Women of Stanford: Neurosurgery

Stanford's Department of Neurosurgery faculty is nearly 25% female, an unprecendented level compared to other Neurosurgery programs around the country, and the world. But there is still much room to improve parity, and to make the path to success in this field less burdensome and stigmatized for women. In this series, women across the Department share their experiences as females in the fields of science and medicine. From what got them hooked on science as children, or motivated them to become doctors, to their determination to overcome the bumps they faced on the road to becoming neurosurgeons, we suspect their stories will resonate with many women, regardless of their chosen profession. We hope that by sharing their stories, we may inspire more young girls to pursue careers in science, and eliminate some of the myths associated with women pursuing one of the most complex and demanding specialties in medicine. 

Who Encouraged You to Pursue Science?

I had a very doting father who pushed me to excel, but this was Karachi, Pakistan -in those days there was an understanding that girls should learn how to cook and sew, look pretty, and there was a clear sexual division of labor. I enjoyed studying and I was especially drawn to biology. But I always balanced it out with poetry and literature, and dancing and music. There was never much talk about what I would pursue, law, medicine. I guess it was understood that I would choose something. As I watched my two older brothers travel and study abroad I decided to do the same. Some of my girlfriends whose families were more liberal than mine were sending applications out to schools in the UK and USA. The idea was met with much discontent. I struggled with my parents for about a year, until finally my father agreed. I was allowed to move to California to live with one of my brothers, and attend a community college literally down the street. I think my father felt that if he let me do this I would get it out of my system, and then I would return to Pakistan. That was my first exposure to US education and there was no turning back.

Why Did You Choose to Continue Your Education?

There were several reasons. The most important one was that I did not know what else to do or what else I was good at. I transferred to UC Irvine from the community college where I took chemistry and biology classes and I enjoyed the science courses because of the hands-on interactive approaches. Within my first six months at UC Irvine I applied to be a student researcher in a lab where I became a lab assistant and performed animal research for about three years. It was there that I was exposed to histology, physiology, auditory physiology, electrophysiology, and that was also the very first time I looked at a brain. I was working with post-docs on behavioral training, and we would run 16-hour experiments on rats where we would so single-cell recordings. The first time I saw the brain move under the microscope, I remember I completely freaked out. The first brain structure I fell in love with was the hippocampus, and I spent many hours working with it on a variety of projects on learning and memory.

Another reason that played in my decision to continue my education was the knowledge, strength and confidence it gave me. During my first year in America I met my future husband. He was a white, American ex-Navy choosing to return to school. When my parents found out that I, a Pakistani Muslim girl, was dating a white boy, things got complicated. It took two years to convince my parents to allow me to stay in the U.S. and marry him, on the condition that he convert to Islam. It was important to me to have my parents’ blessing, but the experience also reinforced my determination to continue my education.

It was the duality of working in the lab on these high-level science projects while simultaneously needing to convince my parents to let me marry the man I loved, that I chose to continue my education further and pursue two undergraduate degrees; one in neurobiology, and one in women’s studies.

How Did Combining Women’s Studies and Neuroscience Affect Your Perspective?

UC Irvine provided me with the foundation I needed in both science and feminism. I took feminism courses and met smart progressive women whom I’m friends with to this day. Coming from the East, one of my key takeaways was that you can’t apply Western feminism ideas to the East without some major modifications. I found that not all women, but I think a lot of them, particularly women who come from a deep patriarchal culture like mine, were very afraid of change. These women were so rooted in their culture that they forgot to see the alternatives, and instead of improving and expanding opportunities for other women, they victimize women and hold them back. My understanding of emotional neuroscience helped me understand how women have different resources to achieve the same outcomes as men in every-day life. But because there are not enough of us in academia or other fields, these tools are generalized as weak, ineffective and ridiculous. Women are not from Venus, they are from Earth – we just need more representation. So, I have become a huge proponent of mentoring South Asian women get to leadership positions. When I say South Asian, I particularly mean those from Muslim countries, because there are a lot of Indian women in leadership roles, but you don’t see nearly as many Pakistani women in leadership roles. I think this creates a huge deficit for all of society, and I spend a lot of my time giving talks on these issues and mentoring young women in STEM careers.

How Did Gender Affect Your Experiences as a Student?

It was when I completed my undergraduate work that things became difficult. One of my undergraduate advisors would berate me and tell me I would never get into grad school, that my work wasn’t good enough, and he became emotionally abusive. I don’t think he treated the male undergrads in this way, but I did hear that other females had similar issues with him. It was difficult to overcome and affected my confidence. However, I was accepted to the Neuroscience PhD program at USC and UCLA which helped me rise from the ashes – so to speak. My PhD in neuroscience at USC was a gloriously nurturing experience. It was then that I got into structural and functional brain imaging, and where I was lucky to have Dr. Joseph Hellige as my PhD advisor. Hellige probably is one of the most feminist men I’ve ever met and really helped me understand the biopsychological basis of behavior. While completing my PhD, I became particularly interested in the impact of neuro-linguistics on Alzheimer’s Disease and aging, and decided to pursue this field for my post-doctoral fellowship.

What Affect Do You Think Gender Has on Career Development?

It was shortly after I completed my PhD thesis that I gave birth to my son. One of the things that I quickly learned was that as a woman researcher or doctor, it’s nearly impossible to take more than 6 weeks off. Everyone says you can, but even many of the women I’m mentoring who’ve had a child, found it extremely difficult to return to work in anything longer than that. Some of this has to do with our maternity leave but also what you put on your CV if you take a year off. When I was trying to find a post-doc position, I felt a lot of pressure not to take time off to be with the baby. So, when my son was 6 weeks old, I put him in daycare. I took a job at UCLA, which was a significant distance from my home, which was incredibly stressful. I would race across town exhausted, and pump milk during the commute, and overall it was a traumatic experience. Putting my son in daycare so early is probably my life’s biggest regret, even now when I think about it, it just breaks my heart. At that time it was unheard of in my community for a mother to do this to her child so the support was non-existent.

When I got to Stanford for my post-doc, I discovered that gender issues went beyond my own career development, but also impacted the results of much of the research work I was doing. For example, one of the first projects I worked on was assessing the expertise effect on flight simulator performance by studying the brain activity in pilots. The project brought together a variety of disciplines I was particularly interested in – psychology, computer science and neuroscience. One of the biggest problems we ran into was that we didn’t have enough female pilots to study, so we were only getting information on a segment of the population. As it turns out, not having enough females for our studies at the VA is a problem we run into often as well.

Did You Ever Feel Singled Out at Work Because You’re a Woman?

There are still, to this day, many stereotypes about women scientists; like that they are absent minded, or will not marry, or that they have short hair or don’t wear make-up. I see articles regularly on my news feeds with headlines such as “Why Women in Science Don’t Cut Their Hair Right,” or “How Women Should Dress at Work.” These stereotypes persist and they negatively affect both women who fit into them and those who don’t. I’m very feminine, and I make a point of wearing dresses, wearing my hair down, wearing high heels. Looking feminine is my strength, it gives me a lot of confidence, and yes, people notice it, but I refuse to be any other way. I firmly believe that a woman doesn’t have to look or act like a man to be successful. It seems to me that women can’t win, we’re either put down for not being feminine enough or for being too feminine. Beyond the physical aspect, there are other ways that can be used to make one feel singled out. Being cut off repeatedly in conversation is a big one. I’ve also been called a variety of things that I know a man who behaved in the same way, would not be. Words such as aggressive, emotional, hysterical, manipulative, blindly ambitious and tempting. It’s offensive and hurtful, but I must continue to do my work and do the best job I can, but above all - be myself.

Do You Have Hope that Things Are Changing for the Better?

There’s this attitude that women can now do whatever we want, but I don’t think it’s true for most women. I’ve certainly had to fight to get to where I am, and I still fight. And despite being in the U.S., and being an accomplished career woman, there’s a sense by others that if I’m successful at my career that automatically means I can’t also be a good mother. I used to think that men and women were equal, but they’re not. They are equal in their outcomes, but they use different strategies to get there. We should all be given the same opportunities so that we can employ our individual strengths and strategies to reach our goals – which can be one and the same. I also think it’s critical for us as a society to find a way to support and provide for new mothers, so that they don’t have to sacrifice their careers to spend time with their baby. This is of course a relative opinion based on the pressures of patriarchal society where being a mother makes you a complete woman. There are highly successful women who have broken the glass ceiling and motherhood is not important to them. One day, our society may accept all women for who they are despite their fertilized egg counts.  There are things that I did when I was growing up that I did without question, and I accepted them. But when I look at my eight-year-old daughter she has a confidence at a very young age that I did not have. She doesn’t feel the need to have everyone like her, and she’s not so worried about what others think she should or shouldn’t do because she’s a girl. Perhaps that’s a good sign for the future.

What Should We Tell the Next Generation of Girls?

I’ve been teaching my own daughter to say no to social norms she doesn’t agree with or that allow her to reduce her functionality in society. I think we should question things and try to pave the way for others. If there is unfair treatment one must protest and voice their opinion. I would say to young girls the same things I tell my daughter: question everything, don’t get married early, don’t ever settle intellectually – always keep learning and pursuing knowledge – enjoy your life, and never regress to the mean.