Write Your Own Story: Recognizing Your Potential as a Woman or Minority in Research

By Anna María Nápoles, Ph.D., M.P.H.
Scientific Director
Division of Intramural Research
National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities

Photo of Dr. Anna María Nápoles

Dr. Anna María Nápoles

I recently did an interview for NIH’s Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, to help celebrate Women’s History Month. I spoke about how mentoring and networking can help diversify science, my work as the scientific director of the Division of Intramural Research at NIMHD, and the importance of diversity in science. I also shared my personal experience, because it led me to the research that I do. It was my own family’s experiences that taught me the importance of research on health disparities.

My parents were both immigrants from rural villages in Jalisco, Mexico. My father worked two jobs that were very hard on his body, but he made sure that my two siblings and I had the benefit of an excellent education. Although he had little formal education, my father worked to better himself and was involved in politics and social volunteerism in our community. This had a lasting impact on me.

My family did not have much money, which meant we had limited access to preventive care. Immunizations were out of the question, which meant that I was often sick as a child. I also served as the interpreter for my mom during medical visits. These experiences made it clear to me that language and economic and cultural factors have a significant impact on your health and your ability to access healthcare.

Today, my research focuses on people who have not typically felt a great sense of control in society over their own future and their health. My goal is to give them tools to manage their chronic diseases and the healthcare system.

For example, I tested and developed an evidence-based intervention that focuses on stress management for rural and urban Spanish-speaking Latinas with breast cancer. These women have very high stress levels, and that leads to high rates of problems like anxiety and depression. It’s important to reach people who don’t have access to services because of a language barrier or other problems.

At NIMHD, I hope to grow a program that focuses on identifying how social adversity affects our health. I want to help the people who experience that adversity and feel like they can’t escape it, by developing treatments and preventive measures that lessen the effects of difficult social circumstances.

The best advice I’ve ever received, as a woman and a minority and a person, was to create a narrative for myself. Who are you, what type of person are you, and what do you bring to the table? I used to have imposter syndrome. I felt like I wasn’t good enough to be a scientist or to survive in a prestigious academic medical institution. I tried to fly under the radar and avoided putting my research out there. We’re socialized, as women, not to put ourselves first and, culturally, I was socialized to be humble.

So, I had to write myself a new narrative: I realized that I can handle setbacks, that I’m a confident person, that I do good science, and that I can help improve the health of minority populations. I had to learn to advertise who I am, my strengths, what I bring to a situation, and how I can make the situation better. I’ve had setbacks, blatant racism and discrimination, financial problems, and stressful situations that made work-life balance difficult. But I persisted.

Our backgrounds are reflected in the kind of work we do. There’s a lot of evidence that shows that diversity improves science, and that diversity leads to ground-breaking discoveries that might not have happened otherwise.

It’s so important to find your strengths and create that narrative for yourself. Recognize what unique qualities you bring to the table and what unique contributions you can make. I guarantee that your history will bring you to ideas and questions that no one else could have thought of.


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6 thoughts on “Write Your Own Story: Recognizing Your Potential as a Woman or Minority in Research

  1. Thank you for your inspiring story about writing your own narrative, Dr. Nápoles. I also appreciate how much our families (in addition to our mentors both formal and information) influence the direction of our lives even when their lives can be so different from their own. I will be sharing this with my family! Thank you for your leadership at NIH.

  2. Thank you for sharing your story. I sympathize with your experience of resilience, goals setting and success. As the first Ecuadorian to graduate from NYU as a graduate student at the Wagner School and the first female and Hispanic to get a DrPh from UGA’s School of Public Health, in the field of prevention effectiveness, I understand the struggles, as well as, how these experiences fuel your goals and road map. I later became the first female to be promoted to Associate Dean at the School of Public Health at USFQ-in Quito, Ecuador, while also, becoming the City’s Health Commissioner, supervising all public health programs and health care services for the capital of Ecuador.
    Today, I’m a health policy analyst at NIMHD, and an adjunct Professor for UGA’s Global Health Institute.

  3. Gracias Dra. Nápoles for reminding us to share our unique stories and that we do bring a different view to the table. Thanks again for speaking at the 2018 APHA Helen Rodriguez-Trias breakfast in San Diego, CA. Many folks were excited to learn of NIMHHD’s work under it’s first Latino scientist. Also, congrats on the APHA Supplement, “New Perspectives to Advance Minority Health and Health Disparities Research”.

  4. First of all I want to say awesome blog! I had a quick question in which I’d like to ask if you
    don’t mind. I was interested to know how you center yourself and clear your thoughts before writing.

    I have had difficulty clearing my thoughts in getting my ideas out.
    I truly do take pleasure in writing however it just seems like the first
    10 to 15 minutes are generally wasted simply just trying to figure out how
    to begin. Any suggestions or tips? Thank you!

  5. Thank you all for your kind words. I am proud of all of your efforts to achieve health equity for all. Your stories are important.

    The best tip I can offer for centering yourself for focused writing time is to identify at the end of each writing session a few tangible, achievable steps for your next writing session. Identifying these in advance eliminates the 10 to 15 minutes of trying to figure out where you left off and how to proceed.

    Best of luck!

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