Promoting Women in Science Through American Cancer Society’s ResearcHERS Program

A professional photo of Dr. Shannon Nugent; the background shows the skyline of Portland

Shannon Nugent, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor at OHSU in the Department of Psychiatry and a core investigator at the VA Portland Healthcare System, Center to Improve Veteran Involvement in Care (CIVIC). Her research interests are in the areas of palliative medicine, psychosocial oncology, chronic pain, and improving access to health care for older adults.

Recently, Dr. Nugent participated in a live American Cancer Society event as part of their ResearcHERS program to promote women in science. During the event, Dr. Nugent offered advice for young women interested in STEM, shared findings from her own research, discussed the challenges faced as a woman in this field, and more.

The interview can be viewed on YouTube and has also been transcribed below.

American Cancer Society: Would you share with us a little bit about your own research in the context of the breakthroughs you’ve witnessed over your career?

Dr. Shannon Nugent: My research focuses on improving pain and mental health outcomes for survivors of head and neck cancer. Over the course of my career, there have been important advances in the fields of non-cancer chronic pain and cancer survivorship about the awareness of the interrelationship between chronic pain and mood and the need to support mood and treatment of pain. In addition, technology such as telehealth, which has recently become much more available, enables us to provide these specialty treatments to a broader group or individuals. My goal is to expand and adapt some of these non-opioid pain management treatments to those with head and neck cancer using telehealth.

ACS: What advice do you have for women listening to this discussion who are aiming to be our future leaders in STEM.

Dr. Nugent: I would say a few things. First, get involved early and have fun. I recall in 8th grade I won the annual science award at my school for a project that I did on shampoo and blind testing my entire class on which one they preferred and why on several different characteristics- like smell and how shiny it made your hair, and while it was kind of a silly project, it had rigor and winning that award was somewhat formative for me. During college, I pursued many different research internships in both my areas of study which were psychology and evolutionary biology. One of my favorite projects was collecting and identifying pollinators to understand how the biodiversity of Colorado pollinators had changed from 1930 to the early 2000s.

Second, find peers with common interests. In high school, college, and graduate school I had really wonderful cohorts of peers with whom I formed study groups and provided general support for non-school-related challenges in life and we pursued our academic interests. That was really important.

Finally, it’s imperative to have academic and professional mentors to help support and advance your career. From the beginning, I was really lucky to have supportive parents, one of whom is a chemical engineer and the other a school psychologist, so they really emphasized the importance of education.  In my current role and as a health services research fellow, I’ve had fantastic mentorship from several people, who have been supportive of my professional, while also honoring my personal growth throughout my career.

ACS: Can you share with us some of the findings from your research, and let us know if you faced any particular challenges of your own along the way, as a female leader in cancer research?

Dr. Nugent: Some of my findings highlight the importance of palliative care to reduce distress in survivors of head and neck cancer. I am currently collecting data to better understand pain management preferences, needs, and practices and am about to begin recruiting for a behavioral intervention that is focused on pain management.

In terms of challenges that I’ve faced professionally, I think I have really benefited from having many women who have trail blazed before me, so there is precedent for females in academic leadership, at least at my current institutions. I think there is currently, even more, change and awareness with the diversity, equity, and inclusion movements, which I think is important.

ACS: Personal – what have you faced personally as a female in this field?

Dr. Nugent: I think the biggest challenge has been balancing my personal life with my research career. We have three small children ages 8, 5, 3, and particularly navigating maternity leave and caring for small children while maintaining research productivity is challenging. In addition, my husband also has a full-time demanding career, so it’s been tricky at times to prioritize everything.

ACS: How has ACS helped with your research?

Dr. Nugent: ACS has elevated my research career tremendously. It has given me protected time for five years to develop and hone my program, helped me obtain a faculty position at my current instruction, and just been an overall wonderful opportunity!

ACS: In what can only be called a tough fundraising climate, what words of encouragement do you have for ambassadors that are watching now and for those who are considering supporting this campaign?

Dr. Nugen: It matters! Supporting the next generation of scientists who are from diverse backgrounds is our future.