Ep. 88: Send the Ferry Back

with Karen Antman, M.D.
Episode hosted by: Sandra Fenwick

November 9, 2022


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Karen Antman, M.D.
Provost of the Medical Campus & Dean of Boston University School of Medicine

Karen Antman, M.D. is Provost of the Medical Campus and Dean of Boston University Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine. She is an internationally recognized expert on breast cancer, mesotheliomas and sarcomas and has written more than 300 journal papers. Previously, Dr. Antman served as Deputy Director for Translational and Clinical Sciences at the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health.


Curiosity is the thing that you absolutely need in this field, you just have to really be curious and keep, keep looking for the answers.



[00:00:00] Sandra Fenwick: Hello and welcome to her story. I’m Sandy Fenwick. I recently retired as the CEO of Boston Children’s Hospital in Boston the number one children’s hospital in the country, I’m proud to say. And today I serve as an independent director on a number of public, private, and non-profit boards. I’m here today with Dr. Karen Antman, who is the provost of the medical campus and the Dean of the Chobanian and Avedisian Boston School of Medicine as Provost. She is responsible not just for the medical school, but also the dental school and the school of Public Health. Pretty impressive. I’m thrilled that you’re here today, Karen, to share your leadership journey with us and so.

[00:00:50] Karen Antman, M.D.: thank you, Sandy. I’m delighted to be here.

[00:00:53] Sandra Fenwick: So, Karen, you are the dean and also the provost of truly a leading medical school and medical campus. You are really someone who has not only been in medicine as a, as an adult oncologist. You’ve cared for patients, you’ve done research, you’ve been in drug discovery. How did you get to this amazing.

[00:01:17] Karen Antman, M.D.: I don’t think people decide they wanna be a dean when they’re growing up. I just wanted to be a doctor. And at the time people kept telling me why I couldn’t because I was a woman and I should be a nurse or a teacher or whatever. So I learned not to say anything. But I was delighted when I got to college that the whole scene changed somewhat, although people didn’t think I would make it. I did an exchange program in Czechoslovakia, that’s what it was at the time, and 50% of the doctors were women. So I came back utterly convinced that there was no real reason why women couldn’t be doctors and did all my pre-med things and went to medical school. And then medical school at, in, at Columbia University in New York City. They had women full professors whose kids were full professors. So they had women in leadership positions for a long time. They didn’t seem to think it was unusual that we were 10% of the class. I think the women basically we looked out for each other. We were, virtually all of us were in the top third of the class, so clearly they could have taken more. But we had a great medical education. I met my husband there on the day before we started classes. I came from a farm. I was afraid to go out and mail a letter to my parents saying I was okay. And he said, Oh, I’m from New York. I’ll mail it for you. And so we were good friends thereafter. And subsequently got married during residency when we went up for our fellowships to Boston. He did cardiology. I did cancer. And then you just basically take on more and more responsibility as people are willing to give it to you. First, you run a team of maybe six physicians and some nursing staff and some data managers and get grants. I did what I was told to do is go out and apply for grants and you get progressively larger budgets and responsibility. That’s how I went from running a program to running a division at Columbia to running a cancer center at Columbia, to going down to the NIH as the deputy director and then as dean at the medical school. So each step was a learning curve.

[00:03:27] Sandra Fenwick: Karen, that is just incredible. I always like to ask, what were some of the attributes that you personally brought or skills you brought along your journey, and then what did you have to learn? What did you have to pick up along the way? Embrace and basically embody in terms of your, your approach your leadership skills, and.

[00:03:48] Karen Antman, M.D.: First of all, my, I have to credit my parents who didn’t treat me differently because I was a girl. If you grow up on a farm, there’s plenty of work to do, and when I was 10 years old, I was driving a tractor. And a truck on the camp, on the farm, because you can do that legally. It’s somewhat dangerous for farm kids. But I wasn’t treated differently than my brothers. So it didn’t occur to me that there was a problem until a bit later. I think I was curious from the beginning. My, my family always said that I asked way too many questions and I shouldn’t do that. But I, how does that work? How does a boat work? How does a Treehouse work? I was just always curious and we made. Boats and tree houses, and the parents would come home at the end of the day, See what? We didn’t dismantle it because it wasn’t safe but we had the opportunity to try these things and to see what worked and then got some supervision and what was safe. But the curiosity, I think is the real is the thing that you absolutely need in this field. You just have to really be curious and keep looking for the answers which makes it, which makes going into medicine and research really very satisfying. I think that I like. People, I went into oncology because you have close personal relationships with your patients. You see them like every day or every three weeks or something like that. It’s not like other specialties where you don’t have a relationship with your patients. It’s a very close. Relationship with your parent with your patients. So I like people and I like the staff too. So we, we had a team that worked. We had, we wrote lots of papers together and that actually, works to get you promoted and get you your next grant. And you just progressively supervise larger numbers of people. But then you asked about what school skills did I have to pick up? I had to read spreadsheets.

[00:05:26] Sandra Fenwick: Yeah

[00:05:27] Karen Antman, M.D.: I remember when I moved to Columbia, they gave me, quote their best administrator cuz they just, they realized I was totally green. And that person taught me a lot about spreadsheets. A fully loaded budget versus a marginal budget. You can always add another student, another fellow, or whatever, marginally, and it doesn’t cost you much. And then suddenly you cross the threshold where now you have to add another teacher or you have to add a lot more expenses to, and that’s the fully loaded budget. So I really needed to learn spreadsheets. The other thing that I needed to learn was building. They don’t, These are things they don’t teach you in medical school. I have a slide when I give a talk on how to get how to thrive in, in, in. In health sciences, because it’s both for PhDs in medical schools. What they don’t teach you in graduate school, and that’s when you get into a leadership position, the first thing you’re gonna be doing is renovating space. So you have to learn that. And then we had the we, we built a. Building down at Columbia for the cancer center. And so we went out into New Jersey and visited pharmacy companies that had labs and universities that had labs and we had great architects and things like that. But we worked to program it so that it would be the best possible place for people to work. Thinking very carefully about light. And who was actually there? 24, seven, like the graduate students, so that maybe they got the officers or you put the labs where the light was. Not where the senior people got the offices. So it was fun to figure out how to build a building that would actually, that you could recruit into, that would be state of the art and people would wanna work in. So that certainly was Helpful. I think I had a certain naivete. I could tell that some people would write me off, and I couldn’t understand why. I thought maybe it was because I came from a small liberal arts college. I wasn’t Ivy League or whatever. It didn’t occur to me that it was because I was a woman. Although I can see it in retrospect, but there were some people who were looking out for me because I was a woman, and there were some people who would write me off because I was a woman. But it made me actually work harder because I was gonna prove ’em.

[00:07:34] Sandra Fenwick: So that is exactly what I was gonna ask you. You clearly were among the few women, 10% of women in your class probably as you went into your subspecialty. Even fewer women. And you stayed in academic medicine and again, many fewer women in academic medicine, especially in leadership positions. What were some of the challenges that you faced? You did talk a lot about some wonderfully supportive people who, who really embraced you as a woman and it supported you as a wife and mother. But I’m sure you also had many. Challenges as a woman and going through and now reaching really one of the pinnacles of your career. You are also a member of the National Academy of Medicine. You’re not only the dean, you’re the provost. So you are, you have an exalted position in an extraordinary place, but that wasn’t an easy.

[00:08:27] Karen Antman, M.D.: I’m lucky cuz I, I have a really interesting job. I keep telling people it’s not boring. You come to work, you think you have a schedule. By the end of the day, it’s changed completely. You discover. Or fire over here, or you have to fix something over there and everybody in the office is pretty flexible around the needs that we have to fulfill. I think that one of the first, one of the first challenges was dealing with sexual harassment. I basically, again, I was naive and I didn’t know what was going on and I was played dumb. I didn’t understand and just ex but I think that we have to protect other women. I think that there’s particularly issues at national meetings and I know that some professional organizations now have groups of women who when When they’re being harassed by someone and they don’t want the person to know it, you can’t say, it’s difficult to say no if that person’s very powerful in your profession. And so these groups have an organization that goes and walks up to the young woman if there’s an app or whatever. And if she hits the app, somebody will walk up to her and say, Oh, you’re late for a meeting, and pull her out of the situation. Letting the other person know that, what’s happening. So I think that we really do have to, at meetings particularly Protect people and we can have these strategies. There were three women out of about 25 on the board of one of the professional organizations that I served on, and we found out very early that. One of us would say something, it would be discounted. 10 minutes later, some guy would say the same thing and all of a sudden it was brilliant. So we started doing this on purpose as soon as the rep from another university who was female said something that I thought was. Pretty smart, I would say, as so and so said, as Dr. Smith said and reinforce it so that it couldn’t and I would say how nice how smart it was. And the other, the third woman would do the same thing and then they couldn’t discount it and it couldn’t be it couldn’t be attributed to somebody else. But I still see this I go to meetings and I still see this, and I call it out when I, and I have the example of the dean at Columbia who, when somebody would do. He would literally say, she just said that and it, it, he gave the woman credit for having said he, he called it out immediately when it happened, and I just do that. I say, she just said that and it works because you reinforce it.

[00:10:59] Sandra Fenwick: I think your idea about, actively, proactively doing something to acknowledge and support, whether it’s a woman doing it for another woman, or finding some wonderful men that you can actually share some of this with, right? And and have them be your supporters and advocates as well. Great point. Anything else? When you think about, when you decided to clearly you’re a wife and mother too, you probably have family issues that are not just in your nuclear family, but that, that extend on. How, is there any special things that you either remember that were. Very positive or negative. And any thoughts on that part too and incorporating that into your incredibly rich professional life.

[00:11:43] Karen Antman, M.D.: I think that you have to find the right life partner, and that settles your life in many ways because you now have a structure and a support. But Elliot and I were at the same, we were in the same class. We graduated together, we did our internships in and residencies at Columbia, and then we moved to fellowship positions. We wanted. Start a family and at Columbia, all the, there were many women in the internal medicine residency, and so I asked them, how do you do this? Is it a problem? And I was told by several of them if that’s what you wanna do, then you just do it, which is what they did. And it was expected that if you were a s a resident that, and you were married, That you would wanna start a family before you got to be too old so that it wouldn’t be possible. And we passed the baby nurse amongst the residents, So our baby nurse was literally somebody who had been a another residence baby nurse when she had her baby and. And then moved out of the neighborhood and we got the baby nurse. So people were helping each other and they just said, Just do it. You’ll figure the exact quote was, You’ll figure it out. Now other people looked at a resident who already had a child as being a problem with academic medicine. I actually thought it was terrific because it gave, especially in cancer, I could come home to a family and, you see your patients every day, and yet I had a. Family at home that provided me with real meaning in the other parts of my life. I didn’t, I used to play a lot of tennis, but I didn’t have time to do that anymore. It was family and job. But I did a couple of years of research and therefore there was no night call after our second child. So that was, it was like the ideal time to. Get a, get an NIH grant and I got it. And then it protected enough of my time so that I could do laboratory research and it was very important. Not that I would wanna do laboratory research my whole life, but I wanna be able to collaborate with laboratory researchers and there’s a really different culture there. So it was really important to have done that and gotten some cell paper, a couple of great papers early in my career. Collaborating with PhD scientists, and I still think that’s really important for MD faculty to do. We have different skills and you’re yin yang and it’s very helpful to work together. It makes you more productive. So I was basically just coached by the older women. There weren’t very many and I was delighted to see them, but they were perfectly happy to talk to me. When I got my first job. I sent my job offer off to somebody who was already a cancer center director at. Institution. I meant when I got my first senior leadership job, and she looked over the offer letter and said you should ask for this and whatever, but it’s a good letter because they’re giving you things you’re not even asking for. That means they want you to succeed. What an observation.

[00:14:29] Sandra Fenwick: Yes.

[00:14:30] Karen Antman, M.D.: And I, I keep doing that so now when we hire people, I make sure that they have what they need, even if they didn’t ask for it. And I hope they have the same, I hope they have the same reaction to it. They must want me to succeed because they know what I need. Even if I don’t.

[00:14:44] Sandra Fenwick: Karen, you know what you’ve, what Drew described is what, we think. We all moved into higher level positions. What we need to think about as we look out across whatever organization, company, whatever we we have, or even in our private lives when we do, professional mentoring or whatever. Because I think that what you’re talking about is, what we should give as advice, not just to up and coming aspiring women, but accomplish. And what their responsibility is. And that’s what I’m hearing you, you also talk about what you’re doing now because you saw it and it was so important for you as you were moving in your journey.

[00:15:26] Karen Antman, M.D.: Play it forward. And one of, one of the wonderful things about academic medicine is that it’s international and because of the cancer people are, I was in doing some sarcoma work and that’s a very small community and you can’t do. Clinical trials in sarcoma with just yourself. You’ve gotta have national and international collaborations to get enough patients. So I got advice from people in Europe and one of the French professors said, You have to not only be fair, but appear to be fair. That was a really good piece of advice. People are willing to help along. Oh and another person told me, You always have to send. Send back the furry. It means if once you get to the other side, you have to send back the furry for the other people and it’s your obligation. So they were giving me these expectations and they were very happy to, people like to tell you how to succeed and listen.

[00:16:22] Sandra Fenwick: So true. Any other advice you would give to aspiring women or women who are in their journey?

[00:16:29] Karen Antman, M.D.: A, a big one is that you have, first of all, you have to establish your independence. You can’t keep your mentor on your papers. Some mentors wanna stay on your papers because that gives them more. More publications, but if they’re a full professor, there’s no benefit to them particularly. But as you do have to establish an independent body of work that you’re, that you are known for. And People say how do you travel with little kids and give talks? We used to take ’em along. So I would, most of the time we would arrange to go to a meeting together. He would give cardiology talks. I would give cancer talks. If somebody invited one of us, They got both of us. And we took the kids. And the outcome of that was that the kids really like to travel today. They’re both physicians, they both married physicians and I think that they had a global exposure in childhood that wasn’t so terrible. And so when I was giving my talk, he would. He would watch the kids. I even if he couldn’t go along, I took my mother-in-law. She thought this was great too. It, you have to trade money for time. It was more expensive to take her and the kids, but I think that having the family along allows you to see these countries from the perspective of your colleagues, and you then, because you’re willing to go and give these talks in other countries or in the United States you have a reputation that when you need to get your letters for your promotion you’ve got people that are arms length, which is what they need, and not your collaborator, but arms length, and that is how you get your promotion or you serve on these c.

[00:18:01] Sandra Fenwick: Karen, it’s just been such a pleasure having the opportunity to talk to you and to listen to your journey. Any other parting words of wisdom or any other funny vignettes or. Interesting stories that you would like to just end with.

[00:18:18] Karen Antman, M.D.: I think that we just graduated one of the, our best classes because they had c for two years. Nothing was standard. They flexed and they became and were really creative I think in a way that other classes didn’t have to be, and. They learned emergency management in a way that other people didn’t. So I think that by virtue of basically having to deal with problems you become a better doctor, a better leader, a better family member. It’s experience.

[00:18:51] Sandra Fenwick: That is fantastic. I think you’re absolutely right. I think this. Fortunate time period has taught us so many lessons personally and professionally. And I agree with you that this has probably been one of the most unfortunate but incredible le learning experiences for all of us, but also for. People who are going to have to be who are, who want to be leaders and who have to figure out on the spot how to assess, how to reassess, how to deal with too little information, changing information, and yet moving forward, right?

[00:19:28] Karen Antman, M.D.: Nobody was an expert in Covid. Therefore, our. Faculty didn’t have to compete with senior leaders in a field that was already established. And so the junior faculty had a tremendous advantage, and I keep telling them, find a field that’s new. For me it was bone marrow transplant which was new at the time, but for them, covid leveled the playing field for junior faculty and therefore, lots of them wrote lots of papers.

[00:19:50] Sandra Fenwick: Karen, what a joy to have had an opportunity to talk to you.

[00:19:54] Karen Antman, M.D.: I’ve enjoyed it, as you can tell, Sandra, And thank you for doing this cuz I think it’s really important that that women see that it, it’s not only possible but fun.

[00:20:04] Sandra Fenwick: You bet. You bet. Karen Best wishes to you and congratulations on your incredible journey.

[00:20:11] Karen Antman, M.D.: Thank you.

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