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MUSC Annual Report 2011-2012

Medical School Dean Masters Work, Life Balance

On College of Medicine Dean Etta Driscoll Pisano's bucket list is an unusual item. She wants to write a play on the changing role of women in society.

It's no wonder. One of the strongest role models in her life was her mother, who was an electrical engineer running an office of 30 men in charge of computerizing the telephone system. When she married Pisano's father in 1955, unfortunately they let her go from her employment.

"It was a different time back then, but I'm sure that must have been incredibly difficult – to have to choose between her professional life and her personal life. I like to think that if she had the opportunity she would have rejoined the workforce. My mother passed away when I was 15 – and as the oldest of seven children I gained a lot of responsibility at a young age. I believe that experience shaped who I am to a large degree."

    Etta Pisano with husband, Dr. Jan Kylstra, and Children: Carolyn, Schuyler, Jimmy and Marijke
As the first female dean of the College of Medicine, Pisano, M.D., certainly has learned to handle tough issues within her area, at her former institution, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and throughout her life.

It also instilled in her a desire to stop women from dying too young – and that is one of the reasons she selected breast cancer as an area of focus. It is this same drive and desire, energy and strong work ethic that has pushed Pisano throughout her career to excel as an accomplished physician-scientist, innovator and balanced leader.

At MUSC, Pisano has already made history as the institution's first female medicine dean. Although her decision to lead South Carolina's oldest medical school was not easy, she felt the opportunities at MUSC were too irresistible to pass up.

The College of Medicine is a great institution with rich traditions and a proud history, and I felt that there was much more that could be accomplished here across all of the institution's missions. The vision outlined by President Greenberg and the board of trustees mirrored my own values and aspirations for this institution. I am very glad to have been given this opportunity and am very much enjoying being here."

Pisano joined an elite sorority of about a dozen women deans leading the country's 126 accredited medical schools with her appointment in 2010. Her leadership comes at a challenging time where deans in academic medicine face pressure with difficult issues including state funding cuts, reduced federal research funding, doctor shortages and the implementation of Health Care Reform.

Mark Sothmann, Ph.D., Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost, is among campus leadership who works closely with Pisano and MUSC's six college deans on a variety of programs such as the College of Medicine's progress with the institution's new funds flow financial model and alignment with the 2010 Strategic Plan.

"Dr. Pisano has one of the most difficult jobs at any academic health center. The challenges are immense with such forces as the changing fiscal climate and health care reform.  Being one of just a few women in these positions nationally, her successes at MUSC will be hugely symbolic not just regionally but across the country," Sothmann said.

A preeminent researcher and internationally renowned expert in the field of breast imaging, Pisano made advances in breast cancer screening with her landmark, multi-center Digital Mammographic Imaging Screening Trial.

The trial tested the diagnostic accuracy of digital and film mammography.

She and her research team also developed new technologies with diffraction enhanced imaging and other radiological imaging breakthroughs to improve breast cancer detection in women.

Pisano is regarded as an expert in the field of women's imaging and recognized among the top 20 most influential people in radiology. In 2008, she was elected to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, considered as one of the highest honors in the fields of health and medicine.

Along with being an accomplished physician and researcher, Pisano has proven herself as an advocate and pathfinder for women's issues in academic medicine and higher education.

Pisano credits her parents, the nuns who helped educate her as a child and other successful professionals for laying down a strong foundation in her early years. Aside from her mother's influence, she also learned much from her father, a radiologist, who had a strong presence in shaping the direction of her life. As a pre-teen, Pisano remembers her father introducing her to several successful female physicians and colleagues who were successful at balancing both career and family. Meeting and talking to these professionals, she realized how possible it was for a woman to have a family and be a successful physician.

The setbacks her mother faced with gender stereotypes and lack of choices for women devoted to raising a family back then were difficult, but not so different than some of the challenges Pisano herself has faced as a woman in the 1980s launching a career in medicine and science.

There was often the perception that a woman couldn't have a medical career and be a wife and mother. As a junior faculty member, I had to assert myself to be allowed to work part-time for several years while I had young children at home – I encountered resistance, because that was not the norm.  But it was during those years that I got my first grants and learned how to be a researcher – they were incredibly productive years."

Among her goals, Pisano wants to improve collaborative relationships across colleges and throughout the campus. She also wants to develop mentorship opportunities among faculty and students, strengthen research and advance translational discoveries to development, increase fundraising within the college and other efforts.   She is co-founder of her company, NextRay.

She's also focused on making an impact on women and promoting diversity in leadership within her college and across campus.

"MUSC has been very forward thinking in selecting women leaders for many of its highest leadership positions.  This demonstrates MUSC's commitment to diversity, and I believe the university benefits by having a diverse leadership. I have always been an ardent supporter of this and am committed to maintaining and increasing diversity among the leadership in the College of Medicine."

During her 20-year tenure at UNC Chapel Hill, Pisano emerged as a passionate advocate and champion for women faculty, women in leadership and diversity projects. 

In 2007, she founded the university's Working on Women in Science program, an initiative established to enhance the recruitment, retention and promotion of women faculty through leadership training, mentoring and networking. She led and supported UNC's Association of Professional Women in Medical School. Most notably, she chaired UNC's Committee on the Status of Women, which addressed tenure clock issues and gender-based salary inequities among faculty.

"I believe it's important that we accommodate life changes for both women and men – to allow our faculty to both have a career and raise children. MUSC does not have a 'tenure clock' for its faculty, so there is not the same degree of pressure that exists at many other institutions for faculty to move 'up or out.'  This 'tenure clock' time period typically coincides with when faculty would be having and raising their children."

The tenure clock extension policy in higher education is defined as an adjustment of extra time granted to a tenure-track faculty member due to circumstances and conditions in the management of family responsibilities or health issues.

As dean, Pisano also is challenged with attracting and retaining talented women and minority recruits who choose an academic career. Within her own college she advocates for the presence of women and minorities in leadership groups, committees and work panels.

"I'm a believer in the wisdom of crowds. It's important that a variety of viewpoints are heard and that we hear from people who think differently – representing a diversity of generations, race, gender, background and specialty. This is the key to making well-reasoned decisions."

To maintain an academic career pipeline for women and minorities in her college, faculty are encouraged to attend professional development conferences, participate in the Executive Leadership in Academic Medicine program or attend Association of American Medical Colleges workshops and meetings.

Managing the work-family balance at this level is something that Pisano has learned to master well. The mother of four children and the wife of Jan Kylstra, M.D., a retinal surgeon and professor of ophthalmology at the Storm Eye Institute, Pisano cherishes the love and support from her family especially at this stage of her career. She also values the talented and hard-working team that works with her every day. 

"I have always felt it imperative to strike a balance in my whole life, not just my work life. It's also important to recognize one's limitations."

In the 2 years that she's been dean, Pisano and her team have achieved many accomplishments. She smiles as she describes it as an exciting time for everyone in the College of Medicine.

Since her arrival, she's met and talked to medicine faculty, staff and students to discuss issues and set priorities. During this period, she and her staff have recruited more than a dozen new leaders and faculty; collaborated with a faculty-led committee to implement the college's Research Strategic Plan; and initiated the hospital's new Clinical Enterprise Strategic Plan sponsored by the College of Medicine, MUSC Physicians and MUHA, as well as multiple projects.  She's currently guiding faculty and staff in preparing for the medical school's reaccreditation with the Liaison Committee on Medical Education scheduled for January 2013.

On sharing her advice with colleagues and women, Pisano's words are wise and practical. "It's important to have strong support systems, both in your personal life and professional life. Reach out and learn from others. Have good mentors and be a mentor to other people."


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