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Women Scientist Profiles

Ana María López, M.D., M.P.H., FACP

Ana María López, M.D., M.P.H., FACP

Dr. Ana María López entered medicine to take care of people. Her career trajectory shows continuous movement toward not only doing that better but also making better care more accessible for more people.

Following undergraduate study at Bryn Mawr College, Dr. López earned her M.D. at the Sidney Kimmel Medical College of Thomas Jefferson University and went on to a residency in internal medicine and a fellowship in general medicine. She then completed a clinical fellowship in hematology and oncology and a National Cancer Institute–funded research fellowship in cancer etiology and prevention, all at the University of Arizona. After concurrently completing an M.P.H. at the University of Arizona, Dr. López joined the faculty of the University of Arizona College of Medicine, where she became a tenured professor and also served as medical director of the Women’s Health Initiative, founding medical director of the Arizona Telemedicine Program, and associate dean of outreach and multicultural affairs.

Dr. López moved to University of Utah Health Sciences in 2015 and is a professor of medicine at the University of Utah School of Medicine, director of cancer health equity at the Huntsman Cancer Institute, and associate vice president for health equity and inclusion at University of Utah Health Sciences. She is a member of the Cancer Control and Population Sciences Program at Huntsman Cancer Institute and associate director of collaboration and engagement at the Center for Clinical and Translational Science.

Do you have advice for young female scientists?

Consider a career in academic medicine. It offers many rewards with the opportunity to participate in scientific enquiry, medical education, and clinical care. There is so much we don’t know that this is incredibly exciting.

Know that it’s OK if your hypothesis is proven wrong. It may be just as important to know what is not the answer. A negative result can point you to a better outcome than your initial hypothesis.

Science is a collaborative process. More and more, multiple disciplines and perspectives are coming together to answer complex questions. Purposefully bring unusual suspects to the table and learn from each other.

Persevere. It can seem like a long and difficult road, but it is very rewarding and energizing. I look around and see others saying, “Oh, I have to go to work today,” but I am saying, “Oh! I get to go to work today!”

What are some characteristics of a successful scientist?

Perseverance, resilience, and openness.

When I submit a grant, manuscript, or protocol to an institutional review board and it comes back with comments or lots of red marks, I always think, “Somebody has taken the time to give me feedback, and I can use that feedback to make it better.” Be grateful. Don’t let the process knock you down.

Be open to other people, to other opportunities, to other ideas. We don’t know what the future will bring, but if we are open, we may be better able to catch a glimpse of the opportunity to participate in shaping what the future will look like.

Early in my career, I was exposed to the nascent field of cancer prevention, and it made so much sense to prevent cancer and avoid the suffering of the diagnosis and the treatment.

Telemedicine emerged as an opportunity when the Arizona Telemedicine Program was established and a medical director with expertise in both public health and cancer was sought. I was not a techie enamored of the technology. I was intrigued by telemedicine’s potential to facilitate access to care.

Who were your scientific role models?

I remember one of my hematology/oncology fellowship peers saying, “You can learn from everyone.” So I have not had one role model but many.

My first role models were my parents, both pathologists. I was born in Bolivia, and we came to the United States from Colombia when I was 6 for their postgraduate training. From them, I gained my steadfast commitment to learning, which I absorbed as if by osmosis.

My undergraduate mentors in philosophy helped me tune my critical thinking skills and see the importance of the question: How a question is set up serves as the framework for the answer. As scientists, we all bring in our own assumptions. It is important to be very clear about what those assumptions are.

During my fellowship, Dr. David Alberts introduced me to the field of cancer prevention and actively role-modeled intellectual curiosity. He could as easily engage an optical engineer, a clinical trialist, and a palliative care expert. He was always open to the enquiry.

Finally, my mentor in telemedicine was Dr. Ronald Weinstein, director of the Arizona Telemedicine Program. Dr. Weinstein demonstrated the keen ability to engage others with great enthusiasm to create that which was not yet.

Has the trajectory of your career changed over time?

The answer to that is yes and no. I think the core value guiding my career has really been to take care of people. This guidepost resonates with the mission of an academic medical center to care for all and is the reason academic medicine has been my home. My work within academic medicine has been to address the specific needs of women, of underserved populations across the spectrum from prevention to palliation. These tailored interventions can often be facilitated by telemedicine technology.

How do you manage work/life integration? Do you have tips for young scientists?

You hear a lot about work/life balance, and I used to give a lot of these talks, but then I looked around and saw only women. I decided to stop giving these talks until men were also in the audience. Men today are asking these questions. We are no longer talking about maternity leave but parental leave. Shifts are happening.

Keeping track of your priorities is important. For me, my two children are my top priority. My daughter was born during my second year of residency; my son, during my second year of fellowship. Being in training and having children, I began to feel discouraged that I could not “have it all.” Then my thinking moved from “As a woman, you can have it all,” to “I can have it all, just sequentially, on my own timeline.”

On my daughter’s first Christmas, I was on call. I went in very early Christmas morning, made rounds, and got home and back into my pajamas before she woke up. When she woke up, our first Christmas together started.

So maybe your path is not as direct as someone else’s. That’s OK. Mine has not been linear, but I absolutely do not regret my choices, not for a second. The important thing is to be clear on your priorities.

Why is it important to support and encourage the next generation of female scientists?

The mean age of folks in academic medicine is in the 50s. Many people are looking to retire, and there are not many in the wings to replace us.

Academic medicine is how we make discoveries. We have so many unanswered questions. We need to encourage people, not just women, to enter academic medicine and to become active in enquiry.

We need a diverse biomedical workforce, because different people will bring different questions and different solutions. Greater diversity allows for better answers to the complex problems that we are facing.

Academic medicine seeks people committed to learning and enquiry and who find inspiration even in failure. Thomas Edison said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” That’s the kind of person we need in academic medicine.

Of which career and life achievements are you most proud?

First, my two children. Being a mother is the most challenging and most rewarding of all my undertakings.

Achieving tenure was second. I think I was the sixth woman to achieve tenure in the College of Medicine at the University of Arizona.

The third is a certificate of recognition given to me by the community health workers with whom I worked on population needs and access to care. That is the most meaningful award or honor I have received, because it came directly from the community served and acknowledged that together, we had made a difference.

What are some career goals you have yet to achieve?

There is much left to do! In the cancer area, we can do more to prevent cancer. It’s not complicated; it’s lifestyle. It’s a cheap intervention but very difficult. Physical activity, a plant-based diet, and decreased stress can make a difference. Implementing community-based efforts to help make these goals achievable by everyone—that would make a great impact.

This page last updated: May 25, 2016

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