Becoming a surgeon scientist

06 Dec 2020

By Genevieve Boland 

Life is full of well-intentioned bad advice. On many occasions, I have been told not to pursue my career as a surgeon scientist, that it is not possible. It is clear that all advice is limited by the life experience of the person giving it, so it’s important to contextualize feedback and appreciate how it may or may not align with your own life and perspectives.

The message I hope to share here is that becoming a surgeon scientist is very possible. It requires interest, tenacity, and a community of like-minded academic surgeons (we exist!). When I was a medical student considering surgery as a career, it only took one role model, an amazing surgeon scientist to feed my fire and encourage me to pursue this incredible career path. I am eternally grateful that he took me seriously, listened to my ideas, and showed me that there is room in surgery for serious scientific inquiry. I hope to address some of the themes that came up in the AWS TweetChat held on Monday, November 25th, talking about life as a surgeon scientist:


You will never find one ideal mentor because you need a mentorship team to align with all the different components of your career and life. You need clinical mentors, scientific mentors, career mentors, and peer mentors. Any of these can come from outside of your department or your institution. Consider building a mentorship committee or team. My mentorship team as junior faculty consisted of a medical oncologist, my chief and chair, colleagues internally and externally, and some amazing female academic surgeons who could help me contextualize all these pieces in parallel with having a life outside of medicine. Realize it’s a team effort and no one person can serve all these roles for you. Build your team to address each need separately.


Team science is a major component of my career, one that I value immensely. The diversity of perspectives and life experiences greatly enhance our projects, and working together allows our science to move far beyond the limits of each individual. These collaborations can be incredibly productive and lead to life-long friendships. However, collaborations can also be incredibly challenging, deeply political, and in general require early and frequent communication regarding expectations and goals. Not every collaborator will be a friend. Not every collaborator will have your needs in mind during the collaboration. Establish the ground rules early and clearly (get used to these sometimes uncomfortable conversations) and only continue collaborations that are helpful to you and add value to your research program or career. 


This is the most challenging part. Do not take it personally if most of your grants don’t get funded. This is common to all of us. You must be resilient and move on. Resubmit. Incorporate feedback (if you get any). Learn the process, and continue to try. Start with foundations and/or specialty groups and smaller grants. Build your history of funded research, which helps for each subsequent grant submission. Build up to bigger and more competitive grants. Apply frequently and repeatedly. There is no failure here, that’s the expected outcome. Now and again you’ll get funding. So keep trying and don’t be discouraged!


When looking at starting your career as a surgeon scientist, look beyond your specific clinical needs and examine the infrastructure of the institution, the track record of supporting people on a similar career pathway, and the culture of the team(s). Negotiate hard for things outside of your salary that will make your life easier and less stressful. Get specific about expected RVUs, clinical expectations, and protected time because time is one of your most valuable commodities. Think about what your needs are in terms of start-up funds and resources. Justify your “asks”, but ask for what you need (not just for today but over the next 3-5 years). The department is investing in you, so make sure you have what you need to succeed. It is in your and their best interests to do this. But avoid being the first of your kind or a new hire to “build a program” unless there is a clear path to success.

Overall, a career as a surgeon scientist is incredibly meaningful and fulfilling. For me, as a surgical oncologist, I cure 1/3rd of my patients with surgery, another 1/3rd are potentially cured but also at risk where the evolution in our clinical management is improving prognosis and outcomes, and the 1/3rd of patients I cannot heal with surgery I study in my laboratory with the hopes that what we learn from our clinical “failures” can improve the care of the next patients. I am grateful to my patients who share their stories, their bodies (tissue/blood), and their lives with us in order to help others. I am honored to have the chance to work with them to make a difference in how we care for cancer patients.

Dr. Boland is a surgical oncologist at the Massachusetts General Hospital. She is Section Head of Melanoma/Sarcoma Surgery, Surgical Director of the Termeer Center for Targeted Therapies, and Director of the MGH Surgical Oncology Research Laboratories. Her clinical practice and research focuses on melanoma and immuno-oncology, and her laboratory is funded by the DoD, the Melanoma Research Foundation, the MGH Innovation Discovery Grant, and various society and industry sources. She previously received the ASA Foundation Fellowship Award, the SSO Clinical Investigator Award, the AWS Grant, and funding from the American Cancer Society. Nationally, she serves on the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) Committee for Melanoma, the Executive Council of the SSO, the SSO Melanoma Disease Site Working Group, the SUS Membership Committee, and the Society of Immunotherapy of Cancer Surgery Committee.


Our blog is a forum for our members to speak, and as such, statements made here represent the opinions of the author and are not necessarily the opinion of the Association of Women Surgeons.

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