10 women scientists in Birmingham you need to know

dr. adrienne starks
Celebrate International Day of Women and Girls in Science with a few of our fave Birmingham women scientists. (Dr. Adrienne Starks / Facebook)

Birmingham has one of the best higher education institutions for health and science, thanks to the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB)—top ranked globally by U.S. News & World Report. Here is a list of ten women scientists in Birmingham who are making their mark at UAB and around the city.

(This list is in no particular order)

1. Dr. Adrienne Starks

adrienne starks
Dr. Adrienne Starks of Stream Innovations. (Bham Now)

Our first woman scientist in Birmingham is Dr. Adrienne Starks—Biologist and Founder & CEO at STREAM Innovations. She received her BS in Biology at Alabama A&M University in 2002. Dr. Starks then went on to receive her PhD at the University of Maryland Baltimore County in 2010 where she worked as a Graduate Teaching Assistant teaching Microbiology Lab, Genetics Lab and Introductory Biology Lab.

She founded STREAM Innovations, a nonprofit that helps students explore their passion for science, technology, reading, engineering, arts and mathematics (STREAM), in 2015. Plus, IF/THEN She Can named Dr. Starks as an ambassador due to her great work in the community and science field.

2. Dr. Henna Budhwani

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Dr. Budhwani covers many realms in the health and science field. (Dr. Henna Budhwani)

Next, we have Dr. Henna Budhwani. Dr. Budhwani is extremely well published and recognized for her global health work including her recent focus on vaccine hesitancy, something directly relevant to the global pandemic. Her research is guided by human rights framework and adopts a multidimensional view of how to address public health and clinical care inequities.

Dr. Budhwani is a Medical Sociologist, Associate Professor of Public Health at UAB and Visiting Professor at the University of California San Francisco Parnassus Campus (UCSF).

3. Dr. Dori Pekmezi

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Dr. Pekmezi’s research is is amazing. (Dr. Dori Pekmezi)

Our next scientist is Dr. Dori Pekmezi—another woman who is taking public health study to a new level. She received her B.S. from the University of Alabama in 2002 then went to receive her masters and PhD in Clinical Psychology at Louisiana State University.

Dr. Pekmezi’s research interests include:

  • Physical activity promotion
  • Chronic disease prevention
  • Health communication

She is focused on non-communicable disease health outcomes in Alabama. Dr. Pekmezi’s research interests involve designing, implementing and evaluating home-based physical activity interventions that primarily focus on underserved populations.

4. Dr. Mary Kathryn (M.K.) Sewell-Loftin

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Dr. Sewell-Loftin’s research is helping the world get one step closer to curing cancer. (Dr. MK Sewell-Loftin)

Next up, is Dr. Mary Kathryn (M.K.) Sewell-Loftin—a Biomedical Scientist and Cancer Bioengineering expert. According to UAB’s website, Dr. Sewell-Loftin is a Birmingham native who couldn’t wait to become a part of the UAB community. There, she serves as Assistant Professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at UAB.

She is also a member of the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center and serves as a Senior Scientist at CerFlux, Inc.—a biotechnology company in Birmingham. As a Biomedical Scientist, Dr. Sewell-Loftin’s research interests include developing original models to study how bio-mechanical forces impact cancer growth in order to develop anti-tumor treatment strategies.

5. Dr. Talene Alene Yacoubian

Dr. Talene Alene Yacoubian is the Director of the UAB Medical Scientist Training Program and divides her time between patient care, laboratory research and training of future physician scientists. According to UAB’s website, Dr. Yacoubian’s research focuses on understanding mechanisms underlying the degeneration of the nervous system and testing proteins with neuroprotective potential in cellular and animal models of Parkinson’s disease.

BONUS: Did you know that her research has been funded by the American Parkinson Disease Association, the Michael J. Fox Foundation, the Parkinson Association of Alabama and National Institutes of Health?

Dr. Yacoubian graduated magna cum laude with her A.B. in Biochemical Sciences from Harvard College then received her MD and PhD in Neurobiology from Duke University School of Medicine in Durham, North Carolina in 2001.

6. Dr. Ninecia Scott

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Did you say microbiology? Dr. Ninecia Scott’s got it covered. (Black Microbiologists Association)

Dr. Ninecia Scott is a Microbiologist and Immunologist. She works as a Postdoctoral Researcher at UAB and is a member of the Black Microbiologists Association. She received her BS in Pharmaceutical Science and Biology from North Carolina Central University in 2013 then went on to her PhD in Molecular Microbiology and Microbial Pathogenesis.

According to an article on UAB’s website, Dr. Scott joined other science experts in creating a week-long Black in Microbiology event in 2020 to give back to the community of Black Americans in medicine and science. The event had over 3,500 registered participants—amazing, right? Dr. Scott and the Black in Microbiology team have hopes to continue growing their network.

7. Dr. Foluso Joy Ogunsile

Next is Dr. Foluso Joy Ogunsile. She is a Physician Scientist and Assistant Professor of Hematology & Oncology at UAB. According to UAB’s website, Dr. Ogunsile’s education and experience include (but are not limited to):

  • B.S. in Biology with a minor in African American Studies- Duke University
  • Doctor of Medicine- University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • Research Assistant- National Institute of Health, National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
  • Residency in Internal Medicine and Pediatrics- Vanderbilt University Hospital

She specializes in Hematology Oncology and works with sickle cell and non-malignant hematological disorder patients.

8. Dr. Despina Stavrinos

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Dr. Despina Stavrinos, PhD (Assistant Professor, Psychology) (Dr. Despina Stavrinos)

Another woman scientist you should know is Dr. Despina Stavrinos. She is the Director of the Translational Research for Injury Prevention (TRIP) Laboratory which includes the world’s first SUV driving simulator! She holds a MS and a PhD in Psychology from UAB. The focus of her research program is the prevention and control of unintentional injuries, particularly those resulting from motor vehicle crashes—the leading killer of people ages 5-24. Dr. Stavrinos uses a variety of methodologies to study driving behavior that include:

  • Driving simulation
  • Self-report surveys
  • Police crash reports
  • Data capture

You can get a quick look at the cool simulator here.

9. Dr. Erica Bjornstad

women scientists in Birmingham
The face of a scientist. (Dr. Erica Bjornstad)

Dr. Erica Bjornstad is a Pediatric Nephrologist at Children’s Hospital. Dr. Bjornstad’s research focuses on developing and testing novel diagnostic tools for acute kidney injury in children. She holds a Master of Public Health (MPH) from John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and a MD from the University of Maryland School of Medicine. 

Her current work aims to reduce healthcare gaps in under-served areas from Alabama to Malawi and Zambia in Southern Africa. Specifically, she focuses on improving the care of children and adults with kidney disease in low-resourced areas, through improved recognition and detection of disease using innovative tests for acute kidney injury.

10. Dr. Suzanne E. Lapi

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A superstar in science. (Dr. Suzanne Lapi)

Lastly, we have Dr. Suzanne E. Lapi. Dr. Lapi is the Director of the UAB Cyclotron Facility at UAB and serves as the Vice Chair of Translational Research in the Radiology Department. The cyclotron is one of the coolest research/clinical facilities at UAB—think of it as a giant, super fast roller coaster ride for tiny atomic particles. These particles are accelerated to very high speeds to produce radioisotopes.

Dr. Lapi’s research interests are in the development and translation of new PET radionuclides and molecular imaging agents which are extremely important in medical applications and cancer research. Dr. Lapi received her PhD in Chemistry from Simon Fraser University. 

Programs like GirlSpring helps young girls interested in science

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Start growing your passion for science now. (Jeswin Thomas)

Birmingham has several programs that help young girls with an interest in science including GirlSpring. GirlSpring is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to provide access to reliable information, inspiring events and positive role models to empower young girls to reach their full potential.

According to the website, it was founded in 2010 by philanthropist Jane Stephens Comer and reaches an average of 13,000 girls per month through its digital platform, programs, camps and educational opportunities.

Did we miss your favorite woman scientist in Birmingham? Tag us @BhamNow and let us know. Don’t forget to sign up for our FREE newsletter.

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Tira Davis
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