When Drs. Cecilia Giachelli and Elizabeth Swisher learned they had won the 2019 UW Medicine Award for Excellence in Mentoring Women Faculty, they were both surprised. Because mentoring comes so naturally to them, they were unaware of their influence on the careers and lives of so many colleagues.
Both women are also remarkably similar in other ways. They are trailblazers who have reached the pinnacle of academic success while serving as role models, especially for women, on maintaining a work-life balance. They each have two daughters.
Dr. Giachelli holds the W. Hunter and Dorothy Simpson endowed chair in the Department of Bioengineering. She is internationally recognized for her work in the area of vascular calcification related to chronic kidney disease and atherosclerosis.
Dr. Swisher is the division director of gynecologic oncology in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. She is the co-leader of the national Stand Up to Cancer Ovarian Cancer Dream Team, and she is medical director of the Breast and Ovarian Cancer Prevention Program at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.
Here is what they told The Huddle about their careers and mentoring.
What brought you to UW Medicine?
Giachelli: I came to the UW School of Medicine for a PhD in pharmacology and stayed on. As a post-doc, I began working on cardiovascular disease in Stephen Schwartz’s pathology lab. At the same time, the UW was becoming a center for molecular biology under the leadership of Ed Krebs. I became interested in the buildup of bonelike mineral in soft tissues, which causes heart valve problems among many others. This led me to collaborate with the biomaterials group in Bioengineering, and I helped them apply for an 11-year grant from the National Sciences Foundation. I was the deputy director of the grant and then had the opportunity to join the faculty in Bioengineering.
Swisher: I was a resident here and liked both Seattle and the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. When I was looking for a faculty job after completing my fellowship in gynecologic oncology at Washington University in St. Louis, I wanted protected research time to establish a lab and be a clinician scientist. The department had just received a Women’s Reproductive Health Research training grant from the National Institutes of Health, which guaranteed research time and was a perfect match for my goals.
How did you learn about mentoring?
Swisher: You cannot be a good mentor if you have not had good mentors yourself. I was fortunate to have Dr. Mary-Claire King as my mentor when I joined the faculty. In addition to helping with my research, Mary-Claire gave me a lot of life advice, which was equally important. Dr. Barbara Goff, our department chair, was my mentor when I was a resident. She has always supported my goal of being a clinician scientist, and she is a role model for my new leadership position as division head.
Giachelli: In my own career, I’ve always had a lot of mentors. I like to get a lot of information so I tend to ask a lot of questions. It’s my personality, and it has helped me make good choices. As a mentor, I want to help people succeed, and it’s now about 80% of my job as department chair. I support faculty in advancing their careers by helping them navigate pathways to get grants and be financially sound. I also keep an open door so that they are comfortable asking for my help.
How do you address problems or negative situations with your mentees?
Giachelli: When people have problems, I find that it generally involves priorities, such as worrying too much about details rather than the big picture. I like to help people reprioritize when they are stuck. We talk about the best way to spend their time so that they put effort into the work that will be most beneficial to their careers. For instance, while it’s an honor to be appointed to an NIH study section, it’s not a good idea for junior faculty when it takes time away from getting a grant or completing a publication. In these situations, I teach people to say “no” and reassure them that they will have time for these professional activities in the future.
Swisher: The people I mentor are all hard working and capable. If they are having problems, I help them put together a career development plan with realistic goals. We also talk honestly about their weaknesses in terms of promotion. We might strategize about how they can get more papers published. Do they need help with writing? Do they need bigger blocks of time for research? What skills do they need to develop? My role is to help them with problem solving. It’s never negative when you want to help people.
Has your approach to mentoring changed over time?
Swisher: Early on, I felt that mentoring only occurred when you have direct contact with people at your own institution. My definition now is much broader, and I realize it’s a matter of perspective. Even in relationships with people that I view as peers at other institutions across the country, I may be seen as a mentor. I also recognize that different people need different things. Sometimes, it’s just a hug.
Giachelli: One big change came when I realized that I can be a role model. My parents immigrated to the United States, and I was the first in my family to go to college. I’m married and raised two daughters with my husband. It’s important for women and first-generation students to see that people like them can succeed. It really hit home when I had daughters, and they saw me as a role model for their lives and careers.
What advice do you give to women who want to have a career in science and raise a family?
Giachelli: I tell them to learn how to manage their time efficiently. It’s amazing how much you can accomplish during the day if you want to have dinner with your family every night. I also encourage them to ask for assistance and learn how to delegate. I like to reassure them that kids in daycare turn out fine. It also helps to have a supportive husband or partner!
Swisher: I help them with life-family balance. People are always looking for models of how to make it work for them. My best advice came from Mary-Claire King at a public lecture. She said that time is the most precious thing you have. Do the things you enjoy and find therapeutic, but let go of the things you don’t enjoy and don’t have time to do. I also recognize that academic institutions must offer support and flexibility to women during their reproductive years, so that they don’t have to give up their careers to have a family.
What does the award mean to you?
Swisher: It’s very special. When I received the award announcement, I didn’t notice that it included the supporting letters from my mentees. When I sent it to my mom, she said, “those letters are so amazing,” and I got a little teary. It’s rewarding to feel that you have had a positive influence on somebody’s career and that they took the time to write the letters.
Giachelli: It’s one of my most important and meaningful awards because it shows that I've actually touched people as a mentor, and they've appreciated it. I’ve had so many mentors, and I’m so glad I’ve been able to give back to other people. Reading the letters in support of my nomination brought tears to my eyes. I’m also very proud that my mentees have been so successful in their own careers.