April 3, 2023 | Miranda Le, Jane Moon, MD
A woman’s right to be educated formed the basis of many historical milestones in the women’s rights movement. In honor of Women’s History Month, the UCLA Department of Anesthesiology and Perioperative Medicine (DAPM) held its 2023 Annual Womxn’s Symposium on April 3, 2023. “Womxn” is an intersectional feminist term meant to include all people identifying as women. This year’s event focused on the central roles that women play in education—as both teachers and students in academic medicine, and as members of families and our society at large.
Jennifer Lucero, MD, MA, DAPM Vice Chair for Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI), and Olivia Vallejo, JEDI Administrative Manager, co-hosted the symposium. Judi Turner, MD, PhD, DAPM Vice Chair for Education and Assistant Designated Institutional Officer (DIO) for UCLA Graduate Medical Education, and Mansoureh Eghbali, PhD, Director of the DAPM Physician Scientist Training Program and Director of the Basic Science Training Environment, moderated an insightful discussion.
The panel was composed of many DAPM leaders in education: Betelehem Asnake, MD, Alyssa Borden, CRNA, Ashley Oliver, MD, MA, Brianna Ortbals, CRNA, Lucelva Mendez, Rana Movahedi, MD, Christine Myo Bui, MD, and Sandra Sacks, MD, MEd. The speakers shared advice and encouragement from a diverse array of experiences.
Dr. Turner opened the discussion by asking the panelists, “What excites you about the work you are doing?”
Dr. Sandra Sacks, Co-Associate Program Director of the UCLA Pain Medicine Fellowship, shared her experience building her clinical practice as one of the only cancer pain management specialists at UCLA. Although pain medicine can be an isolating field, being an educator has allowed Dr. Sacks to collaborate with many other physicians whom she might not have otherwise met.
After becoming a nurse anesthetist, Ms. Alyssa Borden has also pursued new experiences such as teaching medicine to women in Honduras. Although being an educator is still a new role for her, Ms. Borden has been “excited to take on these opportunities and help people save lives.”
Dr. Turner continued with a quote from Malala Youdafzai, Pakistani female education activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate: “The content of a book holds the power of education, and it is with this power that we can shape our future and change lives.” Dr. Turner then asked the speakers, “How have you been inspired in your work in education, and how have you tried to inspire others?”
Dr. Ashley Oliver, cardiothoracic anesthesiology fellow physician, shared that her inspiration came from her own family history. Her grandmother was denied the right to attend college, and this painful experience had led her to instill in her family the value of education. Dr. Oliver proudly carries on her grandmother’s legacy. “One of the ways we can best support each other is to build robust learning communities and pave the way for others to learn,” she said.
Dr. Beti Asnake, DAPM Director of Global Health Initiatives, was inspired by her father, who went from working as a shepherd in rural Ethiopia to holding a government job in tourism. Having grown up in a community where education was not a luxury but a necessity, Dr. Asnake expressed that she is “blessed to be able to teach people who may be in a similar situation.” For example, she recently met a PGY-1 resident who had been inspired as a medical student to pursue anesthesiology after seeing Dr. Asnake on Instagram share her journey as a young Black woman anesthesiologist.
Dr. Mansoureh Eghbali followed with a quote from Michelle Obama: “No country can ever truly flourish if it stifles the potential of its women and deprives itself of the contributions of half of its citizens.” She stated that despite the proliferation of women in medicine in recent decades, there is still a need for more women in leadership positions.
Dr. Rana Movahedi, Director of the UCLA Regional Anesthesiology Fellowship Program, emphasized the importance of women stepping up as mentors to support other women.
Dr. Christine Myo Bui, Associate Director of the DAPM Residency Program, was inspired to become a leader in education by her own mother, who practiced medicine herself. She said, “You walk the path that you walk by being a woman and watching other strong women.”
Similarly, Ms. Brianna Ortbals, nurse anesthetist, shared that she was also raised by a woman who pushed her outside of her comfort zone, allowing her to build confidence over time. As an educator, Ms. Ortbals has advised her mentees to sign up, participate, and take on leadership roles as they arise. She encouraged the audience to “give back to those who are trying to get where you are.”
Dr. Eghbali then asked, “If a peer came to you and said they are inspired to become a leader in education like you, what advice would you give?”
Lucelva Mendez, Residency Program Manager, recounted the time when she was not given a job for which she thought she had the perfect qualifications. But instead of giving up, Ms. Mendez made a conscious decision to learn from the setback. Such experiences enabled her to teach her resident physicians the perspective that “it’s not a failure but a point to grow from.”
Dr. Turner then delivered a quote from Jennifer Doudna, Nobel Prize laureate and pioneer in CRISPR gene editing: “I think that for a lot of women there's a subtle but unfortunately effective discouragement of women pursuing the STEM fields.” She then asked, “Have you ever felt that expectations of you were different or reduced because of attributes unrelated to your abilities?”
Dr. Myo Bui described her struggles growing up alongside her twin brother, who also went into medicine. Throughout her training, her family members would ask about her brother’s career aspirations, but not about hers. She recounted people making dismissive comments, assuming that she “wasn’t going to take call overnight.” Encountering this negativity taught Dr. Myo Bui to believe in herself and have conviction in her dreams.
“The gender and minority pay gap in academic medicine continues, including in anesthesiology,” Dr. Eghbali continued. “What advice do you have for women who want to advocate for themselves more effectively?”
Dr. Asnake and Ms. Mendez shared a similar sentiment that it is okay to ask for help. Ms. Mendez explained that reaching out to other women in our department made a big difference for her. She encouraged the audience to utilize available resources. “At the end of the day, they are just opening doors for you, but you are the one working for it,” she said. Dr. Asnake added, “We need to talk about it more openly and be comfortable asking for these things transparently.”
Dr. Eghbali concluded the panel with a final quote from Joyce Banda, former President of Malawi: “The seeds of success in every nation on Earth are best planted in women and children.” Dr. Eghbali then asked, “In what ways do you believe your contributions as a woman educator can change the world?”
Dr. Asnake cited the breastfeeding policy at UCLA as one way that she was able to question a norm. In Ethiopia, working mothers often breastfeed for only three months before having to return to work. So her Ethiopian colleagues were very surprised to learn about UCLA’s policy that gives protected time and space for mothers to express milk at work.
Dr. Asnake emphasized the importance of introducing people to fresh perspectives that might lead to better conditions for women. “As women in leadership positions, we bring to the table the things that matter to us, and that affects everyone else, our children, our patients,” she said.
Dr. Lucero concluded the symposium, thanking the panelists for being vulnerable, and upholding women as role models in education. “Having you all as leaders inspires us to do something different,” she said.
The 2023 DAPM Annual Womxn’s Symposium celebrated the achievements of our women leaders and provided an inspiring glimpse into a better future. In sharing their personal journeys, the panelists highlighted the importance of teachers and mentors in cultivating success and building community. Although there is still work to be done, this year’s symposium proved that powerful women educators are carrying the torch forward for all women in medicine.