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Women Scientist Profiles

Amparo Villablanca, M.D.

Amparo Villablanca, M.D.

Dr. Amparo Villablanca, a professor of cardiovascular medicine at the University of California, Davis, School of Medicine, is a pioneer physician-scientist in the field of women and heart disease. In 1994, she founded and became director of the UC Davis Women’s Cardiovascular Medicine Program, the first women’s heart program in the nation.

Dr. Villablanca received her M.D. and completed her internal medicine residency and cardiovascular medicine fellowship training at UC Davis. Today, she educates physicians, medical students, and the lay public via lectures on cardiovascular disease in women, hormonal influences on heart disease, and gender differences in cardiac risk factors, diagnosis, and treatment. Her research program focuses on understanding the molecular and cellular determinants of atherosclerosis, the mechanisms whereby hormones and their receptors regulate susceptibility to cardiovascular disease in males and females, and the molecular determinants of the neurovascular inflammation that may lead to Alzheimer’s dementia.

Dr. Villablanca’s research has been funded by several NIH Institutes, including the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), the National Institute on Aging (NIA), and the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS). Since 2005, she has been a national spokeswoman and West Coast partner for NHLBI’s The Heart Truth® campaign to raise awareness about heart disease as the leading killer of women.

Dr. Villablanca is also a champion and mentor for women in academic medical careers. She was co–Principal Investigator on a four-year award entitled “Women’s Careers in the Medical Sciences and Family Friendly Policies,” supported by one of 14 NIH grants addressing issues posing barriers to women in the academic biomedical workforce. She helped to establish programs for faculty development, diversity, mentoring, and women in medicine at the UC Davis School of Medicine and currently serves as director of the Women in Medicine and Health Sciences Program. She is also a co-chair of the national Research Partnership for Women in Science Careers. Throughout her career, Dr. Villablanca has advocated for organizational changes in the academic system to better support women’s careers.
How did you decide to pursue the study of women and heart disease?

After completing cardiology fellowship, I attended a national medical meeting and learned something I had not heard prior: that heart disease was the leading killer of women. I was shocked that I had finished many years of medical training without knowing that and, at that point, decided that I wanted to devote my career to studying heart disease in women. Today, there is still a lack of awareness in the general public and even among health care professionals, although awareness has been improving, due in large part to national campaigns like those of the NHLBI and the American Heart Association.

How has mentorship shaped your career?

Mentorship has been critically important to my development as a physician-scientist. I would not have the scientific career I have today without the guidance of mentors. My early career mentors shared the knowledge you can’t get from formal medical training—for instance, how to generate a compelling research question and formulate a research plan to address that question. These mentors, most of whom were men, also shared their professional connections and welcomed me into their labs, greatly expanding the range of possibilities for my own research. Later career mentors, many of whom have been women, have taught me about academic leadership and served as a sounding board for career choices and direction.

It can be difficult to recognize one’s own need for mentors. Many of us feel like we can do and should do it all on our own, but mentors help to guide the way. You need someone that you can bounce ideas off of, someone to help you navigate the challenges of your career, both personal and professional. You need experts in your field who can teach you specific skills. We advocate a team mentoring approach at my institution, using both UC Davis faculty and outside scientists, as no one person can fulfill all the mentoring needs for any one individual or scholar. And you need different kinds of mentoring at different stages of your career.

I also enjoy mentoring and interacting with students at all levels—undergraduates, graduates, postdoctorates—and trying to help them achieve their goals. The message I try to convey through mentoring is, follow your dreams and passion, persevere, seek to be challenged, be open to new opportunities, embrace diversity, and welcome new ideas.

What do you enjoy most about being a scientist?

To me, one of the most rewarding aspects of science is the process of discovery and creativity. Going from the known to the unknown, formulating significant research questions, having an impact through your findings, working out the methodology to do that—the entire scientific process is exciting and challenging. Synthesizing facts to derive a new conclusion is also part of the creative process and can lead you to a totally new way of thinking about a problem. Part of the challenge is evaluating the data and results and framing the findings according to the knowledge gaps your research is trying to fill.

Science is in some ways different from the practice of medicine, where usually we’re trying to interpret diagnostic findings to arrive at a known diagnosis. We rarely discover a completely new disease. To use an analogy, in medicine, I feel like I’m standing on the rim of a circle and turning inward to apply existing knowledge to deduce established diagnoses, whereas in research I’m standing on the edge of the same circle but facing outward toward what is not known, to possible new discoveries. They are related but different disciplines that require different skill sets and different ways of thinking about problems, and both require training and mentoring.

What are the barriers to women in science?

Science careers, and certainly careers that combine medicine and science, are very rewarding, but also very challenging. One challenge is the inherently long career training path; the more specialized you become in your field, the longer the training path. Another challenge is integrating career and family life—devoting adequate time and energy to both.

These are challenges for both males and females, but perhaps more so for females, who still tend to bear heavier caregiving demands. Career flexibility and academic culture are not always well-aligned, and maintaining resilience and preventing burnout can be an additional challenge. Yet it’s important to stay fresh and engaged and not lose your passion for your work. It is important to do things that bring you joy and help you recharge—whether it be vacation, spending time with family, traveling, or pursuing hobbies and other interests.

What other female scientists do you admire and why?

There are many female scientists I admire, for both their personal and professional impact and their strength as leaders and as women. They include Dr. Vivian Pinn, the first director of NIH’s Office of Research on Women’s Health [ORWH]; Dr. Hannah Valantine, NIH’s first Chief Officer for Scientific Workforce Diversity; and Dr. Elizabeth Nabel, former director of NHLBI and current president of Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Dr. Nabel is also a cardiologist who, during her tenure at NHLBI, advocated for women and heart disease as a public health issue and The Heart Truth campaign. These and many other talented women leaders are all great models for female physician-scientists.

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

The percentage of women faculty in academic medicine has increased over the years, which is contributing to a culture change and multiple generations of women at work in academia. This is helping to pave the way for more women who want to enter academia to find a welcoming environment and mentors that they can relate to. Identifying strategies to engage and support the talent, values, and priorities of the younger generation has become important to recruiting and retaining them. This is important for women, but also increasingly so for males as younger men take on more responsibilities in their families and want to be more engaged at home.

The academic community now recognizes the importance of providing career flexibility and family-friendly options as an important means to having a satisfied workforce. These aren’t just accommodations; they are strategic tools for attracting and retaining top talent. The business world has known this for a long time.

It has been rewarding to see more women in science and medicine, and the diversity, collaborative approaches, and perspectives they bring, but we still have a very significant problem with attrition of women out of biomedical academic careers. As you go up the academic ladder, the proportion of females decreases quite significantly, a trend that has remained relatively unchanged over the years. This issue has gained national attention and was highlighted in the National Academy of Sciences report Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering. In response, NIH and ORWH issued specific grants, one of which we received, to identify causal factors and effective interventions to help retain women in academia. I expect to see more effort and funding in this area in the future, as it is critical to encourage and support the next generation of female scientists.

If you werent a scientist, what other job would you have?

I am passionate about my career in academics and about medicine and cardiology, and know they will continue to challenge me in new and exciting ways. However, if I were not a scientist, I might be interested in having a career in interior design. Design brings beauty and order to a space. In many ways I think I like it because design and science share similar characteristics: They are both creative, use math skills—think scale and proportion—and require innovation. And in the future, the two may not be viewed as being so discordant, as the gap between science and aesthetics continues to narrow.


This page last updated: December 30, 2015

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