Sexual & Gender Minority Research Office (SGMRO) Staff

Karen Parker, Ph.D., M.S.W.

Pronouns: She/Her
Phone: 301-451-2055

Karen L. Parker, Ph.D., M.S.W. currently serves as Director of the Sexual & Gender Minority Research Office, NIH. Dr. Parker was instrumental in the formation of the office in the fall of 2015 and was appointed as Director in June, 2016.

The office coordinates NIH research related to the health of sexual and gender minorities across the NIH Institutes, Centers, and Offices. In her new role, she also serves as co-chair of the trans-NIH Sexual and Gender Minority Research Coordinating Committee (RCC) and has served on the committee since its inception in 2011. The office was established in response to the 2011 NIH-commissioned Institute of Medicine Report (now the National Academy of Medicine), which highlighted opportunities where NIH could better support current knowledge of the health status of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities. It is part of the Division of Program Coordination, Planning, and Strategic Initiatives within the NIH Office of the Director.

Dr. Parker comes to the NIH Office of the Director from the National Cancer Institute where she served as an Acting Branch Chief in the NCI Office of Science Planning and Assessment and Women’s Health Officer for the Institute. Prior to this, she was the Special Assistant to the President’s Cancer Panel. She began her career at NIH in 2001 as a Presidential Management Fellow. Dr. Parker has long been part of the discussion on the diverse health issues affecting sexual and gender minority communities and the need for initiatives to support research and training in this area. Dr. Parker is also Past-President of the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults.

Dr. Parker received her Bachelor of Arts in English from Indiana University and her Master of Social Work from the University of Michigan, where she studied community organization, social policy, and evaluation. She completed her Ph.D. at the University of Maryland, School of Social Work.


Irene Avila, Ph.D.
Assistant Director
Pronouns: She/Her/Ella

Phone: 301-594-9701

Irene Avila, Ph.D., currently serves as the Assistant Director for the SGMRO, having joined the office in April. Irene’s role in SGMRO involves the management of operational activities, strategic planning, and the executive secretary for the Council of Councils Sexual and Gender Minority Research Working Group. Irene previously served as the Special Assistant to Dr. Hannah Valentine, the Chief Officer for Scientific Workforce Diversity, and the Executive Secretary to the NIH Director’s Advisory Committee’s Working Group on Diversity. Dr. Avila’s work has focused on postdoc and early-career investigator programming that sought to enhance diversity inclusion and retention in biomedical research workforce. She received her Ph.D. in Behavioral Neuroscience from Arizona State University. Her dissertation was conducted at NINDS through the Graduate Partnership Program and she completed a postdoc at NIA.


Christopher Barnhart, Ph.D.
Health Science Policy Analyst
Pronouns: He/Him
Phone: 301-594-8983

Christopher Barnhart is currently a Health Science Policy Analyst in the SGMRO where he supports and promotes the health of sexual and gender minority communities through analysis and administration of grants, strategic planning, workshop development, outreach coordination, and representation on relevant trans-NIH and -HHS committees and working groups. Prior to coming to the SGMRO, Christopher was a AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow on detail to the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, where he analyzed and reported on NICHD activities in supporting and protecting pediatric and maternal health and in addressing relevant health disparities to a diverse array of internal and external stakeholders. He also organized and conducted outreach efforts to understand and address issues of equity in health, education, and participation in STEM, as well as to encourage and foster the next generation of scientists. Christopher received his doctorate in pharmacology and toxicology from UC Davis in 2015, and then completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, focusing at both institutions on how environmental toxicants and individual genetic factors may interact to affect the developing nervous system.


Ryan Timothy Mahon, M.S.W.
Program Analyst
Pronouns: They/Them
Phone: 301-594-0245

Ryan has served, since the inception of the office, as the program analyst for the Sexual & Gender Minority Research Office (SGMRO) in the Division of Program Coordination, Planning, and Strategic Initiatives, located in the NIH Office of the Director. In this capacity, Ryan supports all aspects of the SGMRO, including the implementation of the trans-NIH SGM Research Strategic Plan, collaborations with the Tribal Health Research Office and other ICOs, data collection and analysis, and the measurement of progress towards our strategic goals.

Before joining NIH, Ryan worked in consulting at private firms specializing in program evaluation in human services, and as a clinician. Ryan has worked in a wide range of clinical and social science research settings, with supranational, national, state, provincial, and local governments, always contributing to ground-breaking research, and organizational evolution in vulnerable populations, including children, the poor, sexual and gender minorities, the imprisoned, and Native Americans.

Ryan began his college education at Northampton Community College in Bethlehem, PA. He then completed a B.A. in psychology with a minor in history, and went on to earn a Master of Social Work (M.S.W.) degree in Philadelphia at the University of Pennsylvania. Ryan identifies as male and gay and prefers the gender neutral pronouns 'they' and 'them.' They live in Maryland with their schnoodle, Oliver, and both adore peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.


Shyam Patel
Communications Specialist
Pronouns: He/His
Phone: 301-827-0388

Shyam Patel currently serves as the Communications Expert for the Sexual and Gender Minority Research Office at the National Institutes of Health. Previously, Shyam served as the Senior Communications and Education Associate at GLMA: Health Professionals Advancing LGBTQ Equality, a national organization committed to ensuring health equity for SGM individuals. His work primarily involved managing GLMA's education initiatives promoting LGBTQ health research, as well as directing organizational advocacy efforts that sought to advance equitable health policy. During his time at GLMA, he served as a board member on the PRIDEnet Participant Advisory Board, assisting with the development of community engagement initiatives, plans, and activities to best engage SGM individuals in health research for both the PRIDE Study and the NIH All of Us Research Program. Shyam received a dual Bachelor of Science in Pediatric Healthcare & Clinical Psychology from UMBC. While at UMBC, he was involved in clinical research at various institutions including UMBC, UMSOM, UPenn, and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.


Office Contact Information:
Office Email:
Office Fax: 301-480-4632

This page last reviewed on January 10, 2020