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Many people don’t fully know the impact they have on others until their work is formally recognized. So it was for Kristine Calhoun, MD, and Judith Pauwels, MD — until they each received a 2020 UW Medicine Award for Excellence in Mentoring Women Faculty.  

Peers and current and former mentees nominate people for the award, then recipients are chosen annually by the Dean’s Standing Committee for Women in Medicine and Science. 

Both Calhoun and Pauwels have spent years with their heads down, doing the work and making a difference. Calhoun, a surgeon and director of Medical Student Surgical Education for the Department of Surgery, grew up in the Tacoma area and attended UW as an undergraduate and medical student. After a fellowship in Los Angeles, she had an opportunity to return to UW Medicine as a faculty member. She jumped at the chance. 

“My mentor in LA wanted me to stay there, but then he realized my heart was back here at UW. I’d received so much from UW and wanted to give back,” she says. 

Pauwels, associate director of Program Development for WWAMI Region Family Medicine Residency Network, had a different journey: Originally from Indiana, she came to UW midcareer after spending 20 years in Wisconsin, including time in full-spectrum rural family medicine. 

“It was definitely a change for me to think about coming to Seattle and a university environment; it was not one I initially thought I would do. But I was attracted by the mission here, the people and the long history of commitment to the WWAMI region and rural medicine. It was a win-win for my being able to use my skills and interests,” she says. 

We talked with Calhoun and Pauwels about what mentoring and this recognition mean to them.  

What is your approach to mentoring? 

Calhoun: My approach is different with each mentee. You have to read the room. I mentor interns, medical students, residents and junior faculty and they all have different needs. When interns come in, they’re excited and they barely know how to tie a knot, so you have to start with the foundation and basics. With second, third and fourth years, it’s different, and with chief residents, they’re almost finished with their education.  

Particularly now in the COVID-19 era, with everything being on Zoom and not seeing people, our sense of isolation has grown, so mentoring is more important than ever just to be there for one another and help one another. Mentoring is a two-way street; I learn from my mentees and try to keep an open mind. 

Pauwels: The concept of mentorship in a formal sense is newer to me. I don’t think of myself that way. I’ve done a lot of work with residents and other program directors in supporting their careers, thinking through career pathways and problem solving in ways that would now be called mentorship. 

For residents, there are a lot of intense moments around complex medical needs, so it’s about working through that with them when they’re extremely scared about what’s going on and supporting them rather than taking over the situation. It’s important for them to dig deep within themselves and take control and own the situation and do what they need to do. For program directors, their roles are unique in the environment they work in, their responsibilities and stresses and questions are ones where they don’t know who to turn to in their local environment. My role at UW allows me to be a safe harbor for being able to ask difficult questions, because I have that experience and have wrestled with those questions myself.  

Each of us is capable of, and has the opportunity and responsibility, to mentor others. I’d love to see everyone think they could also do this work. It’s an important part of how we foster each other’s careers. 

What is the most challenging thing about mentoring? The most rewarding? 

Calhoun: Mentoring is challenging, but it’s always important to remember it’s the mentee who matters; it’s not about you. It can be challenging to figure out how to help mentees in more sensitive situations. I’ve had people approach me about a discriminatory practice that was going on. How do you protect your mentee and still get results for them? I’ve done it now a couple of times and it’s always a tricky balance. As a mentor, you put yourself on the line a bit and there’s sometimes fear of retaliation. 

The most rewarding is seeing a mentee succeed, whether that’s getting a grant or fellowship or getting their paper published. The reward is seeing when people are struggling and helping them over the hurdle; not fixing it for them but helping them get around it themselves. 

Pauwels: In a lot of situations, the most important discussions are around topics that are difficult, that for the mentee get at the heart of something vulnerable for them. It’s important as a mentor to make sure what I’m doing is going to be helpful and not create harm for them, that I use all of my intuition and skills and am able to ask questions with them. 

The opportunities of mentoring are helping people gain those new insights, have those ‘Aha!’ moments, embrace thinking about things in a different way, learn from it and develop a new way of feeling capable and strong. Helping someone else become skilled and capable is rewarding because they’re our future. 

Given that women are underrepresented in STEM, why do you think it’s important for women in STEM to have other women as mentors?

Calhoun: Even though 50% of matriculates to medical school are women, as you move up the ranks, those numbers decline. I lead the Department of Surgery’s Women’s Council, and we did a career barriers survey because we wanted to get an idea of how people of all genders would respond. The results showed there are issues. The thought has been that the pipeline has been fixed and we’re done, but that’s wrong. It’s a leaky pipeline. Having women mentor other women is important to patch the pipeline. 

When I started my career, there were fewer women, and my mentors were men. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, but there are some specific issues where women mentor women better. A female resident isn’t going to go to her male attending and ask about pumping, she’s going to ask someone who’s been through it. 

Pauwels: As a mentor, I have not distinguished women vs. men; I have mentored as many men in my career in the same way as women. I think so many people have vulnerabilities and needs. People in medicine face stresses on so many levels, and academic medicine can be a competitive environment. I think folks experience difficulties finding colleagues who they trust in a way to be able to ask the difficult questions about themselves and their career pathways. When you’re struggling, you need someone you feel safe with to strategize an effective and positive solution, and a lot of folks don’t have that. 

What does this award mean to you? 

Calhoun: When I received the award, I was very surprised. I’m not a flashy member of the department. I was always a mid- to back row person in medical school, I never willingly raised my hand to answer questions; I was more of a sponge, sitting back and listening. Public speaking used to terrify me, but I’ve grown into that role a bit. It’s very gratifying to know that I’m helping. If I can help people forge a slightly easier path than mine was, it means the world.  

Pauwels: It was emotional to have received it; it was totally unexpected. It was amazing particularly to read comments from my colleagues who wrote about my work. You go through your work and do the best you can, without stopping to think about it so much. To get the award out of the blue and realize I’ve actually had an impact, wow.  

I sent my family details about the award just to share it with them. I come from a working-class farmer background; my family are not physicians and professionals, they’re in the Midwest, and they don’t know what I do on a day-to-day level. So many of them wrote back and said it was so cool. The award ended up being a personal way of sharing with my family what my work life has been about.