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Higginbotham Challenges Students at NIH Black History Event

By Eddy Ball
March 2009

The first woman to head a major university ophthalmology department
"Poor health literacy is a stronger predictor of individual health than age, ethnicity and nearly every other factor," Higginbotham told the students as part of her appeal that they strive to correct health disparities. (Photo courtesy of Morehouse School of Medicine and NIHOD OEO)

The talk was for everyone at NIH - and by videocast for people at NIEHS - but the target audience on February 18 was clearly the students when ophthalmologist Eve Higginbotham, M.D., delivered a talk in celebration of Black History Month. Higginbotham, who is dean of the Morehouse School of Medicine, spoke on the "Quest for Black Citizenship in the Americas - Inspiring Future Leaders" at the National Library of Medicine's Lister Hill Center in Bethesda.

NIH Acting Director Raynard Kington, M.D., Ph.D., made opening remarks and predicted that the talk would provide "inspiration for the future generation." Lecture host Paul Sieving, M.D., Ph.D., director of the National Eye Institute, followed Kington with an introduction of Higginbotham and her many accomplishments as a physician, leader and advocate for minority participation in science. Sieving described Higginbotham, the first woman to head a major university ophthalmology department, as a "friend for a number of years" and a teacher and mentor "who practices what she preaches."

Closely related to her award-winning work in glaucoma, which strikes African Americans in disproportionate numbers, are Higginbotham's research interests in the area of health disparities. Her experience in that field, including a 2008 review ( Exit NIEHS co-authored with former Surgeon General David Satcher, M.D., informed much of her talk. She urged her audience to maintain focus and "keep your goals in mind" - both as a way of realizing personal dreams and as a way of impacting the disparities in health and healthcare experienced by minorities in the U.S. and the poor health literacy that affects the wellbeing of as many as 90 million Americans.

"We're all bound together to try to make a difference in medicine and make sure we overcome these health disparities," Higginbotham said. To reinforce her message, she invoked the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr., who once said, "Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and the most inhumane."

Achieving a more diverse scientific population, she explained, will not only give minorities their long deferred opportunities in medical research. It will also help the scientific and medical communities better understand the challenges of health disparities. "Diversity of background brings a diversity of perspective," she argued, improving the overall state of health and healthcare in the U.S.

NIH Deputy Director for Intramural Research Michael Gottesman, M.D., offered closing remarks at the event. He referred to the number of special programs, scholarships and fellowships that NIH offers to help young scientists and promised to work for even more opportunities. "Can we do better?" he asked. With a reference to the famous words of America's first African American President, he answered enthusiastically, "Yes, we can!"

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