Skip to main content
Phase III+: The University is open for expanded research operations; only authorized personnel will be admitted on campus. More info here.

Sex and Gender: Critical Components in the Quest for Precision Medicine

Watch Now

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

7:30 A.M. Registration and Breakfast | 8:00 – 9:00 A.M. Program

The Rockefeller University
Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Hall
1230 York Avenue at East 66th Street


Richard P. Lifton, M.D., Ph.D.



Paula A. Johnson, M.D., M.P.H.

Wellesley College

In 2013, the Food and Drug Administration announced that women taking the popular sleeping pill Ambien should receive a lower dose than men. The reason was simple: women metabolize the drug’s active ingredient more slowly. The announcement caused a stir when it became clear that this metabolic difference had been known for years. Ambien is just one of several pharmaceuticals currently on the market that have been linked to adverse reactions in women.

It was only in the early 1990s that the scientific community began to consider gender as a factor in medical research. Until then, clinical trials focused almost exclusively on men, and biological sex differences were largely overlooked as factors in medical research. We have since recognized that women manifest disease differently—and often experience different symptoms—than men. Even now, however, women are more likely to remain undiagnosed or ineffectively treated for a number of disorders, including heart disease, cancer, and depression. Much remains to be learned.

Dr. Paula A. Johnson, an internationally recognized physician-scientist, educator, and policy expert, has devoted her career to studying the major differences in the ways men and women experience disease. She has uncovered gender biases in research and healthcare and led efforts to correct them. A cardiologist by training, Dr. Johnson served as chief of the Division of Women’s Health at Brigham and Women’s Hospital from 2002 to 2016. She founded and served as the inaugural executive director of the hospital’s Connors Center for Women’s Health and Gender Biology, which opened in 2002. At the Connors Center, Dr. Johnson headed efforts to determine the differences that sex and gender play in how diseases are expressed, and also to use that knowledge to develop targeted treatments for women. In July 2016, Dr. Johnson became the fourteenth woman and first African American to serve as the president of Wellesley College.

A native of Brooklyn, Dr. Johnson received A.B., M.D., and M.P.H. degrees from Harvard University. She has served as the Grayce A. Young Family Professor in Women’s Health (named in honor of her mother) at Harvard Medical School and as a professor of epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health. Dr. Johnson has been elected to the National Academy of Medicine, one of the highest honors in the fields of health and medicine. She has chaired Boston’s Public Health Commission and served in leadership roles at the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dr. Johnson’s 2013 TED Talk, “His and Hers Healthcare,” has been viewed more than a million times and has helped to raise awareness of the importance of understanding sex differences as a way to improve women’s health.