ResearcHERS campaign brings attention to women cancer researchers

May 20, 2020  //  FOUND IN: Our Employees

When Megan Haymart, M.D., was asked to chair the American Cancer Society’s ResearcHERS campaign, it was a slam dunk.

“It overlaps with a lot of my interests. I’m involved in research, which is very much driven by my patients. I’ve been a long-time advocate of women as researchers and women as leaders. I’m inspired by many of the women I work with as physicians and researchers. To do something to support them motivated me,” said Haymart, Nancy Wigginton Endocrinology Research Professor of Thyroid Cancer and associate professor of internal medicine.

Then the coronavirus pandemic struck. The world’s focus changed. Researchers were diverted to coronavirus-related projects and physicians changed course to help care for COVID-19 patients. Haymart, an endocrinologist who usually sees thyroid cancer patients, was helping manage diabetes issues.

But the whole time, cancer patients continued to come to the Rogel Cancer Center, seeking new and better treatments. And ultimately, that’s why a group of a dozen U-M women researchers are pushing forward participating in ResearcHERs, an American Cancer Society campaign that gives women the opportunity to raise funds to fuel the work of female scientists. The goal is to sustain women-led cancer research, bolster the careers of female researchers, and help support a more robust pipeline of women in cancer research leadership roles — an area where women are consistently underrepresented.

“It’s been difficult to focus on anything other than COVID,” said Mousumi Banerjee, Ph.D., Anant M Kshirsagar Collegiate Research Professor of Biostatistics. “But, while we are in a defining moment and have to attend to this pandemic, really, cancer doesn’t wait. We are seeing how cancer patients are experiencing treatment delays, increased financial burden, isolation and all kinds of complications due to the pandemic.”

Banerjee is inspired by “women who bring science and humanity in their research.”

That’s why she is participating as an ambassador in ResearcHERS.

“Women make up the majority of life science undergraduates but are severely underrepresented in senior research positions — despite decades of effort aimed at inspiring women to pursue science careers. We need to support women researchers at every stage of their career, by both funding their work and celebrating their achievements,” said Jennifer Landino, Ph.D., research fellow in molecular, cellular and developmental biology.

Diversity brings new angles and new ways of thinking, Haymart noted. “Our experiences as women influence the research questions we ask,” she said.

This is especially important with a complex disease like cancer.

“Women researchers bring a different perspective and new ideas to complex problems. We need to use all of our talent in answering the most challenging questions,” said Lesly Dossett, M.D., M.P.H., assistant professor of surgery.

Research shows that women scientists continue to face barriers in research funding and advancement. Many women physicians and scientists report gender bias and harassment. Lack of support for family life and child care also leaves many women researchers at a disadvantage.

“Women face barriers to funding, specifically because of the lack of committed mentors, additional work done by women in the home, and bias among grant review study sections. The ResearcHERS Campaign is one way to emphasize the role that women researchers play and to reduce the gap in support for women in cancer research,” said Jennifer Griggs, M.D., M.P.H., professor of internal medicine.

The coronavirus pandemic adds an additional layer of challenge, especially for women scientists who are also raising children.

“Women scientists may be facing even more barriers right now during the COVID crisis, as women are shouldering more of the child care, virtual learning and household management, all of which can determinably affect our scientific productivity,” said Lauren Wallner, Ph.D., M.P.H., assistant professor of internal medicine. “This campaign puts dollars directly towards supporting female cancer scientists, which is so important right now.”

Since 1946, ACS has awarded 421 research grants to U-M totaling more than $75 million. Currently, of the 22 grants the American Cancer Society is funding in Michigan, 18 are to U-M researchers. Learn more about ResearcHERS.