The University of Tennessee Graduate School of Medicine, Knoxville



Research @ UTGSM

Women in Science

An initiative to foster the development of Junior and Mid-Level Female Faculty as Academic Leaders in Medicine and Biomedical Sciences

Despite decades of efforts aimed at improving gender equity in academic medicine, women remain underrepresented among STEM faculty and in leadership positions at research-intensive medical schools and universities. Although women currently account for almost 50% of U.S. medical school enrollment, this equity has not translated into advancement of women in academic medicine faculty ranks. Women hold only 27% of full-time medical school faculty appointments, less than 11% of women faculty are full professors, and up to 80% of women terminate their academic practice within 10 years of post-graduate training, citing barriers to access, promotion, and retention. For example, of 42 federally funded R&D laboratories in the United States, only two are directed by women. Additionally, recent articles published by the Association of Women in Science and Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) highlight the disparity of women in medical science leadership. Another AAMC article features how COVID-19 pandemic has adversely impacted women in medicine.

It is generally acknowledged that gender-diverse research teams develop innovative and relevant research questions, resulting in research that is applicable and beneficial to a broad population. A gender-diverse medical workforce may also translate into improved patient outcomes. However, development of the next generation of leaders at medical schools requires the mentoring of and support for young talent. Women face a particularly difficult road given that key career advancement often occurs during childbearing years.

Shaping the future of academic medicine by attaining equity for women will require institutional commitment through the development of specific strategies to support, promote, and retain the brightest women in the field. At the UT Graduate School of Medicine, we are in a unique environment that can foster the academic progress of women in medicine and science. Women hold 43% of our research positions and a growing proportion of our clinical faculty appointments. The largest majority of these are junior and mid-level faculty, for whom efforts to foster academic progress could favorably impact career trajectories and, by extension, the institution at large.

Dr. Paul Hauptman, UTGSM Dean, and Dr. Jonathan Wall, Director of Research, are both deeply committed to ensuring that the UTGSM supports women engaged in medical research. As a consequence, we launched a "Women in Science" initiative with the help of $100,000 in philanthropic support from the The University of Tennessee Medical Center Auxiliary.

We are now seeking ongoing funding to sustain and grow clinical and laboratory-based research initiatives led by women on our campus. This institutional effort is designed to provide researchers with a full range of technical and other resources that can lead to research success, facilitating the procurement of prestigious federal and foundation grants. Additionally, we are adopting strategies designed to provide focused mentoring and professional development, e.g. through a newly launched Academic Leadership Academy and Faculty Development seminar series.

We intend to build a regional and national reputation for our focus on developing the next generation of female leaders in research and academic medicine, as we hire, advance and retain our female faculty.

Women in Science

Deidra Mountain, PhD, Vascular Research
Dr. Mountain and her team in the Vascular Research Laboratory are actively investigating vascular disease and the adverse outcomes of one potential complication of peripheral vascular interventions. Intimal hyperplasia, or thickening of the vessel wall, is the most common complication following balloon angioplasty, vascular stenting, and vascular bypass graft surgery. Dr. Mountain’s primary research focus is to develop therapies aimed at hyperplasia prevention, leading to an increase in the success rate of vascular surgeries. To this end, her team recently developed and patented a novel nanoparticle for successful drug delivery to cells lining the vessel wall. Before translation to clinical application in patients, their drug formulation will be fully characterized, and pharmacokinetic and biocompatibility profiling will be performed.

Dr. Mountain said funding through the Women in Science initiative procures advanced instrumentation required for drug characterization analyses and supplies needed to perform these essential preclinical validation studies. The goal is to advance this drug formulation into clinical testing for successful vascular drug delivery.

She said, "The clinically translate-able materials we are actively developing in our laboratory could lead to major advancements in the field of vascular research, reduce the risk of post-surgery complications, and thereby lessen the clinical and economic burden of peripheral vascular disease and repeat surgical procedures." 

Stacy Stephenson, MD, Regenerative Medicine, Department of Surgery 
Regenerative medicine is a multidisciplinary field that seeks to develop functional tissue substitutes to repair tissue that has been lost due to congenital abnormalities, injury, disease, or aging. Developing these tissue substitutes requires a complex interplay between the cells used, the material they are placed on, and the signals the cells receive to direct cellular function.  

Dr. Stephenson and her team in the Regenerative Medicine Laboratory are currently pursuing the use of carbon-based nanomaterials in combination with fat-derived adult stem cells to improve the quality and speed of bone and nerve healing. She is also investigating whether they can generate new blood vessels within these therapeutic nanomaterials and cells to help improve nerve and bone growth leading to enhanced tissue regeneration. Their long-term goal is to improve care and outcomes of patients by using the patient’s own body fat-derived adult stem cells to repair injuries.  

She said, "Funding from the Women in Science initiative will help us develop methods for isolation of endothelial cells from the same fat tissue used to isolate the fat-derived adult stem cells as well as perform early studies on the development of blood vessels using these two different cell types."

Emily Martin, PhD, Screening for Amyloidosis 
Amyloidosis is a complex disease that results in the build-up of a protein, known as amyloid, in various organs, and consequently, the affected organs lose their ability to function properly. As amyloid accumulates, patients may experience symptoms such as shortness of breath, irregular heartbeat, and numbness or tingling in their extremities. Since more common medical conditions may present with these symptoms, a diagnosis of amyloidosis can be quite challenging, but early recognition of the disease is critical to improve patient survival because without intervention, it will likely be fatal.  

There is evidence to suggest that certain medical conditions, namely carpal tunnel syndrome and lumbar spinal stenosis, may precede the development of whole-body amyloidosis by several years, and tendon sheaths in the wrist or ligaments of the lower back could contain deposits of amyloid before other organs are affected.

Given the importance of detecting amyloidosis as early as possible, Dr. Martin and her research team are studying small samples of these tissues at the time of corrective surgery and then screening them for amyloid deposits using an amyloid-specific stain, called Congo red.

Dr. Martin said, “This is an initial study to determine the incidence of amyloid in the patient population treated for carpal tunnel syndrome, as well as trigger finger, or spinal stenosis at the medical center.

"With preliminary studies such as ours, we may be able to show the value in establishing new clinical protocols for detecting amyloidosis. By looking at potentially at-risk patients, we are given the opportunity to establish a diagnosis before organ failure due to amyloid accumulation, thereby potentially improving patient quality of life and survival."

C. Lindsay McKnight, MD, Assistant Professor in the Department of Surgery

Dr. McKnight is leading a study entitled, "Changing the paradigm for infection prevention and control in patients suffering traumatic open bone fractures", which will evaluate the use of antibiotics early during surgical management. Given the importance of antibiotic stewardship, Dr. McKnight and her team plan to perform a prospective, non-inferiority study comparing two standard antibiotics and assess infection rates and the development of antibiotic resistance. The study has the potential to impact treatment algorithms in orthopedic trauma care.

Jill Maples, PhD, Associate Professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology

Dr. Maples is conducting a study entitled, "Use of biomarkers to predict maternal metabolic dysfunction in pregnancy." There is a relative lack of physiologic research in pregnant and postpartum women and, consequently, less evidence-based guidance related to metabolic health and physical activity during and after pregnancy. Dr. Maples and her team will investigate the role of novel biomarkers, assessed during early and mid-pregnancy, that may be predictive of metabolic dysfunction, such as gestational diabetes. To date, reliable approaches for diagnosing or predicting maternal metabolic dysfunction early in pregnancy have not been developed.
Kelsey Grabeel, MSIS, AHIP, Associate Professor, Preston Medical Library

Ms. Grabeel is leading a project entitled, "Utilizing the Newest Vital Sign (NVS) to Assess Patients’ Health Literacy Levels." Health literacy remains a major challenge for physicians and patients, and the Newest Vital Sign (NVS) is a tool used in research to help identify at-risk patients. Ms. Grabeel plans to obtain data from patients who are receiving outpatient care in a variety of practice settings. As part of the study, Ms. Grabeel will encourage physicians to use interventions such as plain language and the teach-back method to improve communication and then measure the degree to which these interventions were used as a function of the NVS. Additionally, clinical variables will be evaluated to assess their correlation with and predictive value for, the NVS score.

Support Women in Science

To learn more about supporting "Women in Science" or to meet one of our female faculty members engaged in research, please contact the Development Office via email at Development@utmck.edu or phone at 865-305-6611.

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Diversity and Inclusion in Medical Education and Academic Medicine

Publications from the: Association of American Medical Colleges

 

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