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Women Scientist Profiles

Regina Smith James, M.D.

Regina Smith James, M.D.

The undeniable and compelling need to eliminate health disparities has been an important driver of the career of Dr. Regina Smith James in the several positions she’s held at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Currently the Director of Clinical and Health Services Research at the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD), she works to strengthen the Institute’s projects on minority health and health disparities in clinical settings, health services research, and patient-clinician communication. She has also been the lead NIMHD representative in planning activities related to the NIH Precision Medicine Initiative (PMI) and served as the co-chair for the Community Engagement/Health Disparities NIH PMI Working Group.

During a stint as the director of the Office of Health Equity at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), Dr. James led the Institute’s efforts to address issues related to maternal and child health disparities and disseminate research findings aimed at closing gaps in health outcomes. Prior to that role, she oversaw the Mood Disorders Program, Attention Disorders Program, and Pediatric Eating Disorders Program at the National Institute of Mental Health. Dr. James has received various honors for her work at the NIH.

How has mentorship shaped your career?

Having a mentor is extremely important, but it takes a team approach to help shape a career.

All of my mentors have played critical roles in coaching and helping me develop professionally, but others have gone a few steps further and became my advocates and sponsors. An advocate is someone who supports and speaks highly of you to his or her colleagues, and a sponsor is a person who is in a position to help propel one’s career trajectory in a positive way.

One person at NIH who has served as my mentor, advocate, and sponsor is Yvonne Maddox, Ph.D. (currently the vice president of research for the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences). I first met Dr. Maddox when I was a clinical fellow and she was serving as the acting deputy director of NIH. I reached out to her after hearing her give a very informative and impassioned presentation at the NIH Clinical Center. Since then, we have maintained a relationship that has been very instrumental to my career development. She is a wonderful person and a strong supporter, and I truly respect and appreciate her leadership and guidance.

F. Xavier Castellanos, M.D., a renowned neuroscientist, has been another mentor and key role model for me. He is a true physician-scientist; hardworking and compassionate, he cares deeply about his work and his colleagues. Our research at NIMH on pharmaceutical treatments for children and adolescents diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder was recognized by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, which awarded me the Norbert and Charlotte Rieger Award for Scientific Achievement.

Many others have mentored me throughout my career. The list includes Robert Haynie, M.D., Ph.D., of Case Western Reserve Medical School, whom I met as an intern, and John Glazer, M.D., who served as my residency director and mentor at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation.

Having the benefit of continued relationships with my mentors constantly reminds me to “pay it forward,” so I too serve as a mentor. It’s a reciprocal relationship: I learn from my mentees, and I share my knowledge and experience with them. I was honored to be one of the first recipients of the NICHD Mentorship Award in 2013.

What is an individual achievement of which you are most proud?

In 2014, in honor of Women’s History Month, I was asked to give a keynote address in Washington, D.C. that focused on “celebrating women of character, courage and commitment.” It was an energizing and humbling opportunity to reflect on my challenges and accomplishments, while looking to the future and thinking about new pathways that I could establish to achieve current and new goals.

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

I feel very fortunate to have a career that affords me the opportunity to ask questions, stimulate dialogue and discussion, and help mobilize research efforts that can address health and health care inequality for vulnerable populations. It brings me great professional and personal satisfaction to know that my work contributes to our understanding of the complex nature of health disparities and how they can be addressed.

What do you think are some of the most exciting recent scientific advances outside your field?

A scientific advancement within the last decade that was particularly exciting to me as a public health advocate and as a parent of two teenagers was the development of a vaccine that could potentially reduce the risk of cervical and other cancers.

Knowing that the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, which is available to pre-teens and teens, has the potential to improve the health of both men and women, particularly in communities of color, is very exciting to me. Rates of cervical cancer, which is associated with HPV infection, are 45 percent higher among Black women and 65 percent higher among Hispanic women than White women—meaning protection before exposure is important. We still have some work to do on targeted health communications to promote vaccine use, but I’m hopeful. The other exciting piece about this discovery is that the technology used to create the first HPV vaccine was developed right here at NIH!

How do you manage work/life integration? Do you have tips for young scientists about this?

I have been very fortunate to have what I call “wrap-around” support through a network consisting of my husband, my extended family and friends, and a supportive work environment. Many times I have to work long hours, and it’s important to have family and friends who can step in and help when needed. When I was the program chief at NIMH and my kids were young, I felt very supported when I needed to try and balance time between family and work.

Having a supportive environment shaped the way that I have worked with my colleagues. When I felt supported, I was happier, I worked harder, and I was more productive. I enjoyed work, and I wanted those who worked with me to also feel supported and encouraged. My tip to young scientists is to make sure they develop a strong support system and be receptive to others stepping in to help out.   

Why is it important to support and encourage the next generation of female scientists? 

At the heart of research is systematic inquiry or investigation. Encouraging the next generation of female scientists is absolutely necessary in order to have different perspectives on the types of inquiries being made or questions asked. Who is conducting the scientific inquiry or asking the questions directly affects what research will be performed and which doors to science will be opened.


Dr. James received her B.S. and M.D. degrees from the University of California, Los Angeles, and completed her residency training in child/adolescent psychiatry at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation. She then became a clinical fellow in the Child Psychiatry Branch of the NIMH where she had the fortune of working with a stellar research team. 

This page last updated: August 9, 2018

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