Meaningful success

Though the issue may not be grabbing headlines the way it did a few weeks ago, make no mistake that our efforts within the institution to correct systemic injustices continue. In meetings and in conversations across all levels—faculty, students, trainees, and leadership—there is growing recognition of the challenges faced by faculty, trainees, and students of color and the realization that there is much work to be done. I am hopeful . . . but it is important to keep the momentum to move this important agenda forward. I want to highlight in this post some examples of success that should inspire many who may feel at times that change may not come fast enough. I was recently in a conversation with some trainees in a forum to address issues of racial justice and equality. Prior to the meeting I congratulated one of the graduate students in the molecular medicine program regarding her recent publication as co-first author in Cell Metabolism, one of the leading journals in academic medicine. Her work as a doctoral candidate in the lab of Dr. Matthew Potthoff led to the discovery of specific brain cells that are triggered when we have a craving for sweet-tasting food. The implications of this discovery are immense, when we consider how we can best help those with diabetes or prediabetes to regulate food choices.

After telling me of this publication—her first as a first-author—this trainee, Sharon Jensen-Cody, revealed her discomfort with celebrating her success. With everything going on, she said, a still rampaging pandemic, an urgent but still-raw reaction to the problem of racism in every corner of American life, a future both unknowable and troubling, it did not feel quite right to fully enjoy and celebrate her recent achievement as a minority student. My response to her is worth sharing with you all. Just like the groundbreaking science she produced took many years of effort, durable and lasting change is sometimes slow in being fully actualized. But in the meantime, we all must continue to live our lives. There will be days when we have setbacks, a presentation that does not go well or an assay with disappointing results. But there will also be days when you publish in Cell Metabolism or you receive a score on a grant application that assures you of its funding. We not only can celebrate these moments, but we must. Well-earned success should never be diminished, particularly when they inspire others who may feel like giving up.

There are other signs that positive change is undergoing a similar coalescence and building momentum. The conversations I have been fortunate to participate in reveal that we are moving in the right direction. More than just a productive honesty about the scope of the problem we face, I hear a hope and a hunger that I believe will not be satisfied with half-measures or simple redrafting of principles statements. The time is right. What we do in the coming months and years will have lasting impact. Within our own department, we are focusing on faculty advancement and our promotions process to ensure that the same access to opportunity is equitably distributed. When everyone can succeed, we all succeed. Dr. Isabella Grumbach, our Vice Chair for Research, and Dr. Christie Thomas, our recently appointed Vice Chair for Faculty Advancement, believe that early intervention is critical. They are identifying very junior faculty for a new mentoring program that will support them in obtaining their first career development grant or R01. As we retain our talented trainees as post-docs and junior faculty, we have historically assumed that mentoring at the local level in their mentor’s research groups, although important is sufficient. It is becoming increasingly clear that a concerted and multi-faceted approach to mentorship will increase their likelihood of long-term success. As a strong proponent of “the pipeline,” I think this should reap dividends for the future of our department. Dr. Thomas also believes in the importance of addressing disparities in the way that we mentor clinical track and research faculty relative to those pursuing tenure-track positions. Feeling respected in one’s chosen career path is critical to fostering commitment and loyalty. Dr. Grumbach pointed out that there are also a number of informal groups of women scientists in the Pappajohn Biodiscovery Institute that meet on a monthly basis as well as a women’s faculty group organized by Associate Provost Lois Geist. A third group to support women faculty was being initiated and spearheaded by Dr. Nicole Nisly before the pandemic began. Community and support can be critical, and I urge anyone interested in joining these groups to reach out to Dr. Grumbach for more information.

I have used this space to discuss women in Internal Medicine previously, and there still remains plenty of work to be done for women to receive equitable treatment and representation in our ranks. I am deeply grateful for the example that many women faculty in our department set by taking on leadership roles or by stepping into spaces that are overrepresented with men. The inequity that women in medicine also face is a subject that I plan to return to in this space soon, but it remains top of mind for me on a daily basis. But just as I told Ms. Jensen-Cody, we must celebrate successes when they occur. Every time it occurs I always feel immense pride when someone I have helped train achieves career milestones. And what an achievement Dr. Renata Pereira has accomplished in obtaining her first R01, a five-year, $1.93M grant for a study of brown fat cells as a potential target for treating diabetes. Another successful woman of color! Our own Dr. Sue Bodine recently achieved a different milestone with the publication of data and a statement of purpose by the MoTrPAC, a multisite consortium supported by the office of the director of the NIH. Dr. Bodine and her lab’s contribution to the data hub and biorepository is a fascinating leap forward in our understanding of exercise’s effects.

Finally, since we are on the subject of  building the pipeline for our future, and wearing my hat as the director of the Fraternal Order of Eagles Diabetes Research Center, I would like to welcome this year’s new class of post-doctoral scholars supported by our T32 training grant, which is another essential tool we have in building leaders early at the front of the pipeline. This deserving class of six young scientists, a diverse group of four women and two men, exemplify the promise to sustain the work we do today in the decades to come. Welcome!

Sarah Bjorkman, Kanza Khan, Barun Poudel
Katie Robinson, Adeyinka Taiwo, Tyler Titcomb

About E. Dale Abel, MD, PhD

E. Dale Abel, MD PhD Francois M. Abboud Chair in Internal Medicine John B. Stokes III Chair in Diabetes Research Chair, Department of Internal Medicine Director, Fraternal Order of Eagles Diabetes Research Center Director, Division of Endocrinology and Metabolism Professor of Medicine, Biochemistry and Biomedical Engineering

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