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Vol. LXI, No. 5
March 6, 2009
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NIH Black History Month Event Features Morehouse’s Higginbotham

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The challenge put before NIH’s Black History Month guest speaker was a bit like the task of closing the nation’s health disparities: Engage a widely diverse audience to use their individual skills and talents to increase the world’s potential. Of course keynoter Dr. Eve Higginbotham was atop a much smaller stage.

“We have to bring to this issue our own experiences, our own perspectives,” she said, addressing a Lister Hill Center assembly that included not only NIH scientists, administrators, fellows and other staff, but also about 25 youngsters from J.G. Whittier Education Center. Located in northwest Washington, D.C., the public school, which serves children from preschool age through grade 6, is NIH’s adopted school.

Continued...


  Dr. Eve Higginbotham  
  Dr. Eve Higginbotham  

Hosted by NIH’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity Management, the program stressed “Inspiring Future Leaders.” Higginbotham immediately drew in the youngest attendees by telling her own story of achievement, illustrated with slides of herself as a child not much older than the Whittier students. From her modest upbringing by two schoolteacher parents in segregated New Orleans, Higginbotham dreamed early on of pursuing a life in science.

“Beat them with your brains,” she said, recalling the mantra her family often repeated. She went on to complete undergraduate and graduate degrees in chemical engineering at MIT, earning her M.D. from Harvard Medical School.

Now serving at Morehouse School of Medicine as dean and senior vice president for academic affairs, Higginbotham made history when she became the first woman to head a university ophthalmology department.

During an impromptu Q&A session, the Whittier youngsters asked her such monumental questions as, What was her hardest class in college? (organic chemistry) and Did she do all of her science projects herself? (Absolutely. In fact her first science fair project foretold her future concentration: she dissected and compared the eyes of a cow, sheep and pig.)

Youngsters from J.G. Whittier Education Center, NIH’s adopted school, were among attendees at the annual Black History Month observance. Youngsters from J.G. Whittier Education Center, NIH’s adopted school, were among attendees at the annual Black History Month observance.
Youngsters from J.G. Whittier Education Center, NIH’s adopted school, were among attendees at the annual Black History Month observance.

“Eve is exemplary in what she has accomplished,” said NEI director Dr. Paul Sieving, who introduced her as a personal friend as well as a longtime well-respected colleague. “Let’s take a moment to reflect on what it takes to develop a professional career and a career in medicine."

In addition to keynote speaker Higginbotham, participants include (from l) Black Employment Program Manager Jesse Burnett, NEI director Dr. Paul Sieving and NIH deputy director for intramural research Dr. Michael Gottesman.
In addition to keynote speaker Higginbotham, participants include (from l) Black Employment Program Manager Jesse Burnett, NEI director Dr. Paul Sieving and NIH deputy director for intramural research Dr. Michael Gottesman.
In a lecture she titled “Eliminating Disparities in Health is Everyone’s Responsibility,” Higginbotham outlined several key requirements both for tackling such complex issues as HD and for successful career development: study hard and be well-prepared, surround yourself with good influences including your family and mentors, find even small ways to serve the public good and explore experiences beyond the familiar—be an educational risk-taker.

“We have the power to bridge the gap,” she concluded, encouraging the audience to volunteer in their neighborhoods and local institutions. “We have to connect with our community.”

With a captive audience full of young people, the Black History Month observance also became somewhat of a recruitment battleground, with each speaker inviting the students to pursue potential intellectual and professional opportunities at NIH and Morehouse.

Keynoter Higginbotham discusses the importance of surrounding oneself with positive mentors and role models. She mentioned former U.S. surgeon general Dr. David Satcher, shown on screen behind her, by name.
Keynoter Higginbotham discusses the importance of surrounding oneself with positive mentors and role models. She mentioned former U.S. surgeon general Dr. David Satcher, shown on screen behind her, by name.
NIH deputy director for intramural research Dr. Michael Gottesman, summing up the nation’s shared responsibility to improve the health of its citizens, urged everyone not only to appreciate big-picture global strategy, but also to consider how effective each small individual act becomes to the whole. “Can we do better?” he asked. “To echo our president, ‘Yes, we can.’”

NIH acting director Dr. Raynard Kington, in opening remarks, put the celebration in context: “Science has always been known as a forward-looking enterprise,” he said. “The work of scientists here at NIH is dedicated to creating a healthier future for all people. So why do we as scientists look back at history? Why do we celebrate Black History Month?”

For the lessons bygone days can teach us, he answered. Beyond the many wise—but often over-used—platitudes about the need to study history, “it’s only when we look to the past that we can fully appreciate what the past has to tell us.

“This is why NIH proudly celebrates Black History Month every year,” he continued. “As we sit here just weeks after the historic inauguration of the first African-American president of the United States, we have a special opportunity to learn more about the many contributions of African Americans to the history of this country. We can reflect on how these contributions shaped our history and our present society and consider how best we can draw from them, learn from them and be inspired by them to create a better future for ourselves, our children and our grandchildren.” NIHRecord Icon

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