Scientist, Educator & Speaker
This is the first in a series of interviews with women leaders that aim to inspire, motivate, and provide useful tips for advancing your career towards becoming a leader in your field.
NW: According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, only 16% of medical school deans are women (latest data, 2013-14), which is about the same as medical school department chairs. As a former Chair of the Department of Biological Chemistry, and current Dean of the School of Medicine – what do you think were the factors that allowed you to make it to the top of your profession as a Chair and Dean?
KCM: I don’t think I really set out to become either a Chair or a Dean. I know I didn’t. That wasn’t a blip on the horizon of my career plans.
The reason I’m doing what I’m doing has more to do with the fact that at every stage in my career I was really engaged in what I was doing. I was very engaged in running my lab, and I’m still very engaged in running my lab. But, I also found there was this part of my personality that in addition to being a scientist, I was more of an activist who really wanted to make sure that my community was a good community. It was through that civic engagement that I ended up putting myself in positions where I would have opportunities to take on those leadership roles.
Early on after I arrived at UCLA, I got involved in the MD-PhD Program and became a Director of that. I became very engaged in that process. For one thing, making sure that there were more women MD-PhD students. When I came here there was something like 20%. When I was an MD-PhD student at Yale, it was half. It was a shock to me when I came here. It seemed like a problem to solve. Then I ended up becoming Chair of the Department of Biological Chemistry – really wanting to advocate for basic science in the medical school. We had decided to go through a rotating Chair position with the great people in our department. They asked me – no, I didn’t go after that position. I was actually kind of surprised because I felt that it was a little early for me to do that. In terms of being in the Dean’s Office, it was through my involvement with the Chancellor’s Neuroscience Task Force. I really cared about the neuroscience community, so I got totally engaged and worked really hard on it. I think that’s why I was asked to be the Interim Dean [now KCM is permanent Dean]. Every single one of those was an opportunity that came my way, and then I decided whether I wanted to go for it.
NW: What have been some of your greatest challenges as Chair and Dean, and how have you dealt with those challenges?
KCM: One big challenge in both positions are financial challenges. Right now, biomedical sciences and academic medical centers are not flush. It’s a time of transition – the kinds of funding sources that we always used to depend on are just not available any more. That’s something I didn’t have a background in. Learning more about institutional finances has been a challenge. It’s a challenge at this medical school where there’s a perception that there are limitless resources in the Dean’s Office. And there aren’t. So, I’m trying to figure out how do we work as a community to support the important parts of the mission, but we can’t support everything. That’s been hard.
NW: You must have a lot of Chairs and Faculty coming to you for help financially because federal funding is just not there. How do you prioritize?
KCM: When I came into the Dean’s Office, financial support decisions were completely ad hoc. People would contact me on a daily basis – by email, by phone, by stopping me in the hallway, by sending written letters of request for support. You can’t make any decisions that way – just impossible. So, we did two things: First, I set up a Finance and Budget Advisory Committee with about six department Chairs, three Chief Administrative Officers, and three faculty members, along with the Vice Deans and Senior Associate Deans. We meet every month for two hours, and we go through the budget. We have to be transparent and figure out what we have, and be very clear about what we’re spending. The other approach is that we decided we had to change the way that requests for resources were made. We have as of January 3, 2017 a calendar for making requests from the Dean’s Office. It’s on a quarterly basis. It has a flow chart that asks questions that really outlines what our priorities are. This will allow us to take all of those requests and put them side-by-side. I have an advisory committee that will go through those requests with me, and really decide when we have limited resources how we’re going to prioritize.
NW: Do you feel that you have an equal voice-at-the table when you are in a room dominated by men? How do you manage being heard and taken seriously?
KCM: I do feel that I have an equal voice. It’s really interesting for me because, of course, I’m in a medical school and I’m an MD-PhD, but I’m not a clinician. That’s more of an issue for me than being a woman. I view that as being a form of narrow mindedness because I know that the difference between being a molecular neurobiologist and being a surgeon is about as big as the difference between being a psychiatrist and being a surgeon. I consider that we’re all scholars and we’re problems solvers in different realms. I try to take the tack that I’m there like everybody else is there – to solve a problem. So, I’m going to listen and if I think I have something that is the solution I’m going to say what the solution is. One of the things I love about science is when you discover something that explains a phenomenon, it doesn’t matter who you are. If you articulate it, it is the right answer. I work hard to make sure that in any meeting that I have that that’s the focus of the discussion. I would say that we now have 24 Chairs and there’s only one permanent woman Chair out of 24 Chairs. That’s a huge imbalance for our organization. It does limit the thinking of the group.
NW: You raised two children while managing a very demanding career. What tips can you give folks about how to balance work demands with non-work or family life?
KCM: One of the more important ones for me is that things happen over time. For example, you think that when you have toddlers that for the rest of your life you’re going to have toddlers where you have to make sure they’re not putting their fingers in electric outlets and that you have to be on constant alert. They actually grow up and you have big parts of your life where you have a lot more freedom than you did before. One thing to remember is that you don’t have to get everything done right now. In thinking about balance, it’s important to feel that it’s OK to take the time that you need to be with your family – it pays off in the end. The other part, at least for me, it was a huge source of important perspective that I think allowed me to be more mentally healthy to have kids. When I was a postdoc, I felt that the people who surrounded me were unbelievably anxious all the time about whether or not they were going to succeed. And I felt that I got to go home and have two little kids who would put that in perspective where it felt less life-and-death because it’s not life-and-death. I think it was actually good for me. I do recognize that a lot of my career choices were set around that. For example, I went into science because I love science. It’s also much more flexible for having children than doing clinical service because I could bring my kids to work. I could stay home when they were sick and work at night. I couldn’t do that if I were on the wards. Another thing is that I didn’t let it bother me when people said things like “this is going to ruin your career”. I just did what I wanted to do.
NW: Was there ever a time in your career when you had doubts about being able to advance and be successful?
KCM: I think being a scientist there’s always times when you’re lost. You don’t know if you’re going to be able to answer a question. Some of the people-management skills are really hard. It’s one thing to solve a problem when it’s just you and the data. But, it’s another thing when it’s people. There have been times when I’ve found that very challenging. There’s certainly been times when I’ve wondered if it’s good for me. I often think we create competition. That sense of competition can cut into your sense of pleasure and creativity in life. I think being able to strike a balance there can be difficult. Before I went back to do an MD-PhD, I was in the Peace Corps for almost three years. When you live in a place where people are starving to death, and then you come to a place like this where people are competing with each other over space – again, it puts things into perspective and makes you realize that you make the most out of whatever happens. Maybe it’s a lucky thing that I did an MD-PhD. I decided I wanted to go into science, but there was a part of me that felt I could go back and do clinical work. I did always have this feeling that there could be something else. I also grew up in an era when there wasn’t as much pressure. I look at my kids and they seem more worried about their careers. I felt like in the 70’s, you went to college … when I went to graduate school everybody felt that they could get a job if they were interested in it. There wasn’t that economic climate where you worried about your career – which I feel really grateful for. We could be idealistic about what we wanted to do. I wasn’t interested in making a ton of money; it wasn’t what I was going after, so I didn’t worry about that. I never worried that I wasn’t going to find something that I could do. I think that is different now. The pressure is a different order of magnitude now.
NW: Anything else that you’d like to share?
KCM: I find that it’s a huge pleasure to work with other women leaders. For example, I’m working really closely with our new Dean of Engineering [a woman], and we’re trying to do some things collaboratively. And, it’s a piece of cake! I find that working with other [women] Deans or other Department Chairs or other leaders, there’s some level of taking some of the ego identity out of what we’re trying to do that’s really a pleasure. I feel that whatever it is – 16% – as it gets greater it’s going to improve the institutions in terms of their productivity and their progressiveness. Especially in science where there’s not a lot of diversity, we all know that looking at problems and collecting data from different perspectives is a huge advantage to understanding something. Logically, it makes sense that that would be viewed as a beneficial approach to any kind of enterprise in an academic setting.
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