In honor of Women’s History Month in March and Hennepin Healthcare Research Institute turning 70 in 2022, we’re celebrating the extraordinary women of HHRI. Each week, we will add more of their stories as they reflect on their career in science, what has changed since they joined HHRI, and their outlook for the future. These profiles represent just a handful of the amazing women who work in all areas of the institute. From the labs, to the clinics, to administration, the women of HHRI are making important contributions to improving patient care and the health of our community locally and around the world.
"Science, for me, gives a partial explanation for life. In so far as it goes, it is based on fact, experience and experiment."
- Dr. Rosalind Franklin, pioneering British researcher who is best known for her role in the discovery of the structure of DNA.
Meet the Women in Science at HHRI
Meet Melissa Adkins-Hempel. She is the Senior Research Coordinator in the Behavioral Health Equity Research Group. Her journey with HHRI began in 2016 when she applied to HHRI on a whim after casually searching for some research areas.
Melissa started as a part-time research assistant with Dr. Kate Diaz Vickery in August 2016. Melissa said she was fresh out of community college with no experience and her time with Dr. Vickery shaped the next few years academically and professionally. After graduating in January 2019, she accepted a full-time position with Dr. Andrew Busch and subsequently Dr. Sandra Japuntich in the Behavioral Health Equity Research Group. Given her undergraduate degree is in Psychology and Drs. Busch and Japuntich are both clinical psychologists, the role was a great fit. Melissa said she enjoyed learning first about medicine and health equity from Dr. Vickery and then about behavioral clinical trials and smoking cessation from Drs. Busch and Japuntich.
Melissa said that things have changed since she has been at HHRI, such as a noticeable increase in investigators interested in health equity focused on the population we serve at Hennepin Healthcare and Minneapolis’s greater community.
“I really love my job. I think HHRI is a unique place to work because it’s a smaller research organization doing important work. Many people have been at their jobs a long time and are passionate about their work. I like that I have a personal relationship with people across the organization, from HR to accounting, grants administration, and more. It’s nice to feel like you know the people you work with even peripherally. In my role, I like the opportunity to work on such a wide variety of projects and collaborate with many partners from community health centers to universities and research institutions nationally. I also love my team; everyone cares deeply about their work, and it is easy to collaborate. We all support one another,” Melissa said.
Melissa also really enjoys hearing feedback from their participants who have seen a benefit from their interventions and when patient comments are published in the Scanner through HCMC.
Each day, Melissa looks forward to making an accomplishment at work. “I really think the fun part of research is that it’s a bit like a puzzle from the bottom to the top. Some days, I’m piecing together a mystery of a lost package or file, and other days I’m working on writing about treatments that could help people. To make a project work well, you need a team that collaborates well and has a love of learning,” she said. Melissa said her role has expanded to be a bit more behind the scenes because they have added some talented Research Assistants to their staff. Her advice for those coming into her role or something similar is that they should take notes and figure out what they are interested in. With such a wide range of projects, she said you can sometimes spend more time on projects within your area of interest. She also advises watching a bunch of YouTube videos on Excel.
Meet Dr. Kristina Burrack. She is an Investigator in the Infectious Diseases Division of HHRI. Her journey here started in 2018.
Dr. Burrack chose her area of science because she wanted to study malaria.
“It is a disease that disproportionately affects young children and pregnant women in areas of the world where they are already disadvantaged. Moreover, we still do not understand the role the immune system plays in preventing disease (and, potentially, sometimes, in causing disease),” Dr. Burrack said.
Her favorite part of research is learning something new every day. Although it is challenging, she also enjoys translating that knowledge to enhance human health.
When it comes to what Dr. Burrack sees for the future of her area/role in science, she said, “broadly speaking, I think the impact of climate change on human health and disease will be an incredibly important area for researchers.” Each day she looks forward to analyzing data and then translating that information to improve human health.
Dr. Burrack’s favorite quote that she feels makes a positive difference is, “Clear is kind.”
Meet Dr. Allyson Hart. She is the IRB Chair and a Senior Staff member at the Chronic Disease Research Group (CDRG).
Dr. Hart started her journey here in 2013. She started doing research to positively impact the lives of patients beyond those she saw in clinical practice.
“With that goal in mind, equity and community engagement have become increasingly front and center, both in what research we do but also in how we do that research. While I would not have guessed that I would become the Chair of the IRB committee, I am honored to have a position now where I am able to help our research community work towards the highest ethical standards, both with regards to individual human subjects protections but also in how we engage and learn from the communities that our researchers ultimately serve,” she said.
Dr. Hart loves collaborating with and learning from her colleagues. She said there is so much energy and enthusiasm, and those connections keep her going when challenges look daunting. “When we are challenged to take a hard look at what we have been doing that needs to change when making those changes, we will inevitably be uncomfortable. Our relationships will see us through that discomfort,” said Dr. Hart.
When it comes to what Dr. Hart sees for the future of her area/role in science, she said the work of human research protection is moving beyond individual subjects protection into consideration of the impact of research on communities. Dr. Hart also said that this work requires forging and maintaining community connections and reimagining how “traditional” research has been conducted for decades. “The work is not easy and requires daily effort on the part of everyone at HHRI,” she said.
Each day, Dr. Hart looks forward to feeling like she did enough and letting at least one person know that she appreciates their work. She also said, “I look forward to strengthening our partnerships and doing the work to make HHRI a trusted research partner with our communities.”
Dr. Hart’s favorite quote that she feels makes a positive difference is, “We do not serve the weak or the broken. What we serve is the wholeness in each other and the wholeness in life. The part in you that I serve is the same part that is strengthened in me when I serve. Unlike helping and fixing and rescuing, service is mutual.” -Rachel Naomi Remen
Meet Dr. Sandra Japuntich. She is a Clinical Psychologist Researcher at HHRI who works in the Clinical Pharmacology and Toxicology Department. Dr. Japuntich started her journey here in 2019.
The health equity focus of HHRI/HCMED is what led Dr. Japuntich here. “My research is on how to get health systems to address tobacco use better, so access to the HCMED patient population was important to me,” she said.
Dr. Japuntich said she has seen growth over time at HHRI. “We are growing and working on increasing the representation and diversity of our faculty,” she said.
Dr. Japuntich also enjoys her role and research at HHRI.
“I love being with many amazing tobacco researchers tackling the problem through different methods. I also love being able to mix clinical work with research. Sometimes it is challenging to be primarily a researcher working within a clinical system designed for clinicians. We have the best grants administration and research administration team. They work creatively to help us solve many problems,” she said.
Dr. Japuntich is hopeful for the future of her role. She would like to see behavioral researchers at HHRI collaborate more and share resources. Each day, Dr. Japuntich looks forward to making progress. She said, “I look forward to making progress on my research and sharing my results with others. However, mostly I answer emails, complete paperwork, and put out fires.”
A quote Dr. Japuntich feels makes a positive difference is an AA saying, “nothing changes if nothing changes.”
Meet Nicole LaBerge. Nicole is a Researcher at HHRI and a Physical Therapist in the Clinic and Specialty Center at Hennepin Healthcare. She started her journey here in 2019.
Nicole helps patients with disabilities obtain complex wheelchairs, and she advocates for them to receive equipment that insurance/funding sources still see as not ‘medically necessary’.
“I wanted to complete research and have the actual data to help with this advocacy effort with the plan to change funding policies,” she said.
Things have changed over time, Nicole said. “When I first started my research, so many processes were still completed on paper! It has been refreshing to see things move to digital access,” she said. Nicole enjoys her role and is passionate about patient advocacy. She feels that her personal research has a direct effect on this effort. Nicole said one of the biggest challenges is that everything takes time. “The process of getting published this past year required much learning and navigating a system that isn’t anything like working in the clinic,” she said.
Nicole is hopeful for the future of her role. “I am excited to continue my role as a researcher. I know that each project will add to the end goal of getting patients the equipment they need to be safer and more independent,” she said. Her advice is to ask questions - lots of questions! “That is how you learn, and everyone is so helpful and supportive,” she said.
Nicole said each day provides an opportunity to make a little progress on her projects. “It won’t all be accomplished at one time but eventually, you look back and see how much work was put in. It’s exciting,” she said.
Nicole’s favorite quote that she feels makes a positive difference is, “Learn to love the journey, not just the destination. Sometimes what you never wanted or expected turns out to be exactly what you needed.”
Meet Kim Miller. She is the Chief Operating Officer and Vice President of Operations for HHRI. Kim joined HHRI in 1996 when the Investigator she was working for at the time transferred his research activities from the University of Minnesota to HHRI to establish a new clinical research unit. During the transition of those activities, Kim made a strong connection with Mary Bergaas (her predecessor), which blossomed into a collaboration that spanned more than two decades.
Kim has seen a huge amount of change in her years with HHRI, watching it more than double in size, integrate with HHS, and adopt a new name. One thing that has remained the same over these years is the HHRI mission of investing in research and education that serves the community.
For Kim, research is about self-determination because she believes knowledge is power. For the best health outcomes, she believes we need providers empowered with data and evidence ready to collaborate with patients who understand their options. The mission at Hennepin of taking care of whoever comes in the door, without judgement, is what keeps Kim inspired. She says,
“It’s a privilege to serve the faculty and providers that choose to serve the patient population that relies on HHS.”
It is this combination of evidence-based medicine coupled with a commitment to access that for Kim, makes Hennepin special.
The best advice Kim would share is this - when you feel overwhelmed, just keep moving. Don’t allow circumstances to paralyze you, and pick up the next thing that needs doing, and do it. A quote that motivates Kim is from Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Meet Carey Nadeau. She is HHRI’s Director of Operations. Carey has been with HHRI since 2010. Her love for working in the non-profit world led her to HHRI.
Although Carey has enjoyed working for a non-profit before working at HHRI, she was discouraged by the constant cuts to grants and funding in the music education world. So, she started having some informational interviews with development contacts who also had a foot in healthcare and thought this might be a natural next step. Not long after, Carey began her journey at HHRI in the Grants Administration department. Her continued learning and taking on new responsibilities led to her current position as the Director of Operations, a new role for the organization and one that she was excited to fill.
Carey said that over the years, things have changed at HHRI. “I remember staff talking about when we didn’t HAVE a grants department; it was basically Mary Bergaas and Kim Miller. Now we’ve grown to the point where we have entire departments devoted to the various administrative aspects of the institution,” she said. Carey said it’s fun to watch the growth happen; sometimes hard to navigate the growing pains, but overall exciting. Another change Carey explained was how when she started at HHRI, it was still part of HFA (Hennepin Faculty Associates), and she had her orientation/training with HCMC HR.
Carey enjoys working at HHRI.
“I love my boss and my coworkers, and I love that every day is different and constantly varies. I also love being in a “background” role--we may not be directly patient-facing or pipetting samples, but the work we do helps facilitate the exciting research that’s taking place here,” she said.
Carey sees a change in her future area/role. She said the pandemic helped HHRI move from paper to electronic forms, which is something she has been wanting for ages.
Carey said she would love to see research become more well known on campus and throughout HHRI’s community. As a 200 personnel-strong organization within a 7,000 personnel-strong entity, HHRI does not have as large of a presence. She would also like to see continued growth and evolution of all research programs so that HHRI can be more of a destination research facility. Carey also explained that she would like to see continued expansion of HHRI’s diversity/equity/inclusion work, which she thinks is very important in our world today.
When it comes to what Carey looks forward to accomplishing each day, it is solving a problem, completing a task or a project. “There are some days (weeks) where it feels like all I’m doing is spinning wheels trying to solve a challenging problem. I really enjoy once a project is achieved, and I can finally file all the emails away to their folder and out of my inbox. I try to keep active inbox emails to less than 200,” she said.
Carey’s advice for anyone in her field is to always be kind. She said she interacts with many people throughout the day from all corners of the campus, country, and globe, and she always remembers interactions where she was treated with kindness and respect. A favorite quote Carey feels makes a positive difference is, “Stay afraid, but do it anyway. What’s important is the action. You don’t have to wait to be confident. Just do it, and eventually the confidence will follow.” -Carrie Fisher
Meet Dr. Martha Nance. She works in the Neurology Department. Dr. Nance leads the Huntington’s Disease Center’s research efforts and is an investigator in many Huntington’s Disease trials. Dr. Nance’s history with Hennepin Healthcare is unique. She started her journey as a second-year resident in 1985. In 1991, she became the director of the Huntington Disease Clinic (HD). By 1997, research began in a more serious way, she said.
Dr. Nance has always had an interest in her area of science and it is what led her to choose her role. “The Huntington Disease Clinic was started in 1978 under the leadership of Dr. Milt Ettinger and a community member, Sally Hogan. I was interested in genetic neurologic diseases and spent a year of fellowship putting together the family trees of 250 Minnesota HD kindreds. In 1991, the HD clinic director left, and I stepped in as the clinic director. I led a national group involved in HD genetic testing for a while, and later joined and became a leader in the Huntington Study Group, through which we have been involved in about a dozen HD clinical trials over the years,” she said.
According to Dr. Nance, things have changed over the years. She said, “It seems more impersonal--I used to know and enjoy meeting with the IRB members, but don’t get to do that anymore!” Dr. Nance enjoys her role. She said,
“We are (we hope) on the brink of major breakthroughs, using gene-related therapies to treat HD, a dominantly-inherited genetic disorder. If we can show that one or another of these treatments work, it would be a major stride forward in the treatment of adult neurodegenerative disorders.”
Dr. Nance said the challenges are getting the treatments to the cells of interest (brain cells). In the meantime, keeping the HD patient and family community engaged in the midst of COVID has been challenging as well, she explained. Dr. Nance said, “We have also had a unique, world-class clinical team for the management of HD over the last 43 years.” Dr. Nance looks forward to making each day a little bit better for each patient than it might otherwise have been.
Dr. Nance hopes that they have that breakthrough in treatment for the future of neurology. She reflected, “But what if we don’t get there any time soon, or what if the treatment turned out to be prohibitively expensive? There will still be work to do with HD patients and families, and the things that we learn from them are/will still be relevant for other patients and aspects of neurological care. We cannot get better answers for the patients of tomorrow without partnering with the patients of today, who are uniquely qualified to help us push back the frontiers!”
Dr. Nance believes in making a difference. She said in the context of HD care, the thing she says all the time is, “Remember, there is never nothing-I-can-do for a person with HD.”
Meet Tara Nash. She is the Research Manager in the Neurosurgery Department. Tara began her journey at HHRI in 2021 where she took on the role of research manager because she loves research and constantly learning something new.
Tara loves the idea of making things better for everyone.
“As a nurse, I get to put my compassion for people into my appreciation of science. Research is a wonderful blend,” she said.
Tara enjoys most things about her role here at HHRI, even the challenges. She also enjoys diving deep into topics. Tara has lots of curiosity and is constantly thinking about how to improve things. She says there are two challenges to research: selling the topic and recruiting participants.
According to Tara, things have positively changed at HHRI. She said the Neurosurgery research team added more studies since she began working at HHRI. Tara said she would like to see continued growth in neurosurgery research.
Tara hopes she can be a Co-PI on a study and give presentations one day. She looks forward to supporting the Principal Investigator on the journey of the studies. Sometimes that support is paperwork; sometimes it is leading patient appointments. Her advice to others is to keep asking questions and learning about how everything is connected.
Tara says, “There is a place for everyone, you just need to find your niche.”
Meet Mona Shater. She is the Marketing & Communications Director for the Chronic Disease Research Group (CDRG). Mona began working at HHRI in the CDRG division in 2016.
Mona chose her area before it morphed into what it is today. Her journey is unique because she started as a business major, but the nuances of interpersonal communication spoke to her during her coursework. So, she decided to switch gears sophomore year and focus her energy on organizational and interpersonal communication in her undergraduate and graduate studies.
Over the last decade, Mona has been teaching media literacy and language arts, learning and refining her understanding of social media, engagement, and how it fits within public health. She has also been applying what she learned over the years to her division’s goals. Mona said that CDRG has grown as a division. They now run not one, but two federal government contracts. The pandemic has also impacted their working style because they are now almost exclusively remote.
Mona loves her role at CDRG and enjoys helping patients understand complicated information. Her challenges include red tape and working across departments to get that done sometimes.
“I think my area is constantly changing, which makes it interesting for me. Because of that, my advice for anyone in my field is to have a learner attitude. Stay humble, and always be open to learning new things.”
When it comes to what she looks forward to achieving each day, she hopes to make a difference for someone in some small way. Mona’s favorite quote that she feels makes a positive difference is, “Discipline is choosing between what you want now and what you want most.”
Mona said, “It’s been an absolute ride working here. I love it, I’m here for it, and can’t wait to see what the next year brings.”
Meet Dr. Kate Diaz Vickery. She is a Clinician-Investigator and Principal Investigator at HHRI, who is also the Co-Director of the Health, Homelessness, and Criminal Justice Lab.
Dr. Vickery started her journey here in 2014. She began working on Medicaid health plans called Accountable Care Organizations. Her interest was in how these plans integrated support for behavioral (mental health & substance use) and social needs (e.g., housing) into their health coverage. It was hard to measure this after the programs were up and running. This led to a pivot in her work to design behavioral trials to test these same ideas. Dr. Vickery is now working on developing the Diabetes Homeless Medication Support (D-HOMES) program.
According to Dr. Vickery, HHRI has changed over the years. “HHRI has grown, renamed itself, and made many adaptations since I began. Getting rid of the paper forms and adopting an online IRB! I am proud of the new interest in community engagement and health equity,” she said. Dr. Vickery enjoys her role at HHRI. She enjoys the chance research gives her to look for solutions to problems she sees in the clinic. She also enjoys partnering with the community to lift up their voices and design programs that will work for them.
Dr. Vickery is hopeful for the future of her role.
“I’m hoping I can deepen the community’s role in my research and the work of other researchers at HHRI. I’m hoping to listen a lot to the strengths and solutions our homeless and broader community think are needed to build more health equity,” she said.
Dr. Vickery’s favorite quote that she feels makes a positive difference is, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” -Gandhi. She also added, when faced with clinical and health systems challenges, Dr. Linzer says, “don’t get mad, get data.”