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NIH spotlights four Black pioneers in health research


The National Institutes of Health hosted a panel discussion featuring trailblazers talking about their careers, the agency, and their hopes for the future.

They embarked on remarkable careers, and paved the way for others to follow.

Image: NIH

From left, Vivian W. Pinn, Nathan Stinson, Jr., J. Taylor Harden, and Kenneth Olden, discuss their remarkable careers with the NIH during a panel discussion Wednesday.

The National Institutes of Health honored four Black leaders who held key positions at the federal government’s primary agency focused on health research.

In addition to shining the light on their accomplishments, the NIH hosted a panel discussion Wednesday featuring candid and moving reflections from the four leaders on their work, the progress they’ve seen and their hopes for greater diversity in the agency and the research community.

The NIH paid tribute to J. Taylor Harden, former assistant to the director for special populations at the National Institute on Aging; Kenneth Olden, former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences; Vivian W. Pinn, former director of the NIH Office of Research on Women’s Health; and Nathan Stinson, Jr., director of the Division of Community Health and Population Science at the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities.

Read more: Leaders offer guidance on improving health equity

Focusing on social determinants

Olden was the first African American to become director of one of the NIH institutes. When he took over the institute of environmental health sciences in 1991, he said his goal was to “make the institute responsive to the needs of the American people.” But he also hoped to expand the scope of the institute’s research beyond chemical and physical agents.

“Social determinants of health, in my estimation, were a major part of what we should be doing,” Olden said.

In 1991, only a handful of journal articles on environmental health focused on social determinants, but now, hundreds of papers have been published, Olden said.

“I'm excited and pleased that I'm around to see how, after these 30 or so years, the social determinants of health is now a major part of environmental health,” Olden said.

Read more: Nearly half of healthcare workers say a patient’s race affects quality of care

Focusing on all women

Similarly, Pinn said when she directed NIH’s research office on women’s health, she was focused on ensuring diversity in programs. She also said she sought to “better enhance and support the development of women of color.”

Pinn said the office was initially designed to ensure women in minority groups were included in clinical trials, but she envisioned a larger role.

“We actually wanted to expand that to not just being a monitoring office, but a policy office and a research arm, and we did that,” Pinn said.

Pinn noted some disappointment to see some bright leaders of color leave the NIH earlier than they should have. She noted they went to great academic positions elsewhere, but she thought the agency could have retained more.

“I wondered why we couldn't keep them at the NIH,” Pinn said. “I’m glad they got the experience and got the credentials of the NIH, but I just thought we lost more than we needed to.”

Still, Pinn cherishes her time with the agency. “Overall, my experiences at NIH were fabulous,” Pinn said. “I would have given anything … to have had this opportunity.”

Evolving mission

Stinson, who continues to work for the NIH, noted the agency has evolved in its research of health and medicine, driven by the COVID-19 pandemic and the killing of George Floyd.

“NIH has always been this behemoth of biomedical research but now there's other types of research that have taken on a new significance,” Stinson said.

Stinson points to the NIH committing tens of millions of dollars over the next decade to community-based organizations, which will choose their own academic partners. They will also implement the interventions in their communities.

“There was a time not too long ago, I would have bet anything that I would never see anything like that at NIH,” Stenson says. “That's the change of the culture. There's more that needs to be done for sure. There's no question about that. But this is a different NIH than it was before, because there's a greater inclusivity and embracement of wider aspects of research. And ultimately this will be to the benefit of everyone in this country.”

Awareness of ageism

Harden said it didn’t take long to know she was in the right place when she began working for the NIH.

“When I arrived at the National Institute on Aging, I knew I'd found a great home,” Harden said.

When she began at the institute, Harden said ageism, the discrimination against older people, didn’t have the same recognition as sexism or racism. “At that time, and as we continue to this very day, we confront issues around ageism,” Harden said.

“We really have a real need for the National Institute on Aging as we continue to confront the barriers not only for age, but for race and for gender,” Harden said.

Impact of Civil Rights Act

The leaders also discussed the 60th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and the leaders noted the profound influence the law has had on their lives and the difference it has made for people of color.

“It's foundational to all of this,” Stinson said. “I mean, it really opened up the door for opportunities on such a very broad scale.”

Despite hard-fought gains in recent years, Harden also notes that there is too much separation persisting today.

“Even today, there are probably children in the southeast sector of this city, the southeast sector of Washington, D.C., that don't know about the National Institutes of Health,” Harden said.

While giving credit to the landmark law, the researchers noted the importance of individuals along the way who opened doors, served as mentors, and provided opportunities. “I think most of the change that happened at institutions happened because there was someone there, some bodies there, who were committed to inclusion and diversity,” Olden said.

Pinn echoed the importance of the commitment of individuals. She also issued a warning about efforts to undermine strides in diversity, equity and inclusion.

“We should not take what we gained under the Civil Rights Act as established and long and permanent, because you can see what's happening in the political world today,” Pinn said.

“We need to make sure that our rights under the Civil Rights Act, continue to be recognized and enforced as we go forward so that young folks coming behind us, don't have to fight the same battles,” she added.

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