The American Lung Association is celebrating its 120th anniversary this year, and its success in advancing our mission of research, advocacy and education would not be possible without the many women pushing boundaries to make incredible strides in the fight against lung disease.

In 1959, Dr. Mary Ellen Avery received a Lung Association research grant. She conducted research that discovered that the lungs of babies with respiratory distress syndrome (RDS) lack surfactant. Surfactant is a fatty substance that decreases the surface tension inside the lungs, which helps keep the lungs open. However, premature babies that are born without surfactant tend to develop respiratory troubles. Dr. Avery’s finding led to treatments for RDS, saving the lives of millions of babies over the next 64 years.

Dr. Avery’s lifesaving research laid the foundation for numerous women supported by Lung Association research grants to contribute significantly to the field of lung health. For Women’s History Month, we highlight three current researchers who are extending the tradition of excellence of women in science.

Teresa Allende-Aydillo Gómez, PhD – Icahn School of Medicine, Mount Sinai

Research Grant: American Lung Association COVID-19 Respiratory Virus Research Award - Immunological Imprinting and Cross-reactive Immune Responses in COVID-19

Dr. Teresa Allende-Aydillo Gómez was funded by the COVID-19 Respiratory Virus Award, which was quickly created by the Lung Association to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and has empowered researchers to make an immediate impact in infectious diseases. She was funded specifically to work on Immunological Imprinting, which looks at how pre-existing infections or immunity from one coronavirus, some of which are responsible for the common cold, may affect immunity to other coronaviruses.  

Teresa Allende-Aydillo Gómez, PhD Teresa Allende-Aydillo Gómez, PhD

Dr. Allende-Aydillo Gómez published a recent study finding that getting a COVID-19 booster shot at the same time as the flu vaccine does not affect the immunity response to the flu vaccine. Interestingly, she also looked at any potential effect of getting the shot in the same arm, compared to opposite arms. However, flu immunity was greater if the shots were given in separate arms, specifically for the H3N2 strain of the flu virus. This work supports the current clinical guidelines that seasonal flu and COVID-19 booster vaccines can conveniently be given at the same time.

Understanding how previous infections or multiple vaccinations affect the immune system is critical to inform policies and medical advice, but also can lead to developing new, better therapies against viruses that have pathogenic potential, arising from research like Dr. Aydillo-Gómez, who is leading the next generation of women researchers.

“I am very happy to see the number of girls interested in STEM has increased since I started my career a few years ago,” beams Dr. Allende-Aydillo Gómez. She continues “This is thanks to a general effort of society to promote the professional development of women while also recognizing early and emerging talent.”

Sonali Bose, MD, MPH, Icahn School of Medicine, Mount Sinai.

Research Grant: American Lung Association Airways Clinical Research Centers Pilot Grant - Influence of Omega-3 Status on Asthma Health During Pregnancy?

Individuals who are pregnant are at elevated risk for uncontrolled asthma. Loss of maternal asthma control can lead to other serious health conditions for the mother, such as premature delivery and hypertensive disorders of pregnancy, as well as an increased risk to the baby in developing asthma, respiratory infections, or other effects on growth and development.

As asthma is known to be a chronic inflammatory disorder of the airways, Dr. Bose was funded by an American Lung Association Airways Clinical Research Centers Pilot Grant, in the hopes that a diet high in Omega-3 fatty acids can improve asthma control in pregnant women. Omega-3 fatty acids are generally found in fish and flax seed oil and previous research has found that it may resolve inflammation. Currently, there are few effective strategies available for pregnant women to alleviate their asthma symptoms, but Dr. Bose’s research has the potential to reduce the risk of complications for both the mother and the baby. 

Sonali Bose, MD, MPH Sonali Bose, MD, MPH

Black and Hispanic individuals in the U.S. have a disproportionate burden of asthma and are also at greater risk for pregnancy complications compared to their white counterparts. Thus, the work done by Dr. Bose may lead to an intervention that could be a low-cost way to alleviate health disparities in minority, low-income women who are pregnant and are high-risk for asthma. 

As a physician-scientist working in maternal-fetal health research, Dr. Bose experienced first-hand the challenges as a woman in STEM. “Many of the struggles I have faced as a woman in STEM have been related to actually owning the work that we have been doing, especially in maternal-fetal health research,” says Dr. Bose. “Unconscious bias in traditionally male-dominated STEM fields creates a situation where women may feel like they need a louder and/or persistent voice to advocate for their work, and for themselves as physician-scientists. It’s important to remind ourselves that this research speaks for those most vulnerable.”

Priyadharshini Devarajan, PhD, Chan Medical School at the University of Massachusetts

Research Grant: American Lung Association Catalyst Award - What Precursors Become Lung-Resident CD4 Memory that Protect Against Respiratory Infections or Cause Lung Pathology?

Vaccines for influenza and COVID-19 have saved millions of lives and continue to be an effective tool to protect lung health. However, current vaccines need to be updated regularly as viruses mutate and change over time.

Dr. Devarajan is conducting research on a type of immune T cell located in the lung, known as CD4 T resident memory (CD4 TRM), which can provide protection directly in the tissues of the lung and nose which are usually first to be infected. “If we can figure out the factors that induce T cells to develop in the lungs, that information can be used to develop vaccines that induce those factors,” she said. “This could result in more stable, long-lasting vaccines for respiratory viruses.”

Priyadharshini Devarajan, PhD Priyadharshini Devarajan, PhD

Using her funding from the Lung Association, Dr. Devarajan gathered preliminary data and was awarded a R21 grant from the National Institutes of Health related to her Catalyst work. These accomplishments also led to her attaining an independent position at Stony Brook University School of Medicine, starting this summer. 

No matter the funding amount, Lung Association grants help to boost careers in lung research. “I really hope we have more and more grants available especially to women at this career stage,” says Devarajan. Read more about her incredible vaccine research in our recent research blog.

Setting an Example for Work-Life Balance in Academia

Studies indicate that parenthood within academia exacerbates gender disparities, reducing the time available for women to conduct research and contributes to self-selection among women who perceive academia as unwelcoming to parents. Because of this, scientists around the world are calling for more support for women scientists at the institutional level.

“Awards for women at our [early] career stage also help us balance our personal lives and stay in academia,” reflects Dr. Devarajan. “They give us the funding to be able to afford more resources to achieve that balance, like technical help to quickly finish an experiment and allow me to come home to my baby at a reasonable time.”

All three rising stars remarked that good mentors make a difference in science. “My strongest mentors have been women who have been compelling role models and magically balance successful careers and all the wonderful opportunities and responsibilities that women often have to juggle,” claims Dr. Sonali Bose. “I strive to be just like them every day!”

Inspired by her own mentor, Dr. Susan Swain, Dr. Devarajan aims to be an example to other women in science by running her own lab. “While women represent more than half of science PhDs, far fewer are full professors who are running their own labs,” she said. “We need to find a way to improve those numbers.”

When Dr. Allende Aydillo-Gómez was asked about her role as a mentor to other young women, she responded “It makes me proud to think that they could identify me and my fellow women as a role model that could influence their career choices.”

To learn more about the incredible research being done by scientists like Drs. Bose, Allende-Aydillo Gómez, and Devarajan, visit lung.org/research.

Freedom From Smoking Clinic
Detroit, MI | May 29, 2024