Women in Medicine and Science Forum Fosters Inspiration, Empowerment in Workplace

Research has shown that happier employees are less stressed, more productive and altruistic, and better at leading teams and solving problems.

But what does this mean in tangible terms? And what steps and simple activities can be incorporated into already-busy schedules without adding to — or getting in the way of — our actual work?

These questions were among those discussed on Nov. 28 and 29 at the Office of Academic Career Development Health Sciences’ annual Women in Medicine and Science Forum. Nearly 200 registrants — mostly but not exclusively women — attended each of the sessions held at the University Club over the two-day event.

Building on the success and momentum of last year’s Year of Healthy U initiatives, the forum focused on the academic research and scientific findings related to wellness, including using mindfulness meditation to reduce stress, practicing breathing exercises to enhance rest and refining communication styles to better suit audiences.

Ann Thompson, vice dean of Pitt’s School of Medicine and professor of critical care medicine, briefly introduced this year’s forum, which was titled “Building Career Success and Satisfaction.” Thompson, who chaired the forum’s planning committee, noted that the forum has evolved in format and length over the years. All of the panelists and presenters are women — most of them Pitt faculty. Open to all members of the Pitt community, the forum aims to foster a culture of personal and professional development. “There aren’t any topics discussed that are relevant only to women,” said Thompson.

The event was a first for some participants, but many had attended in previous years. Jennifer Woodward, vice chancellor for research operations, professor of surgery and immunology, has served on the event’s steering committee since 2010. “The University of Pittsburgh has an awesome group of women in medicine and science, both trainees and faculty, and I look forward each year to having the opportunity to network and learn from them,” she said.

For Lillian Emlet, clinical associate professor of critical care medicine and emergency medicine, this year’s forum marked her 10th attending the event. “It’s a great opportunity to nurture yourself, and I appreciate that it’s local. It shows what a wide range of people Pitt attracts, and it helps to break down silos that can form in the workplace.”

A common theme throughout the conference was how one can rethink concepts like happiness, grit, rejection and wellness. Presenters and panelists returned again and again to the idea that these ideas are not inherent qualities people naturally possess, but are skills and traits that can be developed, nurtured and improved through practice.

In their sessions, faculty members didn’t just advance through PowerPoint presentations and discuss research. Many also created hands-on experiences for participants, guiding attendees through meditation techniques that helped to make research about intangible ideas like mindfulness more concrete.

In fact, two sessions incorporated breathing exercises to demonstrate ways to develop mindfulness, which Carol Greco, associate professor of psychiatry, rehabilitation science and technology, and physical therapy in the School of Medicine, defined as “anchoring to the present moment.” In her session “Navigating the Stormy Seas of Academia: Mindfulness Anchors for Stress Reduction,” she noted those anchors can be found in awareness of breath or by focusing on sound or physical sensation.

Layla Banihashemi, assistant professor of psychiatry, further discussed breathing in her presentation “Breathing Room: Creating Space for Rest in Everyday Moments.” In addition to changing neural activity and heart rate response, slow breathing can increase comfort, relaxation and pleasantness, as well as reduce anxiety, depression and anger.

Yasemin Kalender, a graduate student in the Pittsburgh Quantum Institute attending the forum for her second year, thought the breathing exercises made the event engaging and involving, and joked that they were “a double dose of yoga” after she had worked out during the lunch break.

Tips for Remembering to Make Activity Part of Your Day

  • Use your phone or wearable to prompt you to get up and move when you've been sitting too long.
  • Use cues like an alarm, email reminder or even an hourglass to stand and move.
  • Put a sticker or Post-It note saying "Get up!" on your computer monitor, or use an action figure to remind you.
  • Keep track of your activity by using check marks on a pad of paper, a personal calendar or a habit app on your smartphone.

Together, Kelliann Davis, associate chair for the Department of Health and Physical Activity in the School of Education, and Bethany Barone Gibbs, associate professor, presented “Earning an ‘A’ for Your Workday: Awareness and Activity for a Healthy Life,” which highlighted steps that can be incorporated into office life to cultivate wellness. While getting involved in activities like Be Fit Pitt can provide accountability, Davis and Gibbs suggested making smaller adjustments — as simple as moving your trash can across your office — to encourage getting up and moving around during the workday.

In “’Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance’ by Angela Duckworth,” a panel moderated by Erroline Williams, a leadership consultant and professional coach, Thompson was joined by Jasmien Roosenboom, postdoctoral associate in the School of Dental Medicine; Sophia Choukas-Bradley, assistant professor of psychology in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences; and Cecelia Yates, associate professor in the School of Nursing, School of Medicine and McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

The panelists agreed that grit is one factor among several, like talent and personality, that factor into success. They also said that for women, grit can sometimes be misunderstood — just as assertiveness can be perceived instead as aggression — so it’s important to find a communication style that resonates with your audience.

The forum also featured time for one-on-one career development consultations in which participants could have their CVs reviewed, request referrals and discuss career aspirations with faculty members from across campus.

“To be a part of a forum where women are willing and eager to give and receive is empowering for me,” said Woodward. “I am inspired by those who present at the forum, and leave re-energized both professionally and personally each year.”

  • In the opening session, The New York Times bestselling author Nataly Kogan took a moment to acknowledge her audience as “a roomful of powerhouse women.” Through scientific research and exploration of yoga and Buddhism, Kogan rethought her perception of happiness, which led to her writing “Happier Now: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Embrace Everyday Moments.” “To be happier is not necessarily about being positive,” she said. “It’s a skill.” Here, she took a selfie with conference attendees, all of whom received a copy of her book. (Yiqun Li/University of Pittsburgh)
  • Standing with the agenda for the event’s first day are Erroline Williams (left), a leadership consultant and professional coach who moderated a panel on grit, and Darlene Zellers (right), associate vice chancellor for academic career development, health sciences; director of the Office of Academic Career Center (OACD), Health Sciences; and associate dean for postdoctoral affairs in the School of Medicine. (Yiqun Li/University of Pittsburgh)
  • From left are panelists Ann M. Thompson, vice dean, School of Medicine; Cecilia Yates, associate professor in the Schools of Nursing and Medicine and the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine; Sophia Choukas-Bradley, assistant professor of psychology, Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences; and Jasmien Roosenboom, postdoctoral associate, School of Dental Medicine. While discussing success, the panelists also explored how to rethink feedback and failure. Rather than interpreting failure as a signal of not having succeeded, they suggested instead taking it as a cue to try harder. (Yiqun Li/University of Pittsburgh)
  • In one-on-one sessions, participants could review their CVs and discuss career aspirations with faculty members. Clockwise from lower left are Morgan Ottley (A&S, ’21); Marcela Michel Gomez, visiting research assistant professor, School of Computing and Information; Doris Rubio, associate vice provost for faculty and professor in the Department of Medicine; and Melanie Scott, associate professor of surgery and director of graduate education for surgery research. “This may be my favorite component of the event,” said Rubio. “Over the years, I have discussed with mentees such issues as 'How do I advance my career?, 'How do I search for a new faculty position? 'Am I making sufficient progress and how do I get into a leadership position?'” (Yiqun Li/University of Pittsburgh)
  • In her session, Caroline Greco, associate professor of psychiatry, rehabilitation science and technology and physical therapy, noted, “Mindfulness can enhance our ability to respond to stressors with greater flexibility and resilience.” She debunked some common myths about mindfulness meditation, explaining that some believe meditation requires one to “clear my mind,” or “think of nothing.” “Good luck with that!” she joked. Greco (left) chatted with Natasha Tokovitz (right), associate professor, department of psychology, who was also part of the event planning committee. (Mike Drazdzinski/University of Pittsburgh)
  • Layla Banihashemi, assistant professor of psychiatry, shared a practical demonstration called “ocean breathing.” While many breathing techniques suggest an ‘in through the nose, out through the mouth’ method, ocean breathing instead involves a slight constriction at the back of the throat. “Imagine it like fogging a mirror,” Banihashemi suggested. (Yiqun Li/University of Pittsburgh)
  • Tanner LeBaron Wallace, associate professor in the School of Education and center associate at the Learning Research and Development Center, recalled having been chosen ‘most likely to succeed,’ but yet feeling lonely and misunderstood. However, she noted her belief that “Everything can get better in most cases and most circumstances,” and emphasized the need for “wisdom to understand how to advocate for yourself.” (Yiqun Li/University of Pittsburgh)
  • From left are Unoma Akamagwuna, assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation, and Tanner LeBaron Wallace. It was Akamagwuna’s second year attending the Women in Medicine and Science Forum. “I appreciate the focus on women and access to the tools we need to succeed in academia,” she said. (Mike Drazdzinski/University of Pittsburgh)
  • Over the two-day event, Pitt faculty presenters guided participants through multiple exercises of meditation, yoga and activity. (Yiqun Li/University of Pittsburgh)
  • From left are Bethany Barone Gibbs, associate professor, and Kelliann Davis, associate chair for the Department of Health and Physical Activity, School of Education. The two agreed that standing desks can be a great way to sit less while at work, but Davis, who herself favors wearing high-heeled shoes, made the important caveat that such footwear can make using one much more difficult. (Yiqun Li/University of Pittsburgh)
  • Karina Schumann, assistant professor in the department of psychology, discussed how attitudes toward apologies can differ based on age, gender and experience level. In “The Art and Science of Apology: Gender Differences and the Implications for Navigating Conflict in the Workplace,” Schumann highlighted that apologies have social benefits, playing a part in conflict resolution and social lubrication, and noted that research has not yet investigated whether women should either cut back or stop apologizing. (Yiqun Li/University of Pittsburgh)
  • In a one-on-one session, Maria E. Rubio (left), associate professor of neurobiology, talks to Jennifer Woodward, vice chancellor for research operations and professor of surgery and immunology. “I value the opportunity to mentor junior faculty,” Woodward said of the forum. “If I can provide a listening ear, a piece of advice or a question to consider, then my time was well spent. I want to pay it forward for others, as so many mentors have done for me over the years.” (Yiqun Li/University of Pittsburgh)