Nicole C. Woitowich's picture

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Dr. Nicole Woitowich is the Associate Director for the Women’s Health Research Institute at Northwestern University. She is actively transforming the landscape of women’s health through her research, advocacy, and outreach activities. She implements programming which informs the scientific and medical communities, as well as the public, about the influences of sex and gender on health and disease. In addition, Dr. Woitowich serves as the Director for the Illinois Women’s Health Registry, which promotes the participation of women in clinical research and evaluates state-wide women’s health trends. As a former Presidential Management Fellow awardee, she remains politically active and advocates on behalf of women’s health research. In 2018, she drafted legislation to recognize January 25th as National Women’s Health Research Day which was introduced in Congress by Sen. Duckworth and Rep. Schakowsky, and locally endorsed by Mayor Emanuel. While formally trained as biochemist, her current research explores the impact of science policy on research practices and gender biases in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medical (STEMM) fields. Dr. Woitowich has held a long-standing interest in the advancement and retention of women in the STEMM pipeline and has created programs both at Northwestern University and beyond to this end.  In 2015, she was nominated to serve as a member of the Public Outreach Committee for the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, due to her ability to communicate science to diverse audiences and her passion for making science publicly accessible. Through this role, she served as a co-organizer for SciOut18, the first national meeting of science outreach practitioners in the United States. 

My Blog Posts

Posted by on December 14, 2016 - 11:41am

High impact medical journals have the ability to generate substantial changes in clinical research methods, analyses, and reporting through publication guidelines. This week, executive editor of The Lancet, Jocalyn Clark, co-authored an editorial urging for thorough reporting of sex-specific findings in medical journals [1]. The authors analyzed data from 60 clinical trials published in The Lancet and The New England Journal of Medicine, and found results which require thoughtful attention.  

While the overall number of female participants in clinical research has increased from 37% in 2009 to 41% in 2016, it still falls short of the ideal goal of 50%. Despite the fact that each study included male and female participants, 57% did not perform any sex-specific data analysis. The authors note that The Lancet encourages, but does not require, researchers to analyze data by sex. Therefore, they suggest if high-profile medical journals were to make sex-based analyses and reporting a requirement for publication, this would lead to improved health outcomes for all.

For further reading on this topic:

Sex based subgroup differences in randomized controlled trials: empirical evidence from Cochrane meta-analyses
Wallach et al., BMJ. 2016;355:i5826.

Implications for Journals of Sex-Specific Reporting Policies of Journals
Sex-Specific Reporting of Scientific Research: A Workshop Summary
Institute of Medicine, 2012.

1. Avery and Clark, Lancet. 2016; 388(10062): 2839-2840.  

Posted by on November 22, 2016 - 3:41pm

A recent study published in the American Journal of Public Health, found that women who had children at an older age were more likely to live a longer life [1]. The authors analyzed the medical, reproductive, and lifestyle histories of more than 20 thousand women who participated in the Women’s Health Initiative, a long-term study designed to learn more about women’s health and well-being through the ageing process. They found that women who had their first or only child after the age of 25 were more likely to live into their 90s than women who had their child(ren) before they were 25 years old.

The present study is the latest in a series which have explored the relationship between maternal age and longevity [2,3]. Together, these studies suggest that reproductive health is an indicator of overall health. However, the authors caution that this data should not encourage individuals to delay childbearing in an attempt to live longer, as the study has some limitations. First, women who had children after the age of 25 were more likely to be college educated and have a higher income. These socioeconomic and lifestyle factors may influence overall health. Likewise, they were less likely to be obese or suffer from any chronic conditions that might reduce longevity.

Within the United States, the average age at first childbirth has increased significantly, from 24.9 in 2000 to 26.3 in 2014 [4]. Going forward, it will be of great interest to study this generation of women, so that we may gain a better insight into how reproductive habits influence women’s health and well-being.

1. Shadyab et al., Am J Public Health. 2016 Nov 17:e1-e7. [Epub ahead of print].
2. Sun et al., Menopause. 2015 Jan;22(1):26-31.
3. Jaffe et al., Ann Epidemiol. 2015 Jun;25(6):387-91.
4. Centers for Disease Control

Posted by on November 11, 2016 - 2:48pm

The Journal of Neuroscience Research released the on-line version of its January/February 2017 issue [1], which is dedicated to sex- and gender-based research in the field of neuroscience.  Aptly titled, “An Issue Whose Time Has Come: Sex/Gender Influences on Nervous System Function,” the issue features a series of commentaries, reviews, and research articles highlighting the sex and gender differences that exist within the brain and nervous system.

The special issue was edited by Dr. Larry Cahill,  neuroscientist and sex-inclusion advocate, from the University of California Irvine. Dr. Cahill will be a featured speaker and panelist at the Sex Inclusion in Biomedical Research Workshop & Symposium hosted by the WHRI on January 25th, 2017.

With the push for sex and gender inclusion in the biomedical sciences, the WHRI encourages other journals to highlight sex-based research and applauds those who have already done so, such as Addiction Biology [2] and Atherosclerosis [3].

1. Journal of Neuroscience Research. 2016; 95(1-2): 1-791.
2. Addiction Biology. 2016; 21(5): 993-1059.
3. Atherosclerosis. 2015; 241(1): 1-288. 

Posted by on October 21, 2016 - 9:48am

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is an endocrine disorder which causes women to produce higher levels of the hormone testosterone than normal. This hormonal imbalance can result in facial hair growth, acne, menstrual cycle irregularities, infertility, and metabolic-related issues such as weight gain, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol [1]. According to the Office on Women’s Health, PCOS may affect as many as 1 in 10 women of childbearing age [2]. 

Traditionally, women are treated with oral contraceptives containing the synthetic versions of the hormones estrogen and progesterone, or compounds known to block testosterone production.  However, these approaches may not be suitable for women, especially those pursuing pregnancy.  A new study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, found that resveratrol, a chemical compound found in red wine, may be effective at reducing testosterone levels in women with PCOS [3]. 

The study analyzed the hormonal and metabolic profiles of women who were given resveratrol or a placebo pill for three months. The study authors found that the women who took resveratrol had a significant decrease in testosterone and dehydroepiandroesterone, a molecule from which sex hormones are derived from. These results indicate that resveratrol may be a possible treatment for PCOS due to its testosterone-lowering properties. However, the present study only had a small number of participants, and additional clinical trials would be necessary to confirm its therapeutic potential. 

For more information on PCOS, the National Institutes of Health has compiled an excellent list of resources which can be found here: NIH - PCOS.    

If you have been diagnosed with PCOS and are interested in participating in clinical research, click here for more information. 


1. UptoDate: “Epidemiology and pathogenesis of the polycystic ovary syndrome in adults.”
2. Office on Women’s Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
3. Banaszewska et al., J Clin Endo Metab. 2016: Epub ahead of print. 

Posted by on September 16, 2016 - 5:48pm

Over the last several years, the term traumatic brain injury (TBI), has become commonplace, as evidence mounts that some of America’s favorite contact sports may cause severe and lasting brain injuries. TBIs occur when the brain is jolted by an external force which results in damage to the brain in surrounding tissue. However, TBI is not limited to the football field, instead motor vehicle accidents and falls are the leading cause for this type of neurological injury [1]. TBIs can range from mild to severe resulting in a brief period of disorientation (also known as a concussion), to complete loss of consciousness.

While men make up the majority of patients who are diagnosed with TBI, research suggests that women may experience TBI differently than men. Several studies have found that women may have more post-concussive symptoms, such as dizziness and headache, after a mild TBI as compared to men [2,3]. Additionally, women may have different post-concussive symptoms depending on their menstrual cycle stage at time of injury [4]. Furthermore, a post-concussive symptom of TBI may be menstrual cycle irregularity or amenorrhea [5]. More research is necessary to fully uncover the sex differences and sex-specific outcomes of TBI as it pertains to women's health. 

For additional information:   
Center for Disease Control
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke


  1. Centers for Disease Control
  2. Bazarian et al., J Neurotrauma. 2010; 27(3):527-39. 
  3. Colantonio et al., BMC Neurol. 2010 Oct 28;10:102.
  4. Wunderle et al., J Head Trauma Rehabil. 2014 Sep-Oct; 29(5):E1-8.
  5. Ranganathan et al., Brain Inj. 2016 Mar 10:1-10.
Posted by on August 16, 2016 - 7:07am

By Nicole C. Woitowich, PhD

Academic conferences and symposia provide scientists with the opportunity to learn about the most cutting edge research, establish professional networks and collaboration, and foster the exchange of ideas among colleagues. But for those invited to speak at a conference, it can provide the additional benefit of increased visibility and professional recognition within one’s field. However, for female scientists their invitation to present might have gotten “lost in the mail.”

A new study published in the journal, PloS One, analyzed the ratio of female to male speakers at conferences held by two scientific societies between the years 1999 and 2015 [1]. The authors found that neither the number of female presenters nor female symposia organizers increased significantly over time.

Lead author of the study, Stephanie Sardelis found this to be alarming, “We expected there to be more opportunity for women to excel…especially since both societies have been improving their gender policies,” she says.

Unfortunately, these results are not surprising. Several other studies have shown that women are underrepresented at academic symposia [2,3], and when women are given the chance to present, they speak for less time compared to their male peers [4]. In an attempt to mitigate gender bias at academic conferences the solution seems all too simple: Invite more women! Specifically, invite more women to be symposia organizers.  Sardelis and her colleague, Dr. Joshua Drew, found that when the number of female symposia organizers increased, so did the number of female presenters.  This suggests that women may be more attuned to gender bias and in turn, encourage the promotion of their female colleagues at conferences or symposia.

In addition to increasing the number of female conference organizers, Sardelis and her colleague suggest that scientific societies provide adequate travel funds, child-friendly facilities, and enforce a strict Code of Conduct that includes zero-tolerance for abuse towards women, minorities, and differently abled attendees.

Sardelis believes that gender bias at conferences is indicative of a more systemic problem harbored by academia as a culture. “To reduce the gender gap, all scientists must eliminate the misconception that women are less competent than their male colleagues,” she shares.

Yet, Sardelis remains confident that steps are being taken in the right direction after attending a recent conference citing numerous female speakers, gender neutral bathrooms and nursing rooms, along with a focus group dedicated to women at scientific conferences. “[This] was a testament to the fact that gender disparity is a serious issue, but one that is being (albeit slowly) targeted by the scientific community,” she says.

Let’s hope the scientific community can pick up the pace.  



  1. Sardelis and Drew, PLoS One. 2016; 11(7):e0160015.
  2. Casadevall and Handelsman, mBio. 2014; 5(1):e00846-13.
  3. Schroeder et al., J Evol Biol. 2013; 26(9):2063-2069. 
  4. Jones et al., PeerJ. 2014; 2:e627. 
Posted by on August 8, 2016 - 9:51am

Type 2 diabetes is a chronic disease that occurs when the body can no longer regulate blood sugar levels, resulting in serious complications such as heart disease, kidney disease, loss of vision, and limb amputation. Typically, type 2 diabetes affects those who are older, overweight, and do not exercise.  Yet, family history and ethnicity can put individuals at greater risk for developing type 2 diabetes [1]. In the United States alone, over 29 million individuals are estimated to have diabetes, with over 245 billion dollars being spent on diabetes-related healthcare per year [2]. The good news is, the onset of type 2 diabetes can be delayed or even prevented with simple lifestyle changes such as losing weight, eating healthy, and staying active. However, some individuals may not know that they are at risk for developing type 2 diabetes before it is too late.

A recent study published in the journal, Menopause, found that reproductive history may help predict the risk of developing type 2 diabetes [3]. This longitudinal study analyzed the reproductive history of over 124,000 women who had already gone through menopause.  The study participants answered questions about their reproductive health such as the age that they had their first period and when they entered menopause, in addition to basic information about their general health. From this information, the authors categorized women into groups based on their reproductively active period, calculated by the number of years between a woman’s first and last period. Interestingly, they found that women who had reproductive periods less than 30 years and greater than 45 years were at increased risk for developing type 2 diabetes.

The authors suggest that there may be a “Goldilocks effect” to the amount of estrogen a woman is exposed to throughout her lifetime: If the reproductive period is too short or too long it may lead to complications in metabolism. Based on this information, healthcare providers may be able to identify women at risk of developing type 2 diabetes and encourage them to lower their risk by modifying their diet and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.  


  1. National Institutes of Health   
  2. Centers for Disease Control
  3. LeBlanc et al., Menopause. 2016 Jul 25. [Epub ahead of print]
Posted by on August 4, 2016 - 7:38am

A recent study conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO) found that women in countries across the globe, report being in poorer health than men [1]. The WHO administered a survey to over 250,000 individuals in 59 countries, which asked participants to answer questions regarding chronic health conditions, the ability to partake in daily activities, and overall wellbeing. Across all geographical regions and age demographics, women were more likely to report being in “poor health” and exhibit greater limitations in their daily activities.

Does this mean that women worldwide face health inequities due to their gender or their biological makeup? The study authors suggest it may be a combination of both. First, biological factors dependent on sex may play a role in disease incidence, prevalence, symptoms, age at onset, and severity. Yet, sociological factors such as discriminatory values and behaviors towards women coupled with biases from healthcare systems may factor into poor health outcomes.

The WHO is currently conducting additional research necessary to determine if the self-reported “poor health” matches to actual clinical and biological data through the study on Global Ageing and Adult Health [2]. This will provide a clearer view on where women’s health issues stand across globe.



1.    Boerma et al., BMC Public Health. 2016; 16:657.
2.    World Health Organization


Posted by on August 1, 2016 - 2:23pm

By: Nicole C. Woitowich, PhD

Over the weekend, Newsweek published an article highlighting the inequities that exist in women’s health research [1]. I think it’s fantastic that major media outlets are drawing attention to an issue that has been central to the Women’s Health Research Institute’s mission since its inception. However, as I read along, I can’t help but cringe when I come across the following mistake: sex and gender are not synonyms. 

In the opening paragraph, author Jessica Firger mentions how “biological factors beyond a patient’s control – especially gender – can determine [cancer] treatment outcome.”  But the truth is, gender is not a biological factor whereas sex is. Gender is a social construct which defines the appearance, actions, thoughts, and behaviors associated with the male or female sex and can change depending on the cultural context. Sex on the other hand, is strictly a biological construct determined by the presence or absence of the Y chromosome. To use sex and gender interchangeably, especially when discussing biomedical research, is in error.

Perhaps what’s more embarrassing, is that scientists continue to make this mistake as well (and quite frankly, they should know better). A quick search through PubMed will reveal article titles relating to “gender differences” in the context of pancreatic cancer, orthostatic hypotension, and proton pump inhibitor pharmacology, when they should have been properly attributed to “sex differences.” How can we expect the media and general public to understand the differences between sex and gender if we can’t get it right ourselves?

 So, I offer you the following Public Service Announcement from your friendly local scientist:

  1. Cell lines have a sex.
  2. Model organisms have a sex.
  3. Humans have both a sex and gender and it’s important to differentiate between the two.  

If we are to advance sex- and gender-inclusive biomedical and clinical research, it is of the utmost importance to understand these concepts.

Lastly, don’t say gender instead of sex just because you’re afraid of saying the word sex. This is a stigma we all need to get over because sex (in both definitions) is a natural, biological concept. It’s time we start attributing it as such.


1. Firger, J. "Females Suffer From Gender Gap in Cancer Trials, Drug Development." Newsweek, 30 July 2016. Web.

Posted by on July 27, 2016 - 10:47am

Routine breast and cervical cancer screenings aid in the early detection and diagnosis of cancer. However, for women who face socioeconomic hardships and are under- or uninsured, preventative cancer screening may be a luxury which they cannot afford. A recent study published in the journal, JAMA Internal Medicine, suggests that patient navigators play a critical role in helping women access gynecological cancer screening.

Patient navigators are individuals who work alongside patients and assist them in making appropriate healthcare choices, provide information and education relevant to their needs, and advocate on their behalf [2]. Oftentimes, patients may need access to health information in their native language, assistance in arranging transportation to-and-from appointments, or simply someone to accompany them to their visit. In this study, patients who were overdue for routine breast, cancer, and colon cancer screening were randomized into two groups: One group of patients was provided access to a patient navigator, the other group received typical notifications of overdue screening by phone or electronic reminders. The study authors found that patients who had access to a patient navigator were more likely to complete their cancer screening than those who did not.   

Kristin Smith, a patient navigator within the Northwestern Medical Group, is not surprised by these results. She states, “Having one person to help break down the complexities of healthcare can make or break the experience that a patient has in a hospital or physician’s office.”

 “By enabling a patient through a navigator, hospital systems can more readily serve immediate patient needs,” shares Smith. Thus, integration of patient navigators within interdisciplinary healthcare teams may lead to improved quality of care for all.  


  1. Percac-Lima et al., JAMA Intern Med. 2016. 1;176(7):930-7.
  2. American Medical Association