Pitt Med Celebrates Women’s History Month

March 18, 2024

Written by Sarah Lindley and Juliana Briggs

This Women’s History Month, we asked some female Pitt Med faculty who they look up to in science or medicine. Some named women who excelled in their disciplines despite facing systemic barriers. Others named women who mentored them directly and left long-lasting personal impressions on them. But all of them named women who stand out for accomplishments in research, teaching, clinical work or community impact—accomplishments that in turn inspired their own success. 

They shared with us the traits of their role models that they most admired and hoped to emulate and left us with parting advice for women who are interested in pursuing science or medicine. 

Header with two women that says: Balancing personal and professional life

JoAnne Flynn (right), Distinguished Professor of Immunology, of Pediatrics and of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics and chair of microbiology and molecular genetics, recalls working as a new assistant professor in the same department as famous breast cancer immunologist Olja Finn (left). Flynn says Finn “was, and still is, a mentor and a friend.”

Flynn says she admires not only Finn’s dedication to science, but also “her commitment to her colleagues and the next generation of scientists.”

“Olja’s kindness to everyone still inspires me, and I am still learning from her,” she says.  

When Flynn was a junior faculty member, raising young children, Finn’s support and experiences gave her hope and proof that she could succeed in both her personal and professional life. She still goes to Finn for advice today.

In 2021, Flynn found that only 13 of 84 endowed chairs in the School of Medicine were held by women, despite women making up 44% of the faculty. Since Flynn and a task force of colleagues met with Anantha Shekhar, senior vice chancellor for the health sciences and the John and Gertrude Petersen Dean of the School of Medicine, three more women have been named endowed chairs.

Flynn says, “This is a great career—it is not easy, but every day you get to learn something new.” She encourages women to do what they love, take risks and, for those who want a family, find a partner willing to meet at least halfway to tackle responsibilities. 

Header with two women that says: Pushing for progress

Beatriz Luna (right), the Staunton Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics and professor of psychology, radiology and bioengineering, has had many scientific role models. But she says Nora Volkow (left), the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, stands out for her impressive contributions to the science of brain development and substance use.

Luna has met Volkow several times—at the consortium for the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study, at the University of Pittsburgh and at various scientific meetings. Luna describes her as “always gracious, humble and inviting of discourse.” 

Luna is inspired by Volkow’s “fearless approach to think outside the box” and “unrelenting passion to find answers” regarding substance use and mental health. She says that she learned by Volkow’s example “to be relentless in the pursuit of great science.”

For women aspiring to careers in science or medicine, Luna highlights the importance of being “passionate,” “confident” and “collaborative and supportive of others, as science is best done as a team.”

 Header with two women that says: Crossing disciplines

When Donna Stolz (right) was an undergraduate studying biochemistry, she learned the Michaelis-Menten Equation of enzyme kinetics. She later realized the Menten half of the equation was a woman. Now a professor of cell biology and associate director of the Center for Biologic Imaging, Stolz names Maud Menten (left) as a role model. 

Stolz was “impressed that such an important foundation of biochemistry” was co-developed by a female scientist, but that contribution isn’t Menten’s only claim to fame. She was also “instrumental in developing specialized histology techniques still used today.” Menten was also a professor of pathology at Pitt Med and the first female head of pathology at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. 

Stolz admires a still-life painting of flowers in a vase by Menten that was hung in the department of pathology when Stolz was a postdoctoral researcher there. She is inspired by the fact that Menten was, among other things, an artist and a scientist.” Stolz, whose research implements electron microscopy, also sees “science and microscopy as art.” 

Maud Menten’s painting in the department of pathology.
Maud Menten’s painting in the department of pathology.

Donna Stolz is one of 10 Pitt researchers who were recently listed among the “best female scientists in the world.” But like Menten, she is an artist too. Stolz has quite a portfolio of microscopy-based art. Her 1998 piece “Christmas @1000X” was made using Scanning Electron Microscopy images of pollen and plants from Stolz’s garden. It was featured on the cover of Microscopy Today in 2001.

Donna Stolz’s Scanning Electron Microscopy-based piece, “Christmas @1000X.”
Donna Stolz’s Scanning Electron Microscopy-based piece, “Christmas @1000X.”

To women planning careers in science or medicine, Stolz says, “There is absolutely no reason not to be a scientist, or anything else for that matter.”  

Header with two women that says: Staying true to oneself

Mary Phillips (right), Distinguished Professor of psychiatry and clinical and translational science, finds a role model in Marie Curie (left), the first and only woman to win the Nobel Prize twice. 

Curie’s first Nobel Prize was shared with her husband, Pierre Curie, for their research on radiation. The 1911 Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Marie Curie alone, recognizing her discovery of the elements radium and polonium. 

From Curie’s scientific accomplishments, Phillips says she learned about “persistence and self-confidence" and the importance of “having the courage to pursue one’s own ideas in research and inspire others to follow their own paths.” 

Pitt awarded Curie one of her 19 honorary degrees when she visited Pittsburgh in 1921. A Pittwire article spotlights some of the “Curie-ous” connections Curie has to the University.  

Phillips was also recently listed as one of the best female scientists in the world, alongside Stolz. 

Some lessons Phillips learned from Curie could also help women planning to work in research, she says: “Have the courage of your convictions and don’t let others try and put you down!” 

Header with two women that says: Forging new paths

When Tracey Conti (right) was completing her fellowship in Maryland, she interviewed with Jeannette South-Paul (left), then chair of family medicine, for a job in Pittsburgh. Conti, an associate professor of family medicine who now holds the chair herself, sees South-Paul as a role model.

Now retired, South-Paul was the first woman and the first African American to hold a permanent chair position at the School of Medicine. Throughout her career, she focused on addressing health inequities for people of color. 

South-Paul's “groundbreaking path and innovative thinking” inspired Conti’s motivation to “push boundaries,” “pursue new discoveries” and “always strive for excellence” in her work. From South-Paul's “commitment to improving healthcare and advocating for underserved communities,” Conti learned “the importance of empathy and the power of using one’s voice to make a positive impact.” 

Conti was named the chair of family medicine in 2021, a role in which she strives to ensure equitable, high-quality care for patients and grow the numbers of sorely needed primary care physicians.

Conti’s advice for women planning to pursue medicine: “Believe in yourself and your abilities. Don’t be afraid to take risks and challenge the status quo. Surround yourself with a supportive community and seek out mentors who can guide you along the way.

“Remember that your unique perspective and contributions are invaluable to the field. Keep pushing forward and never give up on your dreams.”

Header with two women that says: Learning from leaders

Professor of medicine Jenny Lo-Ciganic (right) sees Julie Donohue (left), professor of health policy and management and chair of that department at the School of Public Health, as a role model. Her “genuine, down-to-earth nature” is what “truly sets her apart,” says Lo-Ciganic. 

Donohue served on Lo-Ciganic's dissertation committee while she was earning her PhD in epidemiology. Since then, says Lo-Ciganic, “her mentorship has been invaluable to me.”  

Lo-Ciganic admires the “humility and accessibility” that Donohue presents to trainees, such as postdoctoral researchers and junior faculty. Today, Lo-Ciganic tries to follow in her footsteps when mentoring her own trainees. 

Donohue also helped Lo-Ciganic realize the impact that epidemiological research can have on policymaking. She “transformed this process into an encouraging and relevant aspect” of Lo-Ciganic's work. 

For women that want to pursue science or medicine, Lo-Ciganic stresses the importance of finding a mentor like Donohue: “Look for daring leaders with profound expertise in your area of interest, who are also accessible and supportive,” she says. “A mentor of this caliber can significantly enrich your journey and enable you to reach your utmost potential."

Header with two women that says: Willingness to Help

Naudia Jonassaint (right), associate dean of clinical affairs at Pitt Med, names Ebony Boulware (left), her mentor during training and the current dean of Wake Forest University School of Medicine, as her role model. Boulware’s work ethic, Jonassaint says, “is second to none.” 

Jonassaint says she most admires Boulware’s intellect, calming presence and unwavering willingness to help.

Jonassaint is also an associate professor of medicine and the first vice chair for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the Department of Medicine. She is currently serving as the interim chief of the Division of Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition and associate dean of clinical affairs at Pitt Med.

To women aspiring to work in medicine, Jonassaint offers some of the most important advice she’s received: Do what you love, treat others how you want to be treated and always try to be the best provider you can be every day. “You won’t succeed every day, but try,” she says. 

Header with two women that says: Be Persistant

Arjumand Ghazi’s (right) role model is Barbara McClintock (left), who discovered transposons, also called “jumping genes.” Ghazi admires both McClintock’s scientific achievements and her persistence in the face of discrimination.

Ghazi, an associate professor of pediatrics, of developmental biology and of cell biology and physiology, first fell in love with genetics when she read about transposons. Yet her appreciation for McClintock runs much deeper.

McClintock received the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her discovery of transposons—earning well-deserved recognition. But it followed several decades of unacknowledged contributions to the study of the chromosomal basis of heredity.

McClintock also struggled to find permanent faculty positions—even though she was “clearly way ahead of her time,” as Ghazi describes her—because she was a woman.

“I have thought about her often when I have encountered difficulties that seemed insurmountable, sometimes unjustly so,” says Ghazi. “It never ceases to amaze—and inspire—me that she persisted in her commitment to science, and stood by her findings, despite a lifetime of blatant discrimination.”

Ghazi’s advice to women interested in pursuing science is that “there is no substitute for hard work, passion and sincerity.”

“Knowledge is power indeed, so read/learn everything you can about your area of interest,” she advises.