Dr Geraldine Pittman Woods: Minority Scholar Pioneer

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Dr Geraldine P Woods (1921-1999) was inarguably the most influential scientist in establishing and promoting NIH's programs in research and research training for underrepresented groups. Therefore, I have chosen her story for my entry to this month's Diversity in Science blog carnival recognizing Women's History Month.

My interest in Dr Woods was inspired by a recent post by my friend and colleague, acmegirl, who writes the blog, Thesis - With Children. In her post recognizing the work of Duke University behavioral biologist, Dr Erich Jarvis, acmegirl noted that both she and Dr Jarvis are products of the MARC program - Minority Access to Research Careers - administered by NIH's National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS). I have had a few friends who have been MARC scholars in their undergraduate and graduate years as well as several colleagues who have received research grants from the Minority-Based Research Support (MBRS) program.

NIGMS was established by an act of the US Congress in 1962. In 1964, Dr Frederick Woods was named as NIGMS director and Dr Geraldine Woods appointed to the National Advisory General Medical Sciences (NAGMS) Council. Among their other charges, the group began to evaluate NIH research support at traditionally minority-serving institutions. Keep in mind that it was the Higher Education Act of 1965 that also provided federal designation of 105 historically-Black colleges and universities (HBCUs; accredited by a national or nationally recognized regional accrediting agency, founded before 1964, and founded for the purpose of educating black students.). Of course, many more institutions today serve these and other underrepresented groups.

Woods and colleagues on the council determined that, at the time (late 1960s) NIH only provided about $2 million in funding to minority institutions with 80% of that going to Howard University in DC and Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee (these schools remain among the top research HBCUs). She later visited minority institutions around the US, encouraging investigators to submit research proposals to the NIH and presenting to upper academic administration the need to provide research infrastructure.

Believe it or not, it was President Richard M Nixon who, on 22 February 1971, issued to Congress in a directive on higher education a section entitled, "Special Help to Black Institutions." According to Susan Athey, the NIGMS writer who prepared Dr Woods' obituary:

This led to the 1972 launch of the Minority Schools Biomedical Support Program (now known as the Minority Biomedical Research Support Program; the administration of this program was transferred from NCRR to NIGMS in 1989). Also that year, NIGMS established visiting scientist and faculty fellowship awards through the Minority Access to Research Careers Program.

According to Dr. Clifton Poodry, director of the NIGMS Division of Minority Opportunities in Research (MORE), "Dr. Woods' interest in our programs did not end with her retirement from active involvement. She was always grateful to hear some good news or success stories about MARC or MBRS participants, and she was also interested in knowing that the programs were continually striving to improve and in learning about new initiatives."

"She fought hard for opportunities for others--we are greatly enriched for her efforts," Poodry added.

In addition to her involvement with NIH's minority initiatives, Woods was a prominent leader in other national educational, political, and scientific endeavors. Her activities included serving as the first woman chair of the Board of Trustees of Howard University and two terms as national president of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority.

A more comprehensive history of these programs can be found at this NIGMS timeline.

"Dr. Woods was a person ahead of her time," said Dr. Ruth Kirschstein, [then] acting NIH director and director of NIGMS from 1974-1993. "She received a Ph.D. in biology from Radcliffe long before any other African American scientist could so qualify. Yet she never forgot her roots and worked tirelessly to assist in establishing the MARC and MBRS Programs."

In fact, I could've prepared an entirely separate post on Dr Kirschstein to submit for this month's Diversity in Science Carnival. NIH extramural postdoctoral fellows who've competed for an individual National Research Service Award (NRSA) had better recognize Dr Kirschstein as the namesake for the grant program. Turns out that Dr Kirschstein was one of the three inaugural recipients of the Geraldine Woods Award, "which recognizes individuals who have had a significant impact in promoting the advancement of underrepresented minorities in biomedical science."

Kirschstein, currently a senior advisor to the NIH director, previously served as the deputy director of NIH. She was the director of NIGMS from 1974-1993, and she served as acting director of NIH from 1999-2002. Kirschstein was cited for her leadership, dedication, and commitment to the research training of underrepresented minorities while at the helms of NIGMS and NIH.

The collective efforts of Dr Woods with the later support of Dr Kirschstein has left a legacy of minority research programs intended to support African Americans, Native Americans, and other underrepresented groups in the biomedical sciences. Take a gander at the NIGMS Minority Programs website to see the diversity, as it were, of research opportunities for minority scholars at all levels of career development.

And here's a bit of serendipity relating to acmegirl's post on Erich Jarvis for last month's Diversity in Science carnival that stimulated my investigation into the origination of these minority research programs by Dr Woods: the very same Winter 2000 NIGMS Minority Programs newsletter announcing the passing of Dr Woods also contained a profile of MARC and MBRS recipient, Dr Erich Jarvis.

Makes me wonder if Jarvis would have even been there if not for the vision and labors of Dr Geraldine Pittman Woods.


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