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Women of Stanford Neurosurgery: Odette Harris, MD, MPH

Stanford Neurosciences Institute, Odette Harris

Odette Harris, MD, MPH

Associate Professsor, Neurosurgery

Director, Brain Injury, Department of Neurosurgery

Stanford's Department of Neurosurgery hopes that by sharing these women's stories, they may inspire more young girls to pursue careers in science, and eliminate some of the myths associated with women pursuing one of the most complex and demanding professions in medicine. 

When were you first interested in science?

I was more interested in math rather than science, because when I was in grade school I’m not sure I understood science as a concept rather than as an integrated component to mathematics. In high school I had an interest in science and did well in science. I went to an all-girls school and was taught science by a woman, and really quite enjoyed it –all those clichés about girl schools and empowering girls and women, I think they’re true. It was then, at this all-girls high school, that I developed a huge love for the physical sciences and chemistry. I don’t know that I ever had a concrete voicing of “I want to pursue science,” I wanted to become a doctor, and these were the necessary things. I had an interest in biology and was quite good in biology and knew I was going to major in the sciences in order to meet that interest.

Did gender pose a problem when you began to pursue science more seriously?

Race and gender are inextricably linked, and I think Dartmouth had a lot of issues with race at the time when I entered as a freshman, so I would say that my focus was more on that then on gender per say, and for me it’s hard to tease out which is which. I took and excelled in the sciences and was a presidential scholar in chemistry and ended up doing much more in the sciences then even I had expected. I can’t say it was a thought-out plan or path per say, like “despite all the odds I’m going to pursue science,” it was more an encouragement to follow what you’re interested in. But in full disclosure, I was also very interested in literature and writing, and creative writing, and I pursued that as well at Dartmouth. I also was lucky in that I didn’t feel like I had to give up anything to be a science major. I surrounded myself with a lot of strong women in college, and I was in a sorority, and so I never had that “a-ha” moment in college.

Did things change as you advanced in your field?

Medical school was probably the turning point both in terms of gender, and race. In my class I was the only black woman and so that was a turning point, but I didn’t feel singled out, per say. There were disparities in terms of gender, and there were disparities in terms of race. It wasn’t all smooth sailing. Residency was probably the biggest gender difference; at that time there was only one other woman in residency, and she was the year ahead of me. So, when she left the program I was the only woman in the program for a while. It was still an excellent experience, and I have overwhelmingly positive memories of medical school and residency. I also have very positive memories of mentors that I had at Stanford, and of the encouragement that I got to go into Neurosurgery from people at Stanford. My mentor was a white man who is blond and as East Coast as can be, and he owns that perspective, and I couldn’t have had a better mentor. I don’t think I needed a black woman mentor to know that I could be who I am. Society may look at him and assume, well, he’s just a white male, what does he have to add to this picture? But, in fact, he’s mentored me in a way that no one else could have because of the depth of his compassion, and care, and drive. I don’t know that I could get that from anyone else, and his skin color was irrelevant, as was mine to his experience of mentoring me. On the face of it, he’d be the least likely candidate to resonate with my experience, but he was the best candidate for it in the end. So, I hope that I too stand as a mentor for women of all colors, for students of all colors. One of the best parts of my job is that the people who come to work with me are all different, men and women, black students, white students, Indian students. I mentor a whole spectrum of people, and I love that.

What parts have gender and race played for you as a doctor?

You’re black, you’re a woman, you’re in an all-white hospital - patients are constantly reminding you of that. I could list probably a hundred different experiences where I was asked to empty the garbage, or take out the trays, or clean out the toilets, when I was just there to use the bathroom myself. My existence is not one where race and gender can be teased, and everything I do, every day, every experience, that’s a part of who I am. I don’t think that many women will say to you that they walk around feeling stressed by being a woman, in fact, I think many would be hard-pressed to kind of pin-point a specific issue. But we know from experience that the stress is there. When I talk to my other colleagues, people don’t question their accomplishments or ask them for their CV, or say “are you here to take out the trays”, or talk around them, or above them. It’s only when you see it in that context that it resonates. Sometimes it’s other people that will point it out to you, like my co-resident used to always say to the patient, “actually, she’s our chief,” and I used to think it was funny, but now I think it was a real moment of their acknowledging that they’re not going to stand for it, as men.

Do you think being a woman brings something unique to science?

I do, but I also think that everybody has something. In answering the question, well, should I say, I do think women have more to offer? I think we’re then discounting the male perspective. My answer is that I feel like we all have that little slither, that unique thing that we bring, regardless of what we look like, regardless of what gender we are. We need to be bringing that diverse perspective and owning that, and I think far too often we’re just part of an echo chamber, and we’re just resounding what the majority is saying. You could only win by increasing the diversity, be it women, be it religious minorities, be it from the standpoint of race, whatever, I just feel like that’s a win, cause you’re seeing it from a different place. I don’t think I do it better than men, I think I do it differently, and I don’t think they do it better than me either. I think they’re each valid and need to be owned and celebrated, and I think that’s where society is going, hopefully. I think, at least at the medical school, what I can gather from my own experience, is that people are open to the fact that all these voices should be part of the conversation, and I think that’s a win.

What do you think is the biggest barrier for women in science?

If you look across the University, and not just Stanford, there is a problem with women in leadership, in terms of the numbers. People used to argue there was a problem with the pipeline, but we are now at 50/50 or in some places more than 50/50. If you look at university chairs and deans, the imbalances persist. If you look at CEOs and business, same thing. When we turn in on ourselves and look at the problem in medicine, or neurosurgery for that matter, I think we’re discounting history, we’re discounting society, and we’re discounting politics. As a society, we’ve got a lot of work to do. The problem exists across the spectrum, so we can’t say that STEM is what’s causing it. The statistics for presidents of universities, deans of universities, chairs of departments - we’re not seeing women represented at those levels. I don’t think it’s rocket science, I mean we have a president who, well, women aren’t being valued in that context. Those bigger societal issues bleed into the schooling of girls, the schooling of boys, and then how that translates into adulthood and career advancement. I don’t think it’s access at this point. I do think there are some access issues, for sure, and that contributes, but I think it’s contributing to a bigger problem.

Do you think the future is hopeful for the next generation of women scientists?

I think that my children are somewhat luckier, in the sense that the barriers that they face in many ways are not comparable to the barriers that their mother faced, and that gives me hope. I don’t think it’s a paved path for them, or any girl, quite honestly, but I think that to see us, they know that if we could do it, if they choose to do it, there’s a way to do it. I think they have more choice, and I love that. I love that science for them doesn’t have to necessarily be doctor or PhD, they can do so much more with that thirst. I recently took my daughters to a book signing of two college sophomores who met in “Girls who Code” Camp. They created an online game together that went viral and then wrote a book about that experience. Their love of science translated in a way that my growing up could never had foreseen. Yet, you know they’re scientists, they’re both computer science majors. And there’s Debbie Sterling, for example, she founded Goldie Blox. She was an engineering major and she talks about how hard that was, and you know, she took science and translated that into games and toys. I feel like our girls are going to have so many more options and choices, and I think that’s awesome.