When Anne Dixon, M.D., first started working with the American Lung Association Airways Clinical Research Centers (ACRC) Network in 2001 as a junior investigator, she went to her first steering committee meeting with an idea for a study. "I found my colleagues were very welcoming to junior researchers, and as a woman I felt supported," says Dr. Dixon, now director of the Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine at the University of Vermont.
According to Catalyst, a global nonprofit that researches workplace change, women made up less than one-quarter (24 percent) of those employed in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) occupations in 2015. In addition, almost one-third of women in the U.S. intend to leave their SET (science, engineering, technology) job within a year.
Things are a little different at the ACRC.
As the nation's largest not-for-profit network of clinical research centers dedicated to asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) treatment research, the ACRC conducts multicenter clinical trials that directly impact COPD and asthma patient care.
Currently 10 of the 32 Principal Investigators are women, making up nearly one-third of the ACRC.
Dr. Dixon and many other women in the ACRC are quick to point out that the group is gender-neutral in terms of providing opportunities and a supportive environment for researchers. "It's a wonderful organization and beneficial for men and women alike," says Loretta Que, M.D., co-principal investigator of the Duke University Medical Center American Lung Association-Airways Clinical Research Center.
Fostering Career Development
Women involved in the ACRC say it has provided them with tremendous career opportunities. Janet Holbrook, Ph.D., co-director of the ACRC Data Coordinating Center at Johns Hopkins University, has been with the network since its inception. "I've been able to become involved in so many facets of clinical research in pulmonology—it's been an incredible opportunity to collaborate with and learn from leading pulmonary researchers, women and men, in the U.S." she says. "It has been integral to my career development and that experience has been key in my ability to advance from an assistant professor to full professor."
Lynn Gerald, Ph.D., M.S.P.H., co-principal investigator of the ACRC at the University of Arizona, also credits the network with helping her advance in her career. "I started as junior faculty, and have progressed up to full professor," says Dr. Gerald, who is Canyon Ranch Endowed Chair and Professor in the Department of Health Promotion Sciences, College of Public Health, at the University of Arizona and Associate Director of Clinical Research for the Asthma and Airways Disease Research Center. "Being part of the ACRC has allowed me to get in-depth experience in clinical trials, and has given me the broad base of experience that as a behavioral scientist I might not have received otherwise."
Putting Science Into Action
A number of women involved in the ACRC have put their knowledge of lung health to work as advocates for the American Lung Association on the local and national level.
Dr. Dixon's involvement has led her to advocate against idling diesel school buses in Vermont. "I worked with the local Lung Association and testified before the legislature about a bill to limit idling school buses which passed in 2007." Dr. Dixon and her ACRC team are now involved in the association's LUNG FORCE Walk and Expo. "The ACRC has fostered a relationship between researchers and the community," she says.
MeiLan Han, M.D., M.S., co-principal Investigator at the University of Michigan ACRC, has worked with the American Lung Association in Michigan, focusing on women's lung health issues. She also worked with the Lung Association on a national level on the Taking Her Breath Away COPD campaign. She has served on the organization’s Scientific Advisory Board and is a national volunteer spokesperson. In 2015, she also participated in a congressional briefing on the burden of COPD on women, to try to increase funding for women’s lung health research.
The Next Generation
Many researchers say mentoring young investigators has been a highlight of their ACRC participation. "ACRC is a great forum for helping to develop junior investigators," Dr. Han says. "One of my goals is to foster diversity in lung health research."
Researchers are not the only women whose careers have benefitted from ACRC involvement, Dr. Holbrook points out. "The non-faculty staff in medicine is predominantly female," she says. "Most of the ACRC clinic coordinators are women. Being part of the ACRC has given them a chance to learn from and support each other and advance their own careers. Our coordinators are key to our network’s success and it has been great to see many of them advance their careers based on the terrific job they have done working on ACRC studies."
The past two decades have seen advancements in women’s roles in medicine in general, and the ACRC in particular, Dr. Holbrook notes. "We see more women in leadership positions, which reflects what is going on in society as a whole. However, that advancement depends on groups like ours that let people shine based on their good ideas and hard work, and it is rewarding to see many of these women become great leaders and role models for younger women."
"The ACRC network is the cornerstone of our research program, conducting promising research that has a real-life impact on those living with a lung disease," said American Lung Association National President and CEO Harold P. Wimmer. "The network attracts some of the best investigators across the country, and we're proud to foster an environment where the best and the brightest have opportunities to contribute to this important research."
Learn more about the ACRC and the American Lung Association Research Team at Lung.org/research. Interested candidates at various stages of their career can apply for the American Lung Association’s Awards and Grants program. Support the American Lung Association and its research by donating or participating in a local event.