WIMIN IG Article: Women in Leadership Roles in Imaging – by Helen McBride


Helen McBride interviewed Drs. Bhujwalla and Wu to get their perspectives on women in leadership roles in imaging

Welcome to the first in a short series of articles profiling women at different career stages in academic imaging science. The goal of the series is to highlight the opportunities and challenges for women leaders in the field and to help women at all stages of their careers to frame their leadership goals and aspirations. For this first article, I interviewed two senior women leaders, Anna Wu (UCLA) and Zaver Bhujwalla (Johns Hopkins) to get their thoughts on how they evolved into the leaders they are today and to share their advice for junior women in the field who aspire to be leaders.

One of the things we hear a lot as women is the need for mentors that support our leadership development and for sponsors to nominate us for opportunities to make those aspirations a reality. Zaver acknowledged several mentors and sponsors who helped her move into leadership roles, while the experience for Anna was different with few mentors until later in her career. Anna and Zaver both affirmed that their current cadre of mentors and sponsors offers exceptional support and guidance. Both women had similar motivations for taking on leadership roles with slightly different twists. Although they both had a vision of what should and could be done in the field, and knew they could make that vision a reality, Anna found her path from a desire to give back to the community in response to all she had received through the years while Zaver sought to be a change agent. Their experiences reinforce that the drive for leadership can come from many different starting points, even when the goal is similar.

In response to the question “What could and should women who are seeking out leadership roles do to achieve their goals?”, both Anna and Zaver had similar advice: Step up, and choose those opportunities wisely. As women in academic science and medicine, there are many potential draws on time and only so many hours in the day, so prioritization is critical. As Zaver recommended “have a clear vision and direction for what you want to achieve and the means to do it”. Anna’s advice was also candid, and she encouraged women to evaluate the opportunities that come along for those that will help them the most. Anna also related that although you may not always have the ability to say no to certain responsibilities, you can still focus on how to get the most from every role, even those that don’t immediately seem to provide a benefit. Learning to chair a meeting and run a committee are skills that will serve an individual well regardless of the framework for using them, particularly in practicing the ability to leverage the input of individuals with diverse perspectives. Reviewing grants offers insight into crafting an effective proposal and broadens your understanding of the review process in addition to establishing your expertise within the group. Grant reviewing also provides a platform for articulating and advocating for what you believe in, practicing active listening and learning how to negotiate a solution within a large group. Any opportunity can be a good opportunity and whether you choose it depends on many factors including your current research focus and your priorities for what you want to develop. Zaver also recommended talking the options over with a trusted senior or peer mentor to help frame the benefit vs. the investment before making a decision.

From both women the message was clear that networking is critical to making opportunities happen. There are multiple studies on how women differently from men and fail to use their networks efficiently. Zaver recommended women having the conventional form of “quid pro quo” networking but also a deeper support network to draw upon for advice on specific challenges such as funding strategies and developing new areas of imaging science. Such a balance may better satisfy women’s desire for networks that have both breadth and depth. Both Anna and Zaver were emphatic that putting the work out there, promoting the science and taking every opportunity to bring visibility to her contributions and vision were critical for individual success. A strong network provides the opportunities for visibility as well as sponsorship for broader leadership roles. Anna noted that good leadership opportunities will not arise unless or until you have the knowledge, experience, and vision to lead, so it’s important to build the basics of your credibility and scientific reputation as you move into leadership roles.

Where will these mentors and sponsors come from? Increasingly, they are other women. Both Anna and Zaver noted that the numbers of senior women in academic science has grown since they were developing their own careers, and that there is a sense of excitement attached to helping the next generation rise through the ranks. But how do women handle the institutional barriers that may be inhibiting their advance? A 2011 McKinsey report “Unlocking the Full Potential of Women at Work” reminds us that unconscious bias still plays a role in the workplace and that as much as women ask for what they want and deserve, there are still perceptions and behaviors that are damaging to women’s careers. For example, men are more likely to be promoted based on potential while women are more often promoted based on achievements. This sets up a higher standard for women to be considered for the same opportunities. We know that women are naturally better leaders from multiple studies on the subject, and more women are “leaning in” to leadership roles, so how can women change the institutional side to level the playing field? Both Anna and Zaver agreed that although unconscious bias exists in academic science, there are more opportunities to discuss such issues openly than there were 20 years ago. That’s not to say that there isn’t an art to those discussions and training in executive presence is helpful in striking an effective tone during those discussions, but change is possible. And all those lessons from mentors and sponsors, learning to ask for what they want and building confidence in their own success, can certainly help women navigate bias within their institutions as well as support them in their leadership aspirations. For both Anna and Zaver it was clear that having a fulfilling and impactful career in science has been well worth the challenges they have overcome along the way.


Brief background on our contributors:

Zaver Bhujwalla is Professor of Radiology and Oncology and Director of the Division of Cancer Imaging Research in the Department of Radiology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. She is also Director of the MRB Molecular Imaging Service Center and Cancer Functional Imaging Core and Co-Director of the Cancer Molecular and Functional Imaging Program in the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center. Zaver is the Immediate Past-President of the World Molecular Imaging Society.

Anna Wu is Professor and Vice Chair, Department of Molecular and Medical Pharmacology and Professor, Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at UCLA. She is the Co-Associate Director at the Crump Institute for Molecular Imaging and Director of the Cancer Molecular Imaging Program at the UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center in the David Geffen School of Medicine. Anna is the current President of the World Molecular Imaging Society. In addition, Anna is Founder and Chief Scientist at ImaginAb, Inc.

About the author

Helen McBride is a Principal Scientist at Amgen, Inc. in the Department of Discovery Toxicology. Helen has been a member of SMI and WMIS since 2006 when she joined Amgen after completing her postdoctoral fellowship at the Caltech Biological Imaging Center. Her work focuses on how imaging methodologies in preclinical species can be used in the areas of toxicologic pathology and safety.