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Women Scientist Profiles

Vivian W. Pinn, M.D.

Vivian W. Pinn, M.D.

Dr. Vivan W. Pinn is a woman of many firsts. She was the first full-time director of the NIH’s Office of Research on Women's Health (ORWH) from 1991 to 2011, and the first permanent NIH Associate Director of Research on Women's Health. Prior to that, Dr. Pinn became the third woman and the first African-American woman to lead a U.S. pathology department when she joined the staff and faculty of Howard University Hospital in 1982.

She received her undergraduate degree from Wellesley College and her M.D. from the University of Virginia School of Medicine, where she was first again—the only woman and only African-American student in her class.

How has mentorship shaped your career?

I have benefited from so many people—professionals, but also people who were simply around, or were in the community, or are family members. I know what a difference it is to have someone just to be there for you to give you advice, listen when you have a problem, and maybe help you think through it yourself. What a difference that can make in terms of personal development and professional development.

In medical school, I had important mentors who were almost all men, because there were so few women who were in medicine, or who were in senior positions. I was very fortunate that these men supported what I was doing, served as role models, gave me advice, and guided me.

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

I thorough enjoyed the first 25 years of my pathology career, when I was a researcher, teacher, and department chair in academia. Then, when I came to ORWH, I joined a national and international movement to further research in women’s health. It was a new, exciting field, and it has continued to evolve and expand beyond our wildest dreams.

I am most proud of the difference I made in the lives of the young people I taught and helped to succeed. I made an impact because I impacted the lives of others.

What are the barriers to women in science?

When ORWH first began addressing issues related to women, we looked at barriers to women in biomedical careers. We held a workshop in 1993 to discuss some of the major barriers. Years later, many of those same barriers still exist:

  • The work overload and lack of work-life balance for many women who are both primary family caregivers and professional scientists continue to hamper them from fulfilling their career potential.
  • Women are still receiving lower salaries and fewer promotions than men for doing the same work. We still need to improve women’s compensation and advancement opportunities.
  • Sexual harassment of women in academic settings still exists. This issue has not gotten much attention in the past, but we are learning more today because women are speaking up. Now we need to ask, how many instances of sexual harassment have affected women’s careers? Women can lose out on opportunities for advancement due to sexual harassment, whether or not they register a formal complaint. We’re seeing that academic institutions’ responsiveness and robust enforcement of Title IX are essential to the prosecution and prevention of sexual harassment.
  • We still need to identify more mentors and role models for women in science, in both novice and expert positions. Mentors offer guidance and open doors to bring more women into the field.
  • We need to do more to support and encourage women of color in science careers. At an ORWH conference session years ago, women of color said that, to them, the glass ceiling feels more like a cement ceiling. We are seeing more efforts to address barriers to diversity, but we must recognize that both men and women need to help eliminate this “ceiling” altogether.
What is the most exciting advancement in women’s health research over the past decades/since the formation of ORWH?

Over the past 25 years, women’s health has gained attention and respect as an essential element of biomedical research. Finally, it’s recognized that women’s health is about much more than just reproductive health. Back then, many questioned the need to study women’s health at all. Even when the research gained acceptance, there were a lot of skeptics when ORWH was established. But we have come a long way, with significant advances over the last two decades:

  • The landmark Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) study, sponsored by NIH’s National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI)—one of the most definitive, far-reaching clinical trials of post-menopausal women's health ever undertaken in the United States. The WHI involved 161,808 women aged 50 to 79, included minorities, and administered the first randomized clinical trials examining the use of postmenopausal hormone therapy. The trials, which were stopped early because of the risk to participants, found that postmenopausal hormone therapy posed more danger than benefit. Combined estrogen plus progestin therapy was associated with an increased risk of breast cancer and some increased risk of cardiovascular disease. The estrogen-alone trial found an increased risk of stroke with no benefit for coronary heart disease.

  • Development of the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine—the first to prevent transmission of a sexually transmitted disease and help prevent cervical cancer. ORWH had a role in supporting the clinical trial of the vaccine.

  • Reduction of neonatal transmission of HIV, virtually to zero in some instances. Work on this issue sparked a widespread realization that AIDS treatment had to be approached differently in women—an insight that ultimately decreased women’s overall morbidity and mortality.

Do you have advice for young female scientists? Why is it important to support and encourage the next generation of female scientists?

Have a mentor and be a mentor. Look to your advisors, teachers, and colleagues for possible mentors and mentees. Have more than one person you can ask for or offer advice on the complexities of a science career, such as applying for grants, refining a research focus, or achieving work-life balance.

This page last updated: August 9, 2018

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