Breakthroughs, the newsletter of the Feinberg School of Medicine Research Office

February 2024 Newsletter

Supporting and Advancing Clinical and Translational Science at Northwestern

Read the Q&A below

Faculty Profile

Nicole Woitowich, PhD, is executive director of the Northwestern University Clinical and Translational Sciences (NUCATS) Institute and a research assistant professor of Medical Social Sciences. A trained biomedical scientist, her research focuses on the consideration of sex as a biological variable, the inclusion of women in the biomedical research workforce, and how these two components may be inextricably related.  

What are your research interests? How did you become interested in this area of research?  

I am excited by so many areas of research, and I think that is reflected in my role as a scholar-administrator. I was formally trained as a biochemist — I was fascinated by the fact you could change a single atom in an amino acid and that alone could alter physiology in profound ways. I’ve had the opportunity to participate in interdisciplinary research projects that capitalize on this, from uncovering the role of photoreceptors in non-photosynthetic bacteria to examining the neuroendocrine regulation of mammalian reproduction. From these experiences, I realized what I truly enjoyed was communicating scientific concepts across disciplines and to individuals of varying backgrounds. That led me to become interested in how scientists engage with different audiences (like other scientists, policymakers, non-experts and the media) and how their interactions, practices and policies influence who can access and benefit from the biomedical research enterprise.  

Recently, my work has focused on examining research practices and policies related to sex and gender inclusion, the advancement of women in science and medicine, and how these two components are inextricably related.  Historically, women have been underrepresented in clinical research studies, and basic science studies overwhelmingly favored the use of male cells and animals. This has shaped our understanding of how sex and gender inform health and disease, much to the detriment of women’s health.  

In parallel, women have been underrepresented in the biomedical workforce, particularly in leadership roles. I explore this connection, learning how an investigator’s gender shapes the types of research questions they ask and how they approach their experimental design, analyses and reporting. As gender equity within the biomedical workforce improves, will equitable research practices advance along with it? We know that gender concordance between physicians and patients can improve health outcomes. Does the same apply to scientists and the knowledge we gain from more sex- or gender-inclusive research?  

What is the ultimate goal of your research? 

The idea that small changes can have a big impact has never left me, and I hope that my research and work as an administrator can help make the biomedical research enterprise more accessible and equitable 

What does your role as Executive Director of NUCATS entail? How does your work as both a scholar and administrator support the research enterprise at Feinberg?  

My role is to support and advance clinical and translational science at Northwestern in concert with NUCATS’ director, Rich D’Aquila, MD. I provide administrative oversight of our 11 centers and programs that help guide investigators, provide resources and foster collaborations to accelerate the translation of scientific discoveries into tangible improvements in patient care and public health. 

As a scholar-administrator, I’ve held both faculty and staff roles at Northwestern. This has been a huge asset, helping me to better understand the Feinberg research enterprise from multiple viewpoints. I use my research training to approach administrative items with analytical, data-driven perspectives. In turn, I am excited to be able to contribute to NUCATS’ scholarship as we increasingly explore the science of clinical and translational science.   

Why do you enjoy working at Northwestern? 

I am surrounded by some of the most creative, thoughtful and mission-driven individuals. I am grateful for the opportunity to learn from my colleagues, not just from their contributions to science or medicine but through the ways they bring their humanity to work and seek to create a healthier, more equitable future. 

Who inspires you? Or, who are your mentors? 

I could wax poetic about the transformational power of mentorship! I am grateful to have a team of mentors who span different roles, career stages and even sectors. They continuously inspire me and possess qualities and attributes that I aspire to emulate. However, I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge Emina Stojkovic, PhD, from Northeastern Illinois University. I can say, with certainty, that I would not have gone on to pursue a PhD without her mentorship and guidance. While I am proud to be one of her first mentees, I am just one of her more than 50 undergraduate- and masters-level mentees — the majority hailing from backgrounds traditionally underrepresented in science and medicine — to go on to pursue an advanced degree. She embodies the philosophy that “science is for everyone,” and I have tried to do my best to pay her mentorship forward by continuing this work.