New Penn Program Will Support Interdisciplinary Research on Sex and Gender Differences

By Niharika Gupta

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have received a $1.9 million award from the Office of Research on Women’s Health at the National Institutes of Health to establish the Building Interdisciplinary Research Careers in Women’s Health program at Penn.

BIRCWH will provide salary, research support and mentorship for two junior faculty researchers interested in pursuing research involving women’s health and sex differences.

The program’s two principal investigators are C. Neill Epperson, director of the Penn Center for Women’s Behavioral Wellness and a professor of psychiatry and obstetrics and gynecology in Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine, and Tracy Bale, a professor of neuroscience in the Department of Biomedical Sciences at Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine and in the Department of Psychiatry at Penn Medicine.

The award will also fund University initiatives that broadly promote the acknowledgement of sex and gender difference in all health-related research studies.

“If our researchers increase their focus on the sex of the individual, organism or cells being studied,” said Epperson, “Penn will be a major player in the advancement of women’s health.”

Women have been largely left out of clinical trials due to concerns about causing reproductive problems and exposing women who could become pregnant to experimental medications and procedures. Yet in recent years it’s become clear that certain medications may affect men and women differently, just as certain diseases affect them at different rates and to varying degrees.

Certain autoimmune diseases and neuropsychiatric disorders, such as multiple sclerosis, depression and anxiety, for example, occur more in females than in males. Other disorders, such as substance abuse and schizophrenia, are generally more common in men. Research in cardiovascular disease, too, has revealed that women tend to experience different symptoms of heart attacks.

Though the NIH Revitalization Act of 1993 required the inclusion of women and minorities in clinical trials, the NIH has since faced challenges enforcing the guidelines. A number of major clinical studies still do not recruit in such a way that researchers can evaluate differences in outcome between men and women.

The BIRCWH program aims to help change this. Bale and Epperson will convene a group of faculty to review applications from investigators who are early in their careers. The awarded BIRCWH grants will provide researchers with two years of funding, including resources to help launch a pilot study into their area of interest.

BIRCHW is a University-wide program, with support from the Office of the Vice Provost for Research and from the Office of the Vice Dean for Diversity and Inclusion at the Perelman School of Medicine. For that reason, Epperson and Bale stress that at least one scholar will come from outside the medical school.

“The BIRCWH program will lay a foundation for a cross-school initiative,” Bale said, noting that schools across campus are engaged in health research, from the Annenberg School for Communication and the School of Dental Medicine to the School of Nursing and the School of Arts & Sciences. To further engage the campus community in its mission, the BIRCWH program will hold seminars and retreats to share information about ongoing research.

“Receiving the BIRCWH Award is clear recognition of Penn’s commitment to promote sex and gender differences research across all of its schools, institutes and centers,” Epperson said. “We are honored to take the helm of the BIRCWH Scholars Program as it will build the foundation for advancing sex and gender differences research at Penn.”

Interested applicants can contact BIRCWH Program Manager Claudia Iannelli at

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