On Becoming A Woman Surgeon Scientist

13 Sep 2018

By Ashley M. Holder

Although a surgical career is becoming a path more traveled by women, few of them are pursuing the track of surgeon scientist.  In an era when fewer surgeons, regardless of gender, are winning NIH grants, remaining competitive in research while balancing clinical, teaching, and administrative responsibilities leaves many surgeons feeling that there is simply not enough time for research.  Despite the challenges, I believe that we, as women surgeons, must remain engaged in research and encourage each other to chase the breakthroughs needed to advance our profession.

     As a rookie surgeon scientist, I wanted to share my lessons learned thus far with those considering a similar path. To evaluate the hypothesis that any woman can be a successful surgeon scientist with enough support, determination, and persistence, I propose the following aims:

     Specific Aim #1:  To determine that you can’t do this alone.  Most successful researchers recognize that, like raising children, it takes a village to produce a surgeon scientist.  First, you must seek out and learn from other successful researchers. Capitalize on opportunities for training in conducting research:  courses in grant writing, basic science or population health techniques, manuscript preparation. Though those with graduate school training have formal coursework, many successful surgeon scientists have created their own curriculum from patching together institutional and/or societal seminars such as those offered by AACR, SWOG, and AAS.  Secondly, I have been most fortunate to have had a group of co-residents and faculty to support me during my development.  My program director at Washington University in St. Louis, graciously permitted me to be away from our program for two years so that I could pursue a T32 Fellowship with Dr. Funda Meric-Bernstam, a fantastic woman surgeon scientist. Likewise, you must find a chair and a department who believes that the work you do as a researcher matters—for me, that is Dr. Barbara Bass (@ACSprez) at Houston Methodist.

     Specific Aim #2:  To develop the ability to say “No”.  Your time is precious.  If you are fortunate to have protected research time, guard those days with all your being.  Resist the temptation to see patients on your dedicated research days or to schedule elective cases.  Certainly, your patients are your top priority, but non-urgent issues can wait for your dedicated clinical days.  Likewise, do not over-commit yourself with teaching and administrative duties. From hospital committees to serving as director of the medical student clerkship, there is no better way to sink your research career than continuing to say “yes” to each request.  To your colleagues who are not researchers, you may appear to have a wealth of free time since you have fewer clinic days and operate less. Be a team player and do your part; however, it is OK and necessary to decline those invitations that will torpedo your next experiment, grant application, or manuscript revision.

     Specific Aim #3:  To establish that no one said this would be easy.  Fortify yourself for the naysayers and critics.  You will hear: “No one wins this grant from our institution” or “You’re not established enough in the field to be competitive.”  One of my colleagues shared her secret to winning one of the first K-awards as a junior surgeon scientist at our institution: YouTube videos.  If you don’t have the expertise at your program, be creative. As a surgeon, you are an expert problem solver. Finally, look to your fellow women surgeon scientists for support when experiments fail, grants are rejected, and no journal seems to want to accept your manuscript.  Let your path be illuminated by the words of Estee Lauder:  “I never dreamed of success. I worked for it.”

Ashley M. Holder, MD, is an Assistant Professor of Surgery in Nanomedicine at Weill Cornell Medical College/Houston Methodist Hospital with a lab focused on developing nanoparticle platforms to improve drug delivery to tumors and reduce toxicity for patients.  She completed her Complex General Surgical Oncology fellowship at the UT MD Anderson Cancer Center. She graduated from General Surgery Residency at Washington University in St. Louis. She received her medical degree, where she was a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Medical Student Research Fellow, from Baylor College of Medicine.  Her outside interests include fishing, cooking, and spending time with her husband and family.


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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