Crucial Conversations for Careers in MFM

January 26, 2021
Angie DeRosa

Three experts in maternal-fetal medicine hosted the Womxn’s Health Collaborative Symposium: Crucial conversations for careers in MFM during the Society for Maternal Fetal Medicine’s (SMFM) 41st Annual Pregnancy Meeting on Monday.

Michal Elovitz, MD, Geeta Swamy, MD, and Laura Riley, MD, participated in sharing career path insight and guidance with participants from all over the country. The two-hour interactive discussion covered mentoring and sponsorship; sexism and racism in the practice; how to help advocate for others; creating a career path that is right for each individual; work-life balance, or more appropriately, work-life harmony. Throughout life and career, harmony fluctuates, Elovitz pointed out.

“Take a step back and say, ‘Is this serving me?’” she encouraged the audience. The field is flush with opportunity and one can go in many directions, but decisions must be made carefully and taking one own’s key interests into consideration. The “good” list of this career path includes the ability to advocate for pregnant patients; patient care; exciting research; mentoring; a sense of purpose; and, of course, financial security. However, it also is fraught with sexism and racism that many have experienced.

“Yes, even in a field that is 80% womxn,” Elovitz had written on one of her slides. She emphasized that silence and complacency hurt the field, providers, research, and patients; and she encouraged participants to recognize internal misogyny. The list of those things to do include finding interested and committed collaborators outside of ob/gyn; be intentional on what you are passionate about and interested in; seek many mentors and sponsors; and be open to a developing career path.

Elovitz is the director of the Womxn’s Health Collaborative (WHC), which was formed last year. Its mission is based upon the guiding principles that diversity in research promotes better science; existing platforms for mentorship and sponsorship do not sufficiently engage or promote the next generation of women health researchers; sexism, structural racism, discrimination and harassment adversely affect the health, success and career advancement of the workforce and thus limit the clinical and scientific advancements that they are then able to achieve to advance women’s health. Academic societies, scientific organizations and journals that focus on women’s health and/or involve women as any part of the workforce must be leaders in promoting equity, justice and representation; and traditional academic structures with siloed fields limits lifespan and transgenerational research which impedes meaningful advancement in women’s health.

For Riley, a career aspiration to be a clinician who takes care of women took some unexpected twists and turns. Her goal was to be able to work with women in the HIV epidemic in Boston in the 1980s. Even though she wanted to focus on women, she completed a fellowship in infectious diseases at a Veteran’s Administration (VA) Hospital in Boston. That experience taught her that it’s important to be open to change. Completing a second fellowship by working at the VA “changed my career,” she said. It has allowed her to have a voice in virus outbreaks such as Zika, Ebola and COVID-19.

Her journey had its encounters with racism and inequity, and she witnessed inequities in patient care. She recounted being asked why she never said anything. “Who was I going to tell?” she said. “No one was listening. Whatever I said would be misconstrued.” Instead, she followed her mother’s advice of not to worry about it and just keep going.

She completed her 18 months of infectious disease fellowship. “Boston was a tough environment,” she said. “HIV changed really quickly. It was truly an amazing opportunity. I didn’t last long, though. It was an incredibly sexist and unbelievably racist place.”

Now as chair of the department of obstetrics and gynecology at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York, she says that she has developed skills from being involved in other organizations. She has gotten a lot of satisfaction and 90 percent of her leadership skills from her involvement with the Centers for Disease Control, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologist and SMFM. “Depending on what you do and the expertise you may bring to those societies, it can be incredible, those experiences that you have,” she told the audience.

She also said not to stick to someone else’s perception of what a career path timeline should be.

“The timeline is whatever the timeline needs to be for you,” she said. Riley also is an editorial board member of Contemporary OB/GYN®.

Geeta Swamy, MD, associate vice president for research at Duke University, and vice dean for scientific integrity at its school of medicine, encouraged the audience to find the people that they want to spend time with. She emphasized mentorship and sponsorship, where mentors are putting you forward to do other things and to do more. Organizations such as the WHC also allow for guidance, sponsorship, and mentorship.

However, current physicians should figure out what they want in their careers. “You already are, I’m sure, an excellent physician,” she told the audience. “You have become something already. What else do you want? Once you figure out what it is you want, then you have to figure out what you need to do to get that. We don’t think about what it is we want.”

Swamy’s research areas are perinatal infection, maternal immunization, and preterm birth. She once considered genomics, but then decided that it wasn’t for her. Instead, she was driven toward vaccines and vaccine research. Swamy also is on the executive committee of WHC.

“If you figure out what you want, and you’re good with that, then you should be OK with how that transpires,” she said. “You don’t have to follow the same path as people before you to be successful.”

The SMFM virtual conference goes through Saturday. To register, click here.