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Home > Global Health Matters Nov/Dec 2019 > Q and A with NIH Director Dr Francis Collins: Considering global health research careers Print

Q and A with NIH Director Dr Francis Collins: Considering global health research careers

November / December 2019 | Volume 18, Number 6

During the recent American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (ASTMH) annual meeting, ASTMH President and Fogarty grantee Dr. Chandy John held a fireside chat with NIH Director Dr. Francis S. Collins. The two discussed a number of issues of interest to early-career scientists and Collins shared his non-linear career path.

NIH Director Dr. Francis S. Collins and ASTMH President Dr. Chandy John speak together, seated in front of an audience. 

NIH Director Dr. Francis S. Collins discussed global health
research careers with ASTMH President Dr. Chandy John
during the ASTMH annual meeting.

What career advice do you have for students?

It took me quite a while to come to any sense of interest in medicine because I thought biology was much too messy. I fell in love with science in a chemistry class in high school and that’s what I majored in for my undergraduate degree. After that, I got a Ph.D. in quantum mechanics.

Then I discovered I kind of missed out and realized maybe I narrowed my field much too soon. And with not much more justification than that, I decided to go to medical school. I immediately fell in love with the science, the medicine, the people and particularly with the genetics part. A few months in, I decided I wanted to find a way to use genetics to help people.

I tell you this story because some of you may be worried that you haven’t mapped out your entire life course already. Even if you think you have it, it probably won’t turn out the way you think it will. Doors open, doors close.

How do you view physician-scientists?

We need more and this is one of my current anxieties. We see fewer and fewer physicians who are spending at least 50% of their time on research. And there are all kinds of reasons for this, all kinds of pressures that fall down on physicians, in terms of asking them to care for patients and to submit charges for that. It’s challenging to get funded and to keep getting funded.

If there was ever a time when we needed physician-scientists as leaders, it is now! We are trying to understand the deterrents. How do we fix this? How do we change the training program so it is not so long? It’s a great concern. We realize it’s really hard to compete against Ph.D.s who spend 100% of their time on research. We have increased our loan repayment program to help.

How are you working to increase diversity?

This is absolutely critical. At NIH, we spend a lot of time figuring out how to encourage women in biomedical research and looking at all the factors that have gotten in the way. We’ve done a lot better at getting women interested in pursuing Ph.D.s, with about half of students now being female. But then the trouble starts. Even at the junior faulty level, already the pressures that are placed upon people in academic tracks are not always consistent with having a family. We’ve talked about if there’s more we can do there in terms of child care.

We have a lot of work that needs to be done in that space and we will do it. We still have circumstances with built-in discrimination against women. And that is so completely wrong. And that also factors into how a meeting is set up, who gets the invitation and the good old boy network that favors white men like me. I decided to make a public statement that if you want me to be involved in a conference, to speak on a panel, there must be diversity in the event. It’s about productivity. Science is advanced with diversity.

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