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Women in Medicine Spotlight: Jeanne Marrazzo

Jeanne Marrazzo, MD, shares advice and reflects on what has inspired and challenged her as a woman in medicine.

Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo

What is your name, title, and department here at UAB?

I’m Jeanne Marrazzo and I am the director of the Division of Infectious Diseases, which is in the Department of Medicine.

Where did you attend medical school?

I went to medical school at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia.

Why did you decide to get into medicine?

I decided to get into medicine probably through more circuitous routes than many. I really liked biology growing up and actually thought I’d be a marine biologist or an ornithologist, because I really like being outside. My mom was a nurse and was an incredible role model. She worked in an ER for a long time, and then in the later stages of her career she became an oncology nurse. In the 1980s she was working in northeastern Pennsylvania, and because she was an oncology nurse, she took care of a lot of people, mostly young gay men who were coming back to that area to die with their families. So I got to see her in a role that was very different. It really emphasized the humanism that I think embodies the best parts of medicine. There were people at that time who were refusing to take care of those patients, so my mom was really strong and uncompromising about the fact that caring for them was her job, and she was going to do it. She was a great role model and it really informed my decision to go into health care.

What is your leading charge or project here at UAB?

I lead the Division of Infectious Diseases, which has about 45 faculty, over 300 employees, and a very large clinical mission. We provide infectious disease consultation to all the services, including transplant. We also run the HIV program here. We’re very involved in infection prevention – pretty much everything you can imagine involving the potential for or active infection. We oversee a lot of clinical activity, and we’re always looking to grow that, improve it, and help people with their transition from the inpatient to the outpatient side. There are a lot of efforts to get patients out of the hospital safely sooner, so we’re working on a lot on inpatient/outpatient antibiotic therapy for people who need long-term antibiotics.

We also have a large research program. We have many millions of dollars in NIH funding, funding from the CDC, and funding from industry. Some of our areas of strength are in the HIV area, in fungal infections, and sexually transmitted infections, as well as women’s health. There is a big mandate to grow that here and globally, so we want to have a big presence here in Alabama, particularly around efforts to end AIDS in Alabama. But we also want to bring our expertise and capacity to other parts of the world, where the need in terms of infectious disease morbidity/mortality is huge, particularly South Africa. We have projects in Uganda, Kenya, and some other places. We have a nine-week tropical medicine course that we run every year in Lima, Peru, called The Gorgas Course, through which physicians or other providers can become certified in tropical medicine.

The third pillar in our efforts is education. A very popular rotation is to work in Infectious Diseases with us. We have incredible teachers, and our great fellows are very enthusiastic about training the next generation of infectious disease specialists.

Do you think that being a woman helps you in your job?

Being a woman physician has been interesting. There has been concern for a long time – but more recently since the #Me Too movement – that the path forward for women is not clear, especially in terms of securing leadership positions or being in the room where decisions about leadership are made. There has been a lot of progress, but we’re still definitely behind where we need to be. There have been a number of surveys and analyses, looking at very reliable databases, showing that even in fields such as infectious diseases – which is about 38% women – we still get paid less at every single level, whether in academic medicine or private practice. Moreover, there aren’t a lot of women here in the United States who have endowed chairs or tenures.

I think the next stage is to empower women to recognize that they can take on these leadership roles. Like the most effective men, women make fantastic leaders because of a high degree of emotional intelligence and a very strong commitment to working with diverse groups to get things done. It is very much a commitment to getting things done. I often I think about the job and the outcome as opposed to being about self-promotion and self-advancement. It’s a complicated topic. I have made it part of my mission to create a culture in my division where we have a lot of incredible young women, and I want them to know that they really can do whatever they want. I hope to be a good role model for them. I also want a culture in which the young men in my division feel the same way and are proud to be in that kind of environment. So ultimately, I hope to get to that sort of space. It’s not like that everywhere. I’m not saying we’re perfect, but I think we are changing our expectations of what you should be like and what you can achieve given the limitations we experience.

What would you say to a young woman who aspires to be a physician or surgeon or work in health care?

I would probably tell them the same thing I would say to a young man, because I think the playing field is getting more even. We now know many medical school classes are easily 50/50. I think you’re going to see a progressive culture change, to the point that it’s not really going to matter. We also note that a lot of young men are doing a fair amount of family care and are much more involved in child rearing than when I was training. So, my advice to both parties would be to think carefully about what you want to achieve for your work but also for your life. Think proactively about your work/life balance. If you know that being a surgeon and working from 6 am to 6 pm or later is not compatible with being a family provider, then you have to recognize that. I also think that everyone needs to know how to advocate for themselves and not be shut down, not be talked over, and not be ignored. That applies to gender bias but also to seniority and ageism.

What are some of the struggles you face as a woman in medicine?

There are a couple of challenges worth noting. First, there aren’t always obvious, available mentors who look like us. There are fantastic women leaders in medicine, but there aren’t as many of them as there are men. It’s very easy in some environments for young men to find mentors who look like them, act like them, talk like them, and who came from the same place. They have similar aspirations and similar values. For women, it is harder just because there aren’t quite as many, so my advice is to work really hard to find somebody you want to emulate. Why do you think this woman is worth talking to, introducing yourself to, emulating, impressing? Most people really want to help, especially when you get into more influential positions. You can really network on behalf of your mentor in a way that makes it happen for them. That’s an advantage that well-connected trainees have; they have advocates and mentors who know everyone else in the field and can connect you with whomever you need to be connected with. Don’t be shy about trying to find someone who can really be your advocate. Of course you have to be worthy, do all of the hard work, and make it worth their time. If you are serious, it should not be a problem.

The other thing I would say is that women sometimes don’t naturally sit at the table. They will sit at chairs on the side of the room. They’ll sort of come in and assume that there are people who are more important who sit at the table. Sit at the table! Don’t hesitate to feel like you have a place in the mainstream dialogue. Again, putting yourself out there is a really good thing to do, as long as it is substantiated by talent and commitment.

Do you have a strong mentor, and, if so, how has she helped you in your practice?

I’ve been very fortunate to have many strong female mentors. Before I came to UAB, I was in Seattle at the University of Washington for many years. We were very lucky to have several full professors who were women, so I thought that was the norm. Turns out that isn’t the case, even for many relatively advanced academic medical centers. I‘ve had the benefit of advice and advocacy from some extraordinary women who really changed my career – people who got me to be on study sections and gave me feedback when I needed to course correct with regard to research or other activities. So again, I can’t emphasize enough how important mentorship is. Sometimes you may have to seek them out at another institution.

To watch more of Dr. Marrazzo’s story and learn what has inspired and challenged her as a woman in medicine, click here.