In this episode, Mallory chats with Dr. Karen Frank, Chief of Laboratory Medicine at the National Institutes of Health.

Dr. Frank shares details about her career and insights into challenges young women can face in careers like hers, as well as strategic ways to overcome them.  She also shares beneficial insights focused on networking and mentoring relationships.


Welcome to West Virginia University’s Women In Science And Medicine Podcast, brought to you by the Health Sciences Centers’ Office of Research And Graduate Education. We will be talking to women with careers in these fields, gaining their insight into what it's like operating in roles that are still mostly dominated by men.

I'm your host, Mallory Weaver. And today my guest is Dr. Karen Frank. Dr. Frank is the chief of laboratory medicine at the Clinical Center at the National Institutes Of Health. Welcome Dr. Frank and thank you so much for coming to the show.

I'm happy to be here. Thank you.

I'd like to start for listeners I'm familiar with your work. Can you just give us some information about your role at the NIH and what led you there? Sure. So my title is chief of the department of laboratory medicine. That's the same as being called a chair chairperson. And the department is similar to clinical pathology department in the academic world.

I run the hospital laboratory and this is a small specialized hospital for first-in-human clinical trial. All patients in our hospital are enrolled in clinical trials. And what originally inspired you as a young woman or girl to pursue a role in science. So I would just say enjoyment of the sciences.

So advanced biology in high school was a great class, got me interested. And then when I applying to college, I chose pre-medicine with an original plan, to be a clinician and see patients, but I modified my path along the way. So I Obtained a biochemistry degree in college. Then I went to medical school and that overlapped, I decided to get a PhD in biochemistry while in medical school.

After I had spent one year in a pharmaceutical company. So I actually took one year off from medical school, worked in the pharmaceutical company while deciding between the MD PhD. And I actually ended up doing both. And then my medical specialty is. Clinical pathology. So that's what my residency is with a subspecialty in microbiology.

And then in terms of faculty positions, I divided my time between basic research. My medical role was a lab director and then administration. And I've been in this current role for four years. Awesome. I think that's interesting. Your stop at a pharmaceutical company, our students in particular are very interested in gaining knowledge about careers outside of academia.

Right. So, but you know, there's just kind of sometimes that expectation that you'll go into academia and, and they're definitely interested in other careers, like, you know the private sector and advocacy and, and stuff like that. So it's great to have. Yeah, it was a research and development. So I was really doing basic science, but in the pharmaceutical company, but that year was useful because it told me I really did like the academic science.

So after the post-doc, I didn't apply again to the pharmaceutical company because I really did like the academic environment. Yeah. And what do you find to be the greatest barriers that you think are to young girls and women who want to pursue a career in medicine or science? Yeah. So I must say that I think I've been fortunate in that I avoided a number of the obstacles that I think many have, but I would say obstacles that do exist are expectations of society for the role of girls and women that is real harassments doing exist.

Fewer role models. There are some, but there were fewer. And I would say the childbearing years are the greatest challenge physically, emotionally, and societaly getting through that period, I think is quite a challenge, but there are resources that I think we'll get to that people can use. Sure.

One particular challenge for scientists and clinicians doing research in all genders is the pressure of acquiring funding for their lab. Do you think that's an area in particular that's difficult for women, particularly at the junior level? I would say it's very challenging for everyone. So I'm not sure that funding in particular is that much more challenging for women if you dealt with all the barriers that women have already.

So, I mean, it sort of goes hand in hand. So if one addresses all of the, I think How can one address these challenges? So obtaining mentors having more than one mentor having a sponsor. So a sponsor is different than a mentor. And I actually only really heard about sponsorship recently, in terms of someone really looking out for you getting you out there, promoting you for meetings, talks, making people aware of your existence.

There's plenty of books and leadership groups. So almost every institution has women in science committee, office group, et cetera, who, whose goal is to help women and people need to know they exist and actually use their resources. So, you know, when you got back to your original question of funding, if you could absorb all that and get that in there, then I think you will be as competitive as anyone, you know, your male counterparts for the.

Sure. Yeah, that makes, that makes a lot of sense. I saw a lecture that you participated in from 2014 on demystifying water and that when it comes to accessible water, to me, I think of all sorts of things relative to that, you know, environmental hazards, infrastructure hazards, and right here in the United States.

But your talk specifically was on infectious disease. And in one portion of the talk, you briefly mentioned a vaccine for Colorado. That showed only about a 50% reduction in the disease, but I would argue still a 50% reduction and then disease. But that led to mistrust of the vaccine. So obviously we're seeing a blow up of resistance and, and distrust of science in general and vaccines in particular with COVID-19 and measles.

What do you think are the best ways to combat mistrust of science? So I think we need discussion at all levels. So I think this is very challenging and all of us in science are going to have to work hard now and into the future, we need to educate science in the school system. Physicians in particular need to work to develop the trust of their patients.

Spend enough time with them that they trust the recommendations and why they're giving the recommendation. And then the science advocates out there who are giving presentations to give very clear presentation to a lay off. Using the mediums available TV, radio podcasts, social networks and then to work, to get accurate information to the journalists and media, not the sensationalistic view.

So it's going to be hard work and just repeated delivery of good information to gain back the trust. I think that's interesting that you meant mentioned the physician Relay of information, but I don't think that's talked about so much in, like you said, media it's, you know, it's more seen as a larger more oversea, overarching media sort of issue.

Rather than that one-on-one clinician and patient relationship, I guess I've read or heard. To change someone's mind or convince someone of the science behind it, the closer the relationship or the, the smaller the group, you actually have a greater impact. So your friends, your family, physician interactions, the school system, as opposed to the mass media necessarily.

And I think that makes a lot of. Yeah. I saw an NIH news release from 2016 in which you and some other researchers were testing potential therapies against bacteria that are stubbornly resistant to antibiotics. We hear a lot of buzz around the fear of a potential superbug that is resistant to any antibiotics that we currently have.

How real is that danger do you think? And I, you know, I find this relevant, just the, obviously the way the pandemic has swept the way. So resistant bacteria are real. I wouldn't tell people to be afraid. What I would tell them is the issue is worthy of attention and funding. So antibiotics change the world and save many lives every day.

And we could not perform many of the medical procedures that we have now without good infection control practices and these antibiotics. So we do need to monitor for resistant bacteria and fungi. And to continue to work for new drugs and to use our current drugs wisely. So poor drug use definitely contributed to the situation we're in.

And we actually do have some bacteria that are resistant to everything. We have to give it right now, but the people who are most vulnerable are those who are perhaps in an ICU, in a hospital. So I would not tell a healthy person sitting in their house to be afraid. I don't like to conjure up the images from sci-fi movies, but it is something worth paying attention to funding, continuing research, et cetera.

Sure. And when we talk about that pandemic there's been research already on how it has disproportionately affected women working women. Do you have personally, any colleagues that you know are experiencing issues related to the pandemic female colleagues? You know, I don't have specific examples.

I know, but I wouldn't use that to discount the question or the reports of it. I would say that we now have more balanced contribution of men and women to childcare than we had in say 50, 60 seventies. Definitely. But the issues that women face our exemplified or I guess, you know, when you have COVID, it goes back to all the issues that they would have any other time.

That's not COVID. So people do expect more childcare roles and women to have certain kinds of roles. It's a con. Situation with a lot of factors, but I would say again, there are resources. So try and use any resource you have and go looking for the resources. I know I'm an issue here in Morgantown specifically as childcare.

Prior to the pandemic, you had a limited number of childcare centers and availability to get your child enrolled. And so I, I can imagine that's hit really hard. I think one of the other complications in this country specifically is, you know, I don't know that I don't personally know of a whole lot of one income households.

Right. So. You know, it's hard for the father or the mother to take time off to, to directly do childcare throughout the day. So I think we had a really flexible philosophy or policy here where I am, which was fortunate that people were many people were able to telework and related to childcare.

But I do know, as we read in the media reports, it benefits to people who have a job that they can telework on as opposed to someone who has to be impersonal. You know, distributing food or, you know, a cashier or something like that. Absolutely. We here also and we actually here in the Office Of Research and Graduate Education, continue to operate on a hybrid schedule and it's been, it's been so incredibly wonderful and flexible and, and it's, I, myself don't have children, but you know, it's been.

It's been a godsend. I know for women in the office and men who have children or just there's people that have elder care to consider. So I think really impactful and a lot of ways, but as you know, not everyone can tell work. You know, but we've had our share of toddlers and dogs on the teleconferences for oh, absolutely.

That's the fun part. Also in 2016, you were awarded the NIH clinical center directors award for mentoring. So I probably don't have to ask you if you enjoy mentoring, but what would you say are the most important expectations for both the mentor and mentee? Entering into that relationship. What makes a successful mentor mentee experience?

So for the mentor, I would say, you know, share knowledge and experience. If you are either a supervisor and it's sort of your job duty, or if you specifically take on a mentee, you know, as a research mentor take the time, listen and share a bit of your personal life because that's where the reality comes out or it hits home.

What, what has the most impact, and again, refer them to resources that you don't have available, and also encouraged them to have additional mentors. Like I wouldn't ever tell anyone to have one mentor. I have many tours. For the mentee, I would say respect the time of the mentor. You know, go to a meeting, prepared, do a little bit of homework or background information if you're going there, particularly if it's not like your personal mentor, but you're going, asking for advice of someone, you know, respect their time, that way.

And then Get opinions from more than one person, and then also share your success. So I have a mentee who contacted me about every three to six months when I'm at 20 years ago. So it's fun and rewarding. They either say, I'm negotiating again. How do I do this? Or, you know, I got my bonus. And so it's fun to get those emails, to know that, you know, my little advice made a difference to someone.

That's awesome. And, and I've loved how you mentioned that that relationship is now, you know, two decades long. And I do think if mentorship is done, right, those relationships can expand over a long length of time and be beneficial probably to both parties. Yes. And so I've, I've think I've mentioned mentorship on every episode we've done thus far, but I wanted to touch on networking.

I don't know if you do a lot of that yourself, but you do seem to be really savvy around again, that advice of having many mentors and I think networking probably plays a part in that. Do you have any advice for junior level women in science and medicine on best practices? As far as what to look out for? As far as events or strategies?

Sure. Now I actually find this hard. I ha I'm out when it's hard for me to go into a group of people I don't know and talk to them. And I know people who say they hide in their hotel room when they go to a big conference and they can't get themselves to go out. But I would say When we do get past COVID and we're able to have these gatherings again, it does help to get out there.

So you can go with a friend or colleague. So there's two of you chatting. You can definitely ask your mentor sponsor to introduce you to in the gathering. So then it's, it's easier to get into. The discussion and then there's other ways you could do it. So smaller groups, either a dinner, a lunch, a workshop, a discussion group of focus breakfast.

So then you're not just chatting about the weather. There's a focus to the discussion and it's a little bit easier to keep going. And even virtually right now, some societies still have these conferences as a teleconference and there's still breakout sessions, so you can still use them. And because we're in COVID, I would say.

You don't have as many opportunities for the big networks, but you still have your institution. There's still something going on in your own institution that you can network at. You could volunteer. So you could say, I'll do the legwork for this visiting speaker. I will help organize this and then attend those one-on-one sessions where the speaker only speaks, speaks to the fellows, for example, and then be willing to call and You know, I've called people out of the blue and said, this is who I am.

I heard you speak. Are you willing to speak with? Or I've sent them an email and people will usually give you time if it's for a certain purpose. And so there's different ways you can network if some are not as comfortable for you. I love how you, number one, admit that you know, that it's not easy for everyone, even someone at a senior level like yourself, because that is the reality.

Some people are just not as familiar and kind of making those connections with other people, especially when they're strangers and. I also love the, how you mentioned, you know, the internal connections you can make within your institution. I recently became a part of the women's leadership initiative here at our university, and it's not just the health sciences center it's across the entire campus.

And so that's really beneficial. And, you know, if there's other groups like that on campuses or within organizations, they definitely can be very heavily. As part of a recent leadership program that I participated in, we were required to go meet leaders. So these are leaders far above people I would never have reached out to were met, unless it was part of my homework.

Right. Because it was homework. I was able to say, this is part of my homework. Will you talk to me? So they usually do because it's part of your homework. So I met this amazing leader who is in an organization overseeing thousands. And he said, I have trouble with this. I'd rather sit on a couch and you never would have dreamed that he had the same inhibitions that a lot of us have, like, he's this amazing leader, leading many, many people, and he'd rather sit on his couch, but he doesn't.

The other thing I would throw out there is I have had a number of professional coaches over the years. The first one I paid for myself out of my own pocket. I needed the advice for a career change and it was worth the money. And then the other coaches I've had have been funded by my institution, but I negotiated for them.

Right. So they wanted me to do something. I said, yes, I'll do this, but you pay for my coach. And then. That is how the other way you get sort of professional mentoring of a sort, you know, you, you can address particular issues that you want to work on advanced for your career. Sure. Excellent advice. I love it.

I only have one final question for you. And I asked this of all my guests. What final piece of wisdom would you impart to young women or girls that are looking to pursue a career in science or medicine? I would say know yourself and know your passion. No. What makes you want to jump out of bed on a Saturday morning and run into work?

Cause I've been there, you know, I want to know what's on the gel. It's, you know, for me, it's a game, it's a puzzle. There's a bigger picture, but there's the, you know, what do I do day to day? I'd say get a mentor. Learn how to negotiate and then find these resources that are out there and then take advantage of them.

So a lot of people don't pursue these groups and committees that have been set up to support women. So find the best way to utilize them. I will say, I love, love, love your mention of negotiation, because that is an art form, but it is something you can teach yourself to do. There's so many resources out there that can teach not just women, but everyone.

How to do that. And it really is a, a skill that you can hone in on and develop over. Yeah. There's two books ask for it and women don't ask that are great. I mean, it's amazing stories of how we don't ask for things we should get or can get, and those books are worth reading. Awesome. Well, what a wonderful discussion, Dr. Karen Frank. Thank you so much for being on the Women In Science and Medicine Podcast today.

I enjoyed it. Thank you very much.