Only the third person to earn the Sharona Gordon Award, Gabriela Popescu has been a tireless advocate for diversity and inclusivity in science
BUFFALO, N.Y. — University at Buffalo biochemist Gabriela K. Popescu, PhD, is an internationally known researcher in neuroscience. She is also an effective advocate for making science a more welcoming and inclusive environment, efforts that have earned her a significant new honor.
Established in 2020, the award recognizes individuals who have demonstrated “transformational leadership” in physiology and related fields. It is given to “an individual who has made a clear and sustained impact on improving equity and inclusivity in the fields of physiology and biophysics.”
Popescu will give an invited talk at the next SGP Awards Symposium.
The award’s previous two winners are Karen Fleming, professor of biophysics at Johns Hopkins University, and Miriam Goodman, the Mrs. George Winzer Professor of Cell Biology at Stanford University.
“Dr. Popescu’s achievements as an outstanding neuroscientist and as an advocate for equity in all aspects of the scientific endeavor are so deserving of this recognition,” said Allison Brashear, MD, vice president for health sciences and dean of the Jacobs School. “We could not be more proud that she is among the first scientists to be recognized with this impactful award.”
The SGP states that Popescu “led the charge to establish the Biophysical Society’s anti-harassment code of conduct” and organized its first plenary session addressing sexual harassment. The description adds: “She continues to provide a voice in situations where implicit bias and unrealized inequities enter the room, particularly speaking up for those with invisible disabilities and raising awareness about violence against women.”
As a woman and an immigrant, Popescu’s awareness of the impact of inequities in science has evolved over the years, often as a direct result of the national scientific and educational organizations in which she has played increasingly influential roles.
Earlier this year, she was voted president-elect of the Biophysical Society, an international organization with 7,500 members. She previously served two terms as chair of that society’s Committee for Professional Opportunities for Women.
A turning point
A key turning point for Popescu occurred in 2018. She was attending the leadership committee meeting of a national professional society when the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine announced release of the report of its Committee on the Impacts of Sexual Harassment in Academia.
Together, attendees heard the news that the report had found that 50% of females in academic medicine reported having experienced some type of sexual harassment. At first, Popescu recalled, the room just went uncomfortably quiet. About a third of the people in the meeting were women. The first person to speak was a man. He said he wanted to see the data.
Then a woman who said she had been a Title IX officer spoke up. This woman said that sure, it would be good to see the data, but she thought 50% sounded accurate. Another woman mentioned that many instances of sexual harassment never even get reported.
As the conversation continued, Popescu could see peoples’ perceptions were beginning to change.
“That report changed the playing field,” Popescu said. “And that was such a lesson for me. You have to be at the table.”
Since then, Popescu’s willingness to speak up for people who are underrepresented in science has intensified. She initially served on the Administrative Board of the Association of American Medical Colleges’ Council of Faculty and Academic Societies (CFAS), representing the Jacobs School. In 2017, she was named chair-elect of CFAS, which also gave her a seat on the board of directors of the AAMC. She has used her participation on the boards of major organizations to raise awareness and make change.
“I thought, what can I do?” said Popescu, about how she thought she could make the most impact. “I want to keep their feet to the fire.”
First-ever plenaries on sexual harassment
She was instrumental in getting two major academic, scientific organizations — CFAS and the Biophysical Society — to hold their first-ever plenary sessions on sexual harassment, activities that the SGP cited in giving Popescu the Gordon award.
She is also serving her second term on the steering committee of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which nominates AAAS fellows.
Popescu has also, not surprisingly, worked to benefit faculty at the Jacobs School. In 2018-19, with her colleagues, she started a program called SheLeads@Jacobs School, a yearlong curriculum designed to grow the pool of women faculty ready for leadership positions in academic medicine.
Early passion for making improvements
Her passion for improving conditions for her fellow scientists began early; she thinks it goes back to when she got her first grant after serving as a postdoctoral fellow in the Jacobs School in the lab of Anthony Auerbach, PhD, professor of physiology and biophysics.
“He encouraged me to apply to the National Institutes of Health for something very prestigious: the F32 Ruth L. Kirschstein Postdoctoral Individual National Research Service Award,” she recalled. “And I got the grant. It’s a big deal.”
But at the same time she was celebrating that award, she discovered that it would mean that she would lose her health insurance.
The timing wasn’t ideal. Popescu was raising two children and her daughter, who was 15, needed braces. She needed to figure out how to get back on insurance.
“I thought, ‘Ok, this is wrong.’ So I asked around and found out there wasn’t even a postdoctoral association here. There was nobody responsible for postdocs,” she said.
Popescu approached Suzanne Laychock, PhD, senior associate dean for faculty affairs, who agreed that it was a problem that needed addressing.
“So we got some people together and organized a committee to evaluate how we could develop an association for postdocs. We thought we should at least have a door with a sign on it that says ‘Postdoctoral office’ with someone in that office,” said Popescu.
Their efforts paid off and resulted in what is now the Office of Postdoctoral Scholars.
Popescu noted, “That was my first advocacy role in my career. It was figuring out what we needed. It was egregious to have nothing.”
Participating in these activities helps magnify impact, Popescu said. “What makes someone be impactful?” she asked. “I’m there when the policies are being written, when the speakers are being invited and when fellows are being nominated. I am at the table,” she said, adding with a grin: “You know what they say: If you’re not at the table, you are on the menu!”
She has simple advice to young faculty interested in leadership roles. “Everybody has their thing,” she said. “Do what you’re passionate about. You see a wrong? Go right it. It’s the right thing to do.”