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News & Press: eConnections

Mentor Spotlight: Dr. Jennifer Lawton

Friday, August 2, 2019  
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This past January, I was fortunate to be paired with Dr. Jennifer Lawton through the Society of Thoracic Surgeons (STS) Looking to the Future (LTTF) Scholarship. The scholarship offers complimentary access to the national STS meeting, enriched with networking opportunities, exposure to cutting edge research, and discussions on various topics that reveal the culture of cardiothoracic surgery. Dr. Lawton is a Professor and Chief of the Johns Hopkins Division of Cardiac Surgery. She has served in many leadership roles including Past President of Women in Thoracic Surgery. Despite the various hats she wears each day, she puts aside dedicated time to mentor. I am excited to share Dr. Lawton's story with all aspiring surgeons in this month's eConnections.

What was your childhood like?

My parents were divorced so I grew up under a single mom. I have two siblings and I'm a middle child. I learned female empowerment from my mother.

What is your single greatest achievement to date?

My kids! Having kids was the best thing! It changes everything. You get so much pleasure from their accomplishments. Nothing greater than coming home from a tough day. It is amazing watching them grow. My son is 16 and my daughter is 13.

I read your response from the 2014 Oracle (Women in Thoracic Newsletter) interview when you were asked about work-life integration: "I may be any combination of a good/bad mother, a good/bad surgeon, or a good/bad scientist." Can you elaborate on this?

When you feel like you're not the best at everything 24/7, you just need to remember that [if you're a parent] you're a better mom because you work full time. There's always going to be guilt about not operating enough, not researching enough. Be the best at that task at that time.

You provided valuable tips for work-life integration:

  • Take all of your vacation days
  • Leave early to spend time with your family or friends
  • Get a hobby
  • Find out what you enjoy most about weekends and holidays and how you can do this more in your normal working week (as recommended by Timothy Sharp in 100 Ways to Happiness)

What are your hobbies?

I love to garden in the spring and summer, as well as snow ski and fish. Twice a year, we go sport fishing. It used to be Belize and Bahamas, now we go to South Florida.

You mentioned previously, "During medical school there were no female mentors but the chief of cardiac surgery was very encouraging and invited me to come to the OR anytime, and that's how I got interested in the field." How impactful was this open invitation to the operating room? Has it impacted your mentorship style?

People make decisions about specialties based on mentorship. Ask yourself: can you see yourself in their role? My chief of cardiac had daughters who were lawyers and supported women in leadership positions, and welcomed you to the OR anytime. I try to not say no to anyone, whether they were high school students or medical students, and I always try to teach them something. You can't be what you can't see.

If you could go back to your medical school days and change one thing, what would it be?

I felt so lucky to be able to go to medical school when my husband was also there. I would spend more time with cardiac surgeons outside of my institution. People do that more nowadays through visiting scholarships and away rotations to see where they might fit in.

Switching gears to career development, you mentioned that the "R01 grant holds a special place in my heart." Can you tell us more?

Getting an R01 in basic science research was a major accomplishment. People generally work very hard for a number of years to get funding. When I finally got one it was just so rewarding. I applied more than 20 times all over the maps. In college, I did basic science experiments which provided foundation for hypothesis-driven research. As a general surgery resident, I did two years of research. I had a very supportive institution at my first faculty job. A lot has gone into building my research career.

Another fantastic question I'm stealing from Oracle: "If you could travel to any period in history and any region of the world where and when would it be?" This response really showed your personality: "There are a lot of times in history when we weren't very nice to other people and I wouldn't want to go back to one of those... I would go into the future where there are more women in surgery and the surgical persona is very different and we could encourage women to become surgeons. I think that might be a great time to visit." To make this a reality, what are your recommendations to the surgical community as a whole?

Make an effort to mentor and encourage women not only to enter the field but take leadership positions. If you don't, then you're missing half the talent.

You shared with us at our STS LTTF dinner that Dr. Patterson has been a key mentor in your career development. Could you elaborate on the ways he has helped further your career and advice for those of us who will become mentors in the future?

When Dr. Patterson gave a talk at one of the leadership academies at the American Association for Thoracic Surgery, he said, "When you become chief, it's not about you anymore." Now that I'm in that role, I understand that it's not about you but about the person you are mentoring. This entails not only promoting them to offer opportunities but also sponsoring them. As such, you're putting your reputation on the line to recommend them to serve on a committee, editorial responsibility, or to speak at a meeting. The best thing to remember is to listen and try to help the people behind you.

In a recently published study, "the percentage of female trainees reflect[ed] the ratio of those that apply… the best way to increase the number of women in the field is to spark an early interest and encourage their application." Could you name a few opportunities for aspiring cardiothoracic surgeons to consider?

There are opportunities within most of our national organizations: scholarships to attend meetings or to do research at another institution. To name a few, STSA, AATS, and the Scalan/WTS travelling mentorship award. The largest is STS LTTF, given out to residents and students to spend time at the meeting with a mentor.

After you become senior faculty and take on leadership roles, where do you go from there? What's next for you and how do you evaluate your goals and successes at this point in your career?

Right now, I've only been here 2 years and my goal is to make this the best cardiac division in the country. I'm committed to this place right here, right now. There will always going to be more opportunities to grow. You can look at Dr. Julie Freischlag who is the CEO of Wake Forest Health.

For medical students interested in STS LTTF, applications for 2020 will open this fall! Stay tuned for more information.


Ashley Choi is the Chair of the AWS National Medical Student Committee and a third year medical student at Duke University School of Medicine. She plans to train as an academic cardiothoracic surgeon and improve the care of patients with end-stage heart and lung disease.