Recently by Elizabeth Travis, Ph.D

Blackburn2_option2.jpgDr. Elizabeth Blackburn, 2009 Nobel Laureate, is the "real deal." She's an outstanding scientist, a role model for women in science, a wife, a mother, a fascinating person and the ultimate mentor.

She shares the Nobel Prize with Dr. Carol Greider, who was a graduate student in her lab in the mid 1980s. Now that is the ultimate mentor/mentee relationship.

Dr. Blackburn's recent Hogg Award lecture at M. D. Anderson showed us a woman who loves what she does and communicates that passion to her audience. She also is passionate about women in science, suggesting that not only is it good for science but it's critical to reshaping how science is done -- which could benefit both women and men.

Group.jpgHer message to young women in science: "Have a family, if that's what you want. You are not a failure as a scientist because you want to have a child."She does, and she received the Nobel Prize!

Let her be your role model. 

Athena_200.jpgDid you know that Mentor, the teacher of Telemachus, Odysseus' son, was actually Athena in disguise? I didn't, until my friend and colleague, Janis Apted, and I were discussing a mentoring talk I was preparing and she related this startling factoid.

The story goes like this. Mentor was an old friend of Odysseus. When Odysseus joined the alliance that sailed against Troy, he left Mentor in charge of keeping his household safe. Several times during that period, Athena assumed the shape of Mentor and became the guide of Telemachus, giving him prudent counsel. Since then, wise and trusted advisers have been called "mentors."

This made me reflect on the times through the ages when women have disguised themselves as men, both literally and figuratively, so they could be taken seriously as professionals. And we're still doing it today.

business suits.jpgRemember the blue suits and little bow ties that professional women wore? When I started my career, I told my mother not to buy me anything for work that did not have a jacket. I never presented a talk in anything but a suit. And although things have changed for women in all fields, there's still a sense that we must disguise ourselves -- how we look, how we speak and how we act.

Take for example the photo below of the 26 authors in our book, "Legends and Legacies." These are accomplished women. They're physicians, scientists, department chairs, division heads, vice presidents. However, many of them thought we should dress professionally, in suits and lab coats, to take this photo. But Maria Dungler, the artist behind the book, convinced me and then them, to be seen as women -- and physicians and scientists -- and we produced the Annie Liebovitz-type photo you see here.

Legends and Legacies Authors640.jpg

I'm so glad that no longer does Athena have to disguise herself as a man.

facebook_icon_15.jpgLegends and Legacies on Facebook

Elizabeth Travis 1As the associate vice president for women faculty programs, still a relatively new program at M. D. Anderson, I am often asked "What do you do?" and "Why do we need this office?"   
When I think about these questions, it comes down to three issues

We need all the best minds to focus on finding cures and treating cancer.
The frequently quoted figure is that the pipeline for physicians and scientists contains 50% women. This has been true for the last five years, but these numbers aren't reflected in faculty ranks at any institution. More relevant to M. D. Anderson, however, is that 49% of the fellows completing oncologic fellowships are women -- although this percentage is specialty dependent -- but only 24% of practicing oncologists are women. That begs the question, "What happens to these women?"

For the Ph.D.s, we know that the pipeline from assistant professor to professor is leaky. So, by the time we reach the professor rank, the numbers of women have greatly diminished to only 20%. With the impending shortage of oncologists and the projected increase in cancer incidence in our aging population, compounded by the good news of increased numbers of survivors, M. D. Anderson must cultivate and fully engage women scientists and physicians if we are to fulfill our mission of Making Cancer History.

Women Faculty Programs' charge is to initiate and implement initiatives to do just that: recruit, promote and retain women faculty. We work across the board to examine existing policies and recommend revisions, so that they're more aligned with women's (and frequently men's) lives. Examples are extending the tenure/tenure track clock for faculty who have a new child in the family and implementing career development programs. By the way, many of these policies "lift all boats" as they're gender neutral policies.

We also help identify and recruit women to leadership positions in the institution, since it's clear that more women at the top attract more women at all levels of the organization. In addition, our patients tell us that they want doctors who are like them -- men and women, and from a variety of cultures.

Finally, it's good business. Research indicates that organizations with the highest   representation of women on their boards outperform those with the least by 53%. In terms of sales, companies with more women board directors outpace those with fewer by 42%. So, too, with medicine and science. Who could argue with that?

The other physician-scientist problem: Where have all the young girls gone? (Nature)

A gender gap in the next generation of physician-scientists: medical student interest and participation in research (PubMed)

Legends and Legacies: Personal Journeys of Women Physicians and Scientists at M. D. Anderson Cancer Center


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