J Taylor Harden: A Passion for Supporting Young Researchers

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Dr. J Taylor HardenAfter receiving her doctorate, J Taylor Harden, Ph.D., R.N., F.A.A.N., took part in NIA’s Summer Institute on Aging Research, spending a week focused on leading-edge topics in aging and research design for special populations. Two decades later, at the end of 2011, Dr. Harden retired as NIA’s Assistant to the Director for Special Populations, just as the Summer Institute reached the quarter-century mark.

“One of the highlights of my career was seeing the Summer Institute turn 25,” said Dr. Harden, who led the program during her tenure at NIA from 1997 to 2011.

Looking back at those years, Dr. Harden singles out an overarching development in gerontology: the enhanced visibility of minority aging research as an independent and emerging field of investigation.

The flourishing Summer Institute, which trained and mentored hundreds of new and diverse researchers since it began in 1986, has contributed to that enhanced visibility. Other programs also have changed the research landscape, Dr. Harden said, perhaps most notably the Resource Centers for Minority Aging Research (RCMARs), which NIA sponsors at six academic centers around the country. Other funding and resources have also grown, and minority aging research is now an established area of research with a growing cadre of investigators.

Early Focus

A Virginia native, Dr. Harden earned her bachelor's degree in nursing at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. She served in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps, returned to her alma mater to earn a master's degree in nursing, and, following a change in service branch, became an air force flight nurse. Later, while serving as an air force reservist, Dr. Harden took a faculty position at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio School of Nursing and commuted to the University of Texas, Austin, where she completed her Ph.D.

In the early 1990s came a turning point—Dr. Harden participated in the NIH’s Extramural Associates Program, a 5-month course in Bethesda that prepares science faculty and administrators to set up and strengthen research programs in their own institutions. The next summer, she took part in the Summer Institute.

The two experiences “changed the course of my life,” Dr. Harden said. They gave her the chance to work with mentors not only in nursing research but also in aging, including NIA’s former Director of Extramural Affairs, Dr. Miriam Kelty, who retired in 2006. “Her coaching on issues in aging, career guidance, and selfless sharing of time and energy greatly encouraged me—and she’s still a mentor!”

After her return to San Antonio, Dr. Harden was asked to review grants for the newly established National Institute of Nursing Research (NINR) at NIH. In 1994 she made a permanent move to Bethesda and the NIH, becoming a health science administrator at the nursing institute. At NINR, her grants portfolio included studies on aging and older adults, and it wasn’t long before she was working with NIA staff on aging-related programs and initiatives.

At NIA

In 1997, Dr. Harden moved to the NIA as the Assistant to the Director for Special Populations, where she “had the opportunity to learn from exceptional leaders like Drs. Richard Hodes and Fox Wetle.” Here, in addition to leading the Summer Institute, Dr. Harden developed the Health Disparities Toolbox, which includes the Health Disparities Resource Persons Network. The web-based network connects early career scientists with investigators who have significant experience in aging research, minority health, health disparities, and minority recruitment and retention. She also developed a strategic plan and worked to promote and coordinate minority aging research across NIA.     

In 2008, Dr. Harden served as acting deputy director of the NIA, an experience that gave her the “opportunity and challenge of being involved in every aspect of running the Institute while being mindful of the science,” she said.

That vantage point also afforded her a perspective on a growing field. One key factor in that growth, she said, was “the continuing commitment to educating and training a diverse work force on aging,” by major figures in the field, including Dr. Robert Butler and Dr. T. Franklin Williams, the first directors of NIA.

Both Dr. Williams and Dr. Butler served as faculty members at the Summer Institute, and both “had a great interest in supporting young researchers—not just an interest...a passion,” Dr. Harden said. “That meant a lot to me because I share that passion.”

For her work with young researchers, Dr. Harden has received the Gerontological Society of America’s Minority Aging Task Force’s Mentoring Award. She was also a recipient of the NIH Director’s Award for her distinguished leadership at NIA.

Looking forward, Dr. Harden sees at least one major challenge: How will NIH and NIA address the racial disparity in grants funding that recently came to light? In August, a report in Science magazine by NIH contractor Dr. Donna Ginther and NIH’s former Acting Director Dr. Raynard Kington showed that black researchers had significantly fewer grants funded by NIH compared to white researchers at similar institutions and with comparable research records.

Working to address this disparity is going to be a major issue for the field of minority aging, as well as scientific research as a whole, Dr. Harden said. “You don’t want that one thing—a perception of review bias—to stand in your way. It can potentially and negatively alter your behavior and affect the entire trajectory of your research career.”

In January 2012, Dr. Harden joined the American Academy of Nursing as administrator of the Building Academic Geriatric Nursing Capacity Initiative where she is working with 10 national centers of geriatric nursing excellence and pre- and post-doctoral students in nursing who are pursuing research on aging and older adults.

“I’m in a wonderful place,” she said, relishing her opportunity to work in both of her chosen fields, nursing and aging, and to enjoy her family which includes a new grandchild. “I’m blending my loves.”