LEXINGTON, Ky. (June 19, 2014) -- New researchers in any field face challenges--limited research experience, competing demands for time, diminished levels of and increased competition for funding. Building Interdisciplinary Research Careers in Women's Health (BIRCWH, pronounced "birch"), a mentored career development program funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), supports junior investigators with training and protected research time to overcome these challenges and excel early in their careers, while simultaneously advancing an area of research priority: women's health and sex differences.
At UK, the BIRCWH program has become an invaluable professional and personal development program for its scholars and associates, as well as a template for other mentored career development programs on campus.
In 1999, BIRCWH was established in the NIH Office of Research on Women's Health in order to train junior faculty in becoming successful research investigators in the field. Since the program was created, 77 grants to 39 institutions supporting more than 542 junior faculty have been awarded. UK received $2.5 million in the initial round of funding in 2000 to develop and implement the BIRCWH program for junior M.D. and Ph.D. faculty members interested in establishing research careers related to women's health. Scholarship efforts of the UK BIRCWH program focus on health challenges unique to Appalachian Kentucky, which is disproportionately affected by drug abuse, violence and poor health.
Now in its 13th year, UK's BIRCWH program has been extremely successful. In the first 10 years alone, BIRCWH scholars secured 71 grants and contracts as principal investigators, including 15 R01 grants, five R21 grants, four R03 grants and two National Science Foundation grant, for a total of $30,573,700.
Tom Curry, Ph.D., professor and vice chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, serves as principal investigator of the UK BIRCWH program. Dr. Catherine A. Martin, the Dr. Laurie L. Humphries Endowed Chair in Child Psychiatry and director of the child psychiatry division in the Department of Psychiatry, and Ann Coker, Ph.D., professor and Verizon Wireless Endowed Chair in the Center for Research on Violence Against Women, serve as co-investigators. The leadership team thus brings together expertise in bench science, clinical research, and public health and epidemiology.
"We have a complementary trio of expertise. We all see the world a little differently, and can help find the appropriate people and resources to support the BIRCWH Scholars and Associates," said Curry.
Career and Personal Development
BIRCWH Scholars, who are selected through a competitive application process, are junior faculty from the colleges of medicine, public health, pharmacy, nursing, health sciences, dentistry, or arts and sciences who have the potential to establish their own funded research programs. They remain in the program for one to three years, during which time they are expected to complete training in the ethical conduct of research, participate in seminars and retreats, and ultimately complete a mentored research project that culminates in becoming an established, independent researcher in women's health.
In order to accomplish these goals, scholars receive 75 percent protected time (50 percent for scholars with clinical surgical responsibilities) to dedicate to their research, as well as a research stipend and funding for travel to academic meetings.
"With this time, I have been more productive submitting papers and writing grants," said Emily Brouwer, assistant professor in the Department of Pharmacy Practice and Science and a BIRCWH scholar whose research focuses on HIV, Medicaid, cardiovascular disease, and gender. Like many BIRCWH scholars, Brouwer has seen her research productivity increase since being accepted in the program, having submitted four external grants in hopes that the support, mentorship, and protected time that she gained from the program will demonstrate a significant investment in her success as a women's health researcher.
While only four BIRCWH scholars are funded at a single time, the UK BIRCWH recently developed the Associates Program in order to train additional faculty who aren't directly funded as BIRCWH Scholars.
"The Associates Program grew out of the need to train more women's health researchers," said Curry.
He explained that the UK BIRCWH program was already offering many resources, like mentorship, grant writing assistance, and manuscript sprints (day-long "lock-in" sessions to focus on writing) that could benefit researchers beyond the funded BIRCWH scholars.
BIRCWH Associate Daniela Moga, assistant professor of pharmacy practice and science, appreciates the opportunity to interact with and get advice from successful researchers who serve as mentors.
"It helped me to participate in the extended meetings and get a sense of what other people are doing to be successful. It also provides good opportunities, like the manuscript sprint, or other grant writing workshops," she said. "I really appreciate the opportunity that I was given."
BIRCWH scholars and associates benefit not only from the expertise and guidance of Curry, Martin, and Coker, but also from a cadre of faculty who mentor scholars and associates in five focused and interacting areas of women's health: drug abuse and its relationship to sex and gender differences; cancer as it relates to women's health; hormonal regulation across a woman's lifespan; oral health and its impact on women's cardiovascular and endocrine health and pregnancy outcomes; and prevention of violence against women.
Katherine Eddens, assistant professor in the Department of Health Behavior, is a BIRCWH associate who studies the intersection of social, economic, and behavioral determinants of health and health disparities. Through mentorship in the BIRCWH program, Eddens has gained insight into the systems of academic research and how to best structure her own research to obtain funding.
"As junior faculty, particularly those of us who came straight into faculty positions from our doctoral programs, you're thrown into a world of research and funding that can be difficult to navigate and somewhat overwhelming. Mentors can help you set goals, structure your time, navigate the funding opportunities and institutions, provide guidance on developing your research program, and provide feedback on grant applications," she said. "It's also helpful to simply have someone to talk to who has been where you've been and can provide guidance on how to develop your career as a scientist."
For current scholars and associates, the BIRCWH program has also become a support group of sorts, providing regular interaction with colleagues who not only have interconnected research interests but who are also at similar points in their careers and are therefore experiencing many of the same challenges--not the least of which is how to maintain work-life balance while advancing a research career and juggling instructional and/or clinical demands.
"It's been great to have a 'space' to come together and share, vent, strategize, and support one another through the trials and tribulations of academia," said Robin Vanderpool, assistant professor in the Department of Health Behavior and a BIRCWH scholar whose research focuses include breast cancer, employment, health disparities, longitudinal studies, and intervention development.
At the moment, it just so happens that all of the BIRCWH Scholars and Associates are women (an atypical scenario), several of whom are balancing their rapidly advancing research careers with the unique challenges parenting young children. When UK Provost Christine Riordan came to speak with the BIRCWH scholars and associates, she was asked about advice on handling a sleepless infant alongside demands of a new career. Her suggestion? Make sure you get at least some uninterrupted sleep by giving both parents four hour "shifts" through the night.
Eddens has appreciated the personal support, in addition to the professional development, that she's found in the BIRCWH community.
"Meeting regularly with other women who are in a similar role, professionally and personally, is extraordinarily beneficial. Our lives aren't simply our careers — it's a complete package with family, career, and personal enrichment all intertwined," Edden said. "Being a part of BIRCWH has allowed me to gain support in managing the complicated life of a female junior faculty member who is also a wife, mother, and individual. It can be overwhelming at times, and the women in BIRCWH have been a tremendous support to one another."
Increased Focus on Women's Health and Sex Differences Research
The BIRCWH program constitutes one element of a broader and growing federal focus on advancing research in women's health and sex differences. The NIH Office of Resaarch on Women's Health, which houses the BIRCWH program, was itself established more than two decades ago in order to better include women and women's health in clinical research and science.
More recently, in May 2014 the NIH unveiled policies to ensure that preclinical research funded by the agency equally considers females and males at the cellular and animal research levels. This is a growing priority as the scientific and medical communities increasingly come to understand the consequences of historic overreliance on male-only research models that potentially obscure findings of key sex differences that could guide clinical studies, contribute to irreproducibility in biomedical research, and create risk for patients. Women, for example, experience higher rates of adverse drug reactions than men do.
"There's a huge need to understand the gender differences in biomedical research and medicine," said Curry.
Furthermore, sex differences research is a developing field and is often considered a difficult and tricky topic--so much so that Michelle Martel, BIRCWH scholar and assistant professor in the Department of Psychology, was discouraged from studying sex differences early in her career. Impassioned and undeterred, she now studies the nature of sex differences in Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), in hopes of identifying any distinct pathways to ADHD for girls (vs. boys) and providing useful information for devising personalized prevention and intervention strategies to mitigate negative long-term outcomes of ADHD, especially for girls. The BIRWCH program has provided her with the time and guidance to make strides in work.
"Historically, the study of sex differences and women's health, in psychology at least, was fairly controversial. Further, there are few provided frameworks in place, which means it can take more time to get projects in this area off the ground and to garner the support necessary to have success in this area," she said. "It has been very helpful to have structured meeting with a supportive network of individuals from all across campus who share this interest in women's health and to have access to their expertise, connections, advice, and resources."
For more information about the UK BIRCWH program, including eligibility and a list of current Scholars and Associates, please visit http://obgyn.med.uky.edu/bircwh.
MEDIA CONTACT: Mallory Powell, Mallory.firstname.lastname@example.org