Stanford Children’s Health Celebrates Women’s History Month: Finding Your Passion, Mentor

This is the first part of a monthlong series in honor of Women’s History Month.

In honor of Women’s History Month, we want to celebrate some of the outstanding women at Stanford Children’s Health who make such a difference for our patients—and the community at large. In this Q&A, each of these women will share the story of how she came to her profession, how it’s changed, challenges she faced along the way, and some of the issues she’s passionate about.

Lisa Patel, MD, a pediatric hospitalist, is an environmental scientist who works to mobilize health professionals to respond to the health challenges posed by climate change. Kara Meister, MD, a pediatric otolaryngologist, specializes in treating children with airway, voice, and swallowing problems and with head and neck tumors. Agnieszka Czechowicz, MD, PhD, a pediatric hematologist-oncologist, is a stem cell biologist and biotech entrepreneur with a special interest in gene therapy and methods for improving stem cell transplantation.

How did you choose your field, and what are some of the key events that helped shape your career and enable you to reach your position today?

Patel: It started from deep intellectual passion for ecology and evolution. From there, the story has lots of twists and turns that include joining a team to start a microfinance organization in Cairo, working for a research station in the Brazilian Atlantic rain forest, and doing geographic information system (GIS) mapping for malaria in the Peruvian Amazon. I think the early stages of my career were driven by wanting to see and connect with as many different parts of this beautiful world and its inhabitants as possible. The later stages have been driven more by taking what I’ve seen, heard, and experienced to advocate for change.

I had a light bulb moment while working in Mumbai on an asthma project for the Environmental Protection Agency. I visited a gymnasium that had been converted to the children’s asthma ward because the hospital didn’t have enough beds. Seeing the enormity of our failure to transition off fossil fuels in the form of a gymnasium packed with children struggling to breathe—it really hit home that this was our collective failing, and we were making children suffer for it. 

Meister: I stumbled into otolaryngology early in medical school and never looked back. That’s an unusual path, and deciding on a subspecialty was much harder. My fiancé, now husband, commented that I seemed happiest after a long day during my pediatric otolaryngology rotation. He was right, even though I was too tired to see it for myself! I’ve had amazing mentors and sponsors that have shaped my path thus far—some in residency, some in fellowship, and some now peer mentors. It’s important to be a good mentee—ask for specific advice, follow through, and be grateful and honest about opportunities that come from sponsors.

Czechowicz: There were many things that have influenced my decision to join this amazing field. First, my mom is a scientist and has long been my role model – so in part early on I just wanted to follow in her footsteps. As a child, an important member of my family also passed away from a blood cancer, stirring my interest in being a doctor and in this area of medicine. In school, I also had teachers who saw and encouraged my personal love of science, including two inspirational physician-scientist mentors who took me under their wings. Further, as I began working with patients, I became truly inspired by them and saw the unmet needs in medicine which I learned through my remarkable research mentors could be solved with stem cell therapies. As a trainee, I was also fortunate to conduct science experiments that resulted in important discoveries and was encouraged to continue to pursue work in the stem cell transplant area by my mentors. I have further been grateful to have been given the unique opportunities to do this type of incredibly meaningful work that I love at Stanford Children’s Health!

What changes have you seen in your field over the years?

Patel: I wasn’t sure as I chose each step of my career how all of it would fit together until the youth movement on climate change sparked a global awakening about this existential crisis. The youth movement created the moral urgency that connected so many people all over the world almost overnight. I’ve been studying climate change and worried about it for 25 years, but it wasn’t until the last five years that I finally found my place and community, thanks to what they started. I’ve met some of my closest friends and my support network through this work in climate, health, and equity—people who deeply inspire me in ways that are sustaining and give me a lot of hope in times that can feel hopeless.

Meister: I started residency in 2011, fellowship in 2017, and my faculty position in 2018. During that time, physician wellness, especially issues related to being a female surgeon, like fertility and microaggressions, have become part of the conversation. There are grassroots efforts like support networks on social media, professional efforts from our medical societies, and institutional efforts to try to mitigate these challenges. We still have a long way to go in areas such as pay inequity and challenges in academic productivity, but at least these issues are less taboo in the current environment. I am incredibly grateful that Stanford Children’s Health was fully supportive of my breastfeeding journey. Even though it wasn’t totally smooth logistically, we were both able to accomplish our goals of my pumping without a change in productivity. Ten or even five years ago, that would likely not have been possible.

Czechowicz: Whereas things used to be quite rigid in academic medicine with very defined roles/structures, it seems there is now much more flexibility and variation in how people work and in what people do. Individuals can balance clinical medicine and research in different ways depending on their interests and institutional needs. Additionally, with our advancing knowledge of diseases and many more diverse types of treatments there is now much deeper sub-specialization that one can pursue. For example, I have personally started to focus on caring for patients with bone marrow failure syndromes and novel stem-cell based therapies which has allowed me to develop deep expertise in these particular areas that I can then disseminate to patients around the world. Also, in many places there is now increased infrastructure to be able to do truly translational work within academia and that has enabled new therapies to be developed much faster, so we can take discoveries from bench-to-bedside with greater ease – our Stanford Center for Definitive and Curative Medicine was built with this goal in mind.

What advice do you have for women in your field who are at the early stage of their career?

Patel: I joke that being outspoken felt like a liability in the early stages of my career, but now that I’m in leadership positions, it feels like my number one asset. And when I look back at the trajectory, I feel proud that I never backed down from causes worth fighting for. Leadership in advocacy is about courage, vision, and having a clear guiding moral compass. I wouldn’t be where I am had I not continued raising my voice.

Meister: A senior female physician once gave me this advice about being an academic surgeon and questioning if I could have a family: “How dare you! Think of all of the women around the world that have so many fewer resources, so much less support and so much more difficulty. If they are brave enough, you must be too.” That advice may seem harsh, but it resonated with me. The other two truisms I try to remember are “Treat every patient as if they were your family” and “Work until you no longer have to introduce yourself, but don’t forget that a little strategy can go a long way.”

Czechowicz: My advice is to find things to work on that you are truly passionate about, think about how you can make a meaningful difference in the world that you would enjoy, think creatively about where and how you can do that best, surround yourself with great people whom you can learn from and believe will support you, and do not let anyone discourage you from doing things that you love and know that you can do.

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