Women in Medicine

The Academic Women's Network is celebrating its 10th year of professional contribution to Washington University School of Medicine



Linda J. Pike, PhD, AWN publications committee chair, displays some of AWN's popular resources on women's issues.

"AWN is an organization that is very easy to work with because everyone is pulling in the same direction. We come to this group with a consensus that lets us move forward."


A CAREER IN MEDICINE brings a host of competing demands on one’s time—teaching and mentoring students and trainees, treating patients, conducting and overseeing research, securing grants, serving on administrative committees, reviewing the scientific literature, traveling to conferences. Factor in any personal responsibilities, such as child or elder care, and extracurricular activities, and it might seem that there are not enough hours in a day to take on a single additional commitment.

Women faculty at Washington University School of Medicine did accept additional challenges, beginning in 1991, when a small group formed the Academic Women’s Network (AWN). The group’s main goals are to support the recruitment and academic advancement of women faculty at Washington University School of Medicine and to provide mentorship and support to junior faculty and trainees in the pursuit of their goals.

Now AWN is preparing to celebrate 10 years of achievement. On Saturday, November 17, AWN members will set up and oversee a series of hands-on activities at the St. Louis Science Center. A symposium featuring talks by four women faculty will be held on Friday, November 30, followed by a gala dinner/dance featuring prominent School of Medicine women from over the years. A historical display and video will document the accomplishments of some of the school’s pioneering women.

The Academic Women’s Network came about at the grassroots level. Six women faculty met in September 1990 to discuss how best to achieve academic advancement. With only a handful of senior women as role models, they discussed the need to promote interactions among women faculty in every department to combat a sense of isolation. As mothers of young children, they also discussed the challenge of making their work and family lives compatible. From these discussions, the idea for a more organized network of "women helping women" arose.

"About 30 women showed up at the group’s first meeting—a significant turnout given the total number of women faculty at the time," says Linda J. Pike, PhD, associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biophysics and AWN’s publications committee chair and de facto historian. Rosalind H. Kornfeld, PhD, professor of biochemistry and molecular biophysics and of medicine, was elected president. Over the next months, the organizing committee drafted a constitution and assembled a board of directors.

"We weren’t sure how well the organization would be embraced," says Kornfeld. "I was afraid that it might be a flash in the pan. But it took off well. We were all very busy people, so it required dedication. But I believe it was beneficial to everyone who joined."

From the beginning, AWN made it a priority to work with the administration on issues of concern, which have included maternity leave, gender pay equity and the composition of search committees. At the time AWN was founded, Pike says, there were no female heads of departments at the School of Medicine. The department chair search committees were composed entirely of department heads and senior faculty, all of whom were men. AWN brought the matter to the attention of William A. Peck, executive vice chancellor for medical affairs and dean of the School of Medicine, and he responded by opening the chair search committees to women.

In 1997, Peck established the Office of Faculty Affairs as a result of the Task Force on the Status of Women, an AWN initiative. Peck sees AWN as a valued participant in the School of Medicine’s efforts to move ahead on issues of importance to women faculty.

"Washington University School of Medicine has made significant progress thanks to the Academic Women’s Network and its great leadership," says Peck. "We need to accomplish much more, however, and I look forward to working with AWN in the future."

AWN also sponsors programs that contribute to the quality of academic life. Its brown bag lunch series addresses topics as diverse as career issues, communication skills and juggling family responsibilities. Under the heading "Contemporary Women’s Health Issues," AWN’s continuing medical education program is the medical school’s most popular, based on enrollment, Pike says.

In an effort largely spearheaded by Joan C. Downey, MPH, MD, assistant professor of pediatrics, AWN successfully advocated increased quality child care at the medical school, and published its first Parenting Resource Handbook in 1993. It included information on outside child care facilities, child care workers, schools and local family resources.

The handbook was so successful that Human Resources now provides support and aids in its distribution to both the medical and Hilltop campuses. In its latest revision, the handbook was expanded to include resources on elder care and is now titled the Family Resource Handbook.

AWN also presents awards every spring. The Mentor Award recognizes an individual who has served as an outstanding mentor to a female Washington University faculty member or trainee. The Leadership Award is given to one woman each in the graduating classes of the MD and PhD programs who has demonstrated outstanding leadership in service to, or advancement of, women within the community.

Karen L. O’Malley, PhD, professor of anatomy and neurobiology, is the current president of AWN, elected in July. O’Malley believes that AWN plays a role in attracting and retaining women faculty.

She also sees the value of women working together.

"Organized efforts are the most visible, effective way to orchestrate change," O’Malley says. "Frankly, none of us has time to fight individual battles. We need each other."

Pike agrees with that assessment.

"AWN is an organization that is very easy to work with because everyone is pulling in the same direction," she says. "We come to this group with a consensus, and that lets us move forward."
Current goals include increasing the group’s visibility, strengthening efforts to mentor graduate students and fellows, and advocating for the recruitment and promotion of women into the higher ranks of the faculty.

AWN is going strong at the 10-year mark, thanks to the hard work of many academic women who carved out time from their busy schedules to effect change. According to Pike, "the 10-year celebration is a testament to the determination of the women involved to promote the status of women and make things better for those who come after us."

For more information

please visit the AWN web site: http://pathbox.wustl.edu/~awn/

or contact Linda Pike at (314) 362-9502.


Karen L. O'Malley, PhD,
AWN president



In addition to conducting scientific research on dopaminergic systems and Parkinson’s disease, Karen L. O’Malley, PhD, professor of anatomy and neurobiology, is now doing historical research for the Academic Women’s Network (AWN).

O’Malley, newly elected president of AWN, is overseeing the production of a two-part retrospective on women faculty at Washington University School of Medicine that will be a major component of the organization’s 10th anniversary celebration. She is working on the project with Paul Anderson, director of the medical school archives, and Mabel L. Purkerson, MD, professor emerita of medicine and assistant professor of pediatrics.

The first part of the retrospective is a traveling documentary display of text and photos that highlights the teaching and research of 16 women who were central figures at the School of Medicine.

The illustrious group includes two Nobel Prize-winners, Gerty T. Cori and Rita Levi-Montalcini; accomplished lecturer Mildred Trotter, a faculty member for 42 years; Jessie L. Ternberg, the first female surgeon on the faculty and the first female division chief of pediatric surgery; and Margaret Smith, best-known for isolating the St. Louis encephalitis virus.

William A. Peck, MD, executive vice chancellor for medical affairs and dean of the School of Medicine, is co-sponsoring the second part of the history project, a video narrative featuring former women faculty members and their contemporaries.

"Many prospective faculty are going to ask: ‘Am I going to be the lone woman in this department? Are there going to be other support systems, other mentors?’ The hope is that we can use the video for student and faculty recruitment and documentation," O’Malley says.


Helen E. Nash, MD


BEATING the Odds

As a female African-American breaking into the medical profession in the mid-1940s, Helen E. Nash, MD, professor emerita in pediatrics, faced a "double whammy" of prejudice. But she never let that deter her from her goals.

"I did it despite the opposition and enjoyed the whole thing," says Nash, who recently celebrated her 80th birthday.

Some of the opposition she encountered was at home. Her physician father didn’t think that Nash, at less than 100 pounds, had the physical stamina to withstand the rigors of attending medical school.

Her maternal grandfather, a realtor, felt differently, and urged her mother to "sell a house" to finance her education. Her mother did so, and off Nash went, though her father still disapproved. He felt differently when she returned home to Atlanta, Georgia, after the first term—as an honor roll student.

"When I came home that first quarter, and I had not failed and had not died, my father was very happy," recalls Nash. "He gave me a stethoscope."

Nash graduated from Meharry Medical College in 1945. After residency training, she accepted a staff position at Homer G. Phillips Hospital in St. Louis. Her early experiences were marred by the same rigid segregation that affected all aspects of American life at the time. Each week, Nash and her colleagues took the streetcar to St. Louis Children’s Hospital to attend Friday morning conferences; however, they weren’t allowed to touch patients or to do ward rounds with the other young doctors, all white.

Nash is best known for her work as an advocate for children. By visiting "preemie" units in other hospitals around the country, she was able to develop a designated ward for premature infants (the first in St. Louis) that was cleaner and included air conditioning and individual bassinets, as well as to provide improved training for nursing staff.

"People don’t understand that children have special needs that have to be fulfilled with care," says Nash, a concern that is as relevant today as it was 50 years ago. "But that’s another story."


Linda M. Mundy, MD


NAVIGATING the Funding Labyrinth

In the world of medical care and research, $2.9 million only goes
so far.

By 1998, the $2.9 million that was awarded to Victoria Fraser, MD, associate professor of medicine, to start up what is now Washington University’s Helena Hatch Special Care Center for Women, was running out. The five-year, non-renewable federal grant was one of 27 awarded nationwide to identify underserved people with HIV.

"During those five years, a lot of good things happened," says Linda M. Mundy, MD, assistant professor of medicine and medical director of the center. "First, we showed that we could provide access to care and keep women in care. Second, vertical transmission of HIV from the infected pregnant woman to child has been about 1 percent overall—astoundingly low."

Despite its successes, finding additional monies proved challenging. The Academic Women’s Network (AWN) became an advocate for the Center’s continuation. Working with senior administration and through the Washington University Physician’s Network, AWN was able to secure three years of fiscal support for program development.

Says Mundy: "AWN was willing to say, ‘You do something that’s important, just like women faculty are important. Just as we need advocacy for women faculty, the Helena Hatch Special Care Center needs advocacy—we can be the group that provides it.’"


Barbara S. Monsees, MD


PROVIDING Clinical Care

Barbara S. Monsees, MD, and her colleagues are on a mission: to provide accessible, high-quality breast imaging services to women and to make the experience as pleasant and efficient as possible.

As chief of Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology’s breast imaging section and head of breast imaging at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, Monsees oversees an effort that includes the imaging side of the Breast Health Center on the north campus of Barnes-Jewish Hospital, satellite imaging facilities on the hospital’s south campus and at the BJC Medical Group in Sunset Hills, and a mammography van.

The breast imaging section’s five physicians, all women, along with 13 BJH technologists and numerous additional staff, perform, process and interpret 46,000 breast exams each year. According to Monsees, professor of radiology, the majority of these are routine screening mammograms. The group provides a full range of other breast imaging services, including minimally invasive imaging-
guided biopsies. Its clinicians work closely with other physicians, usually surgeons, to offer patients complete breast health care.

Monsees’ choice of medicine as a profession was made at a time when female physicians were still uncommon. Just 10 percent of her classmates were women when she earned her medical degree at Washington University in 1975, and there were few female faculty to whom she could look for guidance.

"Things have changed during my career," says Monsees, noting that today the ratio of male to female students is about 50/50. "But when today’s women students look above them, there is still an under-representation of women at higher ranks in the medical school. Hopefully, it’s just a matter of time before that changes."


Helen M. Piwnica-Worms, PhD


TRAINING Future Scientists

Helen M. Piwnica-Worms, PhD, professor of cell biology and physiology, Howard Hughes Investigator and leader of the Siteman Cancer Center’s cellular proliferation program, is a basic scientist. Her research focuses on regulation of the human cell division cycle and how perturbation in its control contributes to human cancer.
But as head of a research lab, one of Piwnica-Worms’ most important jobs is serving as a mentor. Students in her lab—PhD, MD, MD/PhD, postdoctoral research fellows and clinical fellows who want research experience—learn to ask scientific questions and to design experiments to address those questions.

Piwnica-Worms enjoys the give-and-take of the mentoring relationship. "As students mature, they begin to counter my suggestions with better ones," she says. "The best students turn into colleagues."

The first female full professor in her department, Piwnica-Worms grew up with a love of math and science. She never believed that gender would hinder her career choice.

Even so, she acknowledges that there are still very few women in the basic science departments, here and at other universities. This despite the fact that more than one-half of the trainees in the field are women and have been for many years.

Women who have earned their PhDs and go on to postdoctoral training often leave academia, she says, exploring other avenues in which they can better balance family and career.

Piwnica-Worms believes that choosing what you are passionate about and following that dream is critical to both success and happiness.

"If you do good work, you’re valued as a colleague. If you are answering exciting problems, people want to interact with you."