Surgeons volunteer to help girls find passion in STEM fields

Hundreds of middle school girls had the chance to tie surgical knots, suture and practice laparoscopic surgery April 9 with the assistance of volunteers from Baylor College of Medicine Department of Surgery.

Dr. Lauren Kane, assistant professor of surgery – division of congenital heart surgery and Dr. Brandi Scully, surgery resident at Baylor.

The opportunity was part of an exhibit at the Reach for the Stars! STEM Festival for Girls. Event volunteer Dr. Brandi Scully, a resident in the department of surgery, discusses working as a surgeon and scientist and encouraging girls to find paths in science, technology, math and engineering to pursue careers in the following Q&A.

Q: What advice would you give girls who are interested in going into to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers?

Dr. Scully: First, find a mentor. I’ve had incredible mentors of both genders, but having female mentors like Dr. Lauren Kane (one of a handful of female congenital heart surgeons in the country), Dr. Mary Brandt (one of the first women who trained in the Michael E. DeBakey Department of Surgery, now professor of surgery in the division of pediatric surgery) and Dr. Jane Grande-Allen (a professor in the department of bioengineering at Rice University, in whose lab I did my M.S. in bioengineering) has been very important to my development as a female surgeon-scientist. They have helped guide me through this challenging career path.

Q: What kind of unique contributions can women make to the STEM field?

Dr. Scully: The main point is that women need to go into the STEM fields, because if they don’t, we lose half of the talent pool. Surgery programs across the country have gone in the past 20 years from completely male-dominated places to programs that have 50 percent female residents in some places (like at Baylor). Women now make up half of medical school classes, and if they don’t go into surgery in the same rates as men, we lose a lot of potential in the surgical field. We lose what their contributions could have been.

Q: How important are outreach efforts such as the Ride STEM festival in getting girls interested in the field?

Dr. Scully: I think they are incredibly important. First of all, just to see a big group of female surgeons lets these girls know that yes, there are female surgeons, which means that they could be a surgeon too. Having them try the hands-on surgical skills hopefully piqued their curiosity, and made them consider a surgical career in the future.

Q: What kinds of questions and comments did you get from the girls in attendance?

Dr. Scully: A lot of girls mentioned that laparoscopic surgery, knot tying and suturing is a lot harder than it looks! But at the same time, even with just a few minutes of practice, they were able to start doing it. If they dropped a peg (on the laparoscopic trainer) I encouraged them to stop and think about how they were going to pick it back up, and they all were able to do it!  The problem solving in STEM fields is one of the greatest sources of satisfaction and one of its biggest draws.

I had my four-month-old daughter with me when I was setting the exhibit up (I also have a four-year-old son), and I couldn’t help but think, this is her first exposure to what I do.  More importantly, the girls who walked by and saw me in my white coat setting up the laparoscopic trainer and holding a baby could make the connection that it is possible to juggle a surgical career and family. It’s not easy, but it’s possible!

Check out photos from the Reach for the Stars! STEM Festival and learn more about the event.

-By Dana Benson

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