Celebrating Black History
Eve Higginbotham, SM, MD, ML ― Excelling Against All Odds
Eve Higginbotham, SM, MD, ML is the inaugural Vice Dean for Inclusion and Diversity at the Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania (UPenn). She is also a senior fellow at the Leonard Davis Institute for Health Economics and a professor of ophthalmology at UPenn.
A glaucoma specialist, Higginbotham is a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard Medical School with SB and SM degrees in chemical engineering. She completed her residency in ophthalmology at Louisiana State University (LSU) and fellowship training specializing in glaucoma at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary (MEEI) in Boston. In 2020, she earned a masters of law degree from UPenn Carey Law School.
With over 160 peer reviewed publications, Higginbotham is a member of the Governing Board of the National Research Council and an elected member of the National Academy of Medicine. She recently sat down with ARVONews to recount how she excelled against all odds to advance in her career, plus shares advice on how we can transform to a more inclusive culture.
Tell us a little about yourself
I’m originally from New Orleans, La.; the youngest of three daughters of parents who were public school teachers. My mother taught fifth grade and my father taught high school sociology and economics. My oldest sister became a radiologist, specializing in nuclear medicine and my second oldest sister became a medical librarian.
Of note, when I was in fourth grade, I went to an integrated elementary school along with two others during the height of the Civil Rights era. I only stayed one year and returned to my segregated elementary school. It was not until high school, 10th grade, when I returned to an integrated school, the Benjamin Franklin High School.
I always wanted to be a scientist and join President Kennedy’s efforts to go to the moon. His call came at an age that deeply inspired me to strive to be a scientist. When I was in medical school, I began searching for a discipline that both intrigued me as well as engaged me. I was fascinated by the eye, as this was one of my first scientific interests in junior high school. The eye was the topic of my first science project, as I compared the anatomy of cow, pig and sheep eyes. This interest remained with me, as I sought out research opportunities during medical school and began working with Dr. Mathea Allansmith, a corneal specialist working in ocular immunology at the Schepens Eye Institute in Boston. She was not only a brilliant role model, but she was truly engaging, encouraging me to consider a career in ophthalmology. My work in ocular immunology continued during my residency at the LSU Eye Center and ultimately, I engaged in glaucoma research with Dr. Tom Richardson at MEEI in Boston.
What surprised you the most when you started in this field?
The culture, compared to other disciplines I encountered, was more inviting. I had considered cardiology but did not feel the same level of engagement that I felt in ophthalmology and the visual sciences. Also notable was the inherent joy I perceived by those ophthalmologists I met. At the time of my selection of this discipline, ophthalmologists were among the happiest of physicians. Moreover, visual sciences opens up so many avenues for exploration and glaucoma, and at the time, was one of the great frontiers in research, both clinical and basic science.
What is your greatest achievement?
This is a hard one to answer since I have enjoyed so many of my professional opportunities. Becoming the first woman to chair an academic department of ophthalmology is at the top of the list. This was a true opportunity to craft a departmental culture as an inclusive leader. It also was a chance to build a department since many of the senior ophthalmologists left with their patients prior to my arrival.
This move also reminded me how much I enjoy collaborating with others outside ophthalmology. The doors that were opened, such as membership in the National Academy of Medicine (NAM) and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS), provided access to an enormous network and opportunities for greater impact. Moreover, I believe one of the most gratifying positions in academia is serving as a dean, considering the breadth of exposure to disciplines and the biomedical sciences. I enjoyed the time when I served as dean, as I do now mentoring medical students.
Who do you view as your role model(s)?
My parents are my most treasured role models, they inspired me to go forward in many different environments without hesitation. My parents stressed education for all three of their daughters and encouraged us to be financially independent and develop a career. I also admire my parents for their own fortitude, successfully raising three daughters, all accomplished, at the later stages of the Jim Crow era. As they watched us progress in our educational studies, I always knew they were very proud. However, as I have become an avid student of the historical roots of structural racism in our country, I am saddened to be reminded of the missed opportunities for my parents. My father was a Tuskegee Airman but rarely spoke about his experience in World War II. Thankfully, he received a congressional gold medal a year before he passed which he appreciated, however he was not able to go to Washington, DC to receive his medal with others. During my youth, I do recall his recounts of experiences in Italy, and how celebrated he and his fellow servicemembers were, but not celebrated at all when he returned home to the segregated South. My father also wanted to be a physician, unfortunately at the time there were no medical schools in Louisiana accepting African Americans.
In ophthalmology, my first chair Dr. Morton Goldberg is my role model, who I consider an inclusive leader. Outside of ophthalmology, Dr. Donald Wilson, the first African American dean of a PWI School of Medicine, University of Maryland. It was his encouragement that led me to take on the role of chair at the University of Maryland, leaving the University of Michigan, which essentially represented the end of my bench research career. I continued on in clinical research, serving as one of three vice chairs of the Ocular Hypertension Treatment Study (OHTS). Drs. Michael Kass and Mae Gordon, the leaders of OHTS, are also on my list of role models.
If the country is ever going to transform to a more inclusive culture, there has to be full representation at all levels of leadership.
Have you encountered obstacles throughout your career?
Along the way, there are “moments” which may be considered obstacles; these days we refer to these moments as microaggressions. I recall when I was a resident in New Orleans, one of the faculty told a joke in our group with racial undertones. Others in the room seemed to share in his enjoyment, as I cringed silently and kept my anger to myself. Keep in mind, I was a resident and this was a senior faculty member. The next day, I brought to this faculty member a copy of a speech I gave at my medical school graduation regarding discrimination in medicine. My relationship with this faculty member continued to be professional, however I never heard him tell another racist joke again, at least in my presence.
Other obstacles would be missed opportunities, either because I am a woman or a woman of color. One can never tell if gender is the overriding issue, however in most cases I believe gender has been the overriding issue. In general, fortunately most of my professional experiences have been positive and I have had many supportive relationships, which to some extent neutralize these moments. However, there are some experiences that remain memorable.
In your opinion, what obstacles do members of the African diaspora still face in this industry?
There continues to be obstacles for people of color and women in medicine and science. The difference now is that there is a critical mass of people from marginalized populations who are in these settings and so specific comments may not be made, as they would have been when there was a rare occurrence to find a person of color or a woman in the room. Thus, comments may not be shared that would have been shared previously. Having stated this observation, racist comments and decisions continue to be made by individuals who are not self-aware but allow their biases to be revealed. There is still a paucity of diverse representation at the highest level of leadership, particularly boards. If the country is ever going to transform to a more inclusive culture, there has to be full representation at all levels of leadership.
Have you noticed changes in the field as you advanced?
There are many more programs now available compared to previously. Programs such as the AAO MOM (Minority Ophthalmology Mentoring) Program did not exist when I was in medical school. Years ago, I started the Student Sight Savers program at the University of Michigan, which exposes medical students during their first and second years to ophthalmology as they participate in screenings in the community. I have spoken at the ARVO Women’s Leadership Development Program, another example of a program that facilitates the formation of a community and provides a chance to network with peers with similar interests, as well as introduce individuals to additional mentors and sponsors. The existence of programs like these is the primary difference compared to previously; these are particularly important to engage diverse groups and create a supportive community.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
I am interested in additional years of board service, having served on several boards throughout my career. My hope is that I add to my portfolio public and industry boards, given my background in chemical engineering and experiences, having served on FDA advisory committees.
What is the best advice you ever heard and abide by?
I recently read an article in the blog Catalyst, which outlined 10 Amazing Pieces of Advice to Elevate Women in the Workplace, quoted below:
- Lift while you climb. It’s important to bring people along with you on your career journey and to ask them to do the same.
- Don’t assume that good work always speaks for itself. Sometimes you’ve got to point out your good work for it to get the praise it deserves.
- We have a responsibility to demonstrate and encourage a culture that fosters inclusion, respect for ideas, and diversity of thought.
- Always function as the CEO of your career. Your success is your personal responsibility.
- Be a good listener. Listening is more than the act of not speaking.
- If you want to enhance your company’s performance, you need more women on your board.
- If we want to create a path to diversity we need to support, mentor, and sponsor our people to be leaders and entrepreneurs.
- Want to enhance business performance across nearly every metric? Put more women in leadership roles. Their success inspires others to aim higher.
- When you belong to a mentoring program, you’re being supported by someone who has already accomplished that goal themselves. It’s like training for a marathon with someone who has won a marathon.
- Believe in yourself.
What does Black History Month mean to you?
Black History Month is a critically important month for the entire nation, to underscore the contributions of African Americans who have not received the recognition that they deserve. Every year there is a great realization that there are so many Americans who have gone unrecognized. It is inspiring to learn these stories. It is also a time for celebration. When I worked in a specific historically black institution, the students there developed a celebratory program and honored the memories of individuals who have made significant contributions. Moreover, this is a month when I remember my parents; my father in particular taught me so much about African American history, that it reinforced my resolve to continue to overcome obstacles and strive for success in my own career. Yes, this is an important month in my life.
Since this interview is focused on the visual science community, I would like to emphasize the need to engage more people to advocate for our discipline. Oftentimes our value is underappreciated at the highest levels of leadership, particularly in large systems where orthopedic surgery, cancer treatment, and cardiology may dominate the conversation.
Eye health is one of the most important gifts our discipline can provide both clinically and scientifically, particularly given the wealth of knowledge we have in genetics. We have an opportunity to educate and expand our collaborations so that others appreciate the value of striving for eye health for our communities. Thus, expanding our scope provides us the chance to underscore our value and in turn advance efforts to enhance eye health for populations and engage more individuals in visual scientific research.