Dr. Wendy Ingram, CEO and Cofounder of Dragonfly Mental Health Photo by Josh Egle

Dr. Wendy Ingram: A Scientist’s Journey to Mental Health Advocacy in STEM

10/20/2023
By Patricia Soochan

Dr. Wendy Ingram is CEO and cofounder of Dragonfly Mental Health, a nonprofit with a mission to cultivate excellent mental health among academics worldwide. She is also a research scientist at Geisinger Health, where she works on biomedical informatics projects aimed at improving health-care outcomes following surgery and at better understanding patients’ responses to electroconvulsive therapy. She serves as chair of the American Medical Informatics Association’s Mental Health Informatics Working Group and is a consultant to biomedical technology companies that focus on advancing mental health care. Her life journey reveals a common thread: she strives to combine her passions for science and for humanism. Her life has been marked by several mileposts that have allowed her to bring her whole self to her work.

The Mileposts

The first milepost along Dr. Ingram’s life journey occurred while she was an undergraduate at the University of Arizona, where she was pursuing dual majors in biochemistry and molecular biophysics and in psychology. During her sophomore year, she was invited to join a group for women in the biological sciences eventually becoming a co-president. She was thrilled to encounter a burgeoning number of women scientists grappling with the same issues that she was. Being part of that group gave her the answers to such questions as, “How do I, as a whole human being, fit into the scientific environment? How do I blend my passion for science and my personal life choices to have a successful career?” She was gratified further when the group expanded its reach and its sense of belonging to people from all groups historically underrepresented in science.

Several of the original founders of the UC Berkeley MCB Grad Network, including Jaclyn Ho, Jennifer Cisson, Drew Friedman, Wendy Ingram, Cris Alvaro, and Rebecca Lu. (Founding members Adrienne Greene and Akemi Kunibe not pictured.)
Several of the original founders of the UC Berkeley MCB Grad Network, including Jaclyn Ho, Jennifer Cisson, Drew Friedman, Wendy Ingram, Cris Alvaro, and Rebecca Lu. (Founding members Adrienne Greene and Akemi Kunibe not pictured.)
Ingram as a postdoc in September 2018 with other UC Berkeley professors at one of the first departmental retreats where she delivered a program on mental health to colleagues.
Ingram as a postdoc in September 2018 with other UC Berkeley professors at one of the first departmental retreats where she delivered a program on mental health to colleagues.

Dr. Ingram’s second milepost occurred when she was a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of her classmates in the department of molecular and cell biology (MCB) died by suicide. While the faculty seemed at a loss to know how to handle the situation, the students began sharing their struggles for the first time and decided that something had to change in how their whole community dealt with the hidden stresses in the department. The students decided to form a group to support each other and find resources. They called it the MCB Grad Network, and the faculty stepped up by providing the resources that students requested of them. When she recalls this time and thinks about the faculty’s temporary inertia, she explains that it is a common response to a catastrophe involving a mental illness. “Inertia is a self-preservation thing. It’s really hard to do something in response to an event that’s hard and difficult to address. You’re going to have to have tough conversations, and emotional turmoil will come up over and over again.”

The third milepost for Dr. Ingram occurred during her postdoctoral fellowship at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Shockingly, her life was again touched by suicide, this time that of her close friend and colleague Dr. Cris Alvaro, whom she had met in grad school at Berkeley. Dr. Alvaro was a trans, nonbinary person who believed in bringing the whole person to science. Their suicide was not just a milepost but was an actual turning point for Dr. Ingram. She banded together with colleagues to form an organization with the goal of designing research-informed interventions so that academic institutions could promote mental health in their environments. Their first endeavor was to convince administrators at Johns Hopkins that faculty would be receptive to active-listening training. That proved to be easier after several Berkeley faculty members volunteered to do the training.

In March 2019, Ingram first delivered of "A Scientists' Primer on Depression" at Johns Hopkins following Cris' death.
In March 2019, Ingram first delivered of “A Scientists’ Primer on Depression” at Johns Hopkins following Cris’ death.

In the Trenches

Dr. Ingram describes a complex interaction among biological, behavioral, interpersonal, and structural factors as the cause of poor mental health in the academy. Take, for example, one such structural factor, the research environment, where there is both external and internal pressure, intense levels of competition for grants and resources for grad students, and extreme isolation. Even among a group of people tackling similar topics, each individual is addressing their own, singular research question, somewhat in isolation. Faculty are often isolated because they spend enormous amounts of time alone in their offices writing grants. She adds, “There’s perpetual failure inherent in all science. You are studying something that you don’t know the answer to. ‘You’re asking the wrong questions,’ is how it’s usually been posed to me. It’s built into the system that you are going to be failing constantly. And that’s very tough on the human psyche.” Adding to the complexity, some aspects of mental illnesses are seen and misunderstood as beneficial. In her case, as someone dealing with the challenges of bipolar disorder, she can go for long stretches with high confidence and intense effort, during which her science productivity appears to be off the charts. On the other hand, when depression hits, she sometimes can’t make it out of bed.

Transformation

Dr. Ingram ultimately cofounded Dragonfly Mental Health with Dr. Ruchama Steinberg, Dr. Jelena Brasanac, and Dr. Olya Vvedenskaya. Dragonfly owes its name and logo to the tattoo symbolizing transformation that Dr. Alvaro designed and wore on their wrist. Dragonfly has a menu of diverse offerings, including a comprehensive, three-year program geared toward systemic change, now in a pilot phase at Berkeley. The programs cover five domains of excellence: forming a departmental committee, creating peer networks, improving mental health literacy, fighting stigma, and offering accessible-skills training.

Ingram receives her PhD at the University of California, Berkeley in May 2014.
Ingram receives her PhD at the University of California, Berkeley in May 2014.

Dr. Ingram readily acknowledges that fighting stigma is the domain that most institutions struggle with the most. She explains that the stigma of mental illness is so pervasive because it occurs at a cultural level. The evidence shows that the most effective way to mitigate this negativity is by hearing stories from people within your community. To that end, Dragonfly has produced several YouTube videos, such as Breaking the Stigma: Cultivating Mental Health as an Academic, in which prominent research and life scientists, including a Nobel laureate, share their struggles with mental illness. Dr. Ingram herself fights stigma by generously sharing her personal struggles with bipolar disorder. She is quick to add, however, that addressing mental health in science is still an emerging process. “It’s easier as a scientist to field questions about your science because that’s what you’re an expert on. But it’s particularly tough when you’re doing something that no one else is doing. There’s no playbook to go off of. We do everything we can based on literature and evidence. But we’re also building the evidence as we go here.”

Critical to the work of Dragonfly are working groups of almost 400 international volunteers from over 30 disciplines and more than 45 countries. Although Dragonfly’s programs are developed by mental health experts, the volunteers themselves are not experts, but serve as informed peer advisers to the organization. Many of them have lived experiences with mental illness. Dragonfly does not give legal or medical advice but helps give scientists and those in other fields foundational tools to create mentally healthy spaces in their academic settings.

Dr. Ingram’s vision for Dragonfly—now that the organization has established itself, including a corps of 25 ambassadors trained and paid to deliver the programs— is for it to grow as a coalition, becoming a center for excellence that disseminates a comprehensive and evidence-based change model to transform academic settings into mentally healthy workplaces for scientists and those in other disciplines.

AWIS member Patricia SoochanPatricia Soochan is a program officer and member of the multidisciplinary team at Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), with primary responsibility for the development and execution of the Inclusive Excellence (IE1&2) initiative. Previously she had lead responsibility for science education grants provided primarily to undergraduate institutions, a precursor of IE. She is a member of the Change Leaders Working Group of the Accelerating Systemic Change Network and is a contributing writer for AWIS Magazine and The Nucleus. Prior to joining HHMI, she was a science assistant at the National Science Foundation, a science writer for a consultant to the National Cancer Institute, and a research and development scientist at Life Technologies. She received her BS and MS degrees in biology from George Washington University.

Editor’s Note: The contents of this article are not affiliated with HHMI.

This article was originally published in AWIS Magazine. Join AWIS to access the full issue of AWIS Magazine and more member benefits.