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Meet some of the Baltimore women driving the national response to the coronavirus pandemic

Deanna Najera, Carroll Hospital, Dr. Jinlene Chan, Public Health and Dr. Kathy Neuzil, University of Maryland School of Medicine.

When Lauren Gardner hit the “publish” button on the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 Dashboard in January, she expected like-minded researchers, academics and scientists to share the virtual tool mostly among themselves.

But as quickly as the coronavirus itself spread, the data portal fast became the world’s trusted source on the state of the pandemic, offering millions of people a bird’s eye view into the virulent infectious disease.

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Hopkins' COVID-19 Dashboard tracks cases, recoveries and deaths caused by the coronavirus, updating with verified data every hour. Site users can examine individual countries and communities as well as download the data to conduct their own analyses.

Since going live, the dashboard has garnered about a billion hits and been referenced by top lawmakers on Capitol Hill as well as by media outlets, policymakers and individuals seeking more information about the spread of COVID-19 in their communities, Gardner said.

“It was like building a supersonic jet while flying it in a lightning storm,” Gardner said of the web portal’s launch.

A 36-year-old associate professor of civil and systems engineering at the Johns Hopkins University, Gardner represents just one of the many Baltimore-area women driving the response to the coronavirus pandemic, moving full steam ahead in search of answers and remedies to the infectious disease. With swift force, the virus has infected more than 34 million people and killed more than 1 million worldwide, according to Gardner’s own COVID-19 dashboard. In the United States, more than 7 million people have contracted the virus, more than 200,000 of whom have died.

As a testament to the many research and medical institutions concentrated within the region, several Baltimore women have forged new paths in coronavirus-related data mining, treatment development and policy drafting for the last several months. Others have received grant funding and national visibility.

Johns Hopkins has a particular concentration of women at the forefront of science and infectious disease research, especially in its Bloomberg School of Public Health. But a number of other local institutions do as well, in fields including such as medicine, engineering, chemistry and technology.

Women make up about 28% of those employed nationwide in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The proportion of women of color in these professions is even smaller, relative to population.

But there has been slow progress in recent decades.

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Women’s presence in the biological sciences, for instance, grew consistently from about 34% in 1993 to about 48% by 2010, according to figures from the National Science Foundation.

Environmental factors likely contribute to female under-representation in STEM fields, according to a 2010 report from the American Association of University Women. Men are more likely to major in STEM subjects in college, and women tend to score lower on mathematics exams. But the test score gap has shrunk considerably over the past 30 years, which researchers contend demonstrates that social, rather than inherent, barriers explain the differences in achievement, and might be remedied with more time.

As a reflection of the uneven representation in these fields, many of the women leading teams and studies during the coronavirus pandemic have been forced to balance their careers with familial obligations as caregivers, adding stress and strain. But as more women enter the workforce, more find themselves in positions of power and leadership, especially in fields once exclusively the domain of white men.

As they plow uncharted territory, Baltimore’s women of science have tackled other barriers, they say.

“I have learned to brush aside the voice in my head that says, ‘Maybe you don’t belong at the table,’ ” said Crystal Watson, 37, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and an assistant professor in the environmental health and engineering department at the Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Watson, the lead author of a national contact tracing framework published by Hopkins, finds her own self-doubt to be her biggest obstacle.

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“If there are barriers," she said, “it’s more personal than within our organization or university.”

Women lead much of the behind-the-scenes effort behind Hopkins' COVID-19 resources. Jennifer Nuzzo, a senior scholar at the Center for Health Security, and Beth Blauer, executive director at the Centers for Civic Impact, created the testing positivity rate tracker — a national data source that measures such rates for states, Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. And Emily Gurley, an infectious disease epidemiologist and associate scientist in the public health school, designed Hopkins’ free, online contact tracing course, which has already trained hundreds of thousands of enrollees since its launch this spring.

Caitlin Rivers — another senior scholar at the Center for Health Security and an assistant professor in the environmental health and engineering department — said the camaraderie shared by the women in STEM fields and at Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health (led by Ellen MacKenzie), has helped bolster their confidence as they tackle their scholarship amid the challenge of communicating the pandemic’s threats to the public.

Rivers, an epidemiologist and the lead author on several Hopkins publications that have reached lawmakers on Capitol Hill, recalled her oldest child watching her give testimony before a U.S. House of Representatives committee: “It’s important for women to share their perspectives, even when feeling nervous about getting out there.”

For some women, their dual roles as pioneers and underdogs have shaped how they view their work.

“What drives me? Using science to achieve health equity!” said Dr. Kathleen Neuzil in an email.

Neuzil is one of the world’s top vaccine researchers and the director of the University of Maryland School of Medicine’s Center for Vaccine Development and Global Health.

“Vaccines are the perfect example — not everyone can access specialized medical care, but we can reach everyone with vaccines to prevent disease,” Neuzil said.

Neuzil, now working on a COVID-19 vaccine, said she grew up without many of the resources that could have set her up for success. Her background colored this approach to her work, which seeks to elevate and promote the voices of those less fortunate.

The same goes for Dr. Lisa Cooper, the Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of Equity in Health and Healthcare at Johns Hopkins and director of its Center for Health Equity. Cooper, who spent her formative years in Liberia, developed an early interest in how social determinants of health affect outcomes as well as the factors that could correct those disparities.

The pandemic, Cooper said, has brought to the surface much of what public health professionals already knew about health equity, a topic she has spent years researching.

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“Now, we’re helping the country connect the dots and helping people realize that when people are unhealthy, they’re not just making poor decisions — we’re not allowing them the opportunity to make a decision in the first place,” she said.

Katherine Seley-Radtke, a medicinal chemist and professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County who has devoted her career to developing antiviral solutions to infectious diseases, also has channeled her lived experiences into her career. Seley-Radtke, who is working to develop an antiviral treatment for COVID-19, embarked on her college career at age 15 and dropped out to have her children, resulting in a non-traditional professional path that led to her earning her doctoral degree later in life.

As a researcher, mentor and peer reviewer for the National Institutes of Health, she said, she constantly looks to set an example for the next generation of scientists, which already shows signs of being more progressive, tolerant and equitable than the current one.

“My women students see a woman who has been successful," she said. "And that makes a difference, whereas my role models were all men.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Meredith Cohn contributed to this article.

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