How Columbia Women Are Changing Medicine
During March, Women’s History Month, Columbia University Irving Medical Center is sharing the stories of some of the many women who are spearheading innovation through research, patient care, and education.
Pioneer in the Field of Narrative Medicine: Rita Charon, MD, PhD
Humans understand the world through stories, and few fields generate stories as rich and poignant as medicine. Rita Charon, professor of medicine and chair of the Department of Medical Humanities & Ethics, helps doctors and their patients understand their stories of illness and treatment to transform the way they give and receive medical care.
Charon received her medical degree from Harvard Medical School in 1978 and a PhD in English from Columbia in 1999, concentrating on the works of Henry James. She then founded the first Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia in 2000. Her research focuses on doctor-patient relationships, narrative skill in medicine, and reflective practice.
Her work to emphasize the humanities in medicine has garnered numerous awards and honors. She has received a Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio residency, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and research funding from the NIH, the NEH, and several private foundations. She has lectured or served as visiting professor at many medical schools and universities in the United States and abroad, teaching narrative medicine theory and practice. Her work has appeared in medical and literary journals, including the New England Journal of Medicine, the Lancet, JAMA, Henry James Review, and Literature and Medicine.
She is the author of “Narrative Medicine: Honoring the Stories of Illness,” co-author of “The Principles and Practice of Narrative Medicine,” and co-editor of “Stories Matter: The Role of Narrative in Medical Ethics.”
Charon is the director of the Virginia Apgar Academy of Medical Educators at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. Members of the academy are dedicated to promoting, rewarding, and supporting outstanding education for the college’s medical students, residents, fellows, and faculty.
Developing Faculty in Academic Medicine: Anne Taylor, MD
A Brooklyn native, Anne Taylor received her bachelor's degree from Hofstra University and studied cello at the Manhattan School of Music before going to the University of Chicago for medical school, an internal medicine residency, and a clinical cardiology fellowship, followed by cardiovascular research training at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Iowa.
After academic appointments at several institutions, including the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Case Western Reserve University, and the University of Minnesota, Taylor returned to New York in 2007 as vice dean for academic affairs and the John Lindenbaum Professor of Medicine at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons (VP&S). In 2014, she was appointed senior vice president for faculty affairs and career development for Columbia University Irving Medical Center.
Throughout her career, Taylor has championed diversity and professional development for faculty in medicine. She co-authored a book on faculty mentoring, published in 2009, and co-directed a National Institutes of Health/National Medical Association mentoring program for minority house staff interested in academic medicine.
Her interest in faculty development and diversity has been driven in large part by the recognition of the importance of the mentoring she received early in her academic career.
In her administrative role, Taylor has headed several major initiatives, including the reorganization of faculty academic tracks, professional development to support faculty careers, appointment/promotion processes, and the creation of the Virginia Kneeland Frantz Society for Women Faculty.
Taylor’s research has focused on cardiovascular disease in women and underrepresented minorities and how well women in different ethnic and racial groups understand their risk for cardiovascular disease. She chaired the African American Heart Failure Clinical Trial.
Excellence in Diabetes Research, Patient Care: Robin Goland, MD
Driven largely by the global obesity pandemic, diabetes rates have skyrocketed throughout the industrialized world in recent decades. During much of that time, Robin Goland, the J. Merrill Eastman Professor of Diabetes (in Medicine, Pediatrics and the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center), has been at the forefront of diabetes treatment. Goland was instrumental in establishing the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center at the university's medical campus in 1998. The center, where she is co-director, has since been recognized nationally and internationally for excellence and innovation in patient care and research in diabetes.
Goland received her bachelor's degree from Harvard University and her medical degree from Columbia. She spent her residency and served as chief medical resident at NewYork-Presbyterian and trained in endocrinology research at Columbia as well. In addition to seeing patients, Goland has helped advance the field of diabetes science, publishing over 50 research and clinical papers in peer-reviewed journals.
Pioneering Research Into the Science of Sight: Carol Mason, PhD
During embryonic development, nerve cells extend roots from the retina, in the back of the eye, into the brain to form the connections essential for vision. Carol Mason, principal investigator at Columbia's Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute, studies how this critical process works—and how we might fix it when it goes wrong. Using techniques that have ranged from hand-drawing images of neurons under the microscope to cutting-edge genetic analysis, Mason has pioneered research into the science of sight.
In addition to her laboratory work, Mason has been a leader of and mentor to trainees and peer faculty in her field, both within Columbia and internationally. She has served as president of the Society for Neuroscience and has co-directed the Doctoral Program in Neurobiology and Behavior and the vision sciences training program at Columbia. She is also the Zuckerman Institute chair of interschool planning, where she fosters faculty recruitment and collaboration across Columbia's campuses.
Mason joined Columbia in 1987. In addition to her position at the Zuckerman Institute, she holds professorships in pathology & cell biology, neuroscience, and ophthalmology at Columbia. She has been elected to membership in the National Academy of Medicine and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, is a Simons Foundation Senior Fellow, and received the Champalimaud Vision Award from the António Champalimaud Foundation. In 2018, she was elected to membership in the National Academy of Sciences in recognition of her extraordinary body of work.
Blazing a Trail in Neurosurgery: Grace Mandigo, MD, FAANS
What's harder than brain surgery? Fixing the gender disparity among brain surgeons. Many women express interest and potential in neurosurgery during medical school but then choose other specialties after graduation, representing an immense loss of potential talent from the field. Grace Mandigo defied the odds. After graduating magna cum laude from Yale University, she earned her MD from Columbia, then stayed at the university's Neurological Institute for her neurological surgery internship, residency, and chief residency.
Mandigo is now an assistant professor of neurological surgery. Her practice is devoted to the treatment of cerebrovascular disease, including carotid stenosis, vascular malformations, intracranial aneurysms, and acute stroke. She is the only female attending neurosurgeon at Columbia and only the fourth woman to graduate from the university's neurosurgical residency program — but she and the university are working to change that.
With so few female role models in neurosurgery, Mandigo was forced to blaze her own trail. The Columbia faculty supported her career by providing the flexibility that allowed her to have three children after residency. Mandigo, now a role model herself, helps mentor other women considering careers in her field.
Understanding How Alzheimer’s Affects Ethnic Groups: Jennifer J. Manly, PhD
Rates of Alzheimer's disease and related dementias vary across ethnic and cultural groups, and Jennifer Manly, a professor of neuropsychology in neurology at the Gertrude H. Sergievsky Center and the Taub Institute for Research on Alzheimer’s Disease and the Aging Brain at Columbia University, wants to understand why.
One reason may be that a patient’s educational and cultural background strongly influences scores on the neuropsychological tests used to detect cognitive impairment. Manly's work aims to clarify the independent influences of language, acculturation, educational experiences, racial socialization, and socioeconomic status on cognitive test performance and the risk for dementia. Her ultimate goal is to understand the social, biological, environmental, and behavioral mechanisms of disparities in cognitive aging, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease. She also has studied how specific tasks reveal subtle cognitive decline among illiterate and low-literacy older adults. The work highlights the complex influence of educational experience, reading, and early-life socioeconomic status on brain health later in life.
Manly received her PhD in neuropsychology from the San Diego State University/University of California, San Diego joint doctoral program in clinical psychology, then completed a clinical internship at Brown University and a postdoctoral fellowship at Columbia. She has published nearly 200 peer-reviewed papers and eight book chapters. She received the Early Career Award from Division 40 of the American Psychological Association (APA) in 2002 and was elected a Fellow of the APA in 2004. She serves on the Alzheimer’s Association Medical and Scientific Research Board and the Board of Governors of the International Neuropsychological Society and has served on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Advisory Council on Alzheimer's Research, Care, and Services.
Focus on Women’s Heart Health: Elsa-Grace V. Giardina, MD, MS
Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States, but many women remain unaware of their risk for this condition. Elsa-Grace Giardina, a professor of medicine at CUIMC, has spent her career trying to change that. Her research and teaching have focused on cardiovascular disease risk and the effect of nutrition and obesity on cardiovascular health in women and their families through generations. She is now investigating knowledge and attitudes about cardiovascular health in at-risk women, including in women from ethnic minority groups who live and work in or around the Washington Heights community of northern Manhattan.
Giardina trained as a cardiologist, pharmaco-electrophysiologist, and clinical pharmacologist and has a master's degree in metabolism from Columbia’s Institute of Human Nutrition. She has mentored more than 40 students, residents, fellows, and young attending physicians in cardiovascular disease, women's health, and nutrition.
A national expert on heart drugs, Giardina has been a member of the Cardio-Renal Advisory Committee of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the pharmacology study section of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Her many honors include the Jane V. Myers Memorial Medical Scholarship from Bryn Mawr College, the PMA Faculty Development Award in Clinical Pharmacology, the American Heart Association Appreciation Award for community service, the American Medical Women’s Association Gender Equity Award, and the Medal of Honor from New York Medical College, the institution where she earned her medical degree.
Giardina is also a Trustee of the New York Academy of Medicine. She was named a Fellow of the Virginia Apgar Academy of Medical Educators at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons—an honor bestowed on faculty for commitment to education. She received the Award of Excellence from then-New York Gov. George Pataki for her work on cardiovascular disease in women and for developing the Center for Women's Health at Columbia.
Developing Diverse New Talent: Hilda Hutcherson, MD, MS
Coming from a poor family in the rural South, Hilda Hutcherson didn't have many early role models for a career in medicine. Now, as the senior associate dean for diversity and multicultural affairs at Columbia University's Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons (VP&S), she has become a role model for so many others.
Hutcherson graduated with honors from Stanford University and went on to medical school at Harvard University, followed by an internship at the University of California, San Francisco, and a residency in obstetrics & gynecology at Columbia.
In addition to her administrative role, Hutcherson is a professor of obstetrics & gynecology, an author, and a nationally recognized expert in women's sexual health. Hutcherson contributes to multiple magazines and is a go-to source on the topic for many other media outlets.
Her success in recruiting exceptional students adds significantly to each class, helping make VP&S one of the most diverse medical schools among its peers. As founder and leader of the Kenneth A. Forde Diversity Alliance—created to recruit, retain, and recognize a diverse community—she has promoted diverse faculty, house staff, researchers, and students at Columbia while strengthening mentoring and pipeline programs and bringing the contributions of underrepresented minorities to the fore.
In an interview, she credited mentors with helping her become who she is today. She is gratified to be able to give back. “In my job, I am able to tell young people that a medical career is possible,” she said. “I serve as a role model and mentor. I feel that I am making a difference for many ... I am convinced that I have the very best job in the world.”
Genetic Testing Pioneer: Wendy K. Chung, MD, PhD
While many medical geneticists focus on a single condition, Wendy Chung studies them all. A pioneer in genetic testing, she has published over 300 peer-reviewed research papers covering the genetics of everything from autism to diabetes. She was also the original plaintiff in the U.S. Supreme Court case that overturned the ability to patent genes, and she served on the Institute of Medicine Committee on Genetic Testing.
Chung, the Kennedy Family Professor of Pediatrics in Medicine and the medical director of the Columbia Genetic Counseling Graduate Program, enjoys the challenges of genetics as a rapidly changing field of medicine. A clinical and molecular geneticist, she works toward the integration of genetic medicine into all areas of health care in a medically, scientifically, and ethically sound manner that is accessible and cost effective.
As a leader in the use of genome sequencing in research and clinical care, she has discovered over 40 new genes for human diseases. Her work on spinal muscular atrophy helped lead to nationwide adoption of a test for the condition in newborns. Chung has also studied the psychosocial impact of genetic information on patients and their families, and how it affects their medical and reproductive decisions.
Her prolific work has not escaped notice. Chung has received the American Academy of Pediatrics Young Investigator Award, the Medical Achievement Award from Bonei Olam, and the New York Academy of Medicine Medal for Distinguished Contributions in Biomedical Science. She is also renowned for her teaching and mentoring and received Columbia University’s highest teaching award, the Presidential Award for Outstanding Teaching.
Keen Focus on Improving Outcomes for Patients With MDS: Azra Raza, MD
The loss of a young patient to acute myeloid leukemia transformed Azra Raza's career, inspiring her to dedicate herself to studying that disease and related conditions. Now the director of the Myelodysplastic Syndrome Center at Columbia University Irving Medical Center (CUIMC), Raza treats patients and conducts active research that aims to improve outcomes.
In the clinic, Raza emphasizes the importance of empathy and compassion in successful treatment. She cites talking to patients as the greatest reward of her work.
“To get inside their minds and their hearts, I sit with them and talk—about a classical music concert they went to or their grandchild’s graduation that they just attended—to learn about them and to get them to feel relaxed and share their anxieties,” she said, speaking in an interview with NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital’s Health Matters. “That’s when I can help address their fears, not with embellishments or false hope, but with kindness, compassion, and empathy.”
Raza's work on myelodysplastic syndromes began in 1982. When she came to Columbia in 2010, she brought her research program and an invaluable repository of 60,000 patient cell samples. Only a handful of her patients has ever declined to participate, she has noted.
Raza's research has been published in numerous peer-reviewed journals, including the New England Journal of Medicine, Nature, Blood, Cancer, the British Journal of Hematology, and Leukemia Research. She serves on several national and international panels as a reviewer, consultant, and adviser. Her work has won her numerous awards, including the first Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association of Physicians of Pakistani Descent of North America, two separate awards in academic excellence from the Dow Graduate Association of North America, and the Hope Funds For Cancer Research Award.
Transplant Immunology, Autoimmune Disease: Megan Sykes, MD
Patients who receive transplanted organs must take powerful immunosuppressive drugs with dangerous side effects to keep their bodies from rejecting the donated organ. Megan Sykes, director of the Columbia Center for Translational Immunology (CCTI), wants to change that. By combining cutting-edge basic research with clinical knowledge, she developed a new strategy of using bone marrow transplantation as an immunotherapy. In a clinical trial of that approach, patients' immune systems accepted their transplanted organs without immunosuppressive drugs, marking the first time researchers had intentionally achieved organ tolerance in humans.
Sykes has since extended her work to try to reverse the autoimmune responses that lead to type 1 diabetes, and she has developed novel "humanized mouse" laboratory models that allow personalized analysis of other human immune disorders and therapies. Her current laboratory work includes major projects spanning several aspects of transplant immunology and autoimmune disease, and she has published more than 430 papers and book chapters in her career.
In 2010, after 20 years at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Sykes moved to Columbia University to establish the CCTI, a multidisciplinary research center encompassing transplantation, autoimmune disease, tumor immunology, infectious immunity, and basic immunology. The CCTI has over 100 scientists and support staff, including 19 faculty members. Sykes is a member of the National Academy of Medicine and the Association of American Physicians. She was president of the International Xenotransplantation Association and vice president of the Transplantation Society. In 2018, she and another recipient were the first women awarded the Medawar Prize from the Transplantation Society. This prize is considered to be the highest honor in the field of transplantation.
Global Health, Research, and Innovative Care: Wafaa El-Sadr, MD, MPH, MPA
As the HIV epidemic took hold in the United States in the early 1980s, Wafaa El-Sadr, MD, then chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Harlem Hospital, found herself thrust into the midst of it. She responded by combining groundbreaking research with innovative care, an approach that has remained her hallmark in a career that has made her a world-renowned leader in the fight against HIV.
El-Sadr joined the faculty of Columbia University in 1988, becoming a professor of medicine at the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons and professor of epidemiology at Mailman School of Public Health. In 2013, she was appointed University Professor, Columbia’s highest academic honor. She also holds the Dr. Mathilde Krim-amfAR Chair in Global Health at Mailman, where she received a Master of Public Health degree. She received her medical degree from Cairo University in Egypt and a Master in Public Administration from Harvard University.
El-Sadr is also the founder and director of ICAP, a large global health center based at Mailman, where she currently oversees a portfolio of projects in dozens of nations and involving nearly 2,000 staff. Her leadership has been characterized by a focus on collaborative, multidisciplinary approaches to confronting the global HIV pandemic and other public health threats, such as tuberculosis, malaria, maternal and child health problems, emerging infections, and noncommunicable diseases. She directs the Mailman School's Global Health Initiative, which mobilizes the University community to address critical global health challenges.
She is the principal investigator for numerous ICAP-led research initiatives and for the NIH-funded HIV Prevention Trials Network. In 2008, she was named a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellow, and in 2009, she was appointed to the National Academy of Medicine.
Cutting-Edge Approaches to Treating Cancer: Wakenda K. Tyler, MD, MPH
Born into poverty, Wakenda Tyler, MD, overcame financial and personal challenges through optimism and relentless dedication to her studies. Those same traits now serve her well as an associate professor of orthopedic surgery and chief of Columbia's orthopedic oncology service, where she sees patients with some of the most frightening forms of cancer. Whether treating a recurrent tumor, studying new surgical techniques, or training to run a marathon, she is not easily deterred.
As a musculoskeletal oncologist, Tyler treats primary soft tissue and bone cancers, sarcomas, and metastatic bone cancer, aiming to provide compassionate surgical care that cures the disease, whenever possible. To do that, she uses the latest advances in minimally invasive and reconstructive surgery combined with cutting-edge nonoperative treatments. When a cure isn't possible, she focuses on pain control and improving function as much as she can for every patient.
In a newspaper interview, she discussed her approach to treating extremely ill patients.
“What I remember hearing the most is: 'I don't want to suffer,’” she said. “That's what I keep in mind. Thankfully, today they have better medicines and surgical techniques that make a difference."
Tyler earned her medical degree from Johns Hopkins University, where she also received a master’s degree in public health. She completed her residency in orthopedic surgery at the Hospital for Special Surgery, followed by a fellowship in musculoskeletal oncology at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.
In addition to treating patients, Tyler researches new approaches to managing tumors and other conditions that lead to bone destruction. She has published medical journal articles on several bone diseases, studied how effectively medications penetrate to the sites of bone grafts, and analyzed the strength of bonds between bones and prosthetic implants.
Coordinated, Multidisciplinary Care for High-Risk Pregnancies: Mary E. D'Alton, MD
The term "high-risk pregnancy" can fill expectant parents with dread, but thanks to Mary D'Alton, families facing complex pregnancies with maternal or fetal complications can access all of the care they need to optimize outcomes right here in New York. D'Alton, chair of the Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology at Columbia and a world-renowned expert in maternal-fetal medicine, led the effort to develop two innovative centers at Columbia University Irving Medical Center and NewYork-Presbyterian: the Carmen and John Thain Center for Prenatal Pediatrics and the Mothers Center.
Modeled after the Carmen and John Thain Center for Prenatal Pediatrics, which provides coordinated care for fetal complications, the Mothers Center is a first-of-its-kind space dedicated to providing multidisciplinary care to pregnant women with complications, such as heart disease, a history of cancer or organ transplant, or a case of abnormal placentation.
D'Alton has been a leader in obstetrics for many years, with more than 200 peer-reviewed scientific and clinical publications to her name. She also co-authored the book “Fetology: Diagnosis and Management of the Fetal Patient,” which received the Association of American Publishers Award for Best Textbook in Clinical Medicine in 2001 and remains a standard in the field.
Her work to advance research, policy development, and clinical practice has won numerous awards and honors. In 2013, D’Alton was elected to membership in the National Academy of Medicine. Honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006 by the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine, she has also served as its president and has held key positions in several other professional organizations, including the American Gynecological and Obstetrical Society (ACOG) and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
Since 2013, she has served as co-chair of the ACOG District II Safe Motherhood Initiative, which works to reduce maternal mortality and morbidity in New York state and across the country.
More Women’s History Month coverage: Women at CUIMC who made a difference throughout history