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Environmental Factor

Environmental Factor

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July 2018

Symposium celebrates researchers who are women of color

Sharonda LeBlanc Network co-chair LeBlanc studies DNA repair pathways using single molecule microscopy to better understand how certain cancers develop. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Students, researchers, professors, and administrators of all ages joined NIEHS staff May 31 for the first annual symposium of the statewide North Carolina Women of Color Research Network. The group involves researchers from North Carolina universities, government agencies, and the private sector.

Members of the network promote career advancement for women researchers and scientists of color by establishing collaborations and partnerships. These are enhanced by multilevel mentoring, outreach, and networking.

Models of success

Two scientists co-chair the network — Sharonda LeBlanc, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill, and Ericka Reid, Ph.D., director of the NIEHS Office of Science Education and Diversity.

“The career role models young people see here are the picture of ‘You can, too,’” said Reid. “It’s great to get together and be able to exchange ideas and experience.”

“It was gratifying to feel the energy in the room,” LeBlanc added.

Alma Solis, an NIEHS postbaccalaureate fellow, said the presence of a strong group of female professionals inspired her. “They’re passionate about outreach and making a broader impact,” said Solis. “What they are doing now is what I hope to do one day.”

Sharing knowledge and skills

The day began with a speed mentoring session led by Sharlini Sankaran, Ph.D., executive director of the Regeneration Next Initiative at Duke University. “Building your network is not just a scientific bonus,” Sankaran said. “It’s key to professional, personal, and career success.”

Chandra Jackson “The first thing scientists usually think about is genetic differences when it comes to minority health,” said Jackson. “That should never be the first potential explanation.” (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

There was also plenty of science on hand. Chandra Jackson, Ph.D., an NIEHS Stadtman Investigator, described how one’s environment affects sleep. Minority health disparities may be influenced by where people of color tend to live and the jobs they often hold, she explained.

Molly Puente, Ph.D., an NIEHS grant management specialist, addressed the process of applying for and implementing grants. “There are many different professional paths,” said Puente. “NIH can help you no matter which you choose.”

The use of immune cells, called microphages, to deliver drug therapies to cancer patients was the topic of a talk by Elizabeth Wayne, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow at UNC-Chapel Hill. She also had a special message for younger attendees.

“I’m very aware that I stand on the shoulders of the women who came before me,” Wayne said. “I put a lot of effort into communication because simply being seen is very important for the work that you do [and] to be able to show that you are respected.”

The presentations closed with a description of patenting intellectual property by Ruthie Lyle-Cannon, Ph.D., lead research engineer for the financial services company USAA.

Molly Puente Puente came to NIH as a Presidential Management Fellow, a program that involved rotations through several different offices. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Just the beginning

Speed mentoring and scientific presentations will remain staples of future symposia, according to Reid and LeBlanc. In addition, quarterly activities — such as webinars and socials — as well as a newsletter and greater social media presence were recommended by members of the planning meeting.

Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., director of NIEHS and the National Toxicology Program, noted that the network was established just four years ago. “Thank you all for starting this organization off on the right foot,” she said, when she welcomed participants to the institute.

The statewide network is affiliated with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Women of Color Research Network (WoCRN). Birnbaum chairs the WoCRN committee on Communication and Public Outreach.

(John Yewell is a contract writer for the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)


Reid and LeBlanc Reid, left, and LeBlanc co-chair the North Carolina Women of Color Research Network. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
Nur Shahir “I appreciate this kind of event, and the opportunity to meet the people I met during the speed networking,” said Nur Shahir, a Ph.D. candidate in bioinformatics and computational biology at UNC. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
Ariana Smith “If I had known about this in K to 12, I would have been way more interested in science,” said undergraduate Ariana Smith, from Winston-Salem State. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
Denise Powell “We are in the habit of growing women of color, so to speak. We’ve gone on to become mentors to all these young ladies,” said Frankie Denise Powell, Ph.D., associate professor at UNC-Pembroke. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
Zahria Buchanan “[Meeting and networking with members] helps me get to my goal to become a physical therapist,” said Winston-Salem State senior Zahria Buchanan. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
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