The IDSA Foundation’s Women of ID campaign is pleased to honor four ID mavericks who helped to change the face of science and medicine. The impact they have made on humanity can’t be measured.
This year, we honored:
- CATHERINE M. WILFERT, MD,
- WAFAA EL-SADR, MD, MPH, MPA, FIDSA,
- CAROL BAKER, MD, FIDSA, FPIDS, FSHEA,
- AND JUDITH A. ABERG, MD, FIDSA, FACP.
Their incredible life’s work compels us to reflect on the many barriers these women have overcome. They paved the way, and because they excelled, future leaders are steps ahead. The IDSA Foundation spoke with three emerging women leaders in the field of ID to get their thoughts and learn about their vision for the future of our field.
- Sonali Advani MBBS, MPH, Assistant Professor of Medicine, Section of Infectious Diseases, Yale School of Medicine
- Anna Kristine Person, MD, Associate Professor of Medicine, Division of Infectious Diseases and Program Director, Adult ID Fellowship Program, Vanderbilt University School of Medicine
- Rebecca Reece, MD, Assistant Professor, Division of Infectious Diseases, Brown University Medical School
Here is an excerpt from our conversation.
IDSA Foundation: Some of the women who have been honored in this campaign shared details about the challenges they faced in the world of medicine simply because they are women. Did you find it difficult, as women, to be in medical school? And were you aware of the barriers that women who have gone before you have faced?
Anna Person: I was acutely aware of the barriers that some of the women who had gone before us have faced. My medical school class had a lot of women and it was very helpful to have that support system. But there still are unique challenges that come from being a woman in medicine.
Sonali Advani: I went to medical school in India where getting an education is a challenge. Getting a medical education was a privilege. What I noticed is that women would go to medical school and do a residency but fewer women were associate professors or full professors. At some point in their careers, either personal or professional challenges took over these goals. That’s the challenge I see many women in medicine face today too.
Rebecca Reece: In my class, we were 50-50, women and men. But who were the chairs of the departments? Who was in leadership? Most of them were men. And to some extent, I still see that today. I am excited, though, that because of the work of the women who have gone before us, we’re starting to see more roles being equally offered to women, which is something of a change.
IDSA Foundation: So are more women applying for some of these roles? Or do you think they always applied and just didn’t get the positions?
Rebecca Reece: I think women have applied, or maybe wanted to apply, but were discouraged.
Sonali Advani: It is changing now. We see that percentages are slowly moving in favor of women, but it’s still about 30 percent women and 70 percent men. It is changing because women are trying for these roles and they are changing the culture.
Anna Person: I recently went up for a promotion and it was mainly because of the support and urging of female mentors within IDSA that I decided to go for it. They were incredibly supportive in writing letters and giving me feedback on my CV, and it made a huge difference in helping me decide that I was, in fact, ready and worthy of promotion. And they told me not to rest after that. They said, “Your next step will be when you’re ready, to go up for full professor.” And I wouldn’t be able to do that without the encouragement of some of these women, like Patty W. Wright, MD, FIDSA, Melanie A. Thompson, MD, Wendy Armstrong, MD, FIDSA, and Cathy McGowan, MD.
IDSA Foundation: One of our honorees was told by a professor that she should give up her spot in medical school because she was only going to get married, have kids and then forced to quit medicine. So, she should give up her spot to a man, she was told. How does it make you feel to hear that?
Anna Person: I cannot imagine what it must have been like to not only go through rigorous and intense clinical training, but then to be actively dissuaded and discouraged by people all around you all the time. It was hard enough to go through with loving, supporting family, colleagues and female role models. Statements like that are what keep a lot of us going because we feel an obligation to honor the struggle of women who have gone before us.
And it is not easy. I have a three-year-old and another child on the way, and three step-kids. It is a really hard thing to balance family and career, but it is not impossible. And we have seen people do it time and time again, and do it with grace, poise, and tremendous results.
Rebecca Reece: I would be shocked if that was still happening now, but I can’t say for sure. It’s saddening for that distinction to be made when we know that our male counterparts are also going to get married, also going to have children. So why is it that only the females are expected to give up their careers? It makes us thankful for those who went before us and did this.
Sonali Advani: I almost wonder if that actually drove her to work harder.
IDSA Foundation: What is your perspective on the role you think women play in medicine today, versus the role women have played in the past?
Sonali Advani: I have three female mentors and they have made my transition to becoming a faculty member so easy. It’s been a friendly, cooperative environment where women are helping other women. We are also good friends outside of the workplace. So, if I need to talk to someone, they are always there to help me, and I think that might be a change from the past.
Rebecca Reece: What I have been seeing since I started medical school 15 years ago is that there were women on the clinical side, but now women are teaching – not just in the wards – but in the medical schools. We’re not just strictly doing clinical medicine, but we’re applying for research funding and working in international health. We are everywhere now. We’re not just on the side, doing only the bedside work, now we’re directing the clinics, leading the research divisions, and developing the medical school and trainee curriculum for future learners.
IDSA Foundation: Has there ever been a time when patients have questioned that you’re the doctor, based on your gender?
Rebecca Reece: Yes, that happens, but not every day. They assume I’m either the medical student or I’m the nurse. It’s the stereotype from years past. And actually it has the same effect for a male nurse. Patients think they are not nurses because they are men. I’m no longer angry about it. I just smile and correct them before I go on my way.
IDSA Foundation: You all are at various stages in your career, and maybe in your personal lives. What do you think is an important message to share with other young women who are students or just starting in medicine and or considering the field of ID?
Anna Person: Balancing family and work is such a challenge. But when you love the work you do, there is no other challenge that you would want to take on. It’s a privilege to take on this challenge. It doesn’t make it easy, and there are days when I’m a total mess, and my family is a total mess. But it’s because I love my job that I get up the next day and keep going.
Sonali Advani: I feel like I’m just happy to have the job that I love and found a field that I love. So, yes, there are days when it’s a mess. There are too many deadlines and there’s just too much to do. I’m lucky to have a partner who tells me that I can let things go and I have to go easy on myself.
Rebecca Reece: I love the field. I sacrifice because I enjoy going overseas and doing volunteer work as often as I can. And so sometimes I will do three to four weeks on call so I can go away for three weeks to work overseas. I’m giving up time with friends or family because I’m always either on call or out of town. But it’s worth it.
IDSA Foundation: Why ID?
Anna Person: There was no other choice for me. It was very clear that this is the greatest specialty on Earth. I always wanted to take care of people. And it became very clear to me that the way to do that was through infectious diseases medicine.
Rebecca Reece: I have two reasons why I chose ID. One is certainly my interest in global health. Then as a third- and fourth-year medical student, I did my ID electives and absolutely loved it. You don’t have to narrow it down to one body part. You get to talk to patients about everything, from where they live to what type of water they are drinking. It is about the whole patient.
Sonali Advani: It was two reasons for me as well. The first was that when I came to the United States from India, my first mentor was an infectious disease physician. I fell in love with healthcare associated infections and pediatric infectious diseases. Second, when I did my clinical rotations, I fell in love with the concept of discovery. We go digging deep and get all the details, get the whole history and solve the mystery.
IDSA Foundation: What in the field has inspired you the most? And is there anything you hope for ID in the next year or so?
Anna Person: One of the most inspiring parts of my job co-chairing the Ryan White Medical Providers Coalition is that once a year we go to Capitol Hill to advocate for HIV funding. It’s one of the most energizing experiences of the year to feel like I’m enacting democracy by meeting with my representatives and asking for something that’s important, which is ongoing funding of infectious disease providers, ongoing funding of Ryan White clinics to support HIV initiatives, and really educating people about the work that we do.
Rebecca Reece: My hope is, as I see how far we have come in the United States in medicine, particularly with infections, that we bring up that same skill to the developing world. There are still way too many deaths that I see from infection that we can now treat or prevent. Some of it is due to lack of vaccine, or just not getting antibiotics when they are needed.
Sonali Advani: One of my concerns is resident interest in infectious diseases. The second is the problem of antibiotic resistance. We just don’t have enough drugs and we’re using antibiotics like water.
IDSA Foundation: Where do you see yourselves making an impact in the next few years?
Anna Person: I hope in the future I can continue to be an ongoing advocate for people living with HIV and for providers who are caring for people with HIV, whether that is locally or internationally.
Sonali Advani: As a hospital epidemiologist, I see myself tackling healthcare associated infections and combating antibiotic resistant bacteria. I’ve grown to like is the education aspect of it, and not just focusing on education of residents, medical students, and nurses, but educating everyone who works in the hospital about stewardship healthcare associated infection and infection prevention.
I hope to be in a leadership role in IDSA and serve as a mentor for females in the future, and support them just like female mentors have supported me.
Rebecca Reece: My hope is maybe a more equal balance, where I have more time to do my international work.