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Reshaping Women's Health Research

by Alicia P. Gregory

2004 UK Women’s Safety Study
In September 2004, the Center for Research on Violence Against Women released results from a study that polled 1,010 female graduate and undergraduate students at UK. The study revealed that 36.5 percent of these women had been sexually or physically assaulted, or stalked. Center Director Carol Jordan says UK’s number mirrors that of other universities, but fewer UK women report crimes than women do at other institutions.

She explains that a national study of college women in 2000 showed 5 percent report their sexual victimization to law enforcement. “Our study found about 1.5 percent of UK college women report sexual assault,” Jordan says. “What that tells me is we’re not doing a good enough job of communicating to women that at UK there are people prepared to help them if they reach out, and that they won’t be blamed for their victimization.

“We also asked how safe women feel at UK, and only 15 percent said they feel afraid. While that seems like good news—that the vast majority of women here feel safe—in comparison to the percentage of women who actually experience victimization, female students at UK may be inaccurately appraising their level of risk. We need to do a better job of educating them about the realities of violence.” The study also asked women who they fear—strangers or known partners. “Most chose strangers. But the study showed that 82 percent of UK women who had been victimized were harmed by someone they knew, not a stranger.”

Based on U.S. Department of Justice data, UK ranks last in the Southeast in per capita spending for police. “UK also ranks last among benchmark and Southeast Conference universities in the student-to-officer ratio,” Jordan says.

To address the prevalence of victimization, the lack of adequate support services for victims, and the need for education among all students, in 2005 UK President Lee T. Todd Jr. committed an additional $1.25 million in funding to support new programs. These programs include UK Women’s Place (a central point of contact for coordinating referrals for counseling and academic, financial and medical help), new landscaping and lighting, first-responder training, and funding for an additional police officer. “This was four times more than UK spent on women’s safety programs in 2004,” says Jordan. “Dr. Todd deserves a lot of credit for being willing to release this data and draw attention to the problem. Literally hundreds of people all over campus are now involved in increasing women’s safety.”

Jordan says her center will seek funds in 2007 to do a follow-up study. “We hope our efforts to improve safety at UK will mean a lower prevalence and an increase in women who report their victimization. It’s very troubling that the vast majority of women who suffer some form of harm never tell their friends, roommates or family, let alone the police. We need to let women know that this is an academic environment where you can get support if something like this happens to you.”

For more on this study, see the Center on Violence Against Women website.

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Career Building at UK
In 2005, UK received renewal funds for an additional five years for two multi-million-dollar training programs for junior scientists.

The first program, Building Interdisciplinary Research Careers in Women’s Health (BIRCWH), which began in 2000, was awarded $2.5 million by the National Institute on Drug Abuse in September 2005. “We’re in elite company,” says Director Jef Ferguson. BIRCWH awards went to 11 universities, including Harvard, the University of California (Davis, Los Angeles and San Francisco), and the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.

Ferguson, chair of UK’s OB/GYN department, which ranks 15th in NIH funding to public medical schools, says the success of the renewal is a testament to the achievement of the BIRCWH scholars. These scholar-researchers brought in $7.7 million in extramural funding in the last five years. The program’s goal is to provide state-of-the-art training in women’s health to ensure scholars successfully establish research careers.

Photo of Tom Curry and Jef FergusonTom Curry (left) directs COBRE and Jef Ferguson directs BIRCWH, training programs for young research faculty in women’s health. “When you think of a specialty area in medicine that is synonymous with women’s health, OB/GYN is a natural because all we do is take care of women,” says Ferguson, who serves as chair of obstetrics and gynecology at UK. Curry is vice chair of the department.

“The program benefits scholars by providing a mentor/protégée relationship with a senior-level researcher—someone who is ready to give a young investigator pointers on developing a hypothesis and designing a project.” Fostering the careers of young researchers is obviously close to Ferguson’s heart. While he talks about the BIRCWH program in his office down the hall from the high-risk pregnancy clinic where he sees patients, he calls out to several OB/GYN residents passing in the hallway, confirming appointments on a friendly first-name basis.

BIRCWH includes coursework in things like research ethics, statistics and clinical trial design, and scholars receive salary support, are eligible for seed grants to jump-start their research, and 75 percent of their time (up to three years for those with clinic-oriented projects and two years for those with basic science projects) is protected to work on their mentored research project.

“One of the biggest challenges new investigators face now is availability of NIH funding. More dollars are going into the important area of bioterrorism, which leaves less funding for investigator-initiated grants. Say I’d like to study the effects of diabetes on fetal nourishment. There’s less money now for that kind of study,” Ferguson explains.

“The difficult thing is to keep recent graduates who want investigative careers from getting discouraged, and one way BIRCWH can do that is through salary support that allows these folks to put together preliminary data, build collaborations with other researchers, and sharpen their research skills so the junior scientists look better to the NIH when they apply for grants.”

BIRCWH is targeting research in four areas: drug abuse and its relationship to gender differences, cancer as it relates to women’s health, hormonal regulation across a woman’s lifespan, and the impact of oral health on pregnancy and cardiovascular health.

Current BIRCWH scholars include Joan Griffith (pediatrics), Joseph Holtman (anesthesiology), Susan Modesitt (OB/GYN), Leigh Ann Simmons (family studies and health services management), James Temprano (internal medicine), and Anand Vaishnav (neurology).

And three BIRCWH graduates—Melinda Wilson (pg. 12), Jane Joseph (pg. 13) and Michael Kilgore (who studies breast cancer)—are now stand-out researchers in the second of UK’s multi-million-dollar training programs: the Center of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE) in Women’s Health.
“COBRE is a prestigious NIH-sponsored program, and UK was fortunate to get funded on the first try,” says Director Tom Curry, noting that UK landed one of 19 COBRE awards nationwide in 2000.

“Phyllis Wise spearheaded this entire effort,” he says. A physiologist with expertise in the neuroprotective effects of estrogen, Wise left UK for the University of California-Davis in 2002. “Phyllis is an outstanding scientist. She is extremely articulate and was a very strong figure to lead this program,” Curry says. “Whereas, when you get a middle-aged man talking about women’s health,” he pauses and laughs, “it’s like Dr. Ruth. It just doesn’t work quite as well.”

In September 2005, the COBRE grant was renewed for five years to a tune of $10.3 million—the largest single grant ever awarded to UK in the area of women’s health.

“The center really has two aims: first, to promote our understanding of gender-based differences and how they impact the heart and brain, and, second, to mentor young, junior faculty to become successful scientists,” says Curry, vice chair of research in the OB/GYN department.

And has COBRE worked? “It’s been a good recruitment tool,” Curry says, gearing up for a simile. “It’s like Tubby Smith and basketball. Once you build a program and it has a reputation, it’s easier to attract people and keep people here. Of course in today’s academic world, as junior people become successful, they tend to get offers and go elsewhere. That’s part of the success—which is a good thing—but it’s also deleterious because you lose good junior faculty.” In his 20-year career at UK, Curry himself has had other offers, but he’s stayed here because “it’s a very cordial, collegial and intellectual environment.”

And, he adds, it’s the right place to do his work. “The COBRE grant has greatly increased the visibility of women’s health research at UK. COBRE has promoted women scientists on campus, and our junior faculty have generated about $10 million in extramural funding.”

Curry sums up COBRE’s project areas by team leader: Eric Smart (“the effects of estrogen and testosterone on heart disease”), himself (“how the egg gets out of the ovary and how hormones affect ovarian function”), Annadora Bruce-Keller (“how pregnancy hormones protect against the progression of HIV”), Lothar Jennes (“how estrogen and antidepressants impact neuron regeneration in the brain”), and Tom Kelly (“how estrogen and progesterone affect cognitive function”).

For more, see the BIRCWH and COBRE sites.

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