The Impact of the Pandemic on the Careers of Women Researchers in Biomedicine

Xenia Tigno, PhD, and Reshma Jagsi, MD, DPhil, discuss how the pandemic impacted women’s careers in medical research and other medical fields.

Pharmacy Times interviewed Xenia Tigno, PhD, associate director for careers, Office of Research on Women’s Health (ORWH), National Institute of Health (NIH), and Reshma Jagsi, MD, DPhil, director of the Center for Bioethics and Social Sciences in Medicine, University of Michigan, on how the pandemic affected the trajectory of women’s careers in medical research and other medical fields in light of the need many women faced of shifting to provide child care and other family care and services during the shutdown in the spring of 2020.

Question: How has the pandemic impacted the work of women in medical research?

Reshma Jagsi: So the spring of 2020 really changed how nearly all of us lived and worked. We're fortunate to have information from a report that was assembled by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, supported in part by the National Institutes of Health, to look at the impact of the pandemic on the careers of women in sciences, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine. With the disruptions that ranged from everything from delayed experiments to canceled conferences and the shift to virtual work that, in the case of those of us in clinical care, involved not only navigating transitions for our trainees and our coworkers but also our patients. There was a tremendous opportunity to see that things we thought were impossible before were actually possible, and also a number of heightened challenges that we faced.

Although the disruptions were a storm that we all faced, I've heard the saying that we were all in the same storm but we were not all in the same boat. We know that certain groups were disproportionately challenged and facing certain challenges even before the outbreak of the pandemic, that then the pandemic served to highlight and in some cases amplify. For example, we know that women were underrepresented and already academically isolated in certain disciplines, so the additional isolation and distancing imposed by the pandemic was particularly difficult in that context. We also know that women have historically, in our society, faced gendered expectations to be family caregivers, and not simply family caregivers but also caregivers within the workplace. So, when all of those students and coworkers and patients needed someone to look out for them and take care of them during the disruptions of the transition—the very quick transition to virtual care and virtual work—people often looked to women.

And, boy, did women bring it. I mean, women brought everything they could to the workplace. We also have evidence that that had a real toll on their well-being. NIH has actually surveyed its extramurally funded researchers and had some really important findings about the perceived and expected impact of the pandemic on their careers. That includes a productivity impact with over three quarters of survey respondents reporting lower productivity than normal, expected impact on career trajectory with over half, 55%, agreeing that the pandemic would probably have a negative impact on their career trajectories and other external stressors, including those mental health and caretaking responsibilities that I just mentioned and particularly for individuals who were in certain minoritized groups or parents of young children. While there are silver linings that existed, there have been a number of challenges that have been exacerbated by the outbreak of the pandemic. Dr. Tigno, can you comment on how this affected NIH directly?

Xenia Tigno: Yes, thank you very much, Dr. Jagsi. NIH was really also very concerned about its own workforce. Even before the survey that we did on the extramural community that NIH started in July 2020, the Office of Scientific Workforce Diversity Equity conducted a survey on the NIH employees—those included not only the federal employees but also the trainees, the students, the postdocs, volunteers, contractors—to see how the pandemic affected them. It so happens that 60% of the respondents were women, and 44% of those who responded had caretaking responsibilities. One in 5, among those who indicated that they were caregivers had said that caregiving had made work for them more difficult to complete. And so one—and unfortunately, to some extent, the pandemic had, as you mentioned, Dr. Jagsi, shifted the work towards a different kind of reality, which was virtual. And most of the staff, about 62%, found that their roles could actually be accomplished with remote working or during telework. But the sentiment was not a universal one. As you mentioned, some are more impacted than others, and among trainees, 49% indicated they could not perform the work as effectively by telework. Physical separation that was brought on by the pandemic also hit the trainees the hardest, also the volunteers and the guest researchers, and also those who are in the scientific and clinical cores. So, the pandemic had different effects on different groups. But it did make some scientific collaborations more accessible, for instance, with those virtual meetings and symposia. It could become more productive or even more efficient than if one were in the workplace--remote working proved to be as productive and at times more efficient.

Question: How have lessons from COVID-19 vaccine development during the pandemic helped to highlight what can be possible in women’s careers in medical research, as well as some of the limitations that women may face?

Xenia Tigno: First and foremost, the pandemic really was a devastation to women's careers in many cases and in many facets. On the other hand, it also provided an opportunity to showcase some of the incredible contributions that women scientists bring, not just to biomedical science but also to society as a whole. In this regard, I'd like to mention 2 important women scientists, Dr. Katalin Karikó and Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett.

Let's start with the woman who pioneered the application of the messenger RNA technology to vaccine development, and that was Dr. Karikó. Known to her colleagues as Katie, her work, which was done in collaboration with Dr. Drew Weissman of the University of Pennsylvania, led to the development of the BioNTech Pfizer and the Moderna vaccine.

The other woman scientist that I would like to mention is Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, or Kizzy, who is an immunologist, currently an assistant professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, but prior to her being appointed at Harvard, she was actually an intramural scientist at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIAID as we call it here at the NIH. And her studies and her investigations were actually focused on viral pathogenesis, which included of course, novel Corona viruses and vaccines for those. If you can allow me to quote Dr. Anthony Fauci on what Dr. Corbett’s contribution was, Dr. Fauci described her work as being central to the development of the Moderna mRNA vaccine and the Eli Lilly therapeutic monoclonal antibody, which were first to enter clinical trials in the US. So apart from the COVID-19 vaccine, Dr. Corbett has also patents for the universal Coronavirus vaccine as well as for influenza virus and for therapeutic antibodies. Dr. Corbett is relatively young. She graduated actually from the University of Maryland Baltimore County as a Meyerhoff scholar, and her graduate degrees were from the University of North Carolina. Actually, the ORWH did a Facebook Live event with Dr. Corbett, and I would encourage you to check it out on Facebook, Facebook Live, where she shared her perspectives about leadership among women in STEM.

Now, why did I choose these 2 women? These 2 brilliant women illustrate [how] talent, tenacity, and determination, have overcome 2 or more barriers that women scientists inherently face. One, is being a woman, fewer women receive research project grants, or R01 equivalent grants, even from the NIH when compared to men. In addition, at any given time, more men hold multiple grants compared to women. The second being a person of color. So a person of color like Dr. Corbett, especially if you’re a woman, is less likely to obtain funding compared to men and even compared to White women. The third barrier worth mentioning is being an immigrant. Dr. Karikó was an immigrant and did not graduate from a US university which is recognized by many reviewers who were doing grant reviews or by even her colleagues, probably, in the institution.

Barriers such as these, constitute some of the reasons why talents of many women scientists, particularly if you're a woman of color or you're an immigrant, why they're challenged or frequently overlooked. But, as it turns out, these 2 women scientists were recognized following the pandemic. But that is not the case for all women scientists, especially those who had to drop out of the scientific workforce, because of the caregiving responsibilities, for instance, that was brought about by the pandemic. Homeschooling for instance, was also very true of many of our investigators, and some clinician scientists had to be pulled to their clinical duties instead of performing their research. So NIH is well aware of all of these challenges, and has really tried hard to implement a number of policies to mitigate the effects.

Investigators, for instance, can cite how the pandemic has impacted their productivity when they are writing their biosketch and the reviewers are asked to take these into account. There are multiple flexibilities such as late applications, provisions of no cost extensions, paid extensions, in fact, and even an extension of eligibility as an early-stage investigator. I would suggest that you check out the website of the ORWH, [which] has a link to these and also the blog site of the director of Extramural Research, Dr. Mike Lauer. He has an Open Mike blog which is very informative.

But better yet, check out the NIH videocast of the Vivian Pinn Symposium, which was held last May 12th. It’s still on the NIH events page because they're archived. There the impact of COVID-19 and women's careers is very well discussed. So, check it out, and you can learn for yourself how all of these impact each other. Dr. Jagsi has probably a lot more to say on this. She was our speaker for that forum.

Reshma Jagsi: Well, I think that the one thing that I would really underscore is that when we hear these incredibly inspiring stories of successful women who really played such an essential role in our response to this unexpected threat of COVID-19, it really underscores the importance of all of the efforts that we're undertaking to ensure greater equity, diversity and inclusion in the field because this is of course necessary to make sure that we have access to the full pool of talent, who can make discoveries just like they did.