Campus & Community

Fellowship helps medical scholars over the hurdles

6 min read

Overcoming obstacles has become a way of life for Olga Kandror.

In 1984, the Russian-born cell biologist earned her Ph.D. from Moscow University, then got a research position at the prestigious Bahk Institute of the Russian Academy of Science. It looked like smooth sailing.

“Everything was fine. I was very successful. Then the financing of science just stopped. There was no salary, no electricity in the building. If we wanted to stay in science, we had to look elsewhere.”

Kandror and her husband, also a biomedical researcher, came to the United States in 1992. He got a job at Boston University Medical School. She found a position at Harvard Medical School (HMS) as a research fellow.

With the help and support of her mentor, Professor of Cell Biology Alfred Goldberg, she was back in the research game, but there were still obstacles to overcome.

With teaching duties and two daughters to raise, lab time was at a premium. Grants were scarce too, and so was the time needed to write grant applications.

Mary McNaughton-Collins, an instructor in medicine at HMS, received the Claflin Distinguished Scholar Award. (Staff photo by Jane Reed)

This year, however, Kandror got some help overcoming this new set of obstacles when she became one of 31 HMS junior faculty to receive a fellowship from the 50th Anniversary Program for Scholars in Medicine. Kandror was the recipient of a fellowship in honor of Carola Eisenberg, former dean of students at HMS.

The $25,000 fellowship will allow her to buy new lab equipment and hire a half-time technical assistant. It will also give her time off to write an application for further funding from the National Institutes of Health.

The fellowship will help to further research that may have important applications down the line. Kandror is investigating the workings of cellular components known as “molecular chaperones.” Chaperones prevent aggregation of unfolded or damaged proteins, refold them if possible, and, if not, help to destroy them.

Understanding the workings of molecular chaperones may help researchers discover new therapies for a variety of diseases including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s diseases, and cystic fibrosis.

“I think this is a great program,” Kandror said. “This is the first step toward obtaining my own independent financing. It will also give me more time for analyzing the results of my research, writing papers, and preparing grant applications.”

The 50th Anniversary Program for Scholars in Medicine was established in 1995 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the admission of women to Harvard Medical School and to acknowledge the important contributions of women to the School. While not specifically limited to women, it targets a problem that is most prevalent in the careers of women scholars.

According to Eleanor Shore, HMS Dean for Faculty Affairs, women continue to be stymied in their progress into the upper ranks of the Medical School faculty. Although women now constitute about 50 percent of Medical School graduates and 41 percent of the School’s instructors, they account for only 27.8 percent of assistant professors, 16.8 percent of associate professors and a mere 10.9 percent of full professors.

One reason for this decline is that just when women are working most intensely to further their careers, they often face the greatest competing claims on their time and energy.

“This is the time when they’re raising children, they may be dealing with elderly parents, and if they have a clinical practice, their patients are making demands. What gives are the research and publishing, the quiet obligations. They’re the ones that get left out,” said Shore.

The fellowship is not intended to provide total support. Instead, it could be used to buy protected time from clinical responsibilities, to pursue academic work such as writing a grant application, preparing a manuscript, completing a research project, or developing a new curriculum. Or, it could pay for additional laboratory assistance at a time when the junior faculty member does not yet have independent funding.

Money for the scholarships has been raised from a variety of sources: alumni, senior women faculty, friends of HMS, affiliated hospitals, departments, foundations, and corporations.

“It’s been a patchwork quilt, but the results have been very exciting,” said Shore. “In 1995, we promised to raise enough for 10 fellowships per year over the next five years. But in five years we’ve doubled that goal.”

The fellowships are designed to benefit faculty members who are practicing physicians as well as those, like Kandror, who engage in basic research.

Mary McNaughton-Collins, for example, is an instructor in medicine at HMS and a primary care physician at Massachusetts General Hospital. A recipient of the Claflin Distinguished Scholar Award, she is conducting research on prostate disease, under the mentorship of Associate Professor of Medicine Michael J. Barry,

The mother of a 17-month-old daughter, McNaughton-Collins has found that she no longer has the luxury of long, uninterrupted hours that could be devoted to her research. The money she has received from the Scholars in Medicine Program has allowed her to hire a project coordinator for her study so that she can use her time more efficiently.

The project coordinator, a French physician named Jean-François Caubet, will help to handle the recruitment and retention of the 350 men enrolled in this study of a relatively neglected disease called chronic prostititis, allowing McNaughton-Collins to concentrate on analyzing results and planning further research projects.

“Hiring a project coordinator has made a big difference in increasing my productivity and allowing me to stay on the clinician-investigator career track,” McNaughton-Collins said.

According to Shore, the Program for Scholars in Medicine has received a great deal of positive feedback, although it is too early to gauge how much it has contributed to the career advancement of the fellowship recipients. Shore’s greatest regret is that more junior faculty members cannot benefit from it.

“There are so many talented and promising women we have to turn down,” she said.

To remedy this deficiency, Shore and other members of the fundraising committee plan to raise more money over the next few years and create a more stable funding base for the program.