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Women Scientist Profiles

Patricia Grady, Ph.D.

Dr. Patricia Grady

As a 17-year-old graduating from high school, Dr. Patricia Grady considered the careers that were generally open to women: teacher, nurse, and secretary. She thought nursing was the most flexible and interesting, so she picked that—and started down a fascinating and varied career path of nursing, teaching, research, and now administration.

Dr. Grady has a master's degree in nursing and a doctorate in physiology from the University of Maryland. Her scientific research has been primarily in stroke, with emphasis on arterial stenosis and cerebral ischemia. In 1988, Dr. Grady joined NIH as an administrator in the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, focusing on stroke and brain imaging. Since 1995, she has been the director of the National Institute of Nursing Research.

How has mentorship shaped your career?

You really need mentors as you move through your career. When I started out there were not as many women in science, so we tended to support each other as we tried to figure out the system. Most of my early mentors in science were males, since there weren't that many females.

I benefited from a lot of indirect mentoring, where you watch people who are successful and study their approaches to things. For example, if there were researchers in my doctoral program who were particularly good at presentations, I would pay attention to how they would alter their style when they spoke to different audiences.

Also, I would seek out people with particular expertise. For example, one of the faculty in my doctoral program did a lot of publishing and presenting. When I had to write an abstract, I made an appointment with him. I still use the principles that he gave me today.

When I came to NIH, I had a lot of experience and I could help other people avoid some of the pitfalls that I had encountered. It was a really positive experience, transforming what I had learned to help other people.

Has the trajectory of your career changed over time?

Yes, several times. When I finished my undergraduate degree, I worked for a year, and then got my master's in nursing. I taught on the nursing faculty for a few years. At the time, there were only a few programs that offered a Ph.D. in nursing, and they weren’t a good fit for me. Instead, I decided to get my Ph.D. in the school of medicine, in physiology. Neuroscience was not a formal field in those days, but I was interested in the central nervous system and the brain. I thought I would come back to teaching, but realized that I could use what I’d learned to do research on preventing stroke.

For about 17 years, I did research on stroke with NIH funding. Then came another turn in the road: I was recruited to come to NIH, to run the programs in stroke and brain imaging, which was my area. It was terrific to be able to have that kind of impact on a whole field, and to understand it from a national perspective.

What have been the most rewarding aspects of your career?

Being in a position to do something that influences the health of our society is very exciting. It's wonderful to see the progression of both of the fields that I've been part of, nursing and neuroscience.

I love having the opportunity to work with the next generation. NINR recently had our 30th anniversary symposium. We asked for nursing researchers to submit posters about their work and had nearly 400 submissions, many more than could fit in the space. About 70% of those were from young or early-career investigators.

Nursing is a terrific career. We have nurses in Congress. We have nurses who are heads of hospitals and health agencies, deans, and presidents of universities. There are just so many opportunities. We still have a very limited research workforce in nursing, but it's growing. It's just wonderful to see the growth of this field over time.

What is a career achievement of which you are most proud?

In 1995, about two years after the National Center for Nursing Research achieved Institute status at NIH and became NINR, I was fortunate to be named the director. It was so exciting to help shape the Institute from its early years —and to help shape the field of nursing research.

The whole health care system is moving in directions in which nurses can play major roles. Nursing is all about quality of life and improving symptoms. As our population ages and people live longer, more people are developing chronic illnesses. The information we generate through research will help with that.

For example, one of the big issues is how to care for the growing number of people with Alzheimer’s disease. That work is going to fall to friends and family. It can be extremely stressful and cause health problems for those caregivers. NINR has supported a substantial body of research on how informal caregivers can better manage their own health.

As the population ages, another area of growing interest is palliative care. We want to understand more about how people want to be treated, the choices that they want to make, and how the health care system can support them. As the lead Institute on end-of-life research at NIH, we are also very focused on palliative care. Our Palliative Care: Conversations Matter campaign helps parents with pediatric palliative care decision making, and helps raise awareness of and improve communication about palliative care among families and healthcare providers.

What do you do outside the office?

I like to hike and be outdoors. I sometimes have to train to go on vacation; I’ve done a few high-altitude treks. There’s so much to see out there. I’ve been to Siberia, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Central Asia. It's good to see what other people's experiences are. It also really reaffirms my commitment to wanting to try to make the world a healthier place.

And I read a lot—mostly mysteries. I'm always trying to find out answers. Mysteries used to be sort of lowbrow, but now there are all kinds of mysteries set in a variety of exotic locations.

What are some characteristics of a successful scientist?

Having a curious mind, asking questions, wondering about things. Scientists aren’t satisfied with the status quo.

If you are curious and like to find out new things, you'll never run out of things to do. Being a scientist also requires a certain amount of tenacity, because you may not find all the answers right away.

I also think it's helpful to be a bit of an optimist. If a project turns out the way you wanted, that's great. If it didn't, you've still generated more information.

What are some of the challenges to being a scientist?

Being a scientist is a different kind of career. It's a lifestyle, too. You're always learning. When you're 17 or 18, I think that probably seems daunting. For people who enjoy routines, perhaps science isn't always such a good fit.

It is wonderful to get to create new knowledge. For the time that you're doing those experiments and collecting that information, that's information that nobody else in the world has. People who go into science tend to be bright, with curious minds. It's a good neighborhood to hang out in.

Do you have advice for young female scientists?

If you're starting out, jump in and test out the waters. You can work on research projects in high school and college. That’s a wonderful way to learn about the lifestyle and get some sense of what the landscape is like.

Always be prepared to take advantage of opportunities and learn as many different things as you can. There's this myth that things come along in a certain order, but that’s not the way that real life plays out. A career is a long time, and you never know when things that you learn might come in handy.

I think the best thing is to find something you really like to do. If you like science, find a place within that that resonates with you. For me, thinking about the idea of helping to prevent strokes, and to prevent all that devastation, was very exciting.

You spend a lot of time on a career. You want to be spending your time doing something you really enjoy.

This page last updated: August 9, 2018

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