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New Grant Supports Early-career Faculty Facing Pandemic-related Challenges

November 17, 2021
by Isabella Backman

Yale School of Medicine has received a grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation as part of its ongoing efforts to support early-career faculty. The grant is designed to help young physician scientists—particularly those with caregiver responsibilities—as they face the added obstacles presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The medical school was one of only 10 institutions to receive the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation’s Fund to Retain Clinical Scientists grant back in 2015. That grant, directed by Marcella Nunez-Smith, MD, MHS, associate dean for health equity research, C.N.H. Long Professor of Internal Medicine (General Medicine), and professor of epidemiology (chronic disease) and of public health (social and behavioral sciences), was successfully renewed this past year. Now, Yale School of Medicine has also been selected to benefit from a second fund intended to address the challenges that COVID-19 has created for its clinical scientists who have caregiver responsibilities. It is a one-time grant offered by the foundation in partnership with several others including the American Heart Association, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, the Rita Allen Foundation, and the Walder Foundation.

“We know that increasing clinical demands and difficulties integrating work with domestic responsibilities are reasons cited by early career clinician-scientists leaving a research-intensive career path,” says Linda Bockenstedt, MD, Harold W. Jockers Professor of Medicine, deputy dean for academic affairs, and principal investigator of the grant at Yale. “The COVID pandemic has amplified these challenges, especially for those faculty with caregiving responsibilities for young children or elders. The Doris Duke Foundation recognized this early on and created this new funding opportunity to help alleviate that.”

Over the past several decades, the number of individuals entering careers as physician-scientists has been declining. Among the factors contributing to this decline is the challenge of maintaining a work-life balance, especially as many early-career faculty are also juggling the responsibilities of raising a family. COVID-19 introduced more obstacles to an already challenging career path. As the pandemic forced labs to shut down across campus and children to transition to at-home learning, early-career faculty faced a growing number of new stressors.

The grant anticipates funding 11 early career clinician-scientists with research funding who have had significant caregiving responsibilities since COVID. Combined with matching funds provided by the dean’s office, the total amount of the award will be $90,000. “This amount can make a significant difference,” says Bockenstedt. “Funding can be used to increase research productivity and new data generation, for example by hiring a study coordinator or other research personnel or paying for biostatistical support. It can also be used to support faculty salary to insure protected time for research."

Women and individuals from underrepresented communities, she continues, may be especially vulnerable to the stressors introduced by the pandemic. Women, for example, often face more responsibilities relating to child- or eldercare. YSM data reveal that women recipients of K awards (early career mentored awards) may take longer to transition to independent research funding in comparison to their male counterparts, but they eventually catch up when given extra time. The disproportionate burden of caregiving responsibilities on women may be one reason for these different early career trajectories

“One of our goals is to put into place policies and procedures that better support work-life balance, so that accommodations made for faculty with caregiving responsibilities become a standard rather an exception,” Bockenstedt says. “We want to provide built-in support for physician-scientists so they are not discouraged from pursuing research careers during those vulnerable years when they are trying to build their research programs and establish independent funding.”

Miriam Treggiari, MD, PhD, professor and vice chair of clinical research in Anesthesiology and co-director of the grant, hopes the additional funds will help support increased representation of various minority groups in general academic medicine over time. For instance, the numbers of women physician-scientists at the assistant or associate professor levels are now catching up to the numbers of men. However, there is still a greater disparity at the senior ranks. “There is a big issue with something referred to as leaking pipeline,” Treggiari says. “In other words, there is a disproportionate loss of individuals from underrepresented communities over the successive phases of their careers. One of the benefits of a program like this is that is serves to reduce that leak over time.”

Yale School of Medicine has a history of supporting early-career faculty with childbearing responsibilities. In 2018, the medical school extended its paid parental leave policy from six to eight weeks for both new mothers and fathers, and this policy will be further increased to 12 weeks in 2022. It also allows for new parents to extend their tenure and promotion timelines by one year, and offers six on-site childcare facilities and subsidized eldercare and babysitting services. Both Bockenstedt and Treggiari are eager to use the new grant to continue supporting the careers of early faculty.

“I’m really looking forward to contributing to the community and serving as a bridge for developing physician-scientists,” says Treggiari.

Submitted by Robert Forman on November 17, 2021