Wanted: Smart Young Women For Male-Dominated Medical Fields

By Robin Erb
Detroit Free Press.

The minute she slipped on the scrubs and stepped into the hospital corridor, Imani Page was hooked.

“I put these on and I’m thinking ‘Right. This is what I want to do,’ ” the Birmingham Groves High School senior said Saturday, her voice raised over the pounding of hammers and the shriek of drills. Behind her, a rod was being pounded into a fake femur, the pale pink marrow spitting out the end of the bone and across the slick surface of the lab table.

Here in the Beaumont Hospital surgical learning institute, surgeons, researchers and engineers faced one of their most daunting challenges in medicine on Saturday: Persuading smart, young women to follow them into fields long dominated by men.

“We think it’s an issue of exposure,” said Jenni Buckley, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of Delaware, as well as executive director of the California-based Perry Initiative, which coordinated Saturday’s workshop at the Beaumont facility.

The nonprofit Perry effort began with a small workshop in 2009, but it now coordinates about 40 workshops around the U.S. each year to inspire women to consider fields they may not even know about, Buckley said.

A diverse workforce will benefit patients in coming years, she said.

“We know that women are performing very highly in high school and in college in sciences, engineering and math, but they’re not choosing to go into the fields that most need them,” Buckley said.

Several of the girls Saturday said their female friends think of medicine in terms of nursing — a critical and admirable field in patient care, yes. But limiting medicine to the bedside ignores other possibilities, such as designing or creating medical equipment or, as was the case Saturday, repairing ripped tendons and shattered bones and designing replacement parts.

The metro Detroit effort was sparked by Beaumont’s Dr. Rachel Rohde. She’s an orthopedic surgeon — a field in which only 1 in 20 are women, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.

This year, Rohde was joined by 10 engineers — all women in another field dominated by men — from Kalamazoo-based Stryker, known for its medical equipment.

Growing up in Michigan, Renee Chabon, 23, had thought of engineering only in terms of the auto industry. Today, the Stryker engineer from Kalamazoo helps designs cots for emergency squads.

“We’re trying to say here ‘Look, even if gears and drivetrains and axles don’t get you excited, maybe this does,’ ” Chabon said.

It seemed to have worked.

Some of the workshop participants had never picked up a power tool. By the end of the day, the goggles-clad teens were wielding DeWalts with confidence as they screwed plastic pieces into knee bones.

It was a fun day for Macy Jackson, 16, a junior at Troy Athens High School. She was particularly interested in the workshop on the knees. Jackson, who plays soccer, has twice suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

Jackson has wanted to pursue a career in prosthetics, she said. This workshop reinforced that.

“I think that it’s really hard for teenagers to envision what they might do the rest of their lives,” she said. “Today — it all felt real.”

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