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Working to advance health science and policy for women, Monique Mills wins the Helen F. Holt award

Woman with brown hair, black top and rusted orange stripped blazer.
Monique Mills; Photo Credit Monique Mills.

Between her work in the lab and Capitol Hill, Monique Mills has taken on a wide breadth of initiatives to advance health science and policy for women. Her scientific studies delve into the inner, biological workings of the ovaries, while her advocacy work is helping work towards statewide birth control access in Maine. This is just some of the work that led to her being presented with the 2024 Helen Frolelich Holt Award for Early Career Women in Science at the AAAS Annual Meeting in February.

Mills is currently at the Jackson Laboratory at the University of Maine completing her Ph.D. thesis, which involves analyzing gene expression to better understand the DNA damage responses of the ovary. She hopes her work will help shift how people view ovaries. 

“A lot of times, people’s conclusion is that ovaries equal fertility. But they play a critical role in supporting overall health, because their endocrine function affects bone health, brain health, heart health,” she explains. 

Not just ovaries, but women’s health in general has long been understudied and misunderstood, says Mills, pointing out that roughly just fifty years ago, few research entities, including the National Institutes of Health, required that women be included in clinical trials. As a result, many drugs that hit the market were not appropriate – and even harmful – for women. Even nowadays, Mills notes, female mice may be excluded from studies because the science community often finds tracking their estrous cycles, which can impact research results, is ‘too hard.’

Mills’ passion for ensuring that everyone is included in research in part stems from her roots growing up in rural Maine, where she found a disconnect in communication between scientists and the public. For example, she says, there was a lot of misinformation in her hometown related to the COVID-19 pandemic. “I saw the importance of being able to communicate science and advocate for science, and wanted to incorporate that more into what I do,” Mills explains. 

This desire has led her to be involved in several important science policy initiatives. Upon completing a science policy certificate program at the University of California, Irvine, she began working with the Maine Public Health Association, which was looking for peer-reviewed, scientific evidence to inform policymakers on a proposed bill to expand birth control access in Maine. 

As part of this work, Mills helped inform policymakers on the risks of blood clots for women during pregnancy compared to being on birth control. She notes that, although the bill is still pending, the Food and Drug Administration has recently approved the first over-the-counter birth control pill, Opill. This turn of events, in combination with the scientific evidence being supplied by Mills and other scientists, could potentially lead to the birth control access bill being passed in Maine.

Mills also completed a six-week science policy bootcamp through the National Science Policy Network, which involved an internship component. Through her placement as a judicial fellow with the Scholars Strategy Network, she interviewed lawyers and scientists to  learn how scientists can effectively serve as expert witnesses, and provide lawyers with the right information and documentation they need in court. 

As a result of this work in science and policy, Mills was selected as the 2024 recipient of the Helen F. Holt award, which provides funding to a recent graduate or graduate student presenting at the AAAS Annual Meeting. It was named after AAAS CEO Emeritus Rush Holt’s mother, a pioneering female science instructor and the first woman to hold statewide office in West Virginia, as Secretary of State from 1957 to 1958.

“I was excited to receive the award,” says Mills, noting that it is named after a woman in science who accomplished a lot during the 1950s – at a time when being a woman in science was not as common. “Now we have a lot of phenomenal women in science, but I just think it's important for awards like this to be given out to support women, because there’s still some progress [to be made].”

Mills’ journey into the science community involved overcoming barriers. She is a first-generation university student, who worked double jobs and had to learn how to navigate financial support systems to pursue a career in science. Growing up in her rural town of Skowhegan, Maine, there wasn’t much support to help people study science. But she managed to do a summer internship that exposed her to science, profoundly influencing her.

“If I didn't have access to the programs I did, I probably wouldn't have ended up on this path,” she says. “It’s important to share pathways [toward science] for future, generation students who maybe don’t see those paths as easily.”