Spotlight: Kathryn Stephenson on the Pandemic, Perseverance, and Women's History Month
This year's theme for Women's History Month is "Providing Healing, Promoting Hope." For Kathryn E. Stephenson, MD, MPH of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center's Center for Virology and Vaccine Research, it calls to mind the progress that has taken place since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We have all these tools to provide hope, like vaccines and great antiviral medications," she says. "And we have a renewed focus on healing, as we recognize how long the recovery from COVID-19 can be."
Dr. Stephenson is a physician-scientist at BIDMC as well as an Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. As a specialist in the field of infectious diseases, the pandemic has had a profound impact on her professional life. But Dr. Stephenson has also had to contend with the more widespread challenges brought on by a virus that keeps people apart.
"As a physician-scientist, one of the hardest challenges is defining your own niche and building an independent team," Dr. Stephenson says. "I happened to hit this challenge right in the middle of the pandemic, and with my kids being in remote school! I was able to start my own group through all of this because I wasn't afraid to ask for help from mentors, friends and colleagues."
Dr. Stephenson was the Principal Investigator for the first in-human trial of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine conducted at BIDMC. She was also in charge of clinical trials testing the efficacy of the anti-viral medication remdesivir, the Novavax COVID-19 vaccine, and a COVID-19 treatment that makes use of antibodies.
Currently, Dr. Stephenson is working on the first in-human study of an mRNA vaccine for HIV, drawing on her extensive past experience researching HIV prevention, treatment, and remission. Advocacy is essential to what she does, and she is outspoken about increasing research equity for Black and Latinx populations in clinical trials. Her goal is to ensure that vulnerable communities have equal access to promising new medicines and vaccines.
The greatest inspiration for Dr. Stephenson's resilience and her commitment to advocacy is the example of her mother.
"[My mother] learned computer programming back in the early 1970s and leveraged that to start her own business with my dad, making schedules for major league baseball and other teams." Dr. Stephenson says. "She held her own in some pretty tough work environments. But she's an advocate too-for human rights, racial equity, and feminism."
For the next generation of women in medicine, Dr. Kathryn Stephenson recommends balance for the sake of perseverance.
"Fight for what you deserve, but also be kind to yourself. Sometimes you have to go into battle to advocate for yourself, seeking a new responsibility or position or just fair treatment. And sometimes you have to rest, let a particular battle pass you by, and feel proud for what you have accomplished so far."