African American Female Neurosurgeon is UC Health’s First

Dr. Laura Ngwenya Hopes to Impact Lives with Research in Traumatic Brain Injuries
By Elizabeth Beilman

It wasn’t until Laura Ngwenya interviewed for neurosurgery residency that she realized no one else in the room looked like her.

“I was just doing what I wanted to do and didn’t really think about the fact that what I was doing was trailblazing in some ways,” she said.

She was close to completing four years of medical school at Boston University — punctuated by five years in the lab earning a PhD in Anatomy and Neurobiology — when she interviewed for a residency spot at programs across the country. A residency is a full-time position that physicians in training take after graduating medical school.

“Going on those interviews was striking because not only did none of the faculty look like me, but none of the other applicants looked like me,” said Dr. Ngwenya, director of the Neurotrauma Center at the University of Cincinnati Gardner Neuroscience Institute and assistant professor in neurosurgery at the UC College of Medicine — and an African American woman.

After a seven-year neurosurgery residency and a one-year fellowship in neurotrauma, Dr. Ngwenya accepted her first faculty position — and directorship — at UC. All faculty members in clinical departments at the UC College of Medicine also work as physicians at UC Health.

Her appointment marked a historic milestone for UC and UC Health: Its first African American female neurosurgeon.

Nationally, she is among a small crowd. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, there are only 32 other female neurosurgeons identifying as Black or African American in the United States (including physicians in residency and fellowship training). That’s out of the more than 5,645 neurosurgeons across every ethnicity and gender, representing .5%.

“I realize that it does put me in a place to be a role model — it’s almost inevitable because of my position,” she said.

Her scientific contributions to the field of neurosurgery, and thus to patients with traumatic brain injuries, also makes her a role model.

“Dr. Ngwenya has proven herself to be a rising star in academic neurosurgery and has been gaining national and international recognition as a leader in her field,” said Joseph Cheng, MD, MS, professor of neurosurgery and Frank H. Mayfield Chair of the Department Neurological Surgery at the UC College of Medicine, and UC Health neurosurgeon.

“She has an unwavering commitment to neurotrauma research, continues to programmatically build the UC Health Neurotrauma Center and has a successful neurosurgical clinical practice. Her contributions will have an impact on bench-to-bedside translational neurosurgery and on patient lives within the greater Cincinnati area for many years to come.”

From the lab to the operating room

The daughter of a microbiologist, Dr. Ngwenya grew up in labs and decided early she wanted to be a scientist.

“Sometimes, research can get very focused on a single molecule and you lose track of the bigger picture, and I wanted to be able to do research that was really helping,” she said.

So she chose to study neuroscience, and later, neurotrauma, seeing an opportunity to make discoveries that would impact lives.

“Neurotrauma was something that was really fascinating, mainly because from a research perspective, there’s still so much we don’t know,” Dr. Ngwenya said.

Home to the region’s only adult Level I trauma center, UC Health emerged as the right destination where she could pursue her research. Dr. Ngwenya’s focus is in adult neurogenesis, or the brain’s process of making new neurons.

“When you have a traumatic brain injury, how is this process being utilized? Is it something that’s harmful? Is it something that’s actually helping the brain try to recover? Is it something that’s playing a role in some of the learning and memory deficits that we have after a traumatic brain injury?”

A five-year, $1 million-plus grant from the National Institutes of Health will help her answer those questions. Her hope — that her findings can lead to what is called precision medicine, or treatments that target each patient’s unique injury for long-term success.

“That’s the big gap right now,” she said. “How do we get people to get close to being back to normal?”

A more diverse future

Gender disparities in neurosurgery have also been a research focus of Dr. Ngwenya’s.

She co-authored a paper that examined whether discrimination and bias are a factor in the small number of female neurosurgeons who are full professors. The study found that this low percentage is mostly attributed to the fact that the pool of female neurosurgeons is already so small — but that doesn’t mean bias and discrimination don’t exist, she said.

“I can’t hide the fact that I’m an African American female,” she said. “It’s important to realize that if you want to do something, you can do it — but to also remember there might be some bias and you have to have your own way with being able to deal with it.”

Her advice to African Americans and women interested in neurosurgery? Start early. A competitive neurosurgery applicant already has more than a dozen research projects they’re involved in.

“If this is something you think you want to do, you need to start early on that path of meeting the right people, making connections, getting involved in research, feeling out what your interests are. It is a tough, long road, but it’s worth it,” she said.

 

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