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Women of Stanford Neurosurgery: “If there’s something that you want to do, you do it”

As part of a new series on women in neurosurgery, I recently spoke with a dozen so faculty members about their experiences as females in a traditionally male-dominated field. By highlighting their stories, my hope is that we'll inspire more young girls to pursue careers in science and eliminate some of the myths associated with women in this line of work.

I'll be sharing some of my conversations here on Scope, beginning with assistant professor Melanie Hayden Gephart, MD.

When were you first introduced to science? 

When I was a little kid I really liked a lot of projects that involved problem solving. I took a biology course in high school and I became very quickly interested in how the brain works and how we can figure out different ways of understanding the transition between what is a cellular process and what is a higher order of cognition and awareness... When I was in college I majored in neuroscience. I really liked math and science, and that challenge of having a question that no one really knows the answer to, and trying to prove yourself either right or wrong.

Who encouraged you, or discouraged you, from pursuing science?

I had a lot of encouragement from my family from the beginning. I’m a very motivated and enthusiastic person, and I think in the same way that I work with my kids to direct their powers for good, my family also made sure that I could put my enthusiasm into a productive stream. But encouragement on a professional level, well, there wasn’t very much of that. Particularly in medical school when I was thinking about doing neurosurgery, the first dozen people I talked to about it said, 'Absolutely not!' There was no filter or concern to be politically sensitive about it -- they basically just said, 'Well, women can’t do neurosurgery, so you should do something else.' I hadn’t [previously] listened to that societal voice on what women can or can’t do, and I wasn’t about to then either. That said, I wanted to make sure that this was something that I really intrinsically liked, because I knew it was going to be very challenging... During those first few years in medical school I had no real role models, at least not for women in neurosurgery. Once I committed to the specialty, many faculty were very supportive, and Stanford has been as well.

How did you respond to those who discouraged you?

People would also say, 'Well, you can’t do neurosurgery because you can’t do it part time,' as if by being a woman I only wanted to work part time. When I was a medical student, a female neurosurgeon I met, who was no longer practicing, said, 'Well, you can do neurosurgery, but then you definitely can’t have kids,' and she didn’t know, but at the time that conversation took place, I was actually three months pregnant with my first child. I think that as with all points in your life and your career, you must filter the advice that you get. I would think, 'Well, I’ve done a good job of maintaining balance in my life while doing all these other productive things, so I think I can also manage this and fulfill my other goals.’ If there’s something that you want to do, you do it. You know that there are going to be sacrifices and compromises, but ultimately this was the correct decision for me. I think about the things that people have said or done to try to prevent me from getting where I am now, and all I can do is make sure that I’m doing the best job that I can every day, and try to set an example for the next generation of scientists and physicians.

What can be done to improve parity in leadership?

I think there would be more women pursuing leadership positions in science or medicine careers if they had more female mentors that they see living and working as role models. We’ve got hard-wired societal biases, and most of us are oblivious to them. You need to make a concerted effort to have women trained and elevated to leadership positions, and to be thoughtful negotiators. I think that Stanford does a good job of that in that they have female faculty mentorship and leadership training.

I’ll tell you another story. One day as a resident I ran into a female Stanford medical student who I hadn’t seen in some time, so I asked her what type of specialty she decided to pursue. She answered that she chose orthopaedic surgery. She then said to me, 'You know, I’ve never told you this, but you were a big reason I decided I could do surgery. I saw you once, operating in the middle of the night, eight months pregnant, and I just thought to myself, if Melanie can do this, I can do this.' I didn’t have a formal mentoring relationship with this student, but just by the fact that I was there, it was enough for her to say ‘I can also do surgery and be a mom. I can meet all of my goals.'

A modified version of this piece originally appeared on the Stanford Department of Neurosurgery's website.

Previously: Stanford's Michele Barry on why we need more women leaders in global healthFemale biomedical faculty progress toward parityStanford surgery chair Mary Hawn and the changing face of the OR and What it is truly like for women doctors: A Stanford resident shares stories of gender in medicine

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