Boston Blog

NNB report: How female biomed research bosses make it to the top

balving_small.jpgA veteran clinical scientist and research administrator, Barbara Alving of the National Institutes of Health, came to Harvard last week to talk about how women and minorities can aim for top jobs like hers.

But, first she had to get a dig in. Alving reminded those gathered at the elegant Countway med school library that women are now well represented among medical schools graduates, but not among the deans.

“That may have been because of the innate intelligence of women…” she said without breaking stride. Her reference to the gaffe from a former Harvard president got a group chuckle.

You’re all familiar this data, she told them as an introduction to a PowerPoint of recent findings on women in science. Better, but still not good.

“Female career attrition starts at the post doc stage and is progressive,” she said, citing one of the studies.

In reality, most research management careers are likely “serial, diverse careers,” she said. Like hers. A clinician and retired Army colonel, she was the head of hematology research at Walter Reed in the late 1990s. After that, Alving ran the Heart Lung and Blood Institute at NIH for two years and The NIH Women’s Health Initiative from 2002-2006. Now, she serves as Director of the National Center for Research Resources, which helps develop technology and clinical research infrastructure.

Studies say that the world of research leadership is not welcoming to women. So, Alving offered “points to consider” for those interested in managing researchers, agencies or academic departments.

Some of her bullets covered familiar advice about mentors, vision and risk. But, women and minorities, especially those on the executive path, have to be resilient.

“Accept criticism,” she said “Although it is difficult, don’t take it personally”.

A sense of humor and perspective will help, as will a sense of personal integrity.

“I think you need to expect the unexpected and you need to recongize the constant need to recalculate,” she said. “Anticipate controversy and conflict. It comes with the territory.”

Spoken from one who knows. Alving delivered her message with a military efficiency that was both charming and encouraging. And, she did it while facing another of her own major career changes. The NIH plans to dismantle her program and transfer some duties into a new, game-changing drug development effort — the Center for Advancing Translational Sciences. (See related Nature News report.) But, when asked about the future of the NCRR, she declined to go there.

“Like I said, executive life gets dicey at times.” she said. “I’m going through my own turbulent period.”


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