Ida Stephens Owens grew up in Whiteville, North Carolina. She came to Durham to attend North Carolina College at Durham, now North Carolina Central University, where she graduated summa cum laude with a B. S. degree in Biology in 1961. In March of this same year, the Duke University Board of Trustees voted to integrate its graduate and professional schools. Dr. Owens was recruited to Duke's Graduate School in 1962 by Dr. Daniel C. Tosteson, then chair of the Department of Physiology, who later went on to become president of the American Physiological Society, serve as dean of the Harvard Medical School for 20 years, and be appointed a trustee of Duke. Dr. Tosteson was intentional in his effort to visit surrounding black colleges to identify promising students for advanced study in the sciences. It was during such a visit to North Carolina College that he was introduced to Dr. Owens by Dr. James S. Lee, then chair of Biology at North Carolina College at Durham.
Dr. Owens started her graduate study at Duke in fall 1962, after spending the previous summer doing research in Dr. Tosteson's lab. Under the mentorship of Dr. Jacob J. Blum, James B. Duke Professor Emeritus of Cell Biology, Dr. Owens received her Ph.D. in physiology in 1967, becoming the first African American woman to receive a doctorate from Duke. In 1988, as part of Duke's Sesquicentennial Celebration, Dr. Owens, along with 11 other women pioneers in their fields, was recognized in the Women's Studies Portraits of Women Firsts Project: "These twelve women all set precedents at Duke in their specific areas of interests, yet they represent the history and tradition of women's contributions as a whole to the institution."
After postdoctoral training at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in drug biotransformation, Dr. Owens established a highly regarded research lab at NIH. In 1975, as a member of the Laboratory of Developmental Pharmacology in the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), she initiated a research program that is now recognized nationally and internationally for its studies on the genetics of human diseases. In 1981, this research program was extended and made into a permanent Section on Drug Biotransformation, and Dr. Owens was named chief. She also was first to determine genetic defects in children with Crigler-Najjar diseases, a rare disorder affecting the metabolism of bilirubin. Currently, she serves as the head of the Section on Genetic Disorders of Drug Metabolism in the Program on Developmental Endocrinology and Genetics (NICHD). Dr. Owens received the NIH-Director's award in 1992 and is recognized throughout the world for her work on drug detoxifying enzymes.
Dr. Owens' research has been published in numerous journals, including the journal of Biological Chemistry, Pharmacogenetics, Biochemistry, and the Journal of Clinical Investigations. In 2009, she was recognized by the American Asthma Foundation as in the top 5% of cited authors for journals in pharmacology. Recognized as a distinguished leader in her field, Dr. Owens has presented her work at national and international scientific meetings. Most recently, Dr. Owens was invited to present her work at the 2013 Gordon Research Conference, established to provide an international forum for the presentation and discussion of frontier research.
Ida Stephens Owens is the inaugural recipient of The Graduate School Distinguished Alumni Award. Dr. Owens is a proud alumna of Duke who over the years has remained connected to and involved in the life of our university. She has served terms on the Trinity College Board of Visitors and the Women's Studies Advisory Council, and she continues to be sought out as a speaker for alumni groups. As part of the year-long Commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the First Black Students at Duke, Dr. Owens has been a regular visitor to campus-sharing her experiences and engaging students and other members of the university community.