Neuroscience researcher a driving force in global women’s MS group

A Department of Neuroscience researcher has become part of the inaugural executive committee of the newly announced International Women in Multiple Sclerosis (iWiMS) network.

Dr Vilija Jokubaitis is one of 12 committee members in the iWiMS and is overseeing mentorship within it.

The organisation officially announced itself this month in The Lancet Neurology.

It has developed over the past 12 months into a group of more than 250 members representing 25 countries, drawing members from basic science through to clinical research, from medical and scientific trainees to specialist consultant-neurologists and senior principal investigators to those working in allied health.

The network’s purpose is create mentorship opportunities and foster international research collaboration, with a focus on supporting young investigators and emerging leaders.

Its mentorship program was launched in February this year, bringing together 100 members, connecting mentors, mentees and peer supports from around the globe.

Dr Jokubaitis said that whilst women in medicine and health sciences make up 50 per cent of the workforce, that fewer than one third hold senior leadership positions, an imbalance that is more pronounced in some countries and workplaces than others.

“We see the same thing on journal editorial boards, and at conferences, where all-male panels or ‘manels’ are not uncommon,” she said.

“This particularly hit home at a recent international conference where the plenary presentation gave a history of the scientific and medical contributions of numerous white men to the field of MS, but failed to recognise the contribution of a single female or person of colour to our field.

“One of the greatest issues we face is that it is hard to see where you fit in the picture if you can’t see others like you in senior positions, as lab heads, lead investigators, clinical service leaders, as panel members, or plenary and keynote speakers at conferences. iWiMS aims to change this.”

The iWiMS is working to support all people, irrespective of gender or colour, to achieve parity and equity in the field by providing mentorship, opportunities for collaboration, opportunities to present at conferences, and also advocating for greater visibility at conferences, Dr Jokubaitis said.

“We applaud the announcement by Dr Francis Collins, the Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), earlier this month that he will no longer attend meetings where there is not equal representation of scientists of all backgrounds. This is a great show of leadership from the top and hope that others will follow in his footsteps, working towards equity for all,” she said.

Dr Jokubaitis is Head of the Neuroimmunology Genomics and Prognostics Group, MS and Neuroimmunology in the Department of Neuroscience.