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Foundation’s support helps young physician-scientists excel

Photo by Jerry Domian
A new program supported by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation aims to smooth the road for young physician-scientists, particularly women. Its directors include (from left) Rajita Sinha, Eugene Shapiro, Kimberly A. Yonkers, Ana-Claire Meyer, Robert Sherwin, and Marcella Nuñez-Smith (not pictured).

Janice Jin Hwang, M.D. is using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to understand how the brain changes in diabetes and obesity. This research may lead to better treatments for diabetes and weight management. However, Hwang, an endocrinologist and instructor in medicine, balances her work with the demands of being a parent. “Sick days and school closings come up,” says Hwang, who has two children under the age of five. “But the research doesn’t stop,” she says.

Like Hwang, most junior faculty struggle to balance the often competing demands of family and research, but some additionally face extraordinary caregiving demands such as caring for a child or a parent with a new diagnosis of severe illness. A new program aims to help physician-scientists with extraordinary caregiving needs excel. The Yale Center for Clinical Investigation (YCCI) has received a grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation through its Fund to Retain Clinical Scientists to support early-career physician-scientists who are also caregivers.

The program will provide supplemental research funding, mentoring opportunities, and access to support staff in such areas as data management and grant writing. The goal, says Robert S. Sherwin, M.D., C.N.H. Long Professor of Medicine and director of YCCI, is to relieve faculty of some of the pressure to seek grants in the short term while providing them with resources that will help them achieve discoveries that draw significant support in the long term. “I know how hard it is to start a career,” Sherwin says. “When people finish their training their kids are still young, and it’s not a simple thing to be successful,” he says.

This program is a step toward retaining young women on the faculty, says Ana-Claire L. Meyer, M.D., assistant professor of neurology and one of the project’s co-directors. However, she emphasizes that the project must be part of a larger effort. Only 34 percent of the School of Medicine’s faculty are women, though women make up 47 percent of the faculty at the instructor or assistant professor level, and research indicates that heavy workloads and demands at home contribute to junior faculty abandoning academic medicine.

“Improved support for junior faculty with extraordinary caregiving needs, whether for young families or eldercare, meets an important need at a critical time for all faculty and can be a key component of a more comprehensive program to achieve a more diverse senior faculty,” Meyer says. “We are deeply grateful for the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation’s critical investment in our efforts to increase gender and racial diversity among faculty at Yale School of Medicine.”

Diversity is not only an issue of equity: it changes the nature of research. “Increased diversity among scientific investigators and leaders has the potential to benefit science with regard to the questions that scientists ask, the way scientists teach and mentor, and the relevance of our research to a diverse world,” Meyer says.

In keeping with YCCI’s mission to support research that leads to improvements in patient care, the program is limited to faculty conducting human investigations. The time is ripe for clinical science with impact on human health, says Sherwin, an endocrinologist who played a critical role in developing insulin pump therapy. “We’re just beginning to have the capacity to look at the molecular level,” Sherwin says. “It’s important to retain people who are bright and capable of taking this work forward.”