NIEHS welcomed Yvonne Maddox, Ph.D., March 4 as this year’s Spirit Lecture Series Award winner. Maddox, vice president for research at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, previously held leadership positions at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
As the latest in an inspiring series of female scientists to speak at this annual event, Maddox discussed “Building a Meaningful Career: Insights From Precision Medicine.” Previously hosted by the NIEHS Diversity Council, this year’s talk was sponsored by Diane Spencer and Veronica Godfrey Robinson from the National Toxicology Program (NTP).
NIEHS and NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., gave Maddox a warm welcome. “You all can read about her achievements, [and] all of her awards,” Birnbaum said, “but that doesn’t give you the essence of who Yvonne is. Yvonne is a mentor, she is a friend, she is a fabulous scientist.”
After arriving at NIH in 1985, Maddox carved out an illustrious career, serving as deputy director of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), acting deputy director of NIH, and acting director of the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities.
She explained that, in much the same way treatment by precision medicine considers the variability of each person’s genetic, environmental, and behavioral influences, career planning should take into account an individual’s own strengths and values.
“We use [precision medicine] to acknowledge that we are different,” Maddox said. Similarly, she said that to build a career, an individual must spend time thinking about where they come from, and understand who they are.
Family was an important factor in her first career decisions, especially after she lost her father while still in college. “I had made some decisions early on to go on to medical school, but being the eldest child in my family, there was no way I was going to leave my mom and two younger brothers,” she said.
Maddox told of growing up in a strong, nurturing community, which made it natural to seek role models to serve as mentors and sponsors. “I wouldn’t have been able to build a career without a really, really strong construction team,” she said.
She praised the support of renowned mentor Ruth Kirschstein, M.D., former deputy director of NIH, who helped Maddox face challenges, take risks, and develop as a scientist.
Be a mentor, too
Maddox emphasized that the challenges of career building may also bring opportunities, for those willing to take initiative and risks. “Everybody has a glass ceiling to some degree, whether you’re male or female,” she said, urging attendees to be aware of when it is time to reach up and crack the ceiling.
Eventually, she knew it was time to become independent, as when a bird leaves the nest. “Suddenly, I realized I had the wings, and I just left the branch,” she said, emphasizing that there is no harm in failure.
Along with independence comes the responsibility to mentor someone else, she stressed. “The part of the construction team that helps you [leave the nest] is the folks that you mentored — that network you’ve created through the years … When you fail, those are the people who are there to rescue you.”
(Emily Mesev is an Intramural Research Training Award postbaccalaureate fellow in the NIEHS Intracellular Regulation Group.)