NIAMS Scientists Ė Diverse Backgrounds, Shared Goals

December 21, 2012

A Conversation with NIAMS Grantee Dr. Nicole Wright

Photo of Nicole Wright
Nicole C. Wright, Ph.D., M.P.H.

February is Black History Month. To celebrate African American contributions to science, we are highlighting the accomplishments of NIAMS grantee Nicole C. Wright, Ph.D., M.P.H. Dr. Wright is an assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). Her research includes understanding determinants of osteoporosis and fractures. She has worked on several NIH and non-NIH funded studies, including a five-year NIAMS-funded study with principal investigator Dr. Kenneth G. Saag and colleagues examining changes in osteoporosis-related health beliefs, greater levels of doctor-patient communication, and changes in possible concerns about osteoporosis medication safety and efficacy. While a graduate student at the University of Arizona, Dr. Wright worked as a research assistant with principal investigator Dr. Zhao Chen on a study funded by the NIAMS about the role of arthritis in fracture risk in women. Dr. Wrightís work has been published in The Journal of Bone and Mineral Research, Osteoporosis International, The Journal of Rheumatology and Calcified Tissue International, among others. She has received numerous awards during her scholastic career. She recently received a travel award to present her research at the 2012 American Society for Bone and Mineral Research Annual Conference. In her interview, Dr. Wright discusses the role her family has played in her career, her passion for research and keys to succeeding in science.

What led you to become involved in scientific research?

Iíve always had a love of science. When I was younger, I went through several phases. I kept going back and forth between biology and other things like dancing, geology and medicine. There were some exceptions, but most of my phases were related to bone research. In 1992, both my father and I had surgery, hip for me and knees for him. During that time, I had a lot of interaction with brilliant orthopaedists who made the skeletal system seem like the most important system in the body, and, in my opinion, it is.

Were there people or events that influenced your career choice?

Watching my grandma shrink due to osteoporosis was probably what influenced me the most to go into the osteoporosis field. At the time, my grandma was not the "typical" image of osteoporosis. She was a strong Black woman who worked hard all of her life. Iím sure she did a lot of weight-bearing activities as she worked as a school janitor and cleaned houses. Initially, I wanted to "fix" this problem, but as I started learning more about the biology of osteoporosis and the problems associated with it, my agenda moved more from individual treatment to societal prevention. This idea is the basis of public health, so I decided to enroll in a Master of Public Health program. I decided to specialize in epidemiology because, in my mind, it was the most science-oriented of the disciplines.

During my graduate work, I was exposed to many fields of epidemiology, but my love of bones called me to chronic disease and aging research. I had the great opportunity to work on a bone and body composition ancillary study of the Womenís Health Initiative (WHI) as a graduate student. The WHI was a major 15-year research program launched in 1991 by the NIHís National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute to address the most common causes of death, disability and poor quality of life in postmenopausal women — cardiovascular disease, cancer, and osteoporosis. I not only learned the basics of working on a research project (informed consent, human subject issues and all things related to grant preparation), but I also saw what the world of osteoporosis epidemiology could be.

Was there a defining moment that led you to a career in science?

I think the defining moment when I knew I wanted to work in the osteoporosis field was my first American Society for Bone and Mineral Research meeting in 2005. I saw groundbreaking research from cohorts like the Study of Osteoporotic Fractures (a nationwide research study funded by the NIAMS and the NIHís National Institute on Aging), Health ABC (Health, Aging, and Body Composition, a study funded by the NIHís National Institute on Aging) and the WHI, and I felt the excitement in the air around bone research. I donít think Iíve ever seen that much passion for a scientific area, and I knew I was hooked. I decided to continue on into the doctoral program, and continue osteoporosis research in the WHI for my dissertation.

What is the focus of your research?

My current research focus is on osteoporosis and evaluating racial and ethnic trends in the incidence of outcomes associated with osteoporosis, primarily fractures. Iím currently working on an analysis that evaluates one-year mortality post hip fracture, as well as a project with the National Osteoporosis Foundation to update the national prevalence estimates of osteoporosis and low bone mass.

What do you enjoy about your career?

I think the thing that I enjoy the most about having a research career is the continual education. Thereís always a new method or analysis technique that can be learned to make your research more rigorous or sound. I also enjoy the freedom academia provides; freedom in research ideas and pursuits, and the freedom in work hours are nice, too!

What have been the most rewarding or fulfilling aspects of your career?

Iím still early in my career, but I would have to say the most rewarding aspect thus far has been the publication of my manuscripts. Hours upon hours go into those 3,000 words, and itís very rewarding to see your words in print. I still print out my manuscripts and put them on the fridge.

What have been the most challenging aspects of your career?

The most challenging aspect of my career has been time management. There are so many awesome research opportunities at UAB, and, of course, I want to be involved with as many as I can. Itís hard to say no to some people and I tend to take on a little bit more than I can chew, thus derailing some of my work. I hope to get better at this during my transition from postdoctoral fellow to faculty!

What activities do you enjoy outside of work?

I enjoy being active with my church and Sunday school, catching up on my favorite television shows and movies, and visiting my friends. Iíve lived in Louisiana, North Carolina, and Arizona, and I have friends all around the U.S. I try to make trips a couple times a year to visit them and learn about their local areas. I just got back from a trip to the Pacific Northwest. It was my first time there, and I found it absolutely beautiful. I canít wait to visit again. I also use my experience as a researcher to volunteer for groups like the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

Can you offer any advice for women or people from communities of color who wish to pursue a career in science?

First, do not let anyone tell you your dream is too big. If you want to pursue research or any career in science, you can! Second, find a good mentor. I was blessed to have been mentored by strong female scientists along the way. Third, donít be afraid. It will be hard; you may look different or have a different upbringing than the rest of your counterparts, but donít let that stop you. And lastly, know that you have support along the way from all of the other women scientists in the country.

Why is it important for people from communities of color to participate in research—both as investigators and as patients?

Itís important for communities of color to participate in research so that there will be more information on patients like them to help their doctors make treatment decisions. Conditions like osteoporosis may be more prevalent in the Caucasian population, but higher mortality and more adverse outcomes exist in minorities related to fracture, and we need to know why and figure out ways to prevent it. It is equally as important for communities of color to participate in research as investigators because it is a rewarding field, and so patients like themselves will want to participate in studies. Iíve heard many stories about patients not trusting their providers or feeling like their providers donít know what they are going through because they are of a different race or ethnic background. If more investigators "looked like" the patients they are trying to help, then maybe we would have a different racial/ethnic distribution in study participants.