I remember her telling me that at the inception of her career, she had no role models and limited encouragement to become a physician-scientist. In fact, her primary female mentor told her that she had to choose between a successful career and a family. She didn’t listen – perhaps that is one of the keys to her success – and built a career that led her to become the first woman in the department of medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital to become a full professor at Harvard Medical School.
In order to build her own neuroendocrine unit within the Mass General endocrine division, she — a young and very junior woman — approached the chief of neurosurgery at Mass General at that time, Nicholas Zervas, MD, for support. She leveraged the half-day per week of administrative support he granted her to create the first and only multidisciplinary pituitary disorder tertiary center and unit in the U.S., which included a fundamental and translational neuroendocrine research program. Her entrepreneurial drive and skills, as well as her unwillingness to be thwarted by convention, were a formidable combination.
At the same time, she was determined to force institutional change that would promote the success of younger women, and she was critical in establishing a number of programs that made a dent in impediments to the advancement of women.
Studies have shown that although approximately 50% of medical school, residency and fellowship graduates are female, few women make full professor, and women frequently fall off the advancement ladder when they have young children.
Dr. Klibanski recognized that this was a key stage at which intervention was necessary, and she played a key role in the establishment of institutions to counteract this impediment to success.
Working closely with Jane Claflin, an honorary Trustee at Mass General, Dr. Klibanski was a force behind the establishment of the Mass General Office of Women’s Careers, which provided educational leadership programming and advocacy for women negotiating the promotion process. The success of this Office led to the recognition that all junior faculty, regardless of gender, could benefit from such services.
The Office was transformed into the Center for Faculty Development, which to this day serves faculty, as well as trainees, at Mass General.
Working with departmental leadership, she also played a critical role in the establishment of an on-site back-up childcare center at Mass General and in the creation of the Claflin Distinguished Scholar Awards. These competitive institutional awards provide two years of support for research assistance to women with significant child-rearing responsibilities and promising research careers. I received one of these awards in the late nineties, and it was the single most critical factor, other than Dr. Klibanski’s mentorship itself, that allowed me to continue to be productive despite the birth of a premature child.
In addition to building her own research and clinical programs, Dr. Klibanski rapidly became an institutional leader. What were the keys to this? I once asked her for advice about how to obtain leadership positions. She told me that her strategy had been to seek opportunities to serve the institution and then to work hard.
As a result, when leadership positions presented themselves, her name would be among those that would arise for consideration. She took me through her leadership trajectory, from serving as a co-director of the Mass General Clinical Research Center; to leading the integration of the many Harvard-wide clinical research centers in the NIH-funded Harvard Catalyst program, including the huge number of hours writing portions of the grant applications; to becoming Partners Healthcare Chief Academic Officer. I remembered this conversation and followed her rubric.
Other lessons I took to heart include:
In addition to her drive and capacity to build, I am convinced that one of the keys to her success has been her extraordinary mentorship, which has enabled her to build teams in every one of her roles; I have greatly benefited from this.
What is the secret to her success in this realm? Here are some tips I have gleaned from working for and with her all of these years.
As I now take on her prior role as chief of the neuroendocrine unit at Mass General, I understand that the most powerful lessons were conveyed by example. She mentored by modeling a leadership approach that enables all faculty members to thrive and to develop to their full potentials.
Finally, I realize that Dr. Klibanski’s powerful example – and the institutional advances she has been instrumental in creating – have been critical to helping me raise my two daughters to be more lovely and accomplished than I ever could have imagined.
Her mentorship approach provides a roadmap to help us all reach our personal and professional potentials.