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Dean promotes women, diversity in leadership

By Cindy Abole
Public Relations

On College of Medicine Dean Etta Pisano's bucket list is an unusual item. She wants to write a play on the changing role of women in society.

It's no wonder. One of the strongest role models in her life was her mother, who was an electrical engineer running an office of 30 men in charge of computerizing the telephone system. Unfortunately when she married Pisano's father in 1955, she lost her job.

"It was a different time back then, but I'm sure that must have been incredibly difficult – to have to choose between her professional life and her personal life. I like to think that if she had the opportunity she would have rejoined the workforce. My mother passed away when I was 15 – and as the oldest of seven children I gained a lot of responsibility at a young age. I believe that experience shaped who I am to a large degree."

It also instilled in her a desire to stop women from dying too young – and that is one of the reasons she selected breast cancer as an area of focus. Pisano, M.D., is regarded as an expert in the field of women's imaging and recognized among the top 20 most influential people in radiology.

Pisano certainly has learned to handle tough issues within her area, at her former institution, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (UNC), and throughout her life.

She made history at MUSC in 2010 when she became the institution's first female medicine dean. Her leadership comes at a challenging time when deans in academic medicine face pressure with difficult issues, including state funding cuts, reduced federal research funding, doctor shortages and the implementation of health care reform.

Mark Sothmann, Ph.D., vice president for academic affairs and provost, is among campus leadership works closely with Pisano on a variety of programs such as the College of Medicine's progress with the institution's new funds flow financial model and alignment with the 2010 Strategic Plan.

"Dr. Pisano has one of the most difficult jobs at any academic health center. The challenges are immense with such forces as the changing fiscal climate and health care reform. Being one of just a few women in these positions nationally, her successes at MUSC will be hugely symbolic not just regionally but across the country," Sothmann said.

A Strong Foundation
An accomplished physician and researcher, Pisano has proven herself as a pathfinder for women's issues in academic medicine and higher education.

Pisano credits her parents, the nuns who helped educate her as a child and other successful professionals for laying down a strong foundation. Aside from her mother's influence, she also learned much from her father, a radiologist, who took time to introduce her to several female physicians who were successful at balancing career and family.

The mother of four has been creative in making the balancing act work for her family.

Dr. Etta Pisano with husband, Dr. Jan Kylstra and children Carolyn, Schuyler, Jimmy and Marijke. Pisano is being recognized as part of MUSC's National Women's History Month.

"There was often the perception that a woman couldn't have a medical career and be a wife and mother. As a junior faculty member, I had to assert myself to be allowed to work part-time for several years while I had young children at home. I encountered resistance, because that was not the norm. But it was during those years that I got my first grants and learned how to be a researcher. They were incredibly productive years."

During her 20-year tenure at UNC-Chapel Hill, Pisano emerged as a passionate voice and champion for women and diversity projects. In 2007, she founded the university's Working on Women in Science program, an initiative established to enhance the recruitment, retention and promotion of women faculty through leadership training, mentoring and networking. She led UNC's Association of Professional Women in Medical School and also chaired UNC's Committee on the Status of Women, addressing tenure clock issues and gender-based salary inequities among faculty.

Dr. Pisano with College of Medicine student Danielle Bersabe during Match Day.

The tenure clock extension policy in higher education is defined as an adjustment of extra time granted to a tenure-track faculty member due to circumstances and conditions in the management of family responsibilities or health issues.

"I believe it's important that we accommodate life changes for women and men – to allow our faculty to have a career and raise children. MUSC does not have a 'tenure clock' for its faculty, so there is not the same degree of pressure that exists at many other institutions for faculty to move up or out. This 'tenure clock' time period typically coincides with when faculty would be having and raising their children."

Wisdom of crowds
As dean, Pisano is challenged with attracting and retaining talented women and minority recruits who choose an academic career.

Within her own college, she advocates for the presence of women and minorities in leadership groups, committees and work panels.

"I'm a believer in the wisdom of crowds. It's important that a variety of viewpoints are heard and that we hear from people who think differently –representing a diversity of generations, race, gender, background and specialty. This is the key to making well-reasoned decisions."

To maintain an academic career pipeline for women and minorities in her college, faculty are encouraged to attend professional development conferences, participate in the Executive Leadership in Academic Medicine program or attend Association of American Medical Colleges workshops and meetings.

In the 21 months she has been dean, Pisano and her team have achieved many accomplishments. She and her staff have recruited more than a dozen department leaders, collaborated with a faculty-led committee to implement the college's Research Strategic Plan and initiated the Clinical Enterprise Strategic Plan sponsored by the College of Medicine, MUSC Physicians and MUHA. She's guiding faculty and staff in preparing for the medical school's reaccreditation with the Liaison Committee on Medical Education scheduled for January 2013.

Pisano said she has learned the importance of striking a balance in her life and recognizing her limitations. "It's important to have strong support systems, both in your personal life and professional life. Reach out and learn from others. Have good mentors and be a mentor to other people."

The taste panel is one of the first patient-focused efforts of the Children's Hospital Wellness Initiative, sponsored by the Boeing Center for Children's Wellness. Boeing donated $1 million to the Children's Hospital last year to establish a center aimed at promoting better health among the state's young people.

According to the National Association of Children's Hospitals, 16.9 percent of children and adolescents, ages 2 to 19, are obese.

Twelve children were dubbed judges at the taste panel. Parents and siblings of patients also attended the tasting. MUSC dietetic interns collaborated with Sodexo to organize a variety of foods that were served to the children. By choosing their favorites, their selections will help to guide the planning of the hospital's future menu.
Clinical nutrition manager Mary Basel said the event was a huge success, and the children had fun participating.

"Establishing healthy eating habits is important in the prevention and treatment of medical issues. We decided to conduct the taste panel so we could educate children and their parents on the importance of nutrition, while allowing kids to have a say in making healthier choices."

Dr. Etta D. Pisano
Dean of the College of Medicine; Vice President for Medical Affairs; Professor of Radiology

Education: Duke University School of Medicine, M.D. (1983); Residency, Radiology, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (Harvard University); Dartmouth College, Bachelor of Art in Philosophy (1979)

Family: Husband, Jan Kylstra; and four children

Hobbies: Reading, water sports, walking on the beach, spending time with family and friends, enjoying the Charleston area




Friday, March 30, 2012

The Catalyst Online is published weekly by the MUSC Office of Public Relations for the faculty, employees and students of the Medical University of South Carolina. The Catalyst Online editor, Kim Draughn, can be reached at 792-4107 or by email, Editorial copy can be submitted to The Catalyst Online and to The Catalyst in print by fax, 792-6723, or by email to To place an ad in The Catalyst hardcopy, call Island Publications at 849-1778, ext. 201.