10 Jul 2014
By: Shilpa S. Murthy, MD, MPH

Socrates mentorship of Plato lead to advancements in philosophy and science. William Halstead’s mentorship style, based on Socrates’ teaching methods, lead to Harvey Cushing’s success in creating the field of neurosurgery.1For centuries, mentorship of surgical trainees has been critical to progressing the field of surgery. Strong mentorship and devoted development of a surgical trainee can lead to advancement and innovation in the field.  As a medical student, one may not anticipate the crucial role a mentor plays through transitions in their career. A trainee goes through three transitions where guidance is critical to the development of a skilled surgeon:  the transition from medical student to surgical resident, surgical resident to surgical researcher, and resident to surgical attending.  All three transitions come with their own challenges as well as rewards.  During these phases, it is important to gain direction from knowledgeable individuals who already experienced these transitions. They will guide trainees through un-anticipated challenges. Similarities in personality and background are important in mentorship interactions but common goals and values create a successful relationship.  I was fortunate to meet three mentors whose life’s work aligned with my own goals of training the next generation of physicians and reducing the inequalities in health care.

In 1998 the percentage of female surgeons was 21.8% and in 2008 that number increased to 32.3%.2In a field where the female voice is sparse and still growing, strong female mentorship can be fruitful for young women surgeons.  In medical school I was fortunate to have a female mentor who was a dean and pediatrician who shared a passion for medical education. Few women in science have been able to reach the prominent academic position she holds.  As a professional woman, she experienced the unique challenges that women face as they continue to advance professionally in the medical field. With her female voice, guidance, and insight borne from years in the profession, I have been better able to navigate my career as a surgeon. The female perspective is important for women in medicine, but excellent mentorship comes from both genders.

During my research years as a surgical resident, I am pursuing oncology projects in Rwanda in global surgery. Making waves to define a new academic field, global surgery, can be rewarding but extremely challenging. It is complex since there are numerous cultural and ethical issues. I am privileged to be mentored by a surgeon who is a pioneer in the nascent field of global surgery. Modeling his cross cultural interpersonal communication skills and sharing our passion for equity in surgery, I have been able to successfully develop a breast disease training course with my Rwandan colleagues. But even with this success, the field is severely underfunded and due to funding challenges our projects almost fell through. However, his guidance and experience on how to navigate philanthropic meetings and administrative hurdles ultimately led to successful outcomes. His kindness, altruism, and passion towards reducing inequities in surgical care globally is to be modeled and commended.

During surgical residency, a trainee also needs a mentor who is invested in developing their technical and cognitive surgical skills. In my clinical residency program, I met a hepatobiliary surgeon who has pushed me to strive harder. His engagement and experience in my development has been un-wavering through professional and personal hurdles. I always trust his advice because I know it is coming from someone who truly cares about me.

Although each mentor has a slightly different background than my own, pieces of their personality, experiences, and backgrounds resonate with me as an individual. Their trust and belief in me has led to fruitful relationships and they are like family. My mentors have been crucial in my transition from medical student to surgical resident and as a surgical researcher. Their un-wavering support during hurdles I didn’t anticipate have strengthened our bonds. Recognizing my passions for surgery, education, and equitable care for impoverished populations they are guiding me towards concrete goals that will hopefully make a lasting contribution to society. While the line of Socrates mentorship continued in Plato and eventually worked its way to William Halsted and Harvey Cushing, so too will the teachings of my mentors. I hope to pass on our shared values, goals, and their kindness to those I mentor in the future.
1.) Assael, Leon. Every Surgeon Needs Mentors: A Halsteadian/Socratic Model in the Modern Age. J Oral Maxillofac Surg. 68:1217-1218, 2010.
2.) Association of American Medical Colleges Accessed June 6, 2014
Dr. Shilpa S. Murthy is currently a second year research fellow at the Center for Surgery and Public Health, Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts. She recently completed her MPH at Harvard School of Public Health and has interests in global surgical oncology, surgical disparities, and medical education. She is a general surgery resident at Indiana University.

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