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The Role We Play

Credit: Headshot supplied by author

Mentorship is a key component in the professionalism, excellence, and constant improvement of our field. Whether through official mentorship programs and fellowships or unofficial mentorships and electives, good mentors are able to not only demonstrate and cultivate the skills and qualities needed for their mentees to thrive, but also ensure that these skills are transferred and built upon – from generation to generation. As you read these words, you are likely picturing the people who had – and continue to have – a formative impact on you and your development, which speaks volumes about the power of mentorship and having good role models in one’s life. Throughout the course of my career to date, I have had the privilege of standing on the shoulders of many in our field – individuals who have shown me the difference we can make by offering up our shoulders as platforms for the next generation.

Like many, my first role model existed way before I decided to pursue ophthalmology. At the age of three, my mother and I immigrated to the US from Shanghai, China, along with my father. Unfortunately, my parents divorced when I was very young, and my mother raised me as a single mom, working tirelessly to provide for the two of us. She waitressed seven days a week, alongside attending night school on weekdays to study English. Her work ethic made a long-lasting impression on me, as did experiencing firsthand the benefits one can experience when somebody works in service of another. These times served as an inspiration for me, motivating me to work hard, concentrate on my studies, and pursue a career as a physician so that I could not only give back to my mother, but also make a positive impact on those around me. My mother has continued to inspire and motivate me as I have progressed through my career. She is the first of an ever-growing group of role models I aspire to emulate.

For the many and the few

Mentorship can benefit everybody, but it can be particularly beneficial for those within minority groups – something to which I can personally attest. Gender inequity in ophthalmology has been well documented in the form of pay gaps and disparities in grant amounts, authorship, and leadership positions. Although our field is doing so many wonderful things to reach gender equity and make it easier for women to become ophthalmic surgeons, increasing the number of women in leadership roles and boosting the number of female mentors are important steps in achieving this goal. Especially in a male-dominated field like refractive surgery, I struggled to find women mentors in my first few years of practice to emulate. In fact, at one of my very first job interviews, I was awkwardly asked by the senior surgeon when I was planning to have children. Being able to learn from (and build a professional relationship with) someone who has been through similar struggles and already navigated further through the field can help mentees overcome many hurdles – especially those that are shared. Knowledge is power and, when shared and applied from generation to generation, it can lead to significant change and the breaking down of walls – and glass ceilings.

One example that I think highlights the multigenerational impact that mentorship can have is that of Marguerite McDonald. A pioneer of refractive surgery, McDonald served as the first female president of ASCRS and was the first surgeon to perform laser excimer treatment, really paving the way for women in ophthalmology and acting as a role model and mentor to many entering into the field. Several of McDonald’s mentees, having themselves broken down further barriers and become established in the field, have paid forward the gift of mentorship to those in the next generation of ophthalmologists – including myself. The results can be exponential: one can impact many, who themselves can impact many more. As one link in this chain of mentorship, I am incredibly grateful to all the women in ophthalmology today and especially those in leadership positions. They give me something to really aspire to, and show me that, yes, my goals are achievable – more so now than ever; I can’t even imagine the obstacles they had to overcome back in the day, when it was even more of a male-dominated field. Their passion, intelligence, and drive are definitely things that keep pushing me forward, and making me want to do better for our field.

Modern mentorship

As time has progressed, there has been an expansion of the methods available to us for advancing our careers, networking, and finding role models and mentors. There are new opportunities for mentees to forge connections with others, as well as for those established in the field to disseminate advice and help others entering the field. As a mentor, there are a couple of new platforms that I use alongside the traditional methods to help upcoming generations of ophthalmologists. “Mend the Gap” is a Healio podcast that I co-host with Cathleen McCabe, Susan Macdonald, Laura Enyedi, and Laura Periman (some of my current mentors), in which we explore gender disparities in healthcare and seek to move the needle towards equity. These women along with so many other female leaders including Sheri Rowen, Neda Shamie, and Audrey Talley Rostov set the example for how I want to carry myself throughout my career—with beauty, intelligence, humility, and respect.

Through “Mend the Gap,” we are able to reach a wide-ranging and engaged audience, as well as offer a platform for the giants in our field to share their knowledge, expertise, and experiences. Of course, women could never have gotten as far as we have without men who lifted us up along the way, so one of our very first episodes was actually dedicated to “Men who Champion Women,” which featured pioneers in ophthalmology including Thomas Oetting, David Chang, Randall Olson, and William Trattler. Bill, in particular, has opened so many doors for me and has been such an incredibly kind and generous role model to the next generation of young eye surgeons. Although a podcast cannot provide the personal, one-to-one aspect of mentorship, it absolutely can provide an opportunity for women entering the medical field to hear from people who look like them on the issues that affect us all. Naturally, some of the topics that we cover on the podcast are difficult – recently we covered how women can better advocate for themselves in job contract negotiations, as well as sexual harassment discrimination within ophthalmology – but they are crucial for us to discuss. We want to equip women in ophthalmology – and medicine as a whole – with the information, advice, and knowledge gathered by their predecessors to help them navigate difficult scenarios, if they should ever arise.

Social media is another tool I have harnessed in my mentorship of others. With a social media following of over 100,000 across platforms, I have thousands of premedical students, medical students, and residents following my journey whom I am privileged to help guide along their own paths. When I was in training, I was under the impression that once I left academia, there would be no way for me to work with students and residents. However, in reality, I have learned that you absolutely can still do this – especially if it is a passion and you make it a priority. In fact, I continue to conduct many of my research projects with students and trainees who found me on social media.

By joining the lineage of ophthalmic mentorship, we are reinvesting what we have gained from those who came before us into those coming after. I am grateful that I’ve been able to give back by using social media as a tool to mentor the next generation, and I look forward to continuing to take more of them under my wing. It is my belief that as you and I continue to do this, we are not just benefiting the individual (who themselves will hopefully pay it forward), or even the field of ophthalmology as it currently stands, but the future generations of eye care professionals (and patients) to come.

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About the Author
Dagny Zhu

Dagny Zhu, Rising Star, is a cornea, cataract, and refractive surgeon practising as Medical Director and Partner at NVISION Eye Center in Rowland Heights, California, USA

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