Pioneer Mentors

In addition to this post, I recently co-wrote about the importance of recruiting and retaining women in the field of neurology in an editorial published in the journal Neurology*

Although it hurts me to admit it, I am what the New York Times would call “a woman of a certain age”.  As such, I was mentored and nurtured as a scientist and physician largely by men, almost all of them white and almost all of them much senior to me.  This was not at all a bad thing.  It was as it was then and I was grateful for their guidance and vote of confidence.  Indeed, these men were, themselves, outliers and pioneers – men who welcomed a woman as a trainee and then colleague were not particularly common in science and medicine in the 1970s.  But there were two remarkable women who did take me under their wings and usher me into science and medicine with a woman’s approach.  These women – Sofia Simmonds, Ph.D. and Maria New, M.D. – were neither perfect nor doing exactly what I wanted to do.  But they fueled my passion for intellectual pursuit and alleviation of human suffering and showed me I did not have to become someone or something else to be a part of that world.  Here are their stories.

Sofia Simmonds, Ph.D.
Cushing/Witney Medical Library,
Yale University

In the Fall of my second year as a Yale undergraduate student, I took a class required for my major that presented the fundamental concepts and mechanisms of biochemistry and biophysics.  As with all my courses, most of the professors were men; but one, a woman named Sofia Simmonds, stood out from the rest.  And not just because of her gender!  She looked somewhat austere, with her hair pulled back in a bun and her conservative dress, and she was no push-over when it came to pulling your weight as a student in the course.  I honestly think it was more how much she reminded me of some of my relatives – a well-educated, tailored woman from the New York City of the generation before mine – more than just her gender, that made me gravitate towards her.

She had been an undergraduate student at Barnard College and obtained her Ph.D. in Biochemistry at Cornell Medical School in the laboratory of Nobel laureate, Vincent du Vigneaud.  She spent a short time at Cornell as a research faculty member, but moved to Yale in 1945 with her husband, biochemist Joseph Fruton, who had obtained a position there as Associate Professor.  Given the prevailing attitude at the time regarding women who were academicians in the same field as their husbands, it is not surprising that Simmonds’ initial appointment was as Instructor and she progressed through the academic ranks rather slowly despite her formidable body of work as a scientist and as a teacher, becoming full Professor in 1975.

It is now 45 years since I met Sofia Simmonds.  She and her husband passed away in 2007 within a couple of days of one another.  But I still remember as if it were yesterday her approaching me as I left the classroom after her lecture one morning, the day before the midterm exam.  I was certain I had done something wrong!  She said, “I have an extra ticket for the Yale Symphony concert tonight,” as she handed me the ticket.  I protested, “But Dr. Simmonds, it’s the night before the big exam!  I have to study!”  She looked solemnly directly into my eyes and said, “You have studied enough.  And if I find out that you did not attend the concert, you will surely fail the exam!”  I thanked her, left the classroom, and, of course, attended the wonderful concert that night.  And I did pass the exam.  But much more valuable, I learned that even the most hard-driving academicians think it’s a good idea to take some time to stop and smell the roses once in a while.

In my first year as a medical student at what was then called Cornell University Medical College, as part of a longitudinal course given by the Department of Social Work, I was assigned to follow a preschool-age Zuni girl who had come to be evaluated and treated by the Chief of the Division of Pediatric Endocrinology, Maria New.  The course was designed to introduce medical students to the psychosocial challenges of illness and hospitalization while they were still taking their pre-clinical courses and before they were out on the hospital units caring for patients.  I kept a diary of my interactions with the youngster and had weekly discussions with social worker Alice Ullmann.  Somewhere along the line, I was reading the child’s medical chart (These were the days when they were handwritten on lined paper in a metal “loose-leaf book” of sorts!) when Dr. New came looking for it.  She had just examined the child and was ready to write her note. 

I knew she was famous in endocrinology circles and was not about to strike up a conversation!  Besides, what she was about to do was critical for the child’s health.  I was just learning the ropes and playing with a kid!  Maria New obtained her undergraduate degree from Cornell and her M.D. from the University of Pennsylvania.  She did her internship at Bellevue Hospital and her residency at New York Hospital.  She did fellowship training in Pediatric Endocrinology at the NIH, and then joined the faculty of the medical school at Cornell.  Her research has defined and discovered the mechanisms of many disorders of steroid hormones produced by the adrenal gland.  She is currently a professor of Pediatrics, Genomics, and Genetics at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City.

After she had finished writing her note, Dr. New handed the chart back to me.  She asked who I was and, without missing a beat, then began explaining the child’s illness and medical course to me.  I felt deeply honored, having been a medical student for a few weeks.  I continued to visit the child and discuss the challenges she and her family in the Southwest faced with Alice Ullmann.  A week or two later, I saw Maria New again.  She nodded hello and went on with her rounds.  As she was leaving the unit, she suddenly turned around and said, “I would like you to come to Pediatric Endocrinology case conference.  It takes place every Tuesday at noon.  We order sandwiches for lunch from the deli across the street.  What should we order for you?”

I almost fell over!  But this was the beginning of a long mentoring relationship that is meaningful to me even now.  When I told Dr. New I was hoping to become a child neurologist, she spent about an hour telling me she would feel better if I was hoping to become a pediatric neuro-endocrinologist.  I felt both guilty and humbled that it mattered so much to her.  I often think of these interactions when I am mentoring students and trainees.  They made me realize how intensely encouraging just a small amount of attention from and being treated like a colleague by an admired senior mentor can be. 

Like Dr. Simmonds, Dr. New is known as a stickler for excellence and neither suffered fools or went easy on students or trainees.  But their zeal for the perpetuation of their respective areas of expertise and their passion for enabling and empowering the future workforce made a powerful impression on many that has lasted for decades.

*Schor, NF and Brashear, A. “Saving Neurology – Once More With Feeling” Neurology December 5, 2019. DOI:

Migraines—more than just a headache

If you have ever had one, you know that migraines are often not typical, run-of-the-mill headaches. They cause intense throbbing pain, and can bring on nausea/vomiting, sensitivity to light and sound, and numbness and tingling in arms and legs. Even worse, these symptoms can last a few hours or up to three days in adults.

Advertisement for NINDS Migraine Trainer app

It is not just adults who suffer from these horrible headaches—studies have shown that 10% of children between the ages of 5 and 15 have migraines. And that number jumps for older kids: up to 28% of children between 15 and 19 experience migraines. When I worked in the pediatric neurology clinic, complaints related to migraines were one of the most common things I saw. And because around 90% of migraines are hereditary, the parents often had an idea of what was going on and could sympathize with their kids.

In addition to having to deal with the awful pain and additional symptoms, kids will often end up missing school when migraines strike. This can lead to bad grades and decrease participation in extracurricular activities. Clearly, migraines are more than “just a headache.”

Several triggers can lead to migraines. These include lack of sleep, skipping meals, dehydration, certain foods (unfortunately chocolate is a common one!), and stress. Learning to identify and avoid specific triggers has helped many patients- young and old- deal with their migraines.

To help teenagers take control of their migraines, NINDS developed an app, Migraine Trainer™. This free app includes features such as tracking warning signs and keeping a migraine log, which can be shared with parents and healthcare providers. In addition, the app offers tips and techniques for relaxation and deep breathing exercises to help lower stress levels.

We hope that this new app will help teens take control of their migraines and get back to living healthy, active lives.

Download Migraine Trainer™ from the App Store – Apple or Google Play.

Learn more about Migraine Trainer™

Music on the Brain

Since 2017, the NIH has partnered with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on a program called Sound Health, and in association with the National Endowment for the Arts, NIH has just funded the first research grants for this initiative. A talented musician in his own right, NIH Director Francis Collins has written about these awards and the fascinating questions being asked about how music interacts with the brain. Here, I’d like to turn that question on its proverbial head and ask, “What is it about the minds of doctors and scientists that makes them love and create music?”

Some have said that being a doctor – facing life and death, delivering bad news to families, performing delicate surgeries – or a researcher – writing grants, having scientific papers rejected, redoing experiments over and over – are so intense and give so little instant gratification, that those who play these roles need some relaxation and release. It’s hard to find a group of physicians and researchers that doesn’t include at least a few hobbyist musicians. Music is the escape, they say, from the tragedy, the frustration, the need for intense focus in medicine and science.

There is doubtless some truth to this.  I vividly recall getting back to my hospital-owned studio apartment from 36 hours straight of hospital call and blowing off steam banging on the piano I had bought for $200 – almost a week’s salary for an intern.  But there is another connection that rings truer to me.  For me, music and biology are cut of exactly the same cloth. 

Restriction Enzyme – image credit: Sagar Aryal

After freshman year in college, I spent a summer at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island as an Undergraduate Research Participant.  I worked on a newly discovered group of proteins called restriction enzymes.  Restriction enzymes cut DNA, the genetic substance, in very specific parts of its sequence.  My mentor was quite excited about the potential for restriction enzymes to be used as tools to help scientists figure out the sequence of DNA and understand what makes each person’s DNA different from any other’s.  I, on the other hand, was thrilled with the restriction enzymes themselves.  They cut the two strands of DNA at sequences that were palindromes.  That is, on one strand, the sequence at which they cut could be read from left to right; on the other strand, the sequence was the same as that of the first strand, but only if you read it from right to left.  Imagine the symmetry of the “knife edges” of that enzyme that made it fit precisely into the place where the mirror image sequences lived and cut the DNA in equivalent places on both strands!

As a student of music theory and composition, I had studied fugues, a genre of music in which a simple theme is played in one voice. Then, while the theme is repeated in a second voice, it is played inverted in the first.  One voice plays the theme “left to right”; another plays it “right to left”.  And they dovetail perfectly to make a whole the function of which is greater than the sum of its parts.  Just like the restriction enzyme!

The cardiologist Robert S. Root-Bernstein, once wrote, “Thus, those doctors who have been most sensitive to their culture, and most inventive in their everyday lives, have also been most insightful in their work.  Music, the arts, poetry, and literature actually contribute in essential ways to the training of doctors and influence the way in which they perceive medicine.”*  Sound Health is not only a play on words for audiences and patients; it is a part of what makes doctors and scientists who and what we are.

* Root-Bernstein RS.  J Mol Cell Cardiol 19:1043-1051, (1987)

Dream big with NINDS!

During my short time at NINDS, the dedication of our staff to our institute’s mission and their clarity of thought and depth of knowledge have repeatedly exceeded my expectations. That is why I am so excited to ask them to take a step out of the daily churn of keeping up with new discoveries, latest techniques, and fast-approaching deadlines to consider the bigger picture with me—to dream big about advancing our knowledge about the brain over the next five years. That is what the process of strategic planning is all about—a chance during your journey to climb the highest mast and see where you’ve been, where you’re going, and what storms you might have to weather as you follow (or, perhaps, adjust) the course you’ve set to reach your destination. The planning process will help to ensure that NINDS policies, practices and functions align with our mission, allowing us to better serve and anticipate the needs of all our stakeholders, including the research and patient communities, as well as the public. In short, this process will keep us moving (asymptotically, perhaps) to meet our mission. The timing, I believe, is exactly right; the recent decade has brought many exciting developments for our community, of which we must now take stock to identify our best ways forward.

In my experience, the journey of strategic planning is at least as important as the destination, if not more so. When executed thoughtfully and viewed as a continuing, dynamic, and adaptable sequence of ebbs and flows, it builds solidarity, consensus, unified vision and purpose, and teamwork.  The process I’m leading is designed to give everyone—our employees, researchers, collaborators, practitioners, advocates, and the interested public—the chance to have their voices heard and valued, while dedicated stewards keep us accountable for moving forward. In this case, the stewards who will help translate the input we gather into priorities and goals are my thoughtful and determined colleagues from across NINDS and NIH who live and breathe our mission every day.

Continue reading “Dream big with NINDS!”

So Many Questions, So Little Time!

There are so many unsolved mysteries in biology and medicine! What causes Parkinson’s disease? How does our brain know what is important to remember and what is okay to forget? Why do some patients with multiple sclerosis have rapidly progressing symptoms while others have isolated episodes separated by months or years?

With so many questions to answer and so many diseases to treat, how does a scientist decide on which topic to study?

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Welcome to The Schor Line!

Nina Schor, M.D., Ph.D.
Deputy Director, NINDS

Hello! My name is Nina Schor, and I am the deputy director at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). I have been here at NINDS for just over a year, so I am still a relative newcomer. When I thought about how I could contribute to the NINDS mission, I immediately seized on the idea of writing a blog for the public.

So why a blog? Because this is my opportunity to talk to you about what we do. Taxpayers like you fund our research. Students and trainees working in hospitals and research labs make up the future scientific workforce, while patients and their families are the beneficiaries of scientific discoveries and inventions. So, I figure who better to engage about the work being done here at NIH and how we go about doing it than you?

Continue reading “Welcome to The Schor Line!”