A rarefied world atop academia



On Monday's Science & Technology page, an academic honor for Dr. Etta Pisano was incorrectly listed. She was named to the Institute of Medicine, not the National Academy of Sciences.


In her two decades at UNC-Chapel Hill, Dr. Etta Pisano gained international fame for advancing digital mammography technology and playing among the university's big dogs in reaping million-dollar research grants.

Now Pisano is leaving to become dean of the Medical University of South Carolina's College of Medicine in Charleston. It's a big blow to UNC-CH, but it's also a step in the oddly slow pace of equality for women in science.

In taking the dean job, Pisano joins a rarefied sorority of women who head medical schools - a list with just over a dozen names, including Dr. Nancy Andrews at Duke.

And that raises questions about why so few women are at the top, and what they have to do, and sacrifice, to get there. In Pisano's case, she made sure early in her career to dedicate a portion of her workweek to caring for her family. And she credits them with supporting her ambition.

But she insists there shouldn't have to be a trade-off, and among her other successes at UNC-CH, she has worked to improve the climate for other women in academia.

Pisano has cast a big shadow in the university's community. She leaves as vice dean for academic affairs in the medical school; Kenan Professor of radiology; director of the Biomedical Research Imaging Center; and director of the N.C. Translational and Clinical Studies Institute, an organization that helps to speed up research.

She says she had hoped to move up the chain at UNC-CH, but the opportunity had not presented itself.

"It was an extremely difficult decision for me, but I don't want to wait for a job that I am ready to do now," Pisano said. "I have talents in the administrative domain, and I like doing it, and I feel it is important for women to step up and be leaders."

A reputation as a leader

Pisano is already a leader with international renown in the breast imaging field. She led one of the largest investigations of breast cancer screening ever conducted, demonstrating the advantages of digital mammography in the detection of breast cancers in younger women. Earlier this year, her breakthroughs in the field landed her entry in the National Academy of Sciences, a hall of fame of sorts for the nation's top researchers.

But Pisano says she most wants to be remembered for her advocacy efforts to improve the academic climate for women.

When she arrived on campus in 1989, she was eight months pregnant and was told she would have to use her few vacation and sick days to stay home after the baby was born. She demanded more and was given a paid maternity leave. Today there is a separate family leave policy to cover UNC-CH faculty members.

"You have to stand up for yourself along the way, you have to believe that you are worthy of whatever it is you are asking for, and you have to be willing to ask for it," said Pisano. "We have gotten these credentials, we have competed with men to get to this point and if we need something to help us succeed, we should ask for it."

One problem faced by many young women scientists is that the tenure clock and the biological clock run on the same time zone, meaning they are up for their tenure promotion at the same time they are considering having children.

As chairwoman of the university's Committee on the Status of Women from 2003 to 2005, Pisano helped introduce a "stop the clock" provision that allows the tenure clock to be extended for women - as well as men - in response to any family event, whether it be a birth, adoption or the care of an elderly parent.

"In addition to everything else, I think just having diverse people in leadership positions is an important thing for an organization to do," said Pisano. "Because let's face it, the life story of a woman is different from the life story of a man because she does have to bear the child and to take care of the child, at least in its earliest infancy. So those are things that bring a different perspective to leadership, and it is important to have that view."

Learning to prioritize

Lisa Carey, medical director of the UNC Breast Center, met Pisano when Carey was interviewing for a faculty position. She said even before she had agreed to come to Chapel Hill, Pisano was already advising her how to prioritize her time in order to successfully juggle the demands of motherhood and academic life.

"Etta has shown me you can do many things successfully," said Carey, a mother of three. "I remember when I got here I was amazed with how many other things she was involved with: the PTA, political initiatives. She is just the kind of person who jumps in with both feet."

Andrews, who made headlines when she became dean of the Duke School of Medicine a couple of years ago, said she recognizes that obstacles exist but also believes that success is possible for those who excel.

"The way I got noticed wasn't for being aggressive but rather for being very responsible, for doing my homework, and for contributing heavily to everything I did," Andrews said. "You could say that perhaps I did it by working harder, but for me I was never comfortable to try to be somebody that I wasn't."

The issue isn't simply that women are averse to entering scientific fields. According to data from the National Science Foundation, women are earning over half of the Ph.D.s in biological sciences. But then they start dropping out of the pipeline, with only a quarter of tenured and tenure-track positions being held by women.

A recent report by the American Association of University Women found subtle yet damaging stereotypes and gender biases in science and engineering departments, creating the main hurdles to women's success in academic medicine. The report reviewed a number of studies on the topic, which showed that women's contributions continue to be systematically undervalued in comparison to men's.

Pisano has worked to eliminate such issues at UNC-CH, where she led a task force that found and corrected a number of gender-based salary inequities in the School of Medicine. In her role as vice dean, she has helped to recruit a more diverse pool of leaders - 14 women and minorities in 26 senior positions - to the medical school.

A supportive family

For all of her efforts, some of her fellow researchers have come to refer to Pisano as superwoman, but Carey has mixed feelings about that choice of moniker.

"It makes it sound like these are things that nobody else can do, when really everybody should be able to have a life and an excellent career," Carey said.

Pisano says her success is due in large part to a supportive family. She has a teenage daughter at home who will transfer to a new school, and her husband, a retinal surgeon, will join the MUSC Department of Ophthalmology faculty. Her other daughter is an associate editor at Men's Health magazine, and both her sons are in school at UNC-CH.

"People are always saying what a great role model I am, but I am telling my sons to look at their father and what a great role model he is being," Pisano said. "He is doing a very, very hard thing to follow his wife, giving up his life here for my dream and my job.... And perhaps that is what it will take - a generational shift where young men are raised to look at their wives' careers as equally important to theirs."