Environmental Factor, January 2008, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
Leadership and Gender Symposium for Latinas
By Eddy Ball
The picturesque Lawton Chiles International “Stone House” at the Fogarty International Center (FIC) on the NIH campus in Bethesda, Md., was the site of a symposium focused on the needs of women in science. The December 3 meeting was co-chaired by NIEHS Associate Director Sharon Hrynkow, Ph.D., and National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Director Nora Volkow, M.D. The symposium was titled “Leadership and Gender Training for Women in the Health Sciences in Latin America: Taking Stock of Lessons Learned from a Pilot Program, and Ways Forward.”
The event brought together 50 representatives from 14 NIH institutes and centers, multi-national organizations, and private groups, academic leaders, government officials, and women scientists from Latin America and the Caribbean. Joining NIEHS and NIDA in sponsoring this meeting were the NIH Office of Research on Women’s Health (ORWH) and the Office of AIDS Research.
The symposium was a follow-up to two colloquia convened by FIC in partnership with NIEHS, NIH/ORWH and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research in 2003 and 2004 when Hrynkow was serving at FIC. Its focus was the assessment of a two-year pilot leadership-training program developed by the Institute of Gender Studies, Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO), Argentina.
In her opening remarks, Hrynkow noted the reasons for such a program. “Women scientists in poorer countries told us that they needed mentors,” she explained, “and that they wanted training on both how to become effective leaders and how to consider gender issues as part of their own research efforts.” Latin America was selected as the site for the pilot because of the number of NIH-trained women who had returned home to the region.
When Volkow addressed the group, she pointed to her own Latina heritage and described the value of having women scientists in top positions. “Women simply gravitate towards women leaders,” she observed, “so it is critical to position women at the top.” Seeing women in leadership roles, she continued, also has a positive effect on males in the organization.
The keynote talk was presented by FLASCO Institute of Gender Studies Director Gloria Bonder, co-developer of the pilot, an Internet-based program that connects women researchers from across Latin America. Women receive training on leadership skills, negotiation, communication of science and incorporating issues of gender more fully into their own research.
In a test of the pilot, more than 50 women researchers made a six-month commitment of several hours per week to the program. Many of the participants were former NIH intramural postdoctoral fellows or students who had trained in FIC programs at American universities. All had returned to their home countries and were eager to complement their scientific training with gender and leadership training.
Bonder highlighted testimonials from the participants on the success of the pilot. According to one, for the first time it was possible to “do research in my own style.” Others have gone on to such empowering activities as creating day-care centers at their universities, forming networks of emerging scientific leaders within their universities and crafting family-friendly policies for working women in science.
The symposium also included discussion sessions facilitated by Bonder, University of Washington Dean of Arts and Sciences Ana Mari Cauce, Ph.D., and Jose Szapocznik, co-director of the National Hispanic Scientist Network (NHSN) on Drug Abuse. Following a lively exchange of ideas for building on the success of the pilot, the session reached a consensus on the value of special training “modules” for women scientists working in specific thematic areas. HIV/AIDS was selected as the first theme, and there was interest in NIEHS exploring a second module in the environmental health sciences arena.
As a next step, FLACSO and NHSN agreed to work together to create an expert committee of advisors to adapt the curriculum as needed for the AIDS community. Hrynkow said she was confident that NIEHS will be able to work with partners to develop a curriculum in the field of environmental health sciences, and she is starting to explore options.
Partners at the Symposium
With her wealth of experience at FIC, Hrynkow is a natural at forming partnership that cross borders and the divisions between disciplines and sectors. Several national and international organization participated in the symposium, including:
- Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) (http://www.paho.org/)
- Organization of American States (OAS) (http://www.oas.org/)
- Inter-American Development Bank (http://www.iadb.org/)
- Howard Hughes Medical Institute (http://www.hhmi.org/)
- National Hispanic Scientist Network (NHSN) on Drug Abuse (http://www.nhsn.med.miami.edu/)
- U.S. Department of State (http://www.state.gov/)
- United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) (http://portal.unesco.org/en/ev.php-URL_ID=29008&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html)