Overcoming obstacles to advance neurology research, mentor next generation of female scientists

A longtime leader of the neurosciences shares her journey and hopes for the future.

12:36 PM

Author | Shoshanna Fischoff

scientists doctors lab coats lab beakers
Feldman with her colleagues. Michigan Medicine

More women than ever are entering the field of neurology as clinicians and scientists. Still, research shows that men continue to outnumber women at top-ranked academic neurology programs – and this disparity increases with advancing rank. Against the odds, a number of women have become leaders in neurology and helped change its landscape.

Eva Feldman, M.D., Ph.D., has spent decades trying to increase diversity in the field and has been at the forefront on new technology in neurodegenerative diseases, using it to understand disease and develop treatments.

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"What I learn from my science can translate to improved care and therapies for my patients," Feldman said. "And what my patients teach me about their diseases informs me of the basic science research required to improve care." 

Feldman, recently named the James W. Albers Distinguished University Professor of Neurology at University of Michigan, a prestigious award from Michigan Medicine, shares her journey and vision of mentorship for the next generation of innovative neurologists.

When you were beginning your career, there were few women for you to model your career after. How were you able to succeed and become accepted in the profession?

There were no actual "concrete" obstacles to overcome; they were more attitudinal. Few individuals believed a married woman in her mid-30s with three young children, commuting 40 miles each way, could become a productive, NIH-funded scientist and maintain an active clinical practice. What was essential is that I believed I could do this, and my family and close mentors, like Jim Albers, believed in me.

Jim [Albers] was absolutely instrumental in my success, both as a young research scientist and navigating this world as a working mother.  At his suggestion, both my sons started hockey at the age of four. Jim's reasoning: hockey would tire out the boys and give me time to work at the ice rink. By the time my youngest son was playing hockey in high school, I essentially had my own desk at the ice rink! And, for the commute, Jim gave me a handheld Dictaphone so I could dictate all my correspondences, even papers and grants, as I drove to and from Birmingham each day. When I finally moved to Ann Arbor 20 years later, I actually missed the commute, but I'm certain my assistant didn't miss transcribing two hours of correspondence each day.

Over time, colleagues forgot about my age, children and commute, and they saw me as an equal faculty member with academic promise. I also have had tremendous support from my three children, Dr. Laurel Roberts, Scott Roberts and Dr. John Roberts, and my husband, Dr. Neal Little. That has been critical to my career.

What keeps you so motivated to continue your academic, research and clinical work? What makes you leap out of bed and get to work each morning?

That is the easiest question—the wonderful scientists, physicians, and staff I work with each day, the remarkable colleagues I have across the university, the enthusiastic community supporters of our research, and my patients and their families.  Each day is different, with a new set of discoveries in the laboratory, a new challenge in the clinic, or a new colleague to meet. As I get older, I may "leap" a little slower but no less enthusiastically!

You have placed a premium on mentoring the next generation of scientists. Why is this so important?

The field is ripe for new discoveries, especially in light of the myriad of technological and big data advances of the last decade. As a senior scientist, my mission is to get as many young scientists as possible interested in neuroscience and foster their careers. It is critical that the work my generation has started will be continued in this new age of technology and medicine.

As a senior scientist, my mission is to get as many young scientists as possible interested in neuroscience and foster their careers.
Eva Feldman, M.D., Ph.D.

How do you recommend people best encourage and support other females in the field trying to be successful?

I have an open-door policy for any young faculty member and spend time listening, as each person has a different story with a unique set of challenges and opportunities. My experience has taught me to find the opportunities in the stories I hear and help young women capitalize on these opportunities.

SEE ALSO: Lipids in blood predict nerve damage risk among patients with type 2 diabetes

Finally, I have two "pearls" I tell every young person with a family: The socks don't have to match, the towels don't have to be folded, and please don't buy clothes that need to be ironed – i.e., don't sweat the small stuff. Spend time reading a book to your child or talking to your partner. Secondly, there is a "business" side to science, so don't take setbacks personally; they are not a "mark" on your character or a personal attack but a business opportunity to improve your performance.

What advice do you have for young people just starting on their careers in science?

Very simple: Believe in yourself and surround yourself with people who believe in you. Do not get discouraged easily, and failure, as Henry Ford said, is an opportunity to start all again – just smarter.

How do you see medicine changing and evolving in the next five, 10 or 20 years?

I am not sure anyone can truly answer this. The medical horizon is incredibly promising with the rapid development of new technologies, big data, integrated electronic medical records and the introduction of personalized medicine. But, in parallel, we are dealing with climate change, the number one health problem according to the World Health Organization, and environmental pollution and destruction. 

With these changes will come the challenges of pandemics and a changing medical landscape. The next ten years will be critical to address climate change and the environment, so the technological advancements can be actualized to improve health, quality of life and longevity.

What do you hope that research will accomplish in the next decade for neurological disease?

In parallel with developing new therapies and making personalized medicine a reality, we need to engage in prevention of brain diseases. We need to do the research that proves that many of these crippling neurological diseases are preventable. There are twelve modifiable risk factors for Alzheimer's disease, and, if taken in aggregate, engaging in risk factor reduction will decrease the number of afflicted individuals. We are making the same discoveries in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known as ALS,, and colleagues are reporting similar findings in Parkinson's disease. So, as we strive to cure neurological diseases, we need to also focus on prevention. 

SEE ALSO: ALS risk higher among production workers, those exposed to metals, volatile compounds on job

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