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Women's Health Program Builds Strong Researchers

Launched in the fall of 2000, the Building Interdisciplinary Research Careers in Women's Health (BIRCWH) program is designed to increase the number of researchers working on women's health issues by pairing junior researchers with senior investigators, who mentor them in interdisciplinary scientific settings. For 2 days recently, 39 BIRCWH scholars, called interdisciplinary women's health research scholars, their mentors, and directors from the 24 BIRCWH centers gathered at NIH to present the first fruits of their research.

The scholars, who have already published more than 62 papers in peer-reviewed journals, have the opportunity to expand their research skills by being mentored in the interdisciplinary research setting for a period of 2 to 5 years. They learn not only research techniques, but also the skills to become independent investigators. The mentors at each site are well-established investigators who have a commitment to fostering interdisciplinary approaches in women's health research. Mentors from collaborating disciplines are encouraged to provide needed expertise and resources, as long as the emphasis of each scholar's project is on research relevant to women's health or to studies of sex and gender factors in health or disease.

BIRCWH scholar Dr. Aparna Kamat from Baylor College of Medicine presents her research as Dr. Donna Vogel of NCI looks on.

"The BIRCWH program provides career development support in three areas of emphasis: mentoring, interdisciplinary scientific collaboration, and career advancement for young investigators in women's health research," said Dr. Vivian Pinn, NIH associate director for research on women's health. "By fostering interdisciplinary approaches to research, the BIRCWH program can also serve as a model for trans-disciplinary approaches to diverse fields of research and for integrated health care."

A unique feature of the BIRCWH program is the combination of support from the Office of Research on Women's Health, which leads the initiative, a number of NIH institutes and offices, including NICHD, which administers the majority of the programs, along with NIDA, NIAMS and from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, representing interagency collaboration. The BIRCWH initiative allows cosponsors to support interdisciplinary efforts that may not fit neatly within each of their research domains. By uniting cosponsors from a breadth of scientific areas, the program encourages researchers from different disciplines to apply their knowledge in new ways to study important topics in women's health, including sex (biologically based) and gender (socially based) factors in biomedical investigation.

The success of the original BIRCWH program funding of 12 centers in FY 2000 resulted in the RFA being reissued in FY 2002, with 12 additional institutions becoming BIRCWH centers. The recent meeting provided an opportunity for BIRCWH scholars, mentors and center directors from the program's two cycles to share their experiences, discuss their research and meet others who share their research and career development interests.

At the scholars' poster presentation session are Dr. Jeanette Magnus (c), program director, Tulane University BIRCWH and Dr. Brent Alper and Dr. Jing Chen, both Tulane BIRCWH scholars.

Presentations and poster sessions explored such topics as: mouse models of premature ovarian failure; identifying low-penetrance breast cancer susceptibility genes; importance of gender and social supports in the nursing home setting; ethnic differences in insulin sensitivity and B cell function; knowledge of risk for heart disease among people with diabetes: relationships to gender, ethnicity and diabetes treatment regimen; improving health outcomes for women with chronic illness; utilization of services and patterns of specialty care for women with rheumatoid arthritis; exercise, amenorrhea, stress and bone health; gender-specific pathways linking stress and cocaine relapse; sex differences in the etiology of substance abuse; sex differences in vulnerability to cocaine addiction; and incidence and risk factors for sexually transmitted infections among women in an Alabama HIV clinic.

For more information on the BIRCWH program, contact Dr. Joan Davis, 496-6515.

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