Grant and forum target caregiving issues of STEM researchers


At a forum this week on the “Impact of COVID-19 on the Academic Careers of Women in Medicine and Science,” panelists kept coming back to one issue — child care.

A new grant program from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, which will give out $12.1 million to Pitt and 21 other medical schools, is hoping to address that problem for early-career biomedical researchers.

The COVID-19 Fund to Retain Clinical Scientists is the nation’s largest funding collaborative advancing equity in the biomedical sciences. In addition to the Duke foundation, it is supported by the American Heart Association, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, the John Templeton Foundation, the Rita Allen Foundation and the Walder Foundation.

The fund, which will give $550,000 to each school, is designed to “support the strengthening of policies, practices and processes at U.S. medical schools to advance the research productivity and retention of early-career faculty experiencing mushrooming family caregiving responsibilities due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine earlier this year — which was cited by the grant announcement and at the forum — said “COVID-19 has negatively affected the productivity, boundary setting and boundary control, networking and community building, and mental well-being of women in academic STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math and Medicine).”

A National Academies’ survey of women faculty found that, due to COVID-19, 58 percent of respondents faced childcare or eldercare demands, and most were shouldering a majority of school and childcare responsibilities.

At the forum, Ann Thompson, vice dean of the School of Medicine, said the research “has shown decreased research productivity. There is a strong sense that in many families work from home affects women differently from men and the work life boundaries and gender delivery or division of labor across our society have probably been amplified by the lack of available child care, increased child behavioral and academic needs, and in many cases, the requirements for elder care as well.”

She noted that the same factors may decrease women’s ability to engage synchronously with collaborators. “It’s hard to participate in an online meeting at one o’clock in the afternoon if you are helping homeschool a child.”

Another panelist at the forum, Jeremy Berg, associate senior vice chancellor for science strategy and planning, Health Sciences, said as labs started to shut down last year and people were working from home, “A lot of men said this is great. I have so much time to write, I can get caught up on all the papers that I haven’t been able to work on and so on. And a lot of women said that basically I try to get through one day at a time. If I make it through a day, it’s a good day.”

The new grants are designed for each school to provide supportive programs that provide eligible faculty supplemental support for their research, such as hiring administrative personnel, statisticians and technicians, among other uses. “These vital supports will allow hundreds of brilliant contributors to scientific discovery to keep their important work on track while directly tending to the needs of their families,” the grant announcement said.

Esa Davis, associate professor of medicine in Pitt’s Clinical and Translational Science, was one of three School of Medicine faculty members, along with Doris Rubio and Ora Weisz, who submitted the grant application.

"COVID has been an unprecedented event that has disrupted our lives and caused complete imbalance of work and home life; yet our scientists still strived to innovate, discover and produce meaningful research while balancing the additional demands of caregiving due to the COVID restrictions,” Davis said. “This award by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation/American Heart Association, will enable us to give our early career scientists, who are most vulnerable to attrition, the necessary relief and resources for them to have stability in their research careers while meeting their caregiving responsibilities."

Jane Liebschutz, chief of the Division of General Internal Medicine in the School of Medicine, said at the forum that another way women and all academic physicians have been impacted by the pandemic is that their non-clinical work, such as teaching and research, has taken a back seat to working in clinical settings to help treat COVID-19 and other patients.

And while telehealth has had some benefits for patients, Liebschutz said it has created some boundary issues when doctors are working from home. “If you have young children … at home and they see that you’re at home, it’s much harder to draw that boundary and to say no, really, you cannot have a snack right now. I cannot get up and help you right now when you’re in the middle of a patient.”

Lu-in Wang, vice provost for faculty affairs, and Amanda Godley, vice provost for graduate studies, spoke about ways that Pitt is trying to help with child care and other issues faculty are facing because of the pandemic.

Wang noted that early on in the pandemic, the provost, with the approval of the council of deans and the University Senate, announced that tenure-stream faculty could apply for a one-year extension on their tenure clock because of the impact of the pandemic on scholarly activities and productivity.

She also listed ways Pitt has addressed “the top three issues — childcare, childcare, childcare, and elder care, of course. These are among the most difficult challenges facing primarily women faculty.” The University has partnered with and the Boys and Girls Club of Western Pennsylvania to increase its child care resources for faculty and staff.

For graduate students and post-docs, the University worked on both a stipend and health care advance for students whose appointments started in August and who typically don’t get their first stipend until the first of September, Godley said. Pitt also spent $4.5 million to extend funding in some Ph.D. programs to extend students’ appointments.

“One of the things that the pandemic has done has brought to light ways in which women in academia faced barriers and challenges even before the pandemic,” Godley said. “And things like child care can no longer be considered things that we think of as an add on or something that only a very small segment of our community might need. And I think in that way, it’s been really helpful to have some of these important support systems, like child care support, front and center in our thinking about the future of the University.”

Currently, there is a University policy that explicitly prohibits the University from reimbursing for child care, she said. “There’s a group of people (a University Senate ad-hoc committee) investigating that and I think, trying to change that, so that’s no longer a barrier.”

Godley also noted that in spring 2021, NIH announced childcare supplements in the form of $2,500 per funding period for National Research Service Awards for individual fellows and trainees. In September, NIH announced it would be expanding that program to institutional trainees on T32 grants starting at the beginning of 2022. Godley said the University would be distributing information soon about how to apply for these supplements and how they will be distributed.

One person attending the forum said she worried that tenure and promotion committees, which tend to be more male and more senior leaders who do not have young children, might “minimize the impact of the pandemic on women’s productivity once we’re past this emergency phase.”

Berg said this was a prime example of why tenure committees should be more diverse.

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at or 724-244-4042.


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