Mentor Spotlight: Dr. Jennifer Plichta

Dr. Jennifer Plichta is a breast surgeon at Duke University Medical Center, in Durham, North Carolina. She graduated from Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis, Indiana and completed her residency at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, Illinois. She completed her fellowship training in breast surgical oncology at Massachusetts General Hospital, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, Massachusetts. Dr. Plichta is an Associate Professor of Surgery and Population Health Sciences at Duke University, and she serves as the Director of the Breast Risk Assessment Clinic and Co-Director of the Clinical Cancer Genetics Program at the Duke Cancer Institute. In addition, Dr. Plichta takes time to mentor many students throughout different stages of training at Duke University School of Medicine. She also helps to educate her local community about breast cancer and breast health.

Dr. Plichta is a strong advocate her patients, as well as her peers and mentees. She in an incredible role model for any aspiring or young surgeon, and I am so grateful she is my mentor.

How did you discover your interest in surgery, and specifically in breast surgery?

When I started medical school, I had no idea what I wanted to do, other than eventually be a doctor. So, I was very open to all the different specialties as I was going through them as a medical student. I was very fortunate in that I really liked all my rotations, but really surgery is where I felt most at home. I was an athlete growing up and so I liked the team approach that I really felt in the operating room. I was also really drawn to breast surgery specifically, because I really had an interest in oncology and the multidisciplinary care that’s provided for our oncology patients. I chose breast surgery, as opposed to other oncologic specialties, because I like my patients to survive and do well - sorry to all the pancreatic surgeons out there!

What obstacles did you encounter in your surgical training and how did you overcome them?

I think I encountered at lot of the same obstacles as everybody else: poor time management, trying to do too many things at once, develop my technical skills, improve my knowledge base, do some research, have a life outside of work. But I think those things are probably common to all of us. One thing I didn’t think about until later is how big of a role my insecurities played in my residency. I have had a lot of failure in my life. People think, “Oh, you’re so successful, how could that be?” but I have certainly had more failures than successes. I think going into residency, some of them were very public. I felt like in residency, everybody knew about my failures, and thought I was probably going to be a failure. I don’t know that they actually thought that – nobody ever said that to me, but that was my perception. I think those insecurities made my life more difficult probably than it needed to be. I think sometimes I had a chip on my shoulder that I had to prove that I was not going to be that failure that I had been in the past. I think that not having that could have made my life easier.

What are some of the changes you’ve seen in surgical culture in the past decade?

I would say that the biggest one is that people are much more open to discussing things than they ever have been. It used to be that everything was an unspoken, silent, do it with your head down kind of approach. If there was a problem, you pretty much just moved past it. But now, there is much more acknowledgement of things that are happening and discussion about why that happened and how can we avoid that again. I think that’s been a super positive change in our field.

You spend a significant amount of time mentoring medical students and creating opportunities for medical students to get involved in breast surgery research projects and shadow breast surgery in the clinic and OR. What motivates you to provide this mentorship?

I think that I am only where I am today because of mentors, sponsors, coaches, and the alike. So, for me it’s just a matter of paying it forward. It’s a very important part of my life in general, whether it be in medicine or in life, that we help each other, we lift each other up, whether it be the person next to me, in front of me, behind me, wherever they might be. It’s my own personal goal to always be my best. I assume everybody else always wants to be their best, and if I can help them be some better version of themselves, then I find that very fulfilling as well, so it’s a win-win!

What advice would you give to aspiring female surgeon?

I generally think the advice is the same whether I’m speaking to male or female trainees. It’s usually to figure out what kind of surgeon you want to be, or might want to be, and get to know those types of surgeons and get to know lots of different surgeons! It might be that you like one thing about one surgeon and something else about somebody else. It may take a whole group of people to figure out how that’s all going to come together for you. You don’t need to be exactly like anybody else. You’re going to be your own surgeon. But certainly, you can learn different pieces from other people that you meet, and I think you can get guidance and mentorship from anybody, whether same gender, different gender, same race, different race, same sexual orientation, different – I don’t think any of that particularly matters, I think you can learn something from everyone.

One thing that is particularly unique to a lot of women, but not all, that choose to go into surgery is the aspect of family planning. Certainly, men also have considerations for family planning, although they don’t generally carry the pregnancy themselves. If that’s something you think you may want to have as part of your future, it might be helpful to start thinking about that early on and what that might look like for you regarding timing and support that you might need that other people who don’t have kids probably don’t need. That might be one aspect that’s particularly unique to women who are going into surgery who might desire to have a family themselves.

What are your future career goals and where do you want to go from here?

Great question! Probably like many of you that are reading this or thinking about this, I also have no idea! I actually still tell people that I’m trying to decide what I want to be when I grow up. I feel like I’ve accomplished a lot of things, some on purpose, some not. I think that for me, it’s about the challenge and enjoyment of life. I like to do things that challenge me; I like to do things that I enjoy. Whatever those things might be that come my way, I look forward to them. Not sure what they’re going to be, but I’m excited to see what the future holds!

What advice do you have for maintain a work-life balance as an academic surgeon?

I think that “balance” is a difficult word to achieve. I’m not sure how many of us are “balanced.” But I think you can strive for integration; you can strive for happiness. That’s different for everybody. What makes me happy might not be what makes you happy, or someone else happy. I think that’s what you really have to know: know thyself in many ways, including what proportion of things makes you happiest. And, if that means it’s a 50/50 work and life split, then that’s what you should strive for. If it’s 80% work and 20% life outside of work, then great! That’s what you go for. I think that you have to figure out what that looks like for you, and then continue to work towards that. You’re not going to hit it every day, maybe not even every week or every month, but as long as you’re continuing to reevaluate what that looks like for you and trying to work towards that, I think that’s the best that you can hope for. 


Sydney Record is a third-year medical student at Duke University School of Medicine. She completed her undergraduate studies in molecular and cellular biology at Harvard University. She came to medical school to pursue a career in surgery and after meeting Dr. Plichta, she discovered the incredible field of breast surgical oncology. Thanks to the mentorship of many individuals, especially Dr. Plichta, Sydney plans to pursue a career in academic surgery. Sydney serves as the Southeast Region Representative on the AWS National Medical Student Council for the 2022-2023 year. Outside of medical school, you can probably find Sydney helping direct DukeMed’s annual student play.



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