October 27, 2020

SWHR Celebrates 30 Years of Working to Make Women’s Health Mainstream

By Liz Hay, SWHR Communications Intern

The Society for Women’s Health Research (SWHR) celebrated its 30th anniversary at its virtual annual awards gala on October 22, 2020, and honored three women leaders who have significantly advanced women’s health throughout their careers.

SWHR President and CEO Kathryn G. Schubert kicked off the event by highlighting SWHR’s successes and milestones over the past three decades. “Since our founding 30 years ago thanks to the vision of Dr. Florence Haseltine, SWHR has fought to bring attention to research gaps and unmet needs in women’s health,” Schubert said. “In large part due to SWHR and our work with partner advocacy groups, women are now routinely included in medical research and scientists are increasingly studying how biological sex differences affect the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of disease.”

A video on SWHR’s legacy described the alarming state of women’s health research when the organization was founded in 1990 and the influence of SWHR in moving the field forward. “SWHR made the difference,” Haseltine said.

SWHR then recognized three women leaders who have dedicated their careers to women’s health:

Myrna Blyth, Senior Vice President and Editorial Director at AARP, presented the first award to Dr. Becker. She highlighted Dr. Becker’s more than 30 years of research on how sex differences and hormones influence the brain and behavior, as well as her work with SWHR’s Brain Network to produce a groundbreaking book on sex differences in brain health. Dr. Becker is also a tireless advocate for the inclusion of female animals in studies to ensure research is applicable to women.

“I am proud to be one of those women who has emphasized sex differences throughout her scientific career,” Dr. Becker said in a video presentation. “It was not always easy. I had to fight resistance and resentment. I had to fight for academic recognition and the acceptance of my male peers.”

Dr. Lotus Mallbris, Vice President and Global Head of Immunology Product Development at Eli Lilly and Co., presented the next award to Dr. Bianchi. Dr. Mallbris applauded Dr. Bianchi for her status as “a trailblazer in women’s health and prenatal genomics,” both in her individual research and in her role as director of NICHD.

Dr. Bianchi has spent her career working on the development of noninvasive prenatal screening methods to determine the health of the fetus through a blood sample from the mother. “I am a very, very fortunate person in that I was able to start some of this research in medical school and be able to take it all the way to clinical application,” she said in a video presentation. “We stopped counting at 10 million pregnant women, but it has truly revolutionized prenatal care.”

SWHR Board Chair Dr. Shontelle Dodson, Senior Vice President of Health Systems at Astellas Pharma, presented the final award of the night to Dr. Owens. Dr. Dodson commended Dr. Owens’ leadership of late-stage clinical research on a new treatment option for symptomatic uterine fibroids. The study successfully recruited and retained nearly 800 women, including a significant number of Black women and other women of color, who shoulder a disproportionate burden from fibroids but are often left out of research.

In a video presentation, Dr. Owens shared critical takeaways from her experience with fibroid clinical research. “When you look at how many people have this particular disease, the participation in the clinical trial should be proportionate to the prevalence that they have that disease,” Dr. Owens said. “The way that we were able to keep [women] in the study was by listening to them and understanding what would make their participation in the study easier.”

In addition to recognizing these three women at the gala, SWHR honored other women pioneers in science and medicine in the month leading up to the event through a social media campaign.

Following the award presentations, Schubert introduced keynote speaker and former SWHR Board member Dr. Valerie Montgomery Rice, who is also the first woman to serve as President and Dean of the Morehouse School of Medicine. She is a renowned infertility researcher and a passionate advocate for women’s health and specifically issues that disproportionately impact women of color.

In her remarks, Dr. Montgomery Rice said each stage in a woman’s life brings new health challenges. From body image and mental health issues to menopause and dementia later in life, the field of women’s health must address a wide range of concerns across the lifespan.

She also urged the audience to carefully consider health disparities when working on health care research and innovations: “When I think about all these new technologies, I ask, are these tools making a difference? Are they increasing or decreasing health disparities and health inequities?”

She emphasized that it’s important to not only innovate, but to meet patients where they are and connect in meaningful ways. “We know that racial, geographical and wealth gaps persist, and unfortunately, we are not seeing yet the types of advances we need to see to ensure that all women realize the promise of science,” she said.

Dr. Montgomery Rice concluded by commending SWHR’s 30 years of work to advance the health of all women. “It’s not just been about raising awareness — it’s been about inclusion from the beginning,” she said. “It’s been about ensuring we do the right types of research and that we are answering the hard questions.”

As the event drew to a close, Schubert echoed Dr. Montgomery Rice’s call for a sustained focus on equitable progress in women’s health. “SWHR’s vision is simple — to make women’s health mainstream,” she said. “To ensure that there is no question of equity within research, that women are automatically integrated into scientific breakthroughs, and that sex as a biological variable is not a second thought. At 30 years old, we’re just getting started.”

Proceeds from the SWHR’s virtual awards event support SWHR’s science, policy, and education activities to further its vision to make women’s health mainstream. Stay tuned for information on SWHR’s 2021 Annual Awards Gala, scheduled for April 29.