Women in Medicine: Gwendolyn Sowa
Tuesday, September 4, 2018
Posted by: AAP Staff
Gwendolyn Sowa, MD, PhD is a Professor and Chair of PM&R at UPMC and Director of the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute. She is also Co-Director of the Ferguson Laboratory for Orthopaedic and Spine Research. Throughout her career, she has authored and co-authored over 70 original research publications and 35 book chapters and reviews, and given over 200 national presentations. Gwen has been an AAP member since 2002 and is now the Secretary/ Treasurer of the AAP’s Board of Trustees. Learn more about her career – in her words!
A high school teacher of mine was very nurturing and encouraged me to pursue a career in science. My interest in medicine was a progression of that. As a scientist, I had an increasing focus on how science can have an impact on human function. With that in mind, I became more and more pulled towards PM&R. I was looking for more applicability to my work and, in PM&R, there is so much opportunity to apply the science I’ve learned.
Throughout my career and adult life, the accomplishment I’m most proud of is mentorship. I’ve been the proudest of my opportunity to interact with students, residents, faculty, as well as my own kids. When I get the privilege to make an impact in how their lives and careers are developing and hopefully thriving, it leaves me fulfilled. It also brings me immense pride when someone I mentor achieves a goal in their life – whether that’s winning an award, getting a promotion or just finding work-life balance. More than anything, mentorship is what has driven me into leadership. I had great mentors myself (and still do!), so the opportunity to pay that forward really gives me energy.
That’s the same theme in my relationship with the AAP. The AAP has been an incredibly supportive and encouraging environment. Every step of the way I’ve leaned on people to help me in both personal and professional pursuits. RMSTP was influential to my career, but I also have mentors within the AAP beyond that program that are always more than happy to offer advice. I’m certain that without the AAP, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing right now. It’s the organization that has given me the most help in my career.
As a woman in medicine, I have at times encountered barriers in my pursuits. The challenge most frequently cited is raising a family, because there are different social roles that women typically play, even though that’s continuing to shift in our culture. Yet I’ve never seen that as a barrier, rather as an exciting and wonderful aspect of a full life, and have tried to include my children in many aspects of my career to help them appreciate and not resent time spent away from home. The barriers I’ve encountered are subtler, such as not being referred to as “doctor” when my male colleagues are, or assuming that I can’t attend a meeting or travel obligation because of family. I’ve always found a way to juggle work and home priorities so that I can do all the things I want to do in my life, and have surrounded myself with supportive colleagues and most importantly an incredibly supportive spouse.
To that vein, the most important advice I can give to younger women is to do what you enjoy so that you can find sustainability. I’ve been told many times what I can’t do (have a family and a good career, do research and clinical care, etc.). I’ve found that it’s all possible if you’re passionate and driven. But avoid the guilt because it can be demotivating. Be intentional about the choices you make and move forward without any regret. There’s no single path; any combination, as long as it feels right for you, is possible. Just surround yourself with the right people and environment.