In Focus: Meet Our Female Faculty

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Marta Hernanz-Schulman, MD, FAAP, FACR, Professor of Radiology and Radiological Sciences and Professor of Pediatrics, is a pediatric radiologist and is the Chief of Pediatric Radiology and the Medical Director of Diagnostic Imaging at the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt. She has authored or co-authored more than 140 peer reviewed articles, served as co-editor of Caffey’s Pediatric Diagnostic Imaging, authored over 50 book chapters, clinical tapes and web courses, and given nearly 200 scientific presentations and invited lectures. Her major interests and research lie in the area of quality and safety, appropriate imaging of children, gastrointestinal and genitourinary imaging, and ultrasound and CT. Currently she serves as Chair of the Pediatric Commission in the Board of Chancellors of the American College of Radiology. 

Tell us about your journey from Cuba to the United States and how your Hispanic heritage has influenced who you are?

I came from Cuba as a child in October 1961. This was the time between the Bay of Pigs invasion and the 1962 missile crisis and at a time when there were rumors that the Cuban government would start sending people to labor camps in Cuba and Russia. It was common for parents, out of fear, to send their children unaccompanied to the U.S, such as occurred with the Peter Pan airlift. I was fortunate that I was able to travel with my aunt who was joining her two grown children in New York City. As others who left Cuba to escape the communist regime, we were allowed to take nothing with us. Therefore, life in the United States began as a challenge of language, of culture, and of financial survival.

This first stage of my life in the United States was one of shock, learning, and adaptation. Being transplanted into a new culture with an unknown language was difficult, and adapting to my new life required energy, effort and the tincture of time. As I grew and matured in my adopted country, the roots of my birth culture did not evaporate, and at times led to experiences of confusion, to a loss of the sense of belonging, of community and even self-confidence. However, I also met people of more diverse backgrounds, as well as people of backgrounds similar to my own, particularly in college. There was representation from the width and breadth of the Hispanic world: students from South America, Puerto Ricans, Chicanos, Cuban-Americans --- cultures that, although united by a common language, are often as diverse from each other as they are from that of the United States. These experiences enriched my worldview and gave me a greater understanding of other cultures as well as my own. Despite the growing pains, I am extraordinarily grateful for these opportunities.

Tell us about your educational background?

After arriving in the U.S., we lived in Brooklyn and I attended the parish school, St. Francis Xavier, starting in the fifth grade, without knowing English. I was admitted as a class auditor, with the stipulation that I would stay in the fifth grade the following year, once I had achieved some command of the English language. However, miraculously and to my amazement, I was moved to the sixth grade the following September! I finished grammar school at the top of my class, with a 98+ average, and a good command of the English language.

My high school experience was different. I attended Bishop McDonnell Memorial for two years, and at the end of sophomore year went to Salamanca, Spain, when my aunt needed to join her two children who were now completing the medical education that they had begun in Cuba. During that year I did not receive formal education, but studied French and Spanish literature and the Classics with a Spanish tutor. After we returned from Spain, I was ready to begin my junior year, one year behind my previous classmates. However, I was once again surprised and was able to skip the third year of high school and graduate with my class. I applied to Princeton University, and was admitted in the first year of co-education at Princeton. After graduation, I went to medical school at NYU, where my husband and I met, and then continued my medical training at Mount Sinai Hospital and Medical Center, Boston University Medical Center and Harvard Medical School. 

Who most influenced your career path?

I had a teacher who became a mentor to me during high school and truly influenced my life and my career. There were several physicians in my family, and although I had aspired to follow in their footsteps and become a doctor since early childhood in Cuba, as a poor immigrant with no financial resources, my highest aspiration in high school was to obtain a scholarship to a local college and be employable at graduation. This teacher widened my horizons, encouraged me to attain my dreams, and let me know that becoming a physician was not beyond my reach. It was with her guidance and counsel that I was able to skip my third year of high school and at her suggestion and with her support that I applied to Princeton University. 

When did you first become interested in a career in pediatrics and radiology?

I was initially interested in clinical pediatrics, and completed a residency in Pediatrics at Mount Sinai Medical Center. As the new imaging modalities began to appear in the clinical scenario, at that time largely ultrasound and CT, I became interested in Radiology, more specifically, Pediatric Radiology. I completed a Radiology Residency at Boston University, where I was named Chief Resident, and subsequently a two-year Pediatric Radiology Fellowship at Boston Children’s Hospital Harvard Medical School, where I was named Chief Fellow and subsequently Assistant-in-Radiology.

During those training years, I made friendships with teachers who are now colleagues that I treasure to this day. The direction of my career was set during those years. A career in which I never lose sight of my primary mission: to provide the best possible care to all patients, to advance medical knowledge with the North Star of advancing and improving patient care, and placing the welfare of the patient above all other concerns. 

Why did you choose VUMC?

My husband of 39 years, Gerald Schulman, and I came to VUMC in 1988. Gerald was a nephrologist, and we joined VUMC at a time when Vanderbilt Nephrology was being developed into one of the top divisions in the country by Harry Jacobson, and when Pediatric Radiology consisted of a small kernel of two pediatric radiologists in a hospital-within-a-hospital framework. The inquiring and collegial atmosphere at VUMC facilitates collaborative research and gave me the foundational support that allowed me to be promoted to Associate Professor with tenure within 2 years and to full Professor 5 years later.

During my 28 years at Vanderbilt, I have seen VUMC become one of the top universities and medical centers in the country, and it has been a wonderful opportunity to be part of this journey. I have worked to lead Pediatric Radiology to what is now an 11 radiologist service, providing dedicated pediatric imaging services in all modalities and subspecialties, including ultrasound, CT, MRI, Interventional Radiology, Nuclear Medicine, with subspecialists in areas including Pediatric Interventional Radiology, Neuroradiology, Nuclear Medicine and Musculoskeletal Radiology. It has been and is my pleasure to work with inspiring and excellent colleagues, who make it a pleasure to come to work each and every day.

What have you been able to do at VUMC that would not have been possible at other institutions?

From the springboard of Vanderbilt, I was able to work on the national arena, serving on the Editorial Board of the journals Radiology and Pediatric Radiology, and as President and Board Chair of the Society for Pediatric Radiology, Chair of multiple Committees in the ACR including the Practice Parameters and the Residents’ National in-service Examination, as Chair of the Pediatric Commission on the ACR Board of Chancellors, and as Chair of the Pediatric MOC Committee of the ABR, receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award. Other awards include: The Caffey Award for Best Research in Pediatric Radiology, the Presidential Recognition Award from the Society for Pediatric Radiology, and the 2011 Minnies Award for my role as the leader of the Fluoroscopy Initiative of The Alliance for Safety in Pediatric Imaging/Image Gently.

What is your greatest achievement?

I have defined an achievement as something of which I am proud and from which I can derive great personal satisfaction. Given that definition, I don’t have one greatest achievement. I consider my marriage to my husband Gerald and raising our son Alan, my greatest personal achievement. On a professional level, leading Pediatric Radiology in the Children’s Hospital to become a full service Department, one that is characterized by clinical excellence and excellent service to our patients and our referring Vanderbilt and community pediatricians, is a source of great satisfaction and a continued challenge for me. Finally, being able to affect the visibility and direction of Pediatric Radiology at the national level through my leadership roles in the Society for Pediatric Radiology and at the American College of Radiology are also a source of pride, satisfaction and a source for continued practice improvement.

What challenges did you face 10 or 20 years ago that are no longer barriers for women in science?

The challenges that women and people from other cultures and races, such as Hispanics and African-Americans, faced several decades ago were often those of overt discrimination, whereby we were consciously excluded by virtue of gender, culture, and skin color, for presumed inferiority and inability to perform the tasks from which we were banned.

When I entered medical school after college graduation, it was at the time of “women’s lib” of Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” and Gloria Steinem’s Ms Magazine, when women began to realize that they could achieve fulfillment on their own, rather than vicariously as the “woman behind the man.”  Although admission to medical school was no longer denied based on gender, women were still a minority of our medical school class, and role models were few: women whom I always considered giants given the enormous obstacles that they had overcome. 

Today, thankfully, overt discrimination is anathema to most of us and loudly condemned from all sectors; yet the more insidious, subconscious, discrimination remains in many cases, one which is much more difficult to combat as it is the “enemy unseen.” However, as Oprah Winfrey put it so well, referring to the problem of child abuse of which she herself was a victim, “the cycle stops with awareness.”  Becoming aware of our own biases, sometimes against our own groups, is the seminal step needed to defeat them. 

What do you think still needs to be changed/improved?

From the perspective of our daily lives, society may pay lip service to helping women who work outside the home with their careers, but in reality, multiple obstacles are thrust in our daily lives. For example, children’s schools plan all types of mid-day activities with mothers, which are in fact nonsensical, such as eating lunch with the child with whom you live and with whom you will eat dinner that evening. Such “make work” activities result in unnecessary conflict for a career woman: loss of work time which can stigmatize a female employee as someone who does not pull her weight at work, or leaving her child to be “the only child without a parent,” which happened to me more than once when my son was small. Very seldom are these activities planned with “Dads.” We have come a very long way, but still “have miles to go…” before gender equality permeating the full spectrum of society is a reality. 

What is your advice to other females (faculty, residents, medical students)?

Female faculty, residents and medical students are women who have already made a choice to have a challenging career outside the home. My advice to them is to let them know that there is a difficult road ahead, that women who want a family and a career will have to walk two roads, not just one. However, it is encouraging to know that success at both is possible, and the results will be doubly rewarding.

What are your current and next goals you are working towards?

My current and next goals are to work with our Department Chair to make Pediatric Radiology at VCH one of the best in the country and encourage my faculty in meaningful research. I will also continue my work with the Society for Pediatric Radiology, the American College of Radiology, The Alliance for Safety in Pediatric Imaging and the World Federation of Pediatric Imaging to promote excellence and safety in pediatric imaging throughout the country and the world, because our children deserve the best that we can give them.  

published December 2016