Women Changing the Face of Science Leadership at WRAIR

Female Soldier in uniform standards in front of white-grey background

Outside the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research’s Behnke auditorium, a gallery of monochromatic portraits commemorating the organization’s past commanders line the hall. The procession of men’s photos, disrupted by WRAIR’s three women commanders, illustrate the historical obstacles and also the growing opportunities for women leaders in a military science environment.

Throughout WRAIR’s 128-year-history, trailblazers like Dr. Charlotte Catherine Campbell, chief of the Mycology Branch in 1948, Col. Deborah Birx, WRAIR’s former director of the U.S. Military HIV Research Program, Dr. Marti Jett, a presidential distinguished senior scientist with almost 40 years of service at WRAIR and the U.S. Army Center for Environmental Health Research, and numerous others have paved the way for more women to crack military science’s glass ceiling.

One woman who benefited from those who came before and continues to make the way for others is Dr. Sheila Peel, director of WRAIR’s Diagnostics and Countermeasure’s Branch. “I think it is critical for young girls and young women to have strong role models in science,” said Peel. “All my professors were male except for one.”

At WRAIR, male officers still outnumber women officers two to one; though historically, women have dominated the U.S. Army’s medical professions. On WRAIR’s civilian side, women and men hold an equal number of the science and engineering positions. An often cited hurdle for women was balancing family and work obligations—an obstacle Pentagon studies found negatively impacted retention rates across both genders, though more so for women, whom, studies show, disproportionately bear the weight of child and household care.

DoD policies that accommodate family obligations have helped in closing the gap for women in uniform, says MAJ Liana Matson, director of WRAIR’s Behavioral Biology Branch. “You don’t think of the Army as progressive, but in a lot of ways it is ahead of the curve,” said Matson, “There have been inequalities over time, but the Army was the first to adopt parental leave.”
Last October, paid parental leave for civilians was adopted into policy, allowing civilian employees to take paid time off for part or all of 12 weeks over a 12-month period. Meanwhile, women at WRAIR continue to break barriers and bring others into the fold.

In recent years, WRAIR welcomed its first female commander, first woman-led command team, first woman-led Behavior Biology and Brain Trauma and Neuroprotection Branches and the U.S. Army’s first female research psychologist promoted to the rank of colonel. The changes have not gone unnoticed, says Jett. “When I started, there were certainly not very many women around,” said Jett. “There has been a huge change, but more work is needed.”

Dr. Jett has led when it came to elevating and mentoring women. She and several other senior scientists at WRAIR were mentioned by women participating in WRAIR’s Women and Girls in Science Day campaign as a source of support and mentorship. “My first mentor would be my Ph.D. advisor and for over 20 years now, my mentor [has been] Dr. Marti Jett. I’ve worked with her since 1998,” said Dr. Rasha Hammamieh, director of WRAIR’s Medical Readiness Systems Biology branch.

For women navigating the military science environment as a civilian or Soldier, that kind of support is invaluable. For MAJ Kathryn McGuckin Wuertz, balancing her priorities as a mother, scientist and Soldier would have been “bruising difficult” without her support system. “I had amazing support from male and female mentors, particularly my Ph.D. advisor, Dr. Michael Gale,” said Wuertz. “He was understanding of how to make family and scientific commitments work.”

Wuertz achieved her Ph.D. in 2019, but prior to that, gained critical scientific leadership training from her experience as an Army Medical Service Corps officer. First as the U.S. Army deputy chief of infectious diseases in Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, and later while serving as a team leader in the historic program known as Cultural Support Teams, where women deployed in support of special operations units in Afghanistan, to facilitate culturally sensitive engagements with women and children in combat affected areas, she was already equipped with the unique leadership experience that would have otherwise been difficult to attain at this point in her scientific career.

“Being in the Army has given me incredible opportunities that could not be paralleled in a scientific career outside of the military. I did the math…outside of the Army I would have just completed my Ph.D. and started as a junior scientist with little leadership training or experience...in that same time frame, being a military scientist I simultaneously gained unique leadership and global health experiences as well as scientific training paralleling a career outside of the military...the experience being a military scientist is incomparable,” said Wuertz.

Col.Sharon Mcbride, who recently retired from WRAIR and was the U.S. Army’s first female research psychologist promoted to the rank of colonel, shared Wuertz’s sentiments about her time as a Soldier scientist. “I am very happy with my career in the Army,” said Mcbride. “One thing about the Army is that I had opportunities that I wouldn’t have anywhere else. For example deploying and studying Soldiers in a deployed environment in real-time.”

Mcbride said she enjoyed the diversity in experiences and, through those experiences, she was able to be an effective manager for other research psychologists. “When I moved up, I moved into more management, and I think the diversity of experiences in research psychology in the [U.S.] Army helped me in that regard,” said Mcbride.

Despite the lack of records showing the work of women before Dr. Campbell, there is no mistaking the impact women have at WRAIR now. Dr. Peel said the days of women having to fight to prove their value are over. “That time has changed,” Peel said, “and I think we shouldn’t be looking through the lens of one’s sex, but the capabilities and the context of the skills and innovation that women bring to the table.” Peel has repeatedly demonstrated her own capabilities in the past year, as she was called upon to serve on the team of WRAIR scientists who advised the White House’s task force on COVID-19. For her efforts, Dr. Peel was named 2020 Medical Research and Development Command Employee of the Year.