“How did you do it all?” That is the most common question I am asked. And I give the usual answers of being efficient, needing less sleep than most, and having lots of help.
But truly, there is more to it than that.
When I was given a most unusual assignment as a visiting professor to talk about some research topic with some “women in medicine” stuff thrown in. So I looked at my research career in a new way. I started to see themes that would have relevance to how women in medicine can do meaningful research using their special gifts, their own ways of working and strategies that could be capitalized on. Here are three examples of what I mean. (Shouldn’t give away the whole lecture in one short blog post, now, should I?)
Three months after starting to work as an academic pediatric otolaryngologist, I was faced with a parent who asked a very legitimate question. I recommended a tonsillectomy for her child due to airway obstruction. ” But Dr. Brodsky, my child has never had a sore throat. Why are her tonsils so big?” And I had no answer for this mother because I did not know. And as it turns out, neither did anyone else.
Lesson # 1. Look to your patients who have seemingly simple questions for a rich source of material to study. Combine common clinical problems with sophisticated research questions. Make it easy on yourself. The more your learn the “sexier” the research will become.
So I thought about why these tonsils got big. I started by looking at the bacteria and viruses that might cause problems that weren’t recognized. So I went to some of the infectious disease people and teamed up with them. They needed mucous that I was suctioning from the middle ear for some funded research they were doing, and I wanted quantitative core cultures of the tonsils.
Lesson #2. Give help to get help. As it turned out, I then became a co-investigator on the next (very large) otitis media grant and have collaborated with these wonderful colleagues for 30 years, as we embark on another study of the tonsils.
The lack of knowledge of the clinical behavior of the tonsils (and adenoids–sister organs, also much ignored and major players in sinuses and ear problems) was almost as serious as the lack of consensus about their removal–from the techniques to pre-operative evaluation to post-operative recovery.
Lesson #3. Multi-task whenever possible. The same patients, operation, literature reviews, IRB approvals, and all the other infra-structure that has to be set up can be used all at once, and again and again.
So to wrap this up–women physicians tend to be good listeners. We work well on teams. And we can do several things well at once, concentrating on each one at a time. And now you know a few of my secrets as to how I was able to become a successful researcher.