Women & Sex/Gender Differences Research Group

WGRG Co-Chairs

Sunila Nair, Ph.D., Program Officer, Division of Neuroscience and Behavior
​​​​​​​Dr. Sunila Nair
Dr. Sunila Nair

Dr. Sunila Nair is a Program officer in the Integrative Neuroscience Branch of the Division of Neuroscience and Behavior at NIDA. Her research and programmatic interests are directed at elucidating the neurobiological mechanisms that underlie craving and relapse to substance use disorders. Her program portfolio broadly encompasses basic and preclinical research projects targeted at understanding molecular, circuitry and behavioral mechanisms and sex differences in relapse to drug seeking behaviors. Dr. Nair received her bachelor’s degree in medicine and surgery (MBBS) from the University of Bombay, India, following which she obtained a PhD in neuropharmacology at the University of Cincinnati. Prior to joining the Integrative Neuroscience Branch in the Division of Neurobiology and Behavior at NIDA, Dr. Nair was Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Washington. She directed a research program focused on determining how the functional activity of neurons in the brain, specifically in the limbic, cortical and hypothalamic circuitry is controlled and altered in response to drugs of abuse and non-drug reinforcers. Her research also focused on sex differences in addiction; specifically, on the organizational and activational effects of gonadal hormones, and dimorphism in cell-type specific alterations in neural circuits that drive relapse to drug-seeking behaviors. Dr. Nair’s research program was funded by the NIH, Brain and Behavior Research Institute (NARSAD Young Investigator Award) and the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Research Institute at the University of Washington.

Keisher Highsmith, Dr.PH., Health Scientist Administrator, Division of Epidemiology, Services and Prevention Research
Dr. Keisher Highsmith
Dr. Keisher Highsmith

Dr. Keisher Highsmith is a Scientist/Epidemiologist in the U.S. Public Health Service and has been a public health practitioner for approximately 20 years.  Dr. Highsmith serves as a Program Official in the Services Research Branch of the NIDA Division of Epidemiology, Services and Prevention Research.  In this role, she provides administrative oversight of the HEALing Communities Study which is part of the Helping to End Addiction Long-term (HEAL) NIH-wide initiative and the Rural Opioid Initiative.  She oversees a portfolio that focus on implementation science, policy, access/utilization of services to address OUD and the impact on maternal, women and child health.  Dr. Highsmith is a member of multiple NIDA and NIH-wide Committees such as the NIDA Research Training Committee and NIH Maternal Mortality Taskforce. Prior to coming to NIH, Dr. Highsmith was a Deputy Director in the HRSA Bureau of Primary Health Care. Dr. Highsmith also served as the Director of Special Initiatives and Program Planning and Evaluation in the Maternal and Child Health Bureau (MCHB). She provided scientific leadership and support for the development and implementation of innovative, multidisciplinary programs in maternal, child and women’s health.  Dr. Highsmith established The Maternal Health Initiative (MHI) which is a comprehensive national strategy to improve women’s health and ensure the quality and safety of care. She also conceptualized, launched, and led The Alliance for Innovation on Maternal Health: Improving Maternal Health and Safety which is a national initiative to reduce maternal morbidity and mortality through quality improvement of patient safety in birthing facilities. Dr. Highsmith earned her Doctorate in Public Health from Morgan State University.

What We Do

The mission of the Women and Sex/Gender Differences Research Program is to 1) promote careers of women scientists and 2) promote the conduct, translation and dissemination of research on:

  • Sex/gender differences in the pharmacology, neurobiology, behavioral and socioeconomic determinants of substance use disorders (SUD), and responses to substances of abuse.
  • Interactions of SUD risk factors, SUD and substances of abuse with changes in female physiology and behavior across the lifespan.
  • Prevention and health services that maximizes the efficient delivery of high-quality, personalized addiction treatment and related services to women across the lifespan.  

WGRG Objectives [or Priorities]

  • Develop NIDA’s Women’s and Sex/Gender Differences Research Agenda that will advance the science on the causes and consequences of drug use and addiction among women across the lifespan and highlight sex/gender differences.
  • Cultivate and strengthen partnerships within NIDA, NIH-wide and beyond.
  • Provide an opportunity for early career investigators to present their research, career development experience, and share lessons learned and thoughts on what’s needed to advance the science in the field.

Papers of Interest:

Science Spotlight 2024

  • Wednesday, January 17th, 2024; 11am-12pm EDT.  Dr. Wendy Fujita MD; Fellow, Infectious Diseases, Department of Medicine, Emory University
    Title: Substance use treatment utilization among women of reproductive age with and without HIV in the Southern US  
  • Wednesday, April 17th, 2024; 11am-12pm EDT.  Dr. Elizabeth Doncheck PhD; Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Neuroscience, Medical University of South Carolina
    Title: Signaling, circuit and hormonal mechanisms underlying sex differences in relapse behaviors

Upcoming/Recent Meetings

Past Meetings

Funding Opportunities & Announcements

Selected Funding Announcements in which NIDA participates.

“NIDA is a collaborative partner on the NIH Coordinating Committee for Maternal Morbidity and Mortality (CCM3) which is an NIH-wide committee that coordinates the  Implementing a Maternal health and Pregnancy Outcomes Vision for Everyone (IMPROVE) initiative.  The IMPROVE initiative advances maternal mortality, maternal morbidity and health disparities research to reduce pregnancy-related deaths and complications in the United States.”  See press release on the recently funded Maternal Health Research Centers of Excellence.

Training and Career Development Opportunities

Resources of Interest

Related Workgroups

  • Coordinating Committee for Maternal Morbidity and Mortality (CCM3)” (contact Keisher Highsmith)
  • CCRWH Working group on Understanding Complex Morbidity (contact Holly Moore)
  • CCRWH Working group on Reproductive Transitions (contact NIHCCRWH)
  • Maternal Mortality Task Force
  • CCRWH Covid-19 Working group

Other Web Sites of Interest

NIDA WGRG Contacts