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

More women than ever are entering the field of neurology as clinicians and scientists. Yet research shows that men continue to outnumber women in top-ranked university neurology programs — and this disparity increases with advancement in rank. Against all odds, a number of women have emerged as leaders in neurology and helped change its landscape.

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

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“What I learn from my science can translate into improved care and therapies for my patients,” Feldman said. “And what my patients tell me about their diseases informs me about the basic scientific research needed to improve care.”

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

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At the start of your career, there were few women to base your career on. How did you manage to succeed and be accepted in the profession?

There weren’t really any “concrete” obstacles to overcome; they were more attitudinal. Few thought that a married woman in her 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 was that I believed I could do it, 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, my two sons started hockey when they were four years old. Jim’s reasoning: hockey would tire the boys and give me time to work at the rink. By the time my youngest son was playing hockey in high school, I basically had my own office at the rink! And, for the ride, Jim gave me a portable dictaphone so I could dictate all my correspondence, even papers and grants, as I drove to and from Birmingham each day. When I finally moved to Ann Arbor 20 years later, I missed the trip, but I’m sure my assistant didn’t miss transcribing two hours of correspondence each day.

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Over time, my colleagues forgot about my age, my children, and my travels, and they saw me as a full-fledged faculty member with academic promise. I also received tremendous support from my three children, Dr. Laurel Roberts, Scott Roberts and Dr. John Roberts, and my husband, Dr. Neal Little. It was essential for my career.

What motivates you to pursue your academic, research and clinical work? What makes you jump out of bed and get to work every morning?

That’s the simplest question: the wonderful scientists, doctors and staff I work with every day, the amazing colleagues I have across the university, the enthusiastic community supporters of our research, as well as my patients and their families. Every day is different, with a new set of discoveries in the lab, a new challenge in the clinic or a new colleague to meet. As I get older, I may “jump” a little slower but no less enthusiastically!

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You emphasized mentoring the next generation of scientists. Why is this so important?

The field is ripe for new discoveries, especially in light of the myriad technological advancements and big data over the past decade. As a senior scientist, my mission is to interest as many young scientists as possible in neuroscience and to foster their careers. It is essential that the work started by my generation continues in this new era of technology and medicine.

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