During Women’s History Month, when we reflect on women who made history and inspired others to walk in their footsteps, I can’t help but think of the most inspirational woman in my life—my mother, Dr. Ida S. Owens.

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My mom was born and raised in Whiteville, NC—the last exit before entering South Carolina—on a tobacco farm. I’m not sure what inspiration she drew from these humble beginnings, but they provided the foundation for her life-long passion for science. She earned her undergraduate degree from North Carolina Central University, and entered Duke University’s physiology program in fall 1962 as one of the first three Black students to enroll in Duke’s graduate school after it had been desegregated in 1961. In 1967, she became one of the first two Black people and the first Black woman to receive a PhD from Duke.

In 1981, her drug biotransformation research program became a permanent section at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), and she was named section chief. Later, she served as the head of NICHD’s section on genetic disorders of drug metabolism in the developmental endocrinology and genetics program. In 1992, she received the NIH Director’s Award.

She remained connected to Duke University throughout her life. The Duke Bouchet Society, which supports graduate students in STEM who are from underrepresented groups, holds an annual dinner in honor of her ground-breaking career and scientific accomplishments. In 2013, she was named the first recipient of the graduate school’s Distinguished Alumni Award—and in 2014, the graduate school produced a documentary of her life and career. 

My mother was a dreamer and someone who defied great adversity with hard work, focus, determination, and attention to detail. She always encouraged me to do and be my best at everything I’d pursue. She also inspired, encouraged, and helped many other aspiring students in and outside the field of science. She was a true pioneer and someone who taught me that life does not have any limits or boundaries.

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