To the Editor:
We wrote this letter to share what we think has helped us succeed as women physician scientists.
First, as we look back on our careers, we see that we have always been involved in some type of research and lifelong learning. In high school, it was a genetics course looking at the color of drosophila eyes. In college, it was an honors thesis project, which resulted in a coauthored paper or a summer internship in a research laboratory. During residency, it was using elective time to start a new research project. Throughout all of these experiences, the pursuit of knowledge was the motivation.
Second, each of us had supportive mentors. Perhaps being on the West Coast made the experience of being women in academia easier. Although there appears to be a glass ceiling, the ceiling seems to be higher compared with that experienced by our colleagues elsewhere, where traditions are strong and the numbers of role models are fewer. Having a mentor who supports women in academics has been critical to the success of our careers. Also, seeing other women faculty successfully promoted is very encouraging, and those women can become excellent mentors.
Third, we have learned that there are ways to overcome many of the obstacles that women physician scientists face at academic institutions. In addition to limited NIH funding, competition with PhD scientists, and the difficulties of having one’s work published, there are personal challenges—for example, delaying marriage or starting a family because of lack of time or finances. The NIH loan repayment program helps. Women with children have been successful if they have help at home, such as a nanny or babysitter (which can require significant resources) or a spouse or family member to help care for the children. Of importance is the need to remain focused and have protected time (less than 20% clinical work).
Despite the challenges to becoming a successful physician scientist, we cannot imagine a more satisfying and interesting career. It is critical for us as successful women physician scientists to emphasize to ourselves and to those we advise the positive aspects of our professional lives: a satisfying career, intellectual satisfaction, avoidance of burnout from patient care, prestige, and recognition. Without this attitude and the other factors we have mentioned above, women physician scientists will become an endangered species and have fewer opportunities to train future role models in academic medicine.
Kathleen M. Sakamoto, MD, PhD
Professor and chief, Division of Hematology/Oncology, and vice-chair of research, Mattel Children’s Hospital, David Geffen School of Medicine, UCLA, Los Angeles, California.
Katrina M. Dipple, MD, PhD
Associate professor, Departments of Human Genetics and Pediatrics, David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and Mattel Children’s Hospital at UCLA, Los Angeles, California.