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07
2018

Delivering milk and delivering babies

A Centenarian Remembers

Entering the Richmond, Va., home that Charles L. Williams, M’48, H’49Charles L. Williams, M’48, H’49, shares with his daughter, Betty James, you immediately notice Williams’ infectious smile and the twinkle in his eye. He is sitting in a padded recliner with a walker nearby, the only noticeable concessions to his age.

At 102 – and believed to be the School of Medicine’s oldest living alumnus – Williams, rather remarkably, only takes medication for chronic back pain.

Asked to what he attributes his long life, Williams chuckles. “Picking the right ancestors!” he replies.

To put his century-spanning life into perspective, the Medical College of Virginia was a mere 78 years old when Williams was born on March 15, 1916, in South Richmond.

Though interested in medicine, Williams didn’t have the means to attend college. But industrious to a fault, he spent several years following high school as a driver for Cochrane Transportation and then Virginia Dairy.

Soon after marrying his wife, Doris, in 1940, Williams felt ready to take the plunge into academe. Earning his undergraduate degree at University of Richmond in three years, he entered MCV in the fall of ’44. Most of his classes were in McGuire Hall or the Egyptian Building.

“Medical school was rough,” he recalls. “Everything was very challenging.” At 28, not only was he older than most students, but he had a young family to support. Betty was born during his second year at MCV, and Marvin T. Williams, M’74, H’77, made his appearance just as his dad was about to graduate.

If you know a School of Medicine alumnus or alumna who is older than 102, please let us know! Send your stories to MedAlum@vcu.edu.Working to make ends meet, Williams held several jobs during medical school, including working as slide projectionist for Richmond Academy of Medicine lectures and as business editor and editor-in-chief of the X-Ray yearbook.

He has vivid memories of being an intern when the only emergency room in town was at MCV’s West Hospital, which had opened just a few years earlier in 1941. Interns were expected to report to work daily and to be on call every other night. The position was unpaid, the only perk being that families could join the interns for lunch at the hospital on Sundays.

On occasion, Williams says, “If I was in the ER, sewing somebody up, I had to drop everything” to take outside calls. Not infrequently he would hop on an ambulance to be rushed to the scene of an accident. Because the polio epidemic was still in full swing – and the vaccine had not yet been invented – he remembers the hospital’s incubators and iron lungs as well as the heartbreak of performing spinal taps on children.

During his nearly 40 years of family practice, Williams didn’t see dramatic changes in his chosen profession. It allowed him the luxury of spending more time doing what he loved: taking care of patients. Retiring in 1988 meant he missed the enormous changes that would be effected, for example, by the advent of computers and upheavals in the insurance industry.

Charles Williams, M’48

Charles Williams, M’48, holds a portrait of himself taken for the 1948 X-Ray yearbook.

Williams delivered about 1,000 babies during his career, many whom he continued to treat as they grew into adults and many whom his son kept as patients until his own retirement in 2015.

“I saw the tremendous respect people had for him and the enjoyment he received from his work,” says Marvin Williams, who worked alongside his father for 11 years preceding the senior Williams’ retirement.

In 2008, Charles Williams lost his wife of nearly 70 years. But he has stayed active, with a legacy that now includes four grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren, all of whom love gathering at their river house near Urbanna, Va. It’s a good life for a centenarian who took his life’s work seriously but enjoyed it immensely … whether delivering milk or delivering babies.

05
2018

Clinical rotation takes M4 Kathryn Gouthro to Yellowstone: “You never know what’s going to walk through that door”

A clinical rotation took the Class of 2019’s Kathryn Gouthro to Yellowstone National Park.

A clinical rotation took the Class of 2019’s Kathryn Gouthro to Yellowstone National Park – where they remind visitors that all of the park is bear habitat!

Growing up inside Yellowstone National Park, fourth-year medical student Kathryn Gouthro never had far to travel to see her family doctor.

Three clinics were strategically located throughout the park, but only one was staffed with a full-time doctor. That’s where Gouthro went to be treated for colds, strep throat and other childhood aliments.

“That sparked my interest in family medicine,” says Gouthro, whose father managed Yellowstone’s hotels and restaurants. “The doctor there was not only someone who took care of the people, but he was part of the community. I respected that.”

More than 20 years later, Gouthro was back at Yellowstone completing a month-long clinical rotation. She lived and worked at two of the clinics alongside registered nurses and a physician’s assistant.

“It was a really awesome experience figuring out what to do with the resources available,” she says.

The clinics have X-ray and EKG machines, but no ultrasounds or CT scans. Gouthro could not take a basic metabolic panel, instead sending blood work to an outside lab. With limited resources, she relied on thorough physical exams. She took extra time to get to know her patients, their health habits, lifestyles and family history.

The Class of 2019's Kathryn Gouthro, catching a cutthroat trout on Yellowstone Lake as a child.

The Class of 2019’s Kathryn Gouthro, catching a cutthroat trout on Yellowstone Lake as a child.

She also consulted with her supervising physician and medical director at Yellowstone, Luanne Freer, M’88. But since Freer was off site, Gouthro uploaded patients’ files to a secure server and the two discussed treatment options by phone.

“This is such a great experience for students because they can hone their skills,” Freer says. “It opens their eyes to the fact that you don’t always have to order expensive and extraneous tests. We sometimes can get a little complacent relying on tests instead of really listening.”

Freer, who is based outside Seattle, is the associate medical director at Medcor, a large company that holds the contract for medical services in Yellowstone. Since 2005, when Medcor began overseeing the medical rotation elective at Yellowstone, more than 100 physician assistants, nurse practitioners and medical students have completed the program. Gouthro’s rotation marked the last time the elective will be open to medial students.

“Rural medicine challenges you,” says Gouthro, president of the Class of 2019. “You never know what is going to walk through that door.”

Patients are primarily park visitors or employees who live in the park. Gouthro treated everything from ear infections and high-altitude illness to bug bites, cuts, bruises and broken bones. On one occasion she called in a helicopter to transport a stroke patient to the hospital.

“Most of the patients were bummed because they are on vacation and find themselves at the clinic,” Gouthro says. “They are just looking for help and are so grateful that you are there. It felt wonderful to make a difference.”

The Class of 2019's Kathryn Gouthro at Yellowstone's Old Faithful Clinic.

The Class of 2019’s Kathryn Gouthro at Yellowstone’s Old Faithful Clinic.

Gouthro, who holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from Columbia University, learned about the Yellowstone rotation while volunteering at the clinic one summer. She met Freer about that same time when the two raced on the same relay team. When Gouthro applied to medical school, Freer was happy to write her a reference letter.

“She has this way of connecting with people,” says Freer, who founded the Everest Base Camp Medical Clinic, the highest-altitude emergency room in the world, in 2003. “She is special.”

A member of the Army Reserves, Gouthro is enrolled in fmSTAT – the medical school’s Family Medicine Scholar Training and Admission Track that’s designed to nurture and develop students interested in family medicine careers.

After she completes a seven-year commitment with the Army after school, she says, “I would love to be a rural family doctor. When you are it – when you are the only person available – you have the opportunity to really become a resource for the people there. You become part of the community, which is really a special thing.”

By Janet Showalter

05
2018

Supper club gives students firsthand look into physicians’ careers and lives

September Medical Student-Alumni Supper Club.

Kelsey Salley, M’03 (third from left), and her husband and classmate David, along with Travis Shaw, M’04, and his wife, Jennie, co-hosted a September Medical Student-Alumni Supper Club.

Longtime friends, neighbors and classmates partnered to host the VCU School of Medicine’s second Medical Student-Alumni Supper Club.

The Class of 2003’s David and Kelsey Salley, who met and married in medical school, hosted the September event in their home along with the Class of 2004’s Travis Shaw and his wife, Jennie, who live down the street.

“Dave and I really enjoyed supper club,” says Kelsey Salley, an endocrinologist who also completed her residency on the MCV Campus. “We remember that in medical school it was hard to picture what life would look like in the future, so we thought it would be good to talk to the students about life after medical school and residency.”

In particular, she says the students were especially curious how she and her husband, an otolaryngologist who also trained at VCU, maintained work-life balance. “While we certainly don’t have all the answers, I hope it was helpful to them to see how we juggle family and careers. To make sure they got a better picture, our three kids were back and forth from upstairs to downstairs to get food and see what all the chatter was about.”

The supper clubs provide small groups of students an opportunity to enjoy a meal and conversation with Richmond-area alumni to share ideas, seek career advice and build relationships. The inaugural event was held in April at the home of John McGurl, M’93.

The Medical Student-Alumni Supper Club invites students to enjoy a meal and conversation with Richmond-area alumni.

The Medical Student-Alumni Supper Club invites students to enjoy a meal and conversation with Richmond-area alumni to share ideas, seek career advice and build relationships.

“My favorite part of the night was sitting down and answering the students’ questions,” says Shaw, a double board-certified specialist in otolaryngology and facial plastic surgery. “Many of them were very interested in the business aspects of medicine and it was really fun to share what I have learned along the way.”

In a post-event survey, the students expressed their gratitude to alumni for giving their time and opening their home to the attendees.

“The event was an enjoyable opportunity to get to know some local physicians in a casual setting,” wrote one student. “It was especially beneficial to get some perspective from those working in a private practice setting.”

Added another student: “It was a much needed break from studying and it gave me some much needed motivation. Most importantly, I really love the advice the hosts gave and it was nice hearing their individual stories into medicine.”

Jodi T. Smith, senior development officer and director of constituent relations in the School of Medicine, has known the Salleys and Travis Shaw since they were medical school students and now as they regularly engage with their alma mater.

“We are so grateful when our alumni go above and beyond as the Salleys and Shaws always do,” Smith says. “Whether it be serving on committees, taking part in a panel discussion, opening their home and serving as chairs for a reunion — they volunteer for almost every request and we cannot thank these dedicated alumni enough.”

Interested in hosting a Supper Club event?
The Medical Student-Alumni Supper Club is a unique opportunity for alumni to engage with their alma mater.Supper Club events can be held in alumni homes or at local venues near the MCV Campus. Medical school staff will assist with all of the arrangements to make hosting easy and convenient.

To be part of the Medical Student-Alumni Supper Club, contact the Office of Development and Alumni Relations at (804) 828-4800 or MedAlum@vcu.edu.

Just stopping in town for a visit? Development and alumni relations also can help alumni schedule tours of the MCV Campus or connect with students.

By Polly Roberts

25
2018

From 2 percent to 50 percent: 100 years of change

What a difference a century makes! Knowing the School of Medicine’s modern day 50-50 mix of men and women – right in sync with national numbers – it’s startling to remember that the first female medical students didn’t arrive on campus till 1918, three women among a class of 42.

At the time, 80 years after the school’s founding, admitting women to medical school was intended as a stopgap measure resulting from the dearth of available male applicants during World War I. As it turned out, women made excellent students and physicians. Whether they were actually welcome to the party during the next 10 decades varied considerably from person to person.

Share your story with us at MedAlum@vcu.edu

While there is work left to do, as president of the WISDM (Women in Science, Dentistry and Medicine) faculty organization, Sanford points to a century’s worth of women who have paved the way by working toward acceptance as professional equals and, ultimately, recog-nizing that “You can have it all, but not without help.”

Women comprised as little as 2 percent and as much as 13 percent of each graduating class till about 1980, when the number jumped to 30 percent and continued to climb. That’s primarily because the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics was advising college career counselors to expand their range of recommended occupations for women. Traditional fields could not absorb the increased number of college graduates. Thus enrollment in professional (and traditionally male) programs saw unprecedented numbers of female applicants. Added to that were 1960s racial unrest, antiwar sentiment and student activism, fueling young people’s interest in careers involving public service. Fast forward to 2018. “The percentage of women entering medical school today is a huge accomplishment,” says Kimberly Sanford, M’01, H’06.

Sanford is an associate professor in the School of Medicine’s Department of Pathology with educational and clinical responsibilities. “Women have reached equality in terms of the number accepted into medical school nationally,” she says. “But we do not see that same acceptance into upper-level or executive medical positions. In addition, there are still problems with inappropriate behaviors and comments of a sexual nature directed to women. These two issues are the biggest problems facing us today.”

To pay tribute to these trailblazers who’ve made their alma mater proud, we talked to School of Medicine alumnae from the past seven decades. Some of their experiences will sound familiar; others will not. Ironically, the racial unrest and prejudice that inspired some students to go into medicine also created major issues for black female students, the first of whom was admitted in 1951. Many thanks to the following alumnae for sharing their individual perspectives. They represent thousands of accomplished women, pioneers in a profession that had been closed to them for hundreds of years.

DOROTHY URBAN WRIGHT, M’56, Syracuse, New York
Dorothy Urban Wright M'56

The first time Wright noticed disparate treatment for women was when classmates divided into homecall groups. “Boys who I thought were fond of me didn’t want me in their group,” she says. That came as a surprise.

In general, however, Wright was more conscious of racial discrimination in the segregated South than of gender disparities. Blood banks, for example, were separate.

As third year ended, she and her husband, neurologist A. WILLIAM WRIGHT, M’53, welcomed a baby boy. Because men weren’t traditionally encouraged to do housework, it was only late in the evening, after cooking and cleaning, that she could study.

Following an internship, Wright settled into her career as a pediatrician. “I have a lot of guilt about leaving the four children with caregivers. Eventually, they allowed people to do residencies part-time, which would have been ideal.”

Wright, whose husband died in 2004, retired from practice at age 80. “I still miss it terribly,” she says. “It’s in the blood.” But her legacy continues. Before retiring, Wright began a palliative care unit at her hospital, where she still volunteers. And her daughter – who at age 16 accompanied her parents to Haiti for a monthlong mission at Albert Schweitzer Hospital – is now a physician.

 

MARGARET “PEGGY” ZEE JONES, M’61, H’66, East Lansing, Michigan & Gainesville, Florida
YVONNECRIS SMITH VEAL, M’62, St. Albans, New York

Margaret Zee Jones, M'61

Margaret Zee Jones, M’61

Jones recalls an uncomfortable discussion with her undergraduate alma mater’s dean of medicine, who said, “We always take a few women students to improve the decorum of the class.”

Instead, she matriculated at MCV, where she found that most students and professors were absorbed in their work and their lives. “They weren’t involved in making life difficult for others.”

But years later, Jones worries that her own preoccupations blinded her to the difficulties faced by Veal, her only black female classmate.

After Jones married JOHN W. “JACK” JONES, M’57, H’61, she felt classmates were acting a bit distant. But her experience didn’t compare with Veal’s, who found that her gender or race – or both – could be problematic.

Veal recalls receiving markedly different treatment from two male professors, one of whom would not pass her after second year. Graduation was delayed, and funding was difficult.

“You can hurt me for just a little while,” Veal philosophizes, “but you’ll never stop me from trying to do what I feel is right.” Still, it did hurt when it came time to select home-call groups, and the men exercised their option of refusing a woman or black student. That hadn’t changed since Dorothy Wright’s experience in the ’50s.

Yvonnecris Smith Veal, M'62

Yvonnecris Smith Veal, M’62

Fortunately, there were exceptions among Veal’s fellow students, like Jones, whom Veal remembers as “nice and helpful.” When some classmates changed seats rather than sit next to Veal, Jones would come and sit beside her.

Veal found neither gender nor race to be issues as she entered her practice in New York. She was named a fellow of the New York Academy of Medicine in 1996. In 2009, she retired as senior medical director for the U.S. Postal Service from a career that included serving as president of the National Medical Association, the largest and oldest national organization predominantly representing physicians and patients of African-American descent.

Jones, who retired after 30 years as professor of neuropathology at Michigan State University, earned her M.Div. degree and spent several years as a board-certified hospice chaplain and ordained elder in the United Methodist Church.

Nearly six decades after graduating, the two former classmates have reconnected, to their mutual excitement. Jones still wishes she had been more fully aware of Veal’s circumstances. “Peggy,” Veal responds, “graduating with an M.D. degree from MCV is one of my proudest life accomplishments. And yes, you were part of my sustaining recipe.”

 

REBECCA M. “BECKY” BIGONEY, M’79, H’83, Fredericksburg, Virginia

A college guidance counselor advised Bigoney, who had wedding plans, not to tell medical school admissions committees for fear of rejection.

Becky Bigoney, M'79

“There was a fair amount of feminist sentiment, but it was still very sexist,” Bigoney says of the ’70s.

Once Bigoney arrived on campus, she says, “Women had a sense of camaraderie and feeling fortunate we got in.” That’s also around the time applications started climbing.

In the classroom, Bigoney recalls, “You were on your own. You sank or swam on your own merit.” If a professor made a questionable comment or exhibited behavior that was construed as sexist – such as the anatomy professor who used photos of Playboy Bunnies as illustration – female students felt free to “get angry, shout them down or walk out.”

Classmates were respectful and friendly, and the female faculty she knew were accomplished yet approachable. But the expectation was that “women would go the community or practice route rather than academe.”

An internal medicine physician, Bigoney credits J. THOMAS RYAN, M’72, H’75, as a mentor who encouraged her to volunteer for leadership assignments. Her career more recently took an unexpected but satisfying turn when she accepted the first administrative position leading to her current role as executive vice president and chief medical officer for Mary Washington Healthcare.

 

JACALYN B. BLACKWELL-WHITE, M’84, Windsor Mill, Maryland

When Blackwell-White applied to medical school, she was about 10 years older than the typical first-year student. Discouraged by a professor in pre-med, she had switched to psychology.

Jacalyn Blackwell-White, M’84, at graduation with her mother.

Jacalyn Blackwell-White, M’84, at graduation with her mother.

But still wanting to be a physician — and despite hearing that medical schools “don’t want you encumbered” (i.e., married with children) – she requested an interview.

“MCV had a reputation as being a good ol’ boys school,” recalls Blackwell-White. As an African-American, her heart sank when she met the interviewer. “He looked so much like Col. Sanders!”

Instead of discouraging her, however, then-Dean of Admissions MILES HENCH, PH.D., was encouraging … and honest. “He looked at me and said something like, ‘You have a hard road to travel. But if you really want to do this, put in an application!’”

Hench and others on campus were supportive of the few African-American students, and Blackwell-White doesn’t recall negativity from classmates.

That wasn’t always true of faculty or patients; as Yvonnecris Smith Veal had found in the ’60s, it was hard to tell if they were reacting to Blackwell-White’s gender, race or both. Occasionally patients weren’t keen on her treating them. She was delighted whenever she changed their minds. One such patient at the McGuire VA Medical Center, after she worked with him, “even gave me a gift!”

Following an internship and residency in Massachusetts, she returned home to Maryland as a practicing pediatrician.

 

LIBBY Y. KOT, M’94, Hattiesburg, Mississippi

As a female medical student in the early 1990s, Kot “didn’t feel any distinction at all. The faculty were there to teach you. They had a vested interest in producing good doctors.

Libby Kot, M'94, with husband James Kot, M'94.

Libby Kot, M’94, with husband James Kot, M’94.

“You have to be able to function under stress, but I met the most amazing people!”

Those amazing people included her husband-to-be, cardiothoracic surgeon JAMES KOT, M’94. Their whirlwind fourth year included matching, graduating and getting married, all within a matter of weeks, then moving to New Orleans, where she completed her OB-GYN training under TOM NOLAN, M’77.

It wasn’t till she began practicing in Mississippi that Kot saw a difference in attitude. “New Orleans is such a mishmash, nobody thought twice about gender,” she says. “But here in Hattiesburg, it was more traditional, with disproportionately fewer female physicians.”

Or maybe, she speculates, it was more evident in community hospitals than in academic medical centers. In 2001, she was one of two women OBGYNs among 300 full-time physicians at Hattiesburg Clinic. For patients, “the thought of seeing a female OB-GYN seemed weird at the time.”

Now, she says, “The younger generation seems to prefer female gynecologists. And at the clinic, about 45 of our 350 full-time physicians are women.”

 

ELIZABETH “LIBBY” SHERWIN, M’05, Washington, D.C.

By the time Sherwin hit campus in the early 2000s, medical school classes were approaching 50-50 in terms of gender.

Libby Sherwin, M'05 (left), and Becca Clary, M'05, on their White Coat Ceremony day, 2001

Libby Sherwin, M’05 (left), and Becca Clary, M’05, on their White Coat Ceremony day, 2001

She feels fortunate in having quickly found a group of eight “really tight, really amazing women who are great role models and still some of my best friends.”

The group worked and studied well together; competition was not a factor. Though Sherwin has experienced gender differences at times throughout her medical career, she does not recall gender bias or significant differences during medical school. She appreciated the support of great faculty mentors, including the now-retired CYNTHIA HELDBERG, PH.D., associate dean for admissions, and LINDA COSTANZO, PH.D., who was then assistant dean for pre-clinical medical education.

Since becoming an attending physician and practicing at different hospitals, she has heard male colleagues say they’re aware that women have to work two to three times as hard to be seen as equals.

A pediatric cardiologist and electrophysiologist with Children’s National Health System, she notes practical differences still exist, such as making allowances for women who are breastfeeding. “It’s not negative, it’s just reality.”

Last year, her tight-knit medical school group attended her wedding. Missing was REBECCA CLARY HARRIS, M’05, who died in 2007. Inspired by Harris’ example, the group created a scholarship in her name. “Her personality and light should live on,” Sherwin says.

 

ESTHER M. JOHNSTON, M’11, Seattle, Washington

Esther Johnson, M'11

Esther Johnson, M’11

Reflecting on her medical school years, Johnston doesn’t remember her gender being the dominant force impacting her education. “In fact, from my graduating class – thinking of historically male-dominated professions like surgery – that year, the surgical intern class was all female!”

Johnston is director of family medicine programs and interim chief medical officer for Seed Global Health.

The challenges faced by today’s women in the workplace, she feels, are often structurally and societally based. “When female physicians have children, the lost time and lack of resources can set women back.”

She does see a difference in how people perceive female leaders in the medical profession and hopes that will change over time. Citing the Implicit Association Test, which measures hidden gender and racial bias, Johnston says, “When we take the effort to make ourselves aware of biases, then we make the effort to change them.”

Be it classroom or workplace, that’s how progress is made.

EDITOR’S NOTE
In honor of the medical school’s 100 years of women, 12th & Marshall is pleased to share these alumnae stories. We appreciate that they were frank with us, telling us about both the good and the bad. Your experience might have differed. We hope you, too, will share your story with us at MedAlum@vcu.edu. As our alumnae noted, they are grateful for the opportunity to have studied medicine. But gender discrimination and sexual harassment have been and continue to be issues in medicine just as in society. We hope all of our readers will take the challenge offered by ESTHER JOHNSTON, M’11, to be aware of our biases and change them. Recent reports from the AMA, the National Academy of Sciences and others shed light on the issue and offer guidance in addressing it:

JAMA Perspective: Sexual Harassment in Medicine — #MeToo
AMA Wire: Medicine must address #MeToo moment—and beyond
ACP Hospitalist: Medicine’s #MeToo movement
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine: 2018 report Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering and Medicine
Implicit Association Test measures the strength of associations between concepts and evaluations or stereotypes

24
2018

Women who led the way

A love of math and statistics drew these alumnae to VCU – and laid the foundation for diverse, engagingly challenging, meaningful and rewarding careers.

In a companion story, learn from 8 guiding principles they shared with 12th & Marshall.

 

Jenna Elder PhD

“You can create your own perfect job in this industry.”

Growing up in the tiny hamlet of Keysville, Virginia, Jenna Elder, PhD’96 (BIOS), dreamed of becoming a math teacher – until a student-teaching practicum in college changed her mind and set her on an unanticipated new path. Today she is chief scientific officer at PharPoint Research, a contract research organization she co-founded. “It’s the coolest,” she says of working in a CRO. “You get to do a variety of things, and that’s what keeps it interesting.”

 

Chris Gennings PhD

“I feel like I’m in the right place at the right time.”

Formerly a professor in the Department of Biostatistics at VCU, Chris Gennings, PhD’86 (BIOS), joined the faculty at Mount Sinai in New York in 2014, where she is chief of the division of biostatistics and a research professor at the Icahn School of Medicine. On taking the leap to her new role she says, “It really was an opportunity to come up here. All the work that I have done over my career, I am able to use in a way that I really like.”

 

Janice Grechko PhD

“The questions we are trying to find answers to … are so desperately important.”

The first woman to earn a Ph.D. in VCU’s Department of Biostatistics, Janis Goodlow Grechko, PhD’84 (BIOS), says that every day still brings new learning for her. Vice president for quantitative sciences at Alexion Pharmaceuticals – which specializes in developing medications for rare diseases – Grechko says, “Our challenge is to fail as soon as we can,” to keep refocusing research in pursuit of eventual success.

 

Sally Hunsberger PhD

“Working at the NIH has been a perfect fit for me.”

A math and biology major in college, Sally Hunsberger, PhD’90 (BIOS), “always thought I was going to have to choose between them” until she met a biostatistician during a college summer internship. Today she’s a mathematical statistician in the Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the NIH, where a deeply collaborative ethic, she says, supports “working together to attack the most important science problems for our country.”

 

 

Anne Lindblad PhD

“What’s important is that you have a passion for what you are doing.”

President of the Emmes Corporation, a CRO based in Maryland, Anne Lindblad, MS’81 (BIOS), earned her Ph.D. at George Washington University after a summer position at Emmes became permanent. With 650 employees worldwide, Emmes works in areas from oncology to transplantation to autoimmune disease. “Our whole mission and purpose,” she says, “is to be part of bringing better treatments to patients faster.”

24
2018

8 guiding principles from 5 senior scientists

The first woman to earn a master’s from the VCU Department of Biostatistics graduated in 1973 and the first to earn a Ph.D. graduated in 1984; today women represent more than half of the 39 part- and full-time students pursuing studies in the department’s three M.S. and two Ph.D. programs.

For this issue, 12th & Marshall asked some of the alumnae who led the way and who have built distinguished careers for their advice to those following the path they blazed.

1. STEP UP – EVEN WHEN THERE ARE NO GUARANTEES

After joining a contract research organization early in her career, JENNA ELDER, PHD’96 rose from being the first woman hired as a statistician at the company to leading her department of 26. Leaving to launch her own consulting business was a risk. “I was the breadwinner in our family,” she says. “I was making good money, and I was going to give all of that up for no guarantee. And that was scary.” On her first day working for herself, however, she landed her first consulting client, and within a little more than a year she made another move to co-found her own CRO – it’s since grown to over 100 employees. Working in a CRO “is a great path,” she says, “for somebody who likes to be challenged.”

ANNE LINDBLAD, MS’81, confirms that every step he has taken in her professional life, from pursuing her Ph.D. to assuming her current role as president of her company, has represented a willingness to push outside her comfort zone. “When opportunities come up, don’t be afraid – when the door opens, walk through it,” she says. “Sometimes you may fail, but that’s OK – you’re going to learn a lot from it.”

2. FIND A MENTOR, BE A MENTOR

SALLY HUNSBERGER, PHD’90, remembers how important it was, early in her career, that others “were looking out for me,” she says. When colleagues invited her to get involved with their projects, “just being invited to collaborate with them and to watch how they attacked a problem – to let me experience a lot of different things without putting me in the hot seat – was really important.”

What she also took away from those experiences was a valuable model to emulate. “What I really liked was when I saw people treating people with respect.” Trust and respect “are hugely important in doing good research,” she says.

Today, she looks to offer others that same support she received. When you’re swamped with your own work, “pulling in somebody new can feel like so much more work,” she acknowledges – but making the effort makes a difference.

3. BE SOMEONE PEOPLE WANT TO WORK WITH

“One of the greatest keys to success is to collaborate with all the smart people around you,” JANIS GOODLOW GRECHKO, PHD’84, says. In her field of pharmaceutical drug development, “almost everything is done in the context of a team. You have to talk with all of those people and understand all of the implications of every decision that you make and every option that you have in front of you.”

“Interdisciplinary teams really can do better,” CHRIS GENNINGS, PHD’86, confirms. Not only does collaboration make the work more rewarding and enjoyable but, she, says it also makes the results better. “Everybody is helping each other improve their own interest and research.”

Notes Elder, “People always remember somebody who does great work.”

4. YOU NEED TO LOVE LEARNING

After decades in her field, Grechko says, her work has never become stale – and it challenges her every day. “The science is evolving so rapidly that you are rarely doing the same thing twice. You can’t sit back and get comfortable – you have to just continue to learn all the way through.”

Elder agrees that while “learning something new is interesting to me,” the challenges can go beyond science. “I went to graduate school to be a biostatistician,” she says. But in her role at her CRO, “I have had to learn how to rent office space and deal with hiring and firing. All those things I was not prepared for, I have had to learn on my own.”

5. IT’S OK NOT TO KNOW

Early in her career, Hunsberger says, “I felt that I couldn’t make mistakes, I couldn’t say something ‘dumb’ in a meeting, which held me back.” What she knows now, however, is that “In meetings we can’t be afraid of what we may think are  ‘dumb’ questions,” – because you might just be asking that question “in a different way that others haven’t thought about.”

“I would encourage anybody to bring forth their own ideas without fear,” Lindblad agrees. And when you don’t know what to do, asking for help by presenting your thoughts on the problem – “These are some of the things I’ve thought about, and why” – is better than simply saying “I’m not sure what to do.” Better solutions, she says, are found when everyone brings their ideas to the table.

6. SPEAK UP FOR YOURSELF AND FOR SCIENCE

While the number of women earning Ph.D.s in STEM disciplines continues to grow, men still outnumber women in fields such as math and statistics – and in positions of leadership. That imbalance makes it all the more important for women to express confidence in their knowledge.

Hunsberger notes that the NIH is “a very supportive environment” for women. Nevertheless, in her career, “I have been in meetings where I will say something and it’s ignored and a man beside me will say the same thing and it’s taken as a great idea,” she says. In another meeting, a man kept shouting over her. “My voice literally could not be heard,” she says. Finally she stood her ground and told him, “Just because you are louder than me doesn’t mean your voice is more important than mine.”

“Make your voice heard,” Gennings agrees. She points out that not only is it essential for women to contribute within their fields, but with the growing threat of science-denial, scientists as a profession need to become more effective at explaining their work to a nonprofessional audience. “Scientists need to do a better job communicating to lay people about science. About what it means and how important it is,” she says.

7. ANTICIPATE REVOLUTIONARY ADVANCES

Personalized medicine, big data, global collaborations – research in human health is in a period of unprecedented new possibilities. In pharmaceutical research and development, for example, “it is a completely different paradigm,” Grechko says. In the past, “you looked for a medicine that worked for the most people” – even if it didn’t work particularly well for many of them. Now, the focus is on finding “that very specific targeted population for whom a given medicine will work extremely well.”

At NIH, Hunsberger collaborates with researchers around the world to address global health threats like influenza or emerging diseases such as Ebola and Nipah virus. She notes how technology advances have made it possible to work with very large amounts of data – enabling advances into new areas of research such as the role of the microbiome in immunology, with “huge data sets that we would never have been able to analyze before.” And in cancer research, “it’s much more about figuring out the specific mutations,” she says. “Can we take the knowledge of a person’s genetics, the mutations in a tumor, and can we find a treatment that targets that specific mutation – that is where the research is going now.”

8. PURSUE WHAT INSPIRES YOU

“What’s important is that you have passion for what you are doing,” Lindblad says. “My advice is to follow something that really gives you energy, and stay curious to learn new things .”

By Caroline Kettlewell

Virginia Commonwealth University
VCU Medical Center
School of Medicine
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Updated: 04/29/2016