Posted by on December 23, 2009 - 1:22pm

As we come to the end of the special exhibit Changing the Face of Medicine, Celebrating America's Women Physicians at the Robert H. Lurie Medical Research Center here at Northwestern, we thought we’d provide a recap of some comments from our special exhibit event “Mentorship in Action” that occurred on December 7th.  At this event, several Northwestern women spoke about their experience as mentors and mentees, including Dr. Neena Schwartz from the Department of Neurobiology and Physiology, whose career has certainly paved the way for all women in science and medicine.

Dr. Neena Schwartz

Dr. Neena Schwartz

In her talk Dr. Schwartz addressed her own experience as a mentee and the status of women in medicine and research today, and gave her own recommendations for mentoring others.  Her academic career began at Goucher College, which was an all women’s college at the time.  She talked about her experience with mentors, some good and some not-so-good, but highlighted Meredith Runner from the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine and Allen Lein from Northwestern’s physiology department.  Dr. Schwartz acknowledged that despite these positive mentors, she was also faced with many hurdles as a woman in science, noting that when she was an instructor at the University of Illinois Medical School, it was thought inappropriate for a pregnant woman to lecture to medical students.  In the 1950’s this was a typical attitude towards women, and something that Dr. Schwartz strove to overcome.

In 1971, at the annual meeting of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, Schwartz and a group of 27 other women colleagues founded the Association for Women in Science (AWIS) with the goal of increasing the number of women in tenure track positions and in study sections to review grants at the NIH.  In 1974, AWIS sued the NIH forcing them to stop all appointments to study sections.  They were to provide a list of all vacancies, a list totaling 413, to which AWIS responded with a list of 1000 qualified women scientists.  Although a major hurdle, opinions of women in science did not seem to progress rapidly from there.  Dr. Schwartz recalled being asked by a female graduate student if people laughed at her when she gave a paper at a meeting, to which Dr. Schwartz replied, “Only when I tell a joke.”  This comment, however, stressed the importance of mentoring young women students in the sciences.  Over the next several years other women societies starting forming including the Women in Endocrinology (WE) with which Dr. Schwartz was also involved. Although the presence of women in science and medicine has certainly increase over the last few decades, Dr. Schwartz brought up an article from 2006 in the New England Journal of Medicine that pointed out disparities still do exist in authorship of academic medical literature.

Lastly, Dr. Schwartz emphasized the importance of mentoring young female students stressing that a mentor should help a mentee define her research and career goals and nurture and guide her without stifling independent thought.  She also pointed out that colleagues can often be mentors by recommending women for committees and talks and by offering to critique CVs.  Overall Dr. Schwartz’s talk was informative and inspiring to the audience of both women and men from students to seasoned professionals.

Dr. Schwartz’s new book “A lab of My Own” will be available sometime in 2010.

Posted by on December 11, 2009 - 4:35pm published an article today that summarizes the findings of a recent study on menopause and cholesterol that shows women's cholesterol levels increase at the time of menopause. The study's abstract can be found here, at the Journal of the American College of Cardiology site.



It isn't news that cholesterol and other risks of heart disease increase as women age, but the study wanted to determine if the cholesterol increase was due to simple aging, or more specifically related to menopause. They found that within two years of a woman's last period, her LDL cholesterol (so-called bad cholesterol) jumps about 10 points. This increase may be small, but if a woman already has elevated cholesterol, it could be problematic. Additionally, since other risk factors for heart disease increase with age, this increase in cholesterol could team with other cardio-related age affects to create an increased risk of heart problems. The study authors suggest that peri-menopausal women take this news under advisement and become even more vigilant about their diet and exercise routines.

This study is not only interesting because of the findings, but also because of the methodology they employed; the researchers used self-reported data from a national health registry to conduct their study. The Study of Women's Health Across the Nation (SWAN) is very akin to our state based registry, the Illinois Women's Health Registry (if you live in Illinois, go join!). Analysis of these surveys and normal everyday women who participated pulled out this very interesting finding. It's quite clear that this is a great example of why gender-based research is so necessary, study of cholesterol rates in an all-male study group would never have discovered this connection! Finally, the study concluded that the link between increased cholesterol and menopause was true for most ethnicities...because they included women from many ethnicities! It's amazing how much more we learn when diverse participants are used for clinical research studies!

Posted by on December 3, 2009 - 10:51am

Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) damages the white blood cells of the immune system, reducing the body’s ability to fight off bacterial infection, viruses, and other diseases such as pneumonia and some cancers.  Late stage HIV is often referred to as Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS).

The most common causes of HIV infection are through sexual contact, infected blood transfusion, or sharing needles or syringes.  HIV symptoms vary with the phase of infection.  Early symptoms may resemble a flu virus, but infected individuals may show no symptoms for eight or nine years.  Later symptoms include swollen lymph nodes, weight loss, fever, and diarrhea.  Advanced HIV and AIDS symptoms are more severe and include night sweats, chills, fever, lesions or white spots in the mouth, headache and chronic diarrhea.  Treatment for HIV involves an array of anti-retroviral medications, coordinated to each individual’s response.  New treatments are continually being developed and tested in clinical trials.

Resources at Northwestern for HIV:

The HIV Center at Northwestern Memorial Hospital offers comprehensive assessment and treatment for HIV.  The Center offers services such as patient/family education, medication instruction, clinical trials, medical and legal referrals and an infusion center.  Within the HIV Center there are specialty clinics for patients needing care in medical areas of hepatology, neurology, ophthalmology and hematology, and also in obstetrics and gynecology.  Inpatient hospital care is also provided with an interdisciplinary approach to disease treatment.

For more information contact: (312) 926-8358

Northwestern Physicians/ Researchers specializing in HIV treatment:

The Division of Infectious Disease at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine offers inpatient and outpatient services for the diagnosis and treatment of HIV and other infectious diseases.  The Division’s 9 full-time faculty members all receive external grants for basic science and clinical research projects.  Dr. Sarah Sutton’s research interests include perinatal transmission of HIV, and HIV and women, while Dr. Steven Wolinsky, the Division Chief, studies the evolutionary mechanisms at work in the emergence, spread and containment of diseases such as HIV.

Click to see physician profiles and clinic information:

IWHR Highlighted Researcher

Dr. Kimberly Scarsi, PharmD, MSc is a Research Assistant Professor in the Division of Infectious Disease at Northwestern University.  Her research focuses on the pharmacokinetics of HIV treatment in women, particularly during pregnancy.  Dr. Scarsi's research recognizes the need for studies in women since previous research has been conducted primarily in men.  Dr. Scarsi is studying the fluctuation in antiviral concentrations during pregnancy, toward the goal of treating these women more efficiently.  She is also comparing results of her studies in the US with sister studies in Africa, where nearly 60% of those infected with HIV are women.  Recently Dr. Scarsi was chosen as a recipient of an Institute for Women's Health Research Pioneer Grant for the establishment of a long-term database of women in which she will be doing single-timed blood samples over the course of their pregnancy.  She hopes to pinpoint the changes that occur in the second and third trimesters so that physicians may adjust dosages accordingly.  Eventually the project may become a multicenter study in the US and internationally.

Useful Links and Resources:

Posted by on November 30, 2009 - 2:33pm

A recent article by the British news source, Mail Online, titled “Sorry darling, I can't do the vacuuming. It might damage my sperm count: The best excuse yet for men not to do the housework...” has generated media attention.  The premise is that household chores such as using a vacuum cleaner, microwave or refrigerator could reduce a man’s chances of having children.  The article explains that the high dose of electromagnetic fields produced by these household machines can drastically reduce the quality of sperm.  As implied by its title, author Nic Fleming concludes that we should think seriously about reducing men’s exposure to household chores involving electrical appliances.

The ‘facts’ of the story are a wildly embellished extrapolation from the research of Dr. De-Kun Li at Stanford University.  Dr. Li’s article, which will be published in January in Reproductive Toxicology provides evidence that exposure to high levels of magnetic fields is linked to a two-fold increase in the risk of poor sperm quality.  Sperm quality, for the purposes of Dr. Li's study, is defined by motility, morphology and concentration.  The study was performed on 148 men, 76 with low sperm quality and 72 with normal sperm (controls).  Study subjects wore electromagnetic field meters for a period of 24 hours to measure their exposure to magnetic fields with frequencies between 40-1000Hz.  The article does not mention specific machinery or household appliances and does not caution men against performing household tasks.  The authors do, however, reference other articles linking cell phone use to poor sperm quality.

So what about women?  If electromagnetic fields are capable of damaging male gametes, why wouldn’t they be damaging to female gametes?  In fact, a 2001 study published in Bioelectromagnetics indicated that low frequency magnetic fields have adverse effects on fertility in both male and female rats.  While other studies in both humans and other mammals have yielded inconclusive or conflicting results – it is important that we consider effects on fertility in both sexes.  If electromagnetic fields are in fact detrimental to our fertility, the implications for women are far greater than for men as men constantly replenish their sperm supply every 3 months.  Because women don’t create new gametes throughout their lifetime, any damage to female fertility presents a more permanent problem.  Perhaps it is women who should be exchanging the vacuum cleaner for a foot massage…

Posted by on November 25, 2009 - 4:43pm

One of the beliefs of the IWHR is that a very good way to increase the visibility of women's issues in science and medicine is to increase the number of actual women professionals in those fields. That why we were so happy to see the recent booklet put out by the NIH that highlights some of the important women working at the NIH. Entitled, "Women in Science at the National Institutes of Health 2007-2008", the booklet gives a great profile of many women at the NIH, divided by institute and center. According to the NIH press release about the publication, the booklet contains 298 profiles of women who serve in a "wide range of the roles, positions, and contributions of women across the NIH, including but not limited to, clinicians, basic scientists, program directors, policy analysts, computer scientists, epidemiologists, geneticists, and statisticians, as well as directors and deputy directors of NIH Institutes and Centers."



The personal stories aspect of this publication is absolutely the best part; these aren't just boring biographical sketches about education pedigree, but stories allowing the women to share "pivotal events" that turned them on to science and the insights they have gained over their careers.  As the press release states, "The book features women who started their education at community colleges, women who didn't go to graduate school until they were in their 40's and women whose childhood circumstances led them into a particular field of interest, such as addiction science. Some of these women pursued high-level science careers while raising children alone; others balanced the demands of their job with the demands of a husband’s equally challenging job." These are the personal details that make these women inspirational and make the booklet such an interesting read.

I urge you to download (absolutely free!) the publication "Women in science at the NIH", here. I'm quite certain that you'll see yourself in, or be inspired by, many of these women's stories.

Posted by on November 19, 2009 - 7:39pm

It’s been all over the news this week--the US Preventative Services Task Force came out with a new set of recommendations for breast cancer screening, including recommending against yearly mammograms for women ages 40-49.  Their recommendations say that there is only a small benefit from starting testing at 40, and that this benefit isn't enough to outweigh potential harms of testing, including psychological harms, unnecessary biopsies, and false positives.

The task force also recommends against teaching breast self-examination, another issue that raises controversy.  Alison wrote a post a couple months ago about whether breast self exams are beneficial, take a look to get a couple more viewpoints on the issue.

The main point is that starting routine mamography at age 40 doesn't save or add years to enough women's lives to recommend screening for everyone.  But mammography does sometimes detect cancer in women in their 40s, and these recommendations have many people worried that insurance may stop covering mammograms for women under 50.  Since the task force states, "the decision to start regular, biennial screening mammography before the age of 50 years should be an individual one and take patient context into account, including the patient's values regarding specific benefits and harms," it seems unlikely that insurance companies will be able to refuse coverage for women whose physicians believe they should get earlier testing.  Women with a strong family history of breast cancer or with genetic mutations that predispose them to the disease will still be encouraged to start testing earlier.

Keep in mind that these recommendations aren't from some random group of government officials with no knowlegde of healthcare out to save money at the cost of peoples health; on the contrary, members of the task force include mostly physicians and professionals with degrees in public health and nursing from across the country.

If you want to see the details for yourself, you can take a look at the USPSTF recommendation summary itself, or articles from and the New York Times ).

Posted by on November 18, 2009 - 4:01pm

The Institute for Women's Health Research held its monthly forum on Tuesday with speaker Dr. Celeste Watkins-Hayes giving her talk entitled, "'Dying from' to 'living with' HIV/AIDS: Framing Institutions and the coping process of infected black women."

Dr. Watkins-Hayes began her talk by highlighting the huge discrepancies in HIV/AIDS occurrence by race: through 2007, 60% of women with HIV/AIDS were black or African-American identified. The statistics are even more striking in the local Chicago area: blacks in Chicago account for 55% of HIV/AIDS incidence, while only being 36% of the entire population. Similarly shocking, black women in Chicago account for 76% of all HIV/AIDS occurrences in the city.

The remainder of the talk discussed the results of the Sister to Sister study that Dr. Watkins-Hayes performed in Chicago. The study worked with 25 women with HIV/AIDS through two in-depth interviews and one other observation session where the woman's health status was known and salient. The participants had an average age of 36, all had children, and the majority had low income (<15K/year).

The crux of Dr. Watkins-Hayes' argument is that many individuals can serve as "framing institutions" for a woman diagnosed with HIV or AIDS, these are the people or communities that give the initial information about health status, give a framework for how to understand the social meaning of the illness, give women a language to discuss their diagnoses, and offer resources for dealing with the implications of their disease.  Often, these institutions are the doctors and nurses that give the initial HIV or AIDS status, but they can also be as diverse as drug and alcohol abuse rehabilitation centers that are targeting very different problems than an HIV/AIDS, or pastors and private therapists. These people, rather than friends or family, seem to be responsible for shaping how women really look at the disease and begin to accept it. If these framing institutions are not supportive or shaming about the health diagnoses, women are less likely to begin to transition to "living with" their disease. While middle and upper class women are more likely to have access to private framing institutions, lower income women are at significant risk, due to lack of time, money, or acess, of not finding strong, positive framing institutions.

I urge you all to check out Dr. Watkins-Hayes biography page; on it you will find a link to the website she helps organize, links to some of her excellent publications, and descriptions of her current projects. One of her major upcoming projects is a large scale study of the social implications of HIV/AIDS for African-American women. If you'd like to hear more about the study, or discuss being a participant, please contact one of the students working with Dr. Hayes Watkins on the project, Amanda Armour at or 312-320-1223.

Posted by on November 13, 2009 - 5:53pm

Women now comprise half of all American workers, and women are either the primary or co-breadwinners for two thirds of all American families. Maria Shiver, in conjunction with the Center for American Progress, published a fascinating new report last month that outlines the ways that having a large female workforce is changing the landscape of American business, family, and health status.  The entire 400 page report can be downloaded by chapter, or read online here.



Of primary interest to the readers of this blog is the chapter about the health of the working woman entitled, "Sick and Tired: Working Women and their Health" by Jessica Arons and Dorothy Roberts. A few really interesting points that I'd like to pull out:

  • A quarter of women still receive insurance through their husband's employers. This means if something happens to her husband, or a couple decides to divorce, a woman could very quickly lose her coverage.
  • There currently seems to be a two-tier system in the business place with regards to breastfeeding: professional mothers are accommodated, while working-class mothers are not.
  • Women are often exposed to chemicals that can impair fertility while in the workplace. Alternatively they are excluded from certain male-dominated fields because of concerns over these chemical impacts, rather than just making these workplaces safer.
  • The act of being a caregiver, which is usually done by women, can have health impacts: caregivers are more likely to report having heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and arthritis. The chronic stress felt causes women to also be more likely to suffer from stress-induced headaches, sleeplessness, irritability, and depression.
  • Women are more likely than men to work in jobs that are low-wage, part-time, or for small businesses; all are positions that infrequently offer employer-based insurance.
  • The practice of "gender rating," or charging women more than men for insurance premiums, is common among private insurers. They are also more likely to deny coverage or increase premiums for women based on preexisting conditions that only or disproportionately affect women.
  • Because they have to pay more for insurance, and make less than men, women spend a higher percentage of their income on healthcare. They are more likely to be forced into medical bankruptcy when things go wrong.

The article has a lot of good personal stories to illustrate some of the hardships encountered with healthcare for working women, and really touches on the ways that race and economic status can put certain women at even more of a disadvantage. The chapter is such a great look at the ways that we, as working women, are impacted differently by the types of jobs we have, the influences of these jobs (and our non-paying jobs as caregivers) on our health, and the ways we are able to afford our healthcare. I highly recommend checking it out; it can be directly downloaded here.

Posted by on November 9, 2009 - 6:20pm

DSC00578Recruitment for Oncofertility Saturday Academy (OSA) 2010 applicants officially began on Monday, November 9, 2009.  This is the fourth consecutive year of OSA and we are expecting a very competitive pool of applicants from Young Women’s Leadership Charter School.  OSA was initiated in 2007 by the Northwestern University and Young Women’s Leadership Charter School (YWLCS) of Chicago Science Partnership.  Since its inception, a total of 46 YWLCS high school girls have participated in the OSA.   Today, of the 46 students, two are college juniors, 15 are college sophomores, 14 are college freshman and 15 are 12th graders in high school.  Of the 31 who are in college, most are actively pursuing science-related majors. OSA Directors and Coordinators will be contacting and surveying all OSA Alums this year to gather information about their most current academic and careers pursuits.  Currently, OSA is also developing mechanisms and opportunities to provide long-term mentoring and support to the participants as they make the transition from high school to college and beyond.

OSA is hoping that the 31 OSA Alums will post comments on this blog to give reasons to the current YWLCS 11th and 12th grade students to apply to OSA.

  • What did you like most about OSA?
  • How did OSA help you make decisions about your academic or career path?
  • How did OSA impact your life?

OSA Alums this is an opportunity for you to give guidance to the next group of OSA participants.  Here are the names of the OSA Alums:

Chanel, Shardey, Nicole, Angelica, Ashley A. Antavia, Guadalupe, Christina, Jasmine F., Ashley M., Antavia, Natalia, Megan, Jasmine S., Yasmine, Deja, Alex, Samantha, Nikki, Mona, Grace, Chloe, Eboni, Abigail, Jathia, Kirsa, Iesha, Brittany, Shaquita, Jasmine W. and Jasmine P.

20090220_3004The Institute for Women’s Health Research created the Women’s Health Science Program for High School Girls and Beyond (WHSP).  The Oncofertility Saturday Academy (OSA) is one of the four academies offered by WHSP to inspire and prepare the next generation of women leaders in science and medicine. To promote and encourage the high school girls to take action and live healthier lives, health workshops, nutritious meals and fitness classes are integrated into every academy. To learn more about all four academies, please visit

Thank you Nikki Cooper and Grace Gallegos for posting comments to the blog.  Here are a couple photos of you in action during OSA!  Other OSA Alumni, if you make a comment, I will post your photo!


Nikki Cooper, OSA Alumni, Future General Surgeon

Grace Gallegos, OSA Alumni, Future Paramedic and Nurse

Grace Gallegos, OSA Alumni, Future Paramedic and Nurse

Megan (on far left) with her OSA sisters. Megan worked as an OSA Alumni Lab Fellow this past summer in Dr. Woodruff's lab.

Megan Romero (on far left) with her OSA sisters. Megan worked as an OSA Alumni Lab Fellow this past summer in Dr. Woodruff's lab.

Abigail Johnson isolated follicles in Dr. Woodruff's lab.

Abigail Johnson isolated follicles in Dr. Woodruff's lab.

Ashley McKinney is a sophomore at Hampton University. Ashley was an OSA Alumni Lab Fellow this summer in Dr. Woodruff's laboratory. SCIENCE RULES!

Ashley McKinney is a sophomore at Hampton University. Ashley was an OSA Alumni Lab Fellow this summer in Dr. Woodruff's laboratory. SCIENCE RULES!

Shardey is one of the most experienced OSA leaders. She is now a junior in college and majoring in forensic science.

Shardey is one of the most experienced OSA leaders. She is now a junior in college and majoring in forensic science.

Samantha Torres with the da Vinci surgical robot.

Samantha Torres with the da Vinci surgical robot.

Posted by on November 6, 2009 - 11:08am

Guest blog by Dr. Jennifer Hirshfeld-Cytron, Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility Fellow, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Northwestern Memorial Hospital

The Obstetrics and Gynecology Grand Rounds this morning was given by past FIGO (International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics) and previous chairman of the department, Dr. John Sciarra.  He provided an incredibly informative and moving description of the global issues affecting women, particularly in the developing world.  He highlighted the issues of maternal mortality, maternal morbidity, STDs, cervical cancer, and education inequality.

For instance, in Afghanistan, 1 in 6 women will DIE from pregnancy related complications compared to 1 in 4100 in the developed world.  Pregnancy related complications include: abortion related deaths, hemorrhage, thrombotic events and eclampsia (see below). 20.5 million unsafe abortions occur each year worldwide and account for 60,-80,000 deaths.

Furthermore, HIV/AIDS accounts for 11% of worldwide deaths with approximately 47 percent of the 34.3 million adults living with HIV/AIDS being women. Cervical cancer, a preventable cancer with appropriate screening, sex education and potentially the vaccine, affects 200,000 women worldwide and is second only to breast cancer in incidence.  Cervical cancer screening in the developed world centers on cytology, which is not available in the developing world. He further highlighted the inequities of women.   Worldwide women work 66% more than men but receive only 15% of the income.  Illiteracy in parts of the developing worth is greater than 65% for women. This just begins to highlight the complicated issue of providing appropriate family planning education to the developing world.

These staggering and incredibly disturbing statistics leave us with only one question; how can we raise the status of women worldwide? Efforts are being done to partner developed with developing world medical schools to increase technical skills for the care of women, such as safe abortions.  A website ( has been started by Dr. Sciarra and others providing education in the form of book chapters and how-to videos to begin to enhance knowledge to the developing world.  Access is huge problem for women and foundations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are working towards these and other efforts.  In short, get involved.

As Mahmoud Fathalla, past president of the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics, said: "Women are not dying because of diseases we cannot treat. They are dying because societies have yet to make the decision that their lives are worth saving."