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Barrier breakers

Mass. General grants to women scientists help plug 'leaky pipeline' between grad school and tenure

In 2001, Dr. Ellen Grant was up all hours with a colicky baby, working as a radiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and struggling to advance in the mercilessly demanding world of academic medicine by developing her own research on brain injuries in newborns.

At times during those long, squalling nights and grinding days, she wondered whether she should just scale back her aspirations and go into private practice. That would mean more money and more time with her family. Perhaps, she thought, her research career was just not meant to be.

Then Grant won a Claflin Award. It was only a modest prize -- $60,000 over two years, offered since 1997 to select Massachusetts General Hospital women trying to balance their medical research with young children. But, she says, it made an enormous difference: It not only paid for staff to help on her research, it gave her "the positive feedback you need when you're overworked and exhausted to kind of keep in the game."

Grant is now chief of pediatric radiology of Mass. General and up for a promotion from assistant to associate professor at Harvard Medical School. (She has also had two more children.) And the Claflin Awards are up for some recognition as well: Last week, Mass. General researchers published a study suggesting that when it comes to women struggling to balance family with a medical or scientific career, a little help like the Claflins can go a long way.

In corporations, women tend to talk about a "glass ceiling." In academia, the more commonly used metaphor is the "leaky pipeline." The flood of women in graduate and professional schools gives way to a trickle at the highest levels in many fields.

A woman in her 30s is likeliest to bear children and also to be caught in the classic Catch-22 of academic medicine: She needs to win grant money to pursue research, but to do that, she must somehow build an impressive research record before she has won any money. All while she is still practicing medicine in the clinic.

Usually a budding physician-scientist works long nights and weekends to get established. But when a woman is the primary caregiver of young children, those overtime hours are often given over to feedings and playtime.

Two years ago, Lawrence Summers, then the president of Harvard, prompted a spate of soul-searching about women in science when he publicly offered some "best guesses" as to why their numbers dwindle at higher academic levels. He stated that there were "issues of intrinsic aptitude" in science and engineering, the words that drew the most fire. But he also said he believed the "largest phenomenon" was the clash between "people's legitimate family desires" and overly demanding jobs.

Though his remarks brought renewed attention to the issue, the Claflin Awards remain unusual if not unique at academic hospitals, said Dr. Nancy Tarbell, a Mass. General doctor and senior author of the study on women in scientific careers, which appeared in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

But "I do hope that others copy it," said Tarbell, a professor of radiation oncology, adding that she has gotten feelers from other institutions that seem interested.

Valarie Clark , director of faculty development at the Association of American Medical Colleges, e-mailed several women in leading positions at medical schools last week to ask if they offered anything like the Claflin Awards, she said, and all of them responded something like: "This is phenomenal. Too bad we're not doing it."

In recent years, Clark said, programs to encourage women and minorities in academic medicine have proliferated, but they tend to focus on help with critical career strategies such as negotiating for lab space or finding good mentors rather than offering straight-out grants.

The Mass. General program can now serve as a model of how to "support, embrace, and guide these new and young faculty members," she said.

The impetus for the Claflin Awards came in the early 1990s from a Mass. General trustee named Jane Claflin. Now 90, Claflin recalled in a phone interview that she had been disturbed when she discovered that out of 84 full professors at Harvard Medical School who practiced at Mass. General, only five were women.

"I was very interested in seeing if we couldn't get a few more of them promoted," she said.

There are now 27 full professors who are women. But there is still a long way to go to reach anything resembling equality, said Tarbell, who is also director of the hospital's Office for Women's Careers.

Tarbell said that when she graduated from medical school in 1979, women made up about 30 percent of the class. So by now, they should constitute about 30 percent of the professorial ranks. Instead, they make up only about 15 percent of the professors -- including full, assistant, and associate professors -- at Harvard Medical School, and a similar proportion at Mass. General.

(All doctors who practice at any of Harvard's 18 affiliated teaching hospitals and institutions automatically receive the rank of instructor at Harvard Medical School. Their promotion to assistant professor or higher depends on their performance in teaching, research, and clinical care.)

Of the Claflin Award's first 40 recipients, an impressive 36, or 90 percent, remain at Mass. General, and 22 have since been promoted, the study found. And though the grants themselves amounted to only about $2.1 million, their recipients ended up bringing in more than $51 million in research money from outside sources like the federal government and foundations.

Typically, the money would cover a research assistant to do the legwork needed to apply for a grant -- that would otherwise be done on nights and weekends, Tarbell said.

The study was undertaken by researchers within Mass. General, and has one major weakness: It lacks a "control group" that could show what would become of similar women without the grants.

Among women who applied for but did not get the grants, about 30 percent left, compared with only 10 percent of the award-winners, the study found. But it would be invalid to compare those unsuccessful applicants with the grant-winners, researchers say, because the grants were highly competitive, awarded to only 25 percent of applicants, and the winners may have been more capable.

Still, Tarbell said, the grants' effects "are clearly dramatic," both in terms of tangible measures such as promotion rates and what she calls the intangibles: the emotional boost, the recognition, the message that it's all right to need a little extra help for a while.

"You're kind of running a marathon," Grant said. "And you need to see a goal at the end, or have someone cheering on the sidelines to help you not give up before you complete the race."

Carey Goldberg is reachable at goldberg@globe.com.

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