The Office of Research on Women’s Health at the National Institutes of Health has awarded a $3.2 million grant to the Virginia Commonwealth University Institute for Women’s Health in support of junior faculty from across VCU who will develop as researchers in women’s health.
Over five years, the Building Interdisciplinary Research Careers in Women’s Health (BIRCWH) grant will support eight to 10 junior faculty at VCU with research focused in five areas particularly relevant to women’s health: cancer, maternal child health, mental health and addiction, obesity and cardiovascular health, and neuro-musculoskeletal health. It will support three scholars at a time over two-year periods, and the project team has also applied for supplemental funding for a fourth scholar from an underrepresented minority population.
“Understanding sex and gender influences on health and disease is critical to improving the health and well-being of both women and men. This challenge requires the perspectives of scientists and stakeholders from varied disciplines working together,” said Principal Investigator Susan G. Kornstein, M.D., executive director of the VCU Institute for Women’s Health and a professor of psychiatry and obstetrics & gynecology in the School of Medicine. “The VCU BIRCWH Program will train and develop independent investigators with a commitment to collaborative, interdisciplinary research in women’s health and sex and gender influences on health.”
The junior faculty members will develop under the mentorship of more than 50 senior investigators from six schools, 21 departments and 13 institutes and centers at VCU.
“VCU is proud to be a national leader in women’s health — and we’re committed to leading this work for years to come,” said Michael Rao, Ph.D., president of VCU and VCU Health. “This grant will help train the next generation of diverse scholars and researchers dedicated to understanding women’s health, encouraging cross-discipline collaboration to better understand all the ways that sex and gender impact health outcomes for us all.”
The grant will build on VCU’s reputation as a national leader in women’s health, said Kornstein who is also editor-in-chief of the Journal of Women’s Health.
The VCU Institute for Women’s Health is a universitywide research center that seeks to advance interdisciplinary research and provide education and training in women’s health and sex and gender differences, foster community engagement, support equity for diverse women in science, and promote standards of excellence in women’s health care toward the goal of improving the health of women across the lifespan.
The center was designated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women’s Health as one of 20 National Centers of Excellence in Women’s Health in 2003. It currently has 138 affiliate faculty from 15 schools/colleges and 44 departments across VCU and VCU Health.
“Sex and gender not only influence underlying disease mechanisms, but they impact the effectiveness of medical treatments and devices,” said co-PI Barbara D. Boyan, Ph.D., executive director of the Institute for Engineering and Medicine and the Alice T. and William H. Goodwin, Jr. Professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering in the College of Engineering at VCU. “NIH recognizes the need to identify and study the role that sex and gender play, and requires discussion of how investigators will assess these issues in grant applications, but there is a shortage of trained clinicians, scientists and engineers to tackle the complexities that sex and gender impose on biological systems. The BIRCWH grant will enable us to make an important contribution to health care by providing an environment for fostering experts who can meet this challenge.
The new grant will synergize with a previous $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation for a project called ADVANCE-VCU that is focused on supporting diverse women faculty in STEM departments to be successful through cultural change, policy and procedure changes, and faculty development.
“With the ADVANCE grant, VCU is also a national leader in recruiting, retaining and advancing diverse women faculty in STEM,” said Kornstein, who is also principal investigator of ADVANCE-VCU. “Part of the mission of the Institute for Women’s Health is advancing and promoting equity for diverse women in science.”
Awarded in 2018, ADVANCE-VCU has made a significant impact on VCU’s recruitment, retention and advancement of female STEM faculty across intersecting identities by initiating structural and cultural change.
“The changes that are being made through the ADVANCE grant will have an impact beyond the STEM departments,” Kornstein said. “The BIRCWH grant is focused on mentoring faculty to develop as independent researchers in women’s health. Many of the researchers who are interested in women’s health are women faculty.”
Meredith Weiss, Ph.D., chair of ADVANCE-VCU’s external advisory board and vice president for VCU administration, added: “Advancing research in women’s health benefits everyone and is critical to achieve health equity,” she said. “VCU is a national leader in women’s health research and now joins a prestigious cadre of institutions who are making significant advances in women’s health and the careers of those whose lives are devoted to this important work.”
In addition to Kornstein and Boyan, the BIRCWH leadership team includes:
- Research Directors Dace Svikis, Ph.D., a professor of psychology, psychiatry and obstetrics/gynecology and deputy director of the VCU Institute for Women’s Health, and Gretchen Neigh, Ph.D., associate professor of anatomy and neurobiology and director of translational research for the VCU Institute for Women’s Health.
- Director of Education Pam Dillon, Pharm.D., co-director of translational research for the VCU Institute for Women’s Health and research liaison at the C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research.
- Advisory Board Chairs Amy Salisbury, Ph.D., professor and associate dean for research, scholarship & innovation in the School of Nursing and director of research for the VCU Institute for Women’s Health, and Vanessa Sheppard, Ph.D., professor and chair in the Department of Health Behavior and Policy in the School of Medicine and associate director for community outreach, engagement and health disparities at Massey Cancer Center.
- Program Administrator Molly Hyer, Ph.D., director of research development and innovation for the VCU Institute for Women’s Health.
Research Area Heads Sarah Spiegel, Ph.D., (cancer); Greg Buck, Ph.D., (maternal child health); Dace Svikis, Ph.D., (mental health and addiction); Shumei Sun, Ph.D., (obesity and cardiovascular health); and Barbara Boyan, Ph.D., (neuro-musculoskeletal health).