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Vol. LXIV, No. 9
April 27, 2012
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NIH Celebrates Women’s History Month

NCCAM director Dr. Josie Briggs offered remarks on behalf of the NIH director.

NCCAM director Dr. Josie Briggs offered remarks on behalf of the NIH director.

In a wide-ranging talk, four women leaders at NIH gave accounts of their career paths, attributing success to education, mentorship and family histories. Overcoming professional detours also helped them triumph in the formerly male-dominated health field.

On Mar. 29, NIH celebrated Women’s History Month with a panel discussion on the theme “Women’s Education—Women’s Empowerment.”

Dr. Yvonne Maddox, deputy director of NICHD; Dr. Susan Shurin, acting director of NHLBI; Dr. Belinda Seto, deputy director of NIBIB; and Dr. Janine Austin Clayton, acting director of ORWH, comprised the panel.

Opening the discussion, moderator Dr. Cheryl Kitt, deputy director of CSR, read a letter from Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), the longest-serving woman senator. She lauded the historic establishment of the Office of Research on Women’s Health at NIH, which facilitated the inclusion of women in federally funded research protocols and groundbreaking studies on breast cancer.

Dr. Josie Briggs, director of NCCAM, gave remarks on behalf of herself and NIH director Dr. Francis Collins. “We’ve seen incredible changes in women’s careers since I graduated from medical school. The glass is at least half full! The leadership of academic medicine is more balanced; our leadership here is incredibly gender-mixed.” Yet, women’s representation in U.S. politics lags. She closed with an African proverb Collins selected: “Educate a boy and you educate an individual; educate a girl and you educate a community.”

Panelists included (from l) Dr. Yvonne Maddox, Dr. Susan Shurin, Dr. Belinda Seto and Dr. Janine Austin Clayton. CSR deputy director Dr. Cheryl Kitt served as moderator for the session.

Panelists included (from l) Dr. Yvonne Maddox, Dr. Susan Shurin, Dr. Belinda Seto and Dr. Janine Austin Clayton.

CSR deputy director Dr. Cheryl Kitt served as moderator for the session.

Maddox, who grew up in a small Virginia community, began by noting that all of her high school science teachers were men. “I wanted to have…the power they had in the classroom.” She continued, “It was more than just the power associated with the knowledge, but that the knowledge allowed you to help people.”

Seto said her mother instilled in her a love of learning.

Seto said her mother instilled in her a love of learning.

Photos: Ernie Branson

When her father died unexpectedly, she shifted her career plans by foregoing medical school and instead working as a blood bank technician. Eventually she entered a Ph.D. program at Georgetown University, where a mentor told her, “You need to recognize early on that you’re going to have to fight and maybe [fight] a little bit harder than the guys.” She now oversees research programs ranging from developmental biology to population issues at NICHD.

Shurin cited her grandfather as an early influence. “When I was about 6, my grandfather started taking me on house calls. His motivation for doing this was to make sure I was exposed to rubella,” she said. She caught something else on those house calls—a love of medicine.

In high school, she worked in medical laboratories, following in several family members’ footsteps. “At the same time I was developing this huge passion in science, I was also absorbing lessons from women in my family,” she said.

Shurin, whose first child was born while she was in medical school, had observed that, in general, “Women either had a career or a family, but didn’t have both.” Her grandfather, who improved minority health care access in his community, taught her that it is more effective to make change from a leadership position than from outside the system. She now is responsible for a $3 billion institute.

“My mother always struck me as a woman in pursuit of knowledge,” said Seto, who was born in China. Her mother’s formal education was thwarted by the Second Sino-Japanese War, yet she educated herself informally and ensured her daughter’s education by immigrating to the United States.

ORWH’s Clayton said her upbringing led her to believe that there was nothing she could not do for a professional career.

ORWH’s Clayton said her upbringing led her to believe that there was nothing she could not do for a professional career.

Seto went on to earn a Ph.D. from Purdue University. “When I went to grad school, engineering [programs] meant men. I realized that as tough as it was, I could compete academically with the men; I could swim with sharks.”

A mentor also played a pivotal role in Seto’s early career. By allowing Seto to serve as sole author on scientific papers and setting high English standards, she taught Seto to be generous and rigorous. Seto is now chair of the NIH working group on women and bioengineering, in addition to her leadership role at NIBIB.

Clayton came from a family in medicine and went to an all-girls Catholic high school. “I never thought you couldn’t do anything as a woman, perhaps because of encouragement from the nuns, other teachers and family.” However, when she became pregnant in medical school, she had to postpone her education and enroll in a different program.

“When I did start [again], I was so motivated,” she said. Alternating breastfeeding and reading textbooks, she took guidance from her Howard University mentor’s favorite quote: “Equanimity under duress.” Today, Clayton uses her multitasking skills as acting director of ORWH. NIHRecord Icon


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