Women in research

Young offers 7 tips for early career members

Terri Young, MBA, MD, FARVOTerri Young, MD, MBA, FARVO, is the chair of the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences at the University of Wisconsin. A long-time ARVO member and involved leader, she currently serves as the chair of the Women in Eye and Vision Research (WEAVR) Committee.

ARVONews: What was your inspiration for becoming a researcher in the field of ophthalmology?

Young: I was always a lab rat. I liked the biological and chemical sciences in junior high and high school, and I was very adept at math. In science, there is an answer for everything; it is just a matter of being careful and focused about the questions you ask and having the right equipment and resources.

Most people don't know that I worked for Ford Motor Company during my college summer breaks designing catalytic converters. It was this good fortune that helped me understand that what I had learned in school had practical applications. It was the first time that I could utilize what I had learned, that the laboratory experiments and mathematic equations I performed in high school could lead to commercial product development. I hadn't made the connection before.

I was fortuitously drawn to ophthalmology while experiencing what I initially thought was a setback in not obtaining my first-choice clinical clerkship in medical school. While at Harvard Medical School, I chose a third-year, two-week clinical elective in Otolaryngology at the Massachusetts Ear and Eye Infirmary. I was informed a few days before the start that there were too many applicants and I no longer had a spot. I quickly switched to Ophthalmology since I was traveling to the Infirmary, and quickly fell in love with the specialty. It is highly gratifying work, as one can do a great deal of good in a short amount of time. I had a knack for microsurgery, three-dimensional reconstructive thinking, and using gadgets of all types.

I became interested in biomedical research by reading and appreciating the scientific literature. I liked how the relevancy of research can ultimately affect clinical practice. I had the good fortune to work with Eve Higginbotham, SM, MD, on glaucoma therapeutics research while I was a resident in ophthalmology. This opportunity had a life-changing influence on my outlook of what I could accomplish with a simple question, and solidified my desire to pursue an academic career. I liked going from the theoretical to practical applications impacting patient care.

ARVONews: What have been some of the highlights of your work?

Working on determining the genetic basis of disorders has been a wonderful opportunity. I enjoy working to find mutations that causes various eye conditions that at one time we had a limited biological understanding of. We are now at a point that we can inform the development of treatments.

ARVONews: What can you tell us about the research project you are working on now?

My long-term interests are in eye development in pediatric patients. As children, these patients had exaggerated eye growth or myopia, were optically out of sync and needed glasses. But as they grow older they develop macular degeneration, retinal detachments and/or glaucoma.

My current work involves uncovering the genetic reasons behind glaucoma development. Using new techniques and next generation technologies, our lab is finding new genes for childhood glaucoma. In determining the gene mutations, we are teasing out the pathways for childhood glaucoma caused by under-developed components of the eye draining angle.

ARVONews: What has been some of the best advice you received as a young woman scientist?

I would say that over the years copious advice was given to me — solicited or not — and it was not always supportive. Advice from others that I regularly received was that I was too ambitious. I always felt that this was a good quality, and in fact, a necessary quality one should have in order to persevere with optimism, to recover and to learn from setbacks.

The best advice that I was given as a young faculty member was from Irene Hussels Maumenee, MD —"you will begin again." It was difficult to understand at an earlier age that life is constantly about new beginnings and discoveries. She was absolutely right.

My advice to others are as follows:

  1. Find your spiritual center and feed it constantly. I believe it is difficult to make good choices without being grounded and humble, and without always considering that what you do may impact others.

  2. Believe in yourself. Fortunately, the "ideal" model for pursuing a career in medicine and in the sciences, is changing globally. There were a couple of times that I didn't feel as if I had the right community of people surrounding me for support. One has to rely on that internal voice that one indeed can make important contributions.

  3. Surround yourself with cheerleaders and positive people. Your life partner, family members, community, work teams, mentors, etc. are critical to your development as a person and will help keep you energized and realistic.

  4. For clinician-scientists, try in earnest to use your clinical practice as the starting point for your research interest. You have the privilege and the responsibility of going to the laboratory — wet or dry — to chip away at the causes of your patients' suffering.

  5. Develop relationships with more than one mentor/sponsor. Mentors serve different roles, each important in their own way. Being reliant on only one or just a handful will not help you evolve however. Mentors do not have to be in your field of study either.

  6. Mentor and support others in their journey. You learn much more about your unrealized strengths and weaknesses with developing relationships and there is nothing more gratifying and fulfilling.

  7. Timelines are necessarily different for different people. Take a deep and honest look at where you are, start from there mentally and do not judge your course by those of others.

ARVONews: What advice would you give women who are looking to get more involved in leadership?

Prepare and volunteer for leadership roles, take ownership of where and how you work and move toward strategically and operationally improving it. Share your vision and don't be a potted plant in committee meetings.

ARVONews: What's next for you professionally?

I am deeply honored and pleased to be chair of the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Right now, I am trying my best to enable all members of the department — providers and staff — to fulfill their aspirations professionally. CJ