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Meet the women researching the future of contraception

November 10, 2022

Meghana Reddy (left) and Mikayla Rahman (middle) with their mentor, Laneta Dorflinger (right), at the Grand Challenges Annual Meeting in Brussels in October 2022.

Meghana Reddy (left) and Mikayla Rahman (middle) with their mentor, Laneta Dorflinger (right), at the Grand Challenges Annual Meeting in Brussels in October 2022. Photo credit: Laneta Dorflinger

More than 250 million women around the world want to avoid pregnancy but are not using a modern method of contraception (UNFPA, 2022). And, Laneta Dorflinger, distinguished scientist at FHI 360, says “many, many more people are using methods that are not ideal for them — or in some cases, methods that are barely acceptable.”

That’s where contraceptive research and development (R&D) comes in. By researching, developing and investing in new and innovative contraceptive methods, scientists can help ensure that methods meet people’s changing needs and desires.

To help build the next generation of contraceptive researchers, FHI 360 partnered with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2022 to create the Emerging Leaders in Contraceptive Technology Innovation mentorship program, which matches graduate students and young professionals with leaders in the field of contraception for six months of virtual one-on-one meetings and group mentoring sessions. This year’s cohort matched 17 mentees with 14 leaders in the field; members of the group hailed from countries including Brazil, India, Mexico, Tanzania and the U.S.

Here’s what participants had to say about why mentoring — and investing in contraceptive R&D — matters.

Grace Foley, biomedical PhD student at Northwestern University, mentee

Before this program, my grasp on what is a career in contraception R&D was hazy. Now, I understand how varied and exciting the field is. My mentor, Kirsten, and the program helped me understand the roles that could be open to someone with my background and expertise.

I spoke with Kirsten about job options after graduate school, the funding structure and regulatory process for drug development, how the field is changing, and what makes a good drug good and a bad drug bad. Kirsten taught me so much. She emphasizes seeing “failures” as times of growth and learning. She’s helped me identify gaps in my knowledge and areas where I can improve. We have discussed frankly what it means to be a woman, a mother and a leader in this field.

Kirsten Vogelsong, senior program officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, mentor

When people have access to contraceptive methods that meet their needs, they can determine the timing and number of children they have — and they are better able to provide for their families, continue their education, participate in the economy and contribute to the health and well-being of their communities.

Mentoring programs like this one help us develop future contraceptive researchers — and ensure that we continue developing methods that meet people’s evolving needs throughout their lives. Not only do products have to respond to women’s needs and preferences, but they also must be available and accessible, even in resource-constrained environments and circumstances.

Kirsten Vogelsong (left) smiles with her mentee, Grace Foley (right), at the Grand Challenges Annual Meeting in Brussels in October 2022.

Kirsten Vogelsong (left) smiles with her mentee, Grace Foley (right), at the Grand Challenges Annual Meeting in Brussels in October 2022. Photo credit: Laneta Dorflinger

Meghana Reddy, vice chair of the Youth Advisory Board of Male Contraceptive Initiative and clinical research coordinator at the University of California, San Francisco, mentee

Mentoring is a crucial aspect of contraceptive research. Contraception is a field that is unfortunately highly stigmatized. Having more role models and mentors motivate younger scientists to keep pursuing research and policy in this field will bring more attention to reproductive health.

I applied to the program after learning about it from one of my coworkers at the Male Contraceptive Initiative. I was drawn to the way the mentors were selflessly motivated to help the future generation of scientists in the contraception field. I learned from experienced professionals about how they decided to work in the field and why they had a passion for contraception.

Mikayla Rahman, biomedical engineering PhD student at Georgia Institute of Technology, mentee

From this program, I learned both “hard” and “soft” skills in research and networking. Laneta and I discussed the field, the directions people are taking and the personal skills that can help me develop into the best researcher I can be. We also discussed the book “Getting to Yes: Negotiation Agreement Without Giving In,” which allowed me to see how to approach various common situations in a work environment.

Before joining this field, I was not aware of much research going into contraceptives; this drew me in to see how I could potentially contribute. As I continue my PhD research — which is on the fabrication of a biodegradable microneedle patch for controlled release of contraceptives — I stay drawn in by the many different and creative approaches being investigated for the same overall goal.

Laneta Dorflinger, distinguished scientist at FHI 360, mentor

The contraceptive R&D ecosystem has huge gaps — both in the science as well as in the human capacity and funding necessary for discovery and development to move swiftly. Growing contraceptive R&D, bringing new methods and filling broad gaps in types of approaches can and will change lives. And without an infusion of new professionals through mentorship, the innovation that currently is exploding in almost every other field of science will elude contraceptives by comparison.

I hope through sharing my experiences with my mentees, Mikayla and Meghana, they began to understand that there are many forks in the road of one’s career — and almost always you will find yourself wandering down a pathway you never knew existed — making important contributions and finding happiness. That is the wonder of science! It is also the magic of working on contraceptive R&D — our contributions can change the lives of millions of people worldwide.