The world of medical research — often a behind-the-scenes sector — houses some of the most brilliant minds: transformational thinkers who envision the bigger picture of improved health for all. At Northwell Health, where we champion diversity and inclusion across our workforce, we are proud of our many women scientists who are leading the way in research innovation.
In honor of Women in Medicine Month, we spoke with Chunyan Li, PhD (EE), and Christina Brennan, MD, MBA — two exceptional leaders at the Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research — about their experiences and their thoughts on encouraging women to pursue careers in science. The Feinstein Institutes is the home of research for Northwell Health. Teams of researchers work tirelessly to discover treatments and innovations that change the future of medicine not only for our patients but the world at large. Read below to learn about the incredible work of these two powerhouse women in medicine, and how innovations at Northwell are born out of a fervent belief that voices must be heard at every level and from every background.
What research have you been involved with at the Feinstein Institutes?
Chunyan Li: I helped develop an innovative laboratory research program focused on two major problems in clinical neurosurgery — traumatic brain injury (TBI) and subarachnoid hemorrhage (SAH) from ruptured brain aneurysms. We have found that stimulation of the nerve that provides sensation to most of the face and tongue, increases blood supply to the brain due to its connections with cerebral vessels.
Christina Brennan: As the vice president of clinical research, I oversee the clinical research program for all of Northwell, which includes supporting our 300-plus research coordinators and 400-plus clinical investigators. My days include facilitating clinical research trials and studies, and on the management side I act as an anchor for our teams of researchers, sustaining their growth and the growth of our clinical research program.
What first drew you to the field of clinical research?
Chunyan Li: I grew up in China and was fascinated by engineering and scientific research from a young age. During my graduate studies I met Raj K. Narayan, MD, chairman emeritus of neurosurgery at Northwell and was introduced to the many research opportunities relating to the brain. Dr. Narayan recruited me to Northwell. Our work in applying electrical engineering and computer science techniques to brain monitoring received a Department of Defense grant. Throughout my time at Northwell, my work has evolved to focus more on patients, which is an exciting and fulfilling direction.
Christina Brennan: I was inspired by the juncture between patients and science. In our work, patients have the opportunity to participate in clinical research and together we have the ability to advance medicine and help the patients of tomorrow.
Why would you recommend the Feinstein Institutes to others interested in careers in science, particularly women?
Chunyan Li: The Feinstein Institutes is a very special place for research — small enough to build relationships, large enough to make an impact. There are different ways to have an influence in science at the Feinstein Institutes and I particularly like the focus on clinical translational work. Working bench-to-bedside gives me the chance to interact with physicians. What we do is aimed at finding new and better treatments for conditions for which there are currently not enough answers.
Christina Brennan: A career at the Feinstein Institutes provides the chance to change the trajectory of medicine and science because the areas in which you can put your hands and mind to work seem endless. Now more than ever, the world has its eyes on clinical research. It’s an exciting time in the field.
How has your work been supported by the Feinstein Institutes and Northwell?
Chunyan Li: I work in a very supportive environment. I have been able to learn research techniques through unique experiences I did not have while in graduate school. Here, you never feel alone because we always have access to mentors who are selfless in the sharing of their ideas and encouragement. Additionally, as a female faculty member, my lab received support from the Advancing Women in Science and Medicine (AWSM) program, which has allowed us time to develop prospective treatment methods and obtain further funding from federal institutions.
Christina Brennan: Personally, I was able to pursue my MBA through Northwell’s support at Hofstra University. I continue training and getting educated through my work at the Feinstein Institutes and through the many organizations we partner with. I agree that a big aid in our ability to grow as women in medicine is the AWSM program initiated by our very own Dr. Betty Diamond, Director of the Institute of Molecular Medicine at the Feinstein Institutes. It gives me confidence to know that the advancement of career opportunities and career satisfaction for women are important missions here at the Feinstein Institutes and across Northwell Health.
How has Northwell and the Feinstein Institutes impacted both your personal and professional growth?
Chunyan Li: Research can feel like a competitive sport, but it’s reassuring to know that Northwell Health is a big proponent of supporting research through funding and programs. In my 11 years here, I have grown as a scientist and faculty member, and that is much in part because of the strong foundation holding us up at both the Feinstein Institutes and Northwell.
Christina Brennan: The health system has endorsed my participation in conferences, research boards, and other opportunities to present as a leader in clinical research. This has been both personally rewarding for me and has added to my professional development.
Why do you believe Northwell Health has been named a Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For®?
Chunyan Li: There is no single answer to this question. For me, Northwell has provided great opportunities to develop myself as a researcher and to find better answers for difficult-to-treat diseases of the nervous system.
Christina Brennan: “Impossible to narrow it down to one reason. It’s the opportunities, the stability and the culture of trust.”
Explore laboratory and other research opportunities at the Feinstein Institutes.