Long-time Mentor Dr. Lori J. Pierce to Receive Women Who Conquer Cancer Award

Long-time Mentor Dr. Lori J. Pierce to Receive Women Who Conquer Cancer Award

Dr. Lori Pierce
Lori J. Pierce, MD, FASCO, a professor of radiation oncology at the University of Michigan School of Medicine and the University’s Vice Provost for Academic and Faculty Affairs, is this year’s recipient of the Hologic, Inc Endowed Women Who Conquer Cancer Mentorship Award. ASCO’s Conquer Cancer Foundation presents the award to women oncologists who are both leaders and mentors in their field over a sustained period of time. Dr. Pierce is also a past recipient of the AMA Women Physician Mentor Award.

The ASCO Daily News spoke with Dr. Pierce recently about her mentorship in academia, especially involving women faculty.

Q: Who have you mentored?

Dr. Pierce: I have had the privilege of working with both men and women on various research projects focusing on the role of radiotherapy in the treatment of women with breast cancer. I have mentored undergraduate students, medical students, residents, and fellows and junior faculty. Many of my mentees have gone on to hold faculty positions at the University of Michigan and other academic institutions. As a mentor, it is such a special feeling to know you have made a difference in the careers of others.

Q: Why is mentoring important especially for women entering oncology?

Dr. Pierce: Mentoring is important to everyone in oncology but perhaps particularly women. Medicine is a male-dominated field, and oncology is no exception. We need to develop strategies early on to successfully fulfill our clinical and research goals. Mentoring helps others to develop their career trajectories and by doing so, passes on knowledge to the next generation of researchers.

Mentoring is also important to help others navigate potential gender-based issues in the workplace. These issues can include understanding family-friendly policies offered at our institutions or practices and creating networks with other women to share workplace experiences. These networks are important for discussions of the positive aspects of the workplace as well as, in some cases, the negative aspects of the workplace such as harassment. Sexual harassment unfortunately exists in medicine just as in almost every other industry, but fortunately it is being increasingly acknowledged, reported, and managed.

Q: What are some of the challenges facing women in academic medicine?

Dr. Pierce: Women medical faculty have limited time to meet the demands of the tripartite mission of research, clinical care, and teaching and achieve tenure. Women see patients, do research, publish, apply for grants, provide service, and teach in disproportionate numbers compared to our male counterparts.

For women who choose to have children, time away from the workplace is needed for childbirth and bonding. Even after childbearing, women have disproportionate childcare responsibilities. All of these factors take time and can further reduce the time available to achieve tenure.

Q: What changes has the University of Michigan made to support tenure-track faculty?

Dr. Pierce: In my role as Vice Provost for Academic and Faculty Affairs, my colleagues and I were instrumental in creating many policies such as:

  • Switching from an 8- to a 10-year tenure clock for faculty who need a little more time before their tenure review;
  • Providing time off the tenure clock for maternity leave and adoption to even the playing field for women of child-bearing age; and
  • Modified duties, where some work responsibilities such as classroom teaching can be temporarily suspended to allow time to care for a young child.

In addition, it is important for women to fully understand the policies and procedures that many institutions have that allow time for family while successfully pursuing academic careers, as initiatives comparable to the ones listed above are available at other universities. Mentors can take the opportunity to discuss these policies with junior faculty, encourage them to use them, and provide emotional support.

Q: Are there particular challenges facing women researchers?

Dr. Pierce: Applying for research grants is increasingly competitive and arduous, and it takes longer to secure funding than in previous years. Women may not start their research careers on equal footing with men because some men negotiate better salary and research start-up packages than women. Men may already participate in research networks in which they learn about the costs associated with research or simply are more comfortable advocating for themselves than women. 

Universities should offer professional development programs that teach trainees key negotiating skills. Women need to feel empowered to ask questions at the beginning of their academic appointments so they fully understand the expectations and the metrics by which they will be evaluated. Mentors can help prepare women as they interview for academic and private practice positions. It is also important that employers extend packages in a consistent manner to men and women of comparable background. When gaps in resources occur at the time of hiring, they tend to increase over time. 

–Christine Lehmann, MA