Q&A with Susan Gurley: “Increasing the diversity of researchers”

Monday, November 2, 2015

Susan Gurley, MD, PhD, associate professor of medicine (nephrology), says her job is the best in the world.

“I get to work with the most talented folks and engage in challenging and important biomedical research. Furthermore, I get to complement my research interests with patient care, using what I have learned in the lab to help patients. Being a scientist definitely makes me a better doctor, and vice versa.”

However, as the mother of two school-age children, she lives the challenge of trying to meet the demands of work and family on a daily basis. Her personal experience informs her involvement as the chair for the Program for Women in Internal Medicine (PWIM).

“Our mission is to enhance the advancement of women by building and maintaining a supportive and equitable work environment that facilitates career advancement and satisfaction among women faculty and trainees,” she said.

Q: Why did you get involved in the Program for Women in Internal Medicine (PWIM)?
A: Mostly because I am a woman in medicine! Also, I am very fortunate to work at an institution where there is terrific leadership by women. Our chair, Mary Klotman, MD, is a tremendous role model to me and others. We also have Dean Nancy Andrews, MD, PhD, leading the School of Medicine and Aimee Zaas, MD, as Internal Medicine Residency program director. Their leadership motivates me to want to help others realize opportunities, and their example suggests that Duke is a place where it can happen.  For example, under the leadership of Vice Dean for Faculty Ann Brown, MD, MHS, the School of Medicine supports career development for all who need assistance with the Faculty Flex Voucher Program.

Q: What is the need in terms of supporting women in medicine? What obstacles do women face?
A: While women make up half (or sometimes more) of students and trainees in medicine, the proportion of women at higher ranks and in leadership roles is still low, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). Societal and cultural practices make women’s professional careers more challenging. Being more likely to have primary responsibility for one’s home and family is a big one. Striving for work-life “balance” can often be the breaking point for career decisions. These challenges can become even more insurmountable in difficult economic times with reduced research funding to sustain careers.

Q: Why is it important to have more women stay in medicine and/or clinical research?
A: Since women enter the medical profession at the same rate as men, the lower rates of women in academic medicine leadership reflects attrition. Failure to maintain a diverse faculty leads to only one segment of our population driving advances in healthcare and education of the next generation of doctors.

Q: What sort of support does PWIM offer to women?
A: We offer many types of support, from PWIM faculty meetings, Peer Mentoring Groups, annual visiting professor program, professional development opportunities here and external (AAMC), and social events. One of our newest endeavors is to co-sponsor a Departmental Book Club for students, housestaff and faculty in which we examine titles particularly relevant for the medical profession. We recently read and discussed “Changing the Culture of Academic Medicine:  Perspectives of Women Faculty” by Linda Pololi.

Q: You are also involved with a different Duke organization that offers support to a younger audience—girls who are interested in math and science. What is FEMMES?
A: FEMMES stands for Females Excelling More in Math, Engineering and Science, and it’s a student-led group that provides opportunities for 4th-6th grade girls in Durham to interact with students and faculty in math, engineering, and science. It’s a great opportunity to give younger girls a view into medicine, science, and research. For many young girls, they might not have exposure to science, much less a woman in science. I have given the keynote talk at their Capstone Event and last year, some nephrology colleagues and I hosted a Kidney lab as part of the Capstone Day.

Q: Tell us a little bit about your research and your lab.
A: I work with mouse models with the goals of identifying basic discoveries that will impact outcomes of patients with hypertension and diabetic kidney disease. These are very prevalent diseases with poor outcomes so new therapeutic approaches will be essential to improve health. I am co-director of the Duke O’Brien Center’s Animal Models Core. I'm also a BioCoRE faculty member and am committed to having a talented and diverse research team. I view my own research team as a place where I can also impact science in a positive way, by increasing the diversity of researchers.