The U.S. Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services recently appointed Madison’s Dr. Angela Byars-Winston to the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) Advisory Council, one of the 27 centers and institutes in the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
“The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is a congressionally mandated part of the federal government to advise the country and do the research on/in basic biomedical sciences,” Byars-Winston told Madison365. “They are responsive to the US Congress. So whatever kinds of priorities for health, research, and scientific discovery that come from our national leaders, then NIH is charged with walking it out. Think about the current COVID pandemic. And the response to Congress, is somebody needs to study and find out how to cure it, solve it, reduce it. Then the charge came to NIH.”
Dr. Byars-Winston is a professor in the UW-Madison Department of Medicine, director of Research and Evaluation in the UW Center for Women’s Health Research, a faculty leader in the Center for the Improvement of Mentored Experiences in Research and associate director of the Collaborative Center for Health Equity.
The NIGMS supports basic research that increases the understanding of biological processes and lays the foundation for advances in disease diagnosis, treatment, and prevention. As a member of the advisory council, Byars-Winston has a two-year term, until December 2024, where she plans to focus on creating more space for underrepresented groups in the biomedical field. She talked about the short terms for positions in the advisory board and how these rules ensure that not just one person or one group of people are dominating medical spaces. She is looking forward to working with a diverse group of people.
“I’m excited about being able to consult with the director of NIGMS, and my other council members,” said Byars-Winston. “I’m part of an 18-person Council and that has been a privilege. I don’t have to review the grants individually. Somebody else does that. But then all the grants that are submitted and are reviewed, the council members get the look at.
“So, we have the opportunity to say, ‘Hey, what about this grant over here? Has that been considered?’ Or if there’s one that is being considered for funding, how does it promote and advance, not just our scientific discovery, but our equity and our diversity priorities in science?” she continues. “Dr. Francis Collins, in March of 2021, said that the biomedical community must address structural racism. You can’t address structural racism if you don’t address the people who are doing the fight. And that’s where I come in.”
Another important part of her role on the NIGMS Advisory Council is deciding what medical research gets funding. The NIGMS has a total portfolio of over $2.9 billion and has the largest training grant portfolio of all of NIH. Byars-Winston talked about ensuring that these funds go toward diversifying the medical field while making space for future doctors and researchers from underrepresented groups.
“I’m looking forward to advising on the training grant portfolios,” said Byars-Winston. “NIH gets to fund basic science, like discovering cures and treatments for COVID, like the basic Cellular Molecular Biology questions. But they also get the fun training grants for people who can study COVID cures.
“I am not a basic scientist. I’m a psychologist, I’m a social scientist. My expertise is on mentorship and training scientists and research training environments that support workforce scientistic diversity or scientific workforce diversity,” she adds. “What I’m known for is: how do we create research training environments so people like you and me and people we know can flourish, be successful and persist?”
The work Byars-Winston plans to do with the other 17 members on the Advisory Council of NIGMS is to create a more inclusive and supportive culture in medicine. She is proud to be working with a group of people who have a true commitment to making the medical field and its research centered on equity.
“It’s really the perspective I believe that I get to add to these other 17 people,” said Byars-Winston. “And the good news with NIGMS is that I’m not the only African American person. I don’t have to represent all of us. There are many folks who are not from well-represented groups, by race and gender, who are on the council.
“Which is one of the reasons I was happy to accept the invitation to be nominated to join. They have already had a commitment. I believe that the NIGMS Director Dr. Jon Lorsch has a strong commitment to diversity and equity without tokenizing. The scientists who are part of this council have a working understanding of the priorities of diversity and equity in the biomedical sciences.”