This past year, we’ve made several important additions to our strong and diverse Executive Team. As a whole, they are committed to serving patients, oncologists, and researchers, while fostering a workplace that is inclusive, values mentorship, and encourages employees to learn, grow, and excel.
Our Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Mia Levy, is someone I’ve admired professionally for quite some time. She’s a brilliant physician, highly sought-after bioinformatics expert, and a truly inspirational leader.
As we wrap up Women’s History Month, I sat down with Mia to talk about her career, experience as a woman in science and medicine, and thoughts on the importance of mentorship.
Women make up only about 28% of the workforce in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). What advice would you give to women who aspire to have careers in science and technology?
There are so many opportunities in this field for everyone. Some women get discouraged from pursuing this path as early as high school, but we really need to inspire and encourage young girls at that age to explore STEM paths. I’m the mother of two daughters and both my husband and I are physicians and scientists. We do our best to try and instill confidence in how they approach their coursework and help them through any challenges they may have because we believe that interest in, and excitement for this field can start very young.
Beyond that, there’s just so much inspiration in this career path. There’s the typical stereotype of women being nurturing, but I feel that medicine and science are also very natural for women. There’s a sense of purpose and a sense of giving back to something greater than yourself. And despite the challenges and the rigor of the scientific content that you need to master, I find it to be a very welcoming community. I was actually a part of one of the first medical school classes that had an even split between men and women, and that was very intentional. I think a lot of movement has been made over the years to change this disproportionate dynamic.
What barriers, if any, did you face as a woman in medicine and science - a primarily male dominated field?
I remember two things distinctly.
I did an undergraduate degree in biomedical engineering, and I originally thought that I was going to go into prosthesis development and orthopedic surgery. During my first course in gross anatomy in medical school, I shared this with my instructor. He looked at my 5-foot-3 stature and said, “you might want to start working out,” given the intense physical component of this specialty. Orthopedic surgeons are generally really buff guys. So, I started to work out and I really took it seriously. But further into medical school, I realized I had this love for the intellectual components of internal medicine and became an oncologist, which was a very good fit for me.
Another experience I had after medical school was when I went back to get my bioinformatics PhD while I was doing my internal medicine residency at Stanford. My first class was a computer engineering 101 intensive summer school course to refresh my computer science skills. My first week of the class overlapped with my rotation in the cardiac critical care unit. So, I ran over to this class for an hour, with my white coat on, scrubs, pager and stethoscope only to find a class filled with 17-year-old boys who were doing summer school at Stanford as high school students. The entire curriculum was geared around that population. Our first assignment was to program the game Boggle. The science curriculum felt a bit gamified towards this population, which I completely understood, but as a 28-year-old woman, I didn’t find it quite as relevant.
Sometimes I think science plays to the common denominator, and we need to think about our curriculum for a broader audience.
Foundation Medicine has strong female representation on our executive team, and an internal network (UPLIFT) to empower women with resources and opportunities to achieve success on their own terms. Being relatively new to Foundation Medicine, what excites you about our commitment to inclusivity and mentorship?
Foundation Medicine is really setting an example in this way, and that has a lot to do with its leadership, so thank you, Brian, for being intentional about it. We are deliberately providing opportunities for people with different backgrounds and different genders, to be in leadership positions, but also mentoring those within our organization to be able to take on leadership roles in the future. We do that through mentorship programs and also through leading by example. As a leadership team, we really want share our experiences, get to know our team members and their aspirations, and encourage them to think about the steps in their careers.
It’s such an honor, at this level in my career, to help my team be the best that they can be. My goal is to eliminate barriers they may be facing and help them rise up.
Is there a woman in medicine and/or science that inspires you and why? Can you tell us about impactful female mentors you’ve had throughout your career?
The person who stands out most in my mind is my former Cancer Center Director, Jennifer Pietenpol at Vanderbilt University Cancer Center. I was really so fortunate to be able to watch her leadership style – seeing how she prepared for big meetings and witnessing the mentorship she gave to everyone in the organization. She did this so we could all come together in a unified way to deliver a cohesive message about the impact we were having.
She really mentored me personally and professionally. She’s a top tier scientist with her own lab, and we have kids the same age who went to school together. Just seeing another mother who is making it all work gives us all inspiration.
What do you like most about being on such a diverse executive team, and how do you feel the impact of this?
Certainly, there’s the component of different perspectives. If we’re all the same, we’re likely to be an echo-chamber. Instead, as an Executive team, we have diversity of experience, of cultural contexts, and even of geography that leads to richer dialogue and more thoughtful solutions. We’re all over the country as an Executive Team, but we’re coming together in a very unique way to nurture this culture we have while delivering on our mission to transform cancer care.