnicity for every county in the U.S. between 2000-2019, were published in JAMA in May 2022. 

Nápoles also encouraged colleagues at the Clinical Center to include social determinants of health factors into patient records to provide deeper insights into patients’ lived experiences, which could in turn impact not only study design and outcomes, but also strategies to enhance patient care. 

Leveraging her passion for equity, Nápoles championed the NIH UNITE initiative, serving as co-chair of the N committee, which contributed to the NIH Common Fund Transformative Research to Address Health Disparities and Advance Health Equity at Minority Serving Institutions initiative. 

Nápoles’ leadership during the Covid-19 pandemic fostered the necessary attention to the communities hardest hit. She launched a coordinated national survey to evaluate the impact of the pandemic on racially and ethnically diverse communities. 

Early data from the Covid-19’s Unequal Racial Burden (CURB) survey, published in 2022, revealed Covid-19-related discrimination was experienced by all racial and ethnic minority groups, and existing resentment toward these and other minority groups in the U.S. had worsened. Nápoles and colleagues called for careful and responsible public health messaging during public health crises to help prevent and address discrimination against groups that have been marginalized. 

In collaboration with the NIMHD director and deputy director, she co-authored a paper in May 2020, calling attention to the growing number of Covid-19 cases and poor outcomes in the same populations experiencing health disparities prior to the pandemic. The paper, which has been cited more than 1,200 times, further reinforced the need for inclusive research participation among these same communities using proven community-engaged research approaches. 

Nápoles was honored with both NIH and NIMHD Directors’ Awards for her leadership. 

“Anna’s leadership at NIMHD Intramural has been foundational and this legacy will yield benefits for many years,” said NIMHD Director Dr. Eliseo Pérez-Stable. “In addition, her ability to create collaborations across NIH contribute to the rich legacy of impact that NIMHD has on the research enterprise and its progress toward inclusive racial and ethnic cultural diversity in its leadership.” 

Prior to joining NIMHD, Nápoles served as a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). While there, she led discoveries in patient-clinician communication, interventions to improve the quality of life of Latina breast cancer survivors, and community-based models of research to address cancer health disparities, among other areas that have influenced cultural competency in health care and evidence-based interventions for underserved populations and people with limited English proficiency.  

Nápoles grew up in a Mexican American family in Southern California. She earned her master’s in public health from the University of California, Berkeley and was recruited to work at UCSF as a research coordinator. She subsequently obtained her doctorate in behavioral epidemiology from the UC Berkeley while working full-time.  

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