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Nkem Ugonabo, MD, MPH, and Adelle Infante: Mentorship of Young Women and Girls in STEM, Dermatology


Allergan Aesthetics recently announced the fifth-year of its partnership with Girls Inc. Nkem Ugonabo, MD, MPH, and Adelle Infante recently spoke with Dermatology Times to discuss the importance of STEM and dermatology mentorship.

Allergan Aesthetics recently announced the fifth-year of its partnership with Girls Inc., an organization dedicated to supporting the development of the whole girl through a combination of mentorship, programming, and partnerships. New this year is a partnership between Allergan and Project Accelerate, a program aimed at accelerating college and career entry and growth in young women. Allergan's involvement will work toward developing young leaders in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math).

Board-certified dermatologist Nkem Ugonabo, MD, MPH, and Associate Vice President of Global Communications at Allergan Aesthetics, Adelle Infante, recently spoke with Dermatology Times® to discuss the importance of STEM and dermatology mentorship, empowering young girls and women, and the significance of Allergan's partnership with Girls Inc. and Project Accelerate.


Nkem Ugonabo, MD, MPH: Hi, I'm Dr. Nkem Ugonabo. I'm a board-certified dermatologist. I practice both medical and cosmetic dermatology here in New York City. I've also had the pleasure of being an assistant professor at Albert Einstein School of Medicine, and I do cosmetic dermatology at a practice called UnionDerm in the city.

Adelle Infante: I'm Adelle Infante, associate vice president of global communications with Allergan Aesthetics.

Dermatology Times: As a woman or as a woman physician, what are some unique challenges you have faced in your career specifically related to gender, and how have you navigated these challenges?

Ugonabo: I think if I could summarize these challenges, it would essentially be having been underestimated, and perhaps undervalued, as a female physician, and prior to even that during trainings.

When you’re in medical school and you're trying to give your input and your perspective or when you're rounding or when you're a resident, and you're speaking with a different team --it's just a feeling of perhaps your opinion is not necessarily being heard as much as if you were a male physician.

There's also been a couple of occasions of being mistaken for not being a physician. For example, being a nurse, or sometimes they assume you’re with respiratory therapy or with transport, all definitely valued positions in the hospital, but it’s interesting sometimes that is the assumption when they see a female in the medical space.

In the beginning, I was more on the quiet side. I'm non-confrontational at baseline, and so I would kind of just shrink myself and feel bad about it. Perhaps go home and maybe vent to a colleague or another physician who can relate and empathize with what I had experienced. But part of the value that goes into the overall theme that we're discussing of mentorship, is having these safe spaces where you can speak to someone who probably has already experienced what you have experienced many times and can give you feedback and give you advice on how to deal with that.

I learned over time that the better way just to deal with it is not to react or saying anything that could be perceived as defensive, but to make sure that my presence is known, to reintroduce myself if necessary, and to speak up so that my opinion or my thought or whatever is I have at that time is heard, and therefore, hopefully valued.

Infante: I'm not a physician, but obviously, I am a woman in the business world and I agree that women can often be either dismissed or underestimated, and you are already in a situation where you might have a strike against you, or a perceived bias against you. Being confident, proving your expertise, demonstrating your knowledge, those actions go a long way to addressing those feelings, but also any concerns or perceived limitations that may be present. A lot of it is having self-confidence and believing in yourself and demonstrating that. The preparedness, and the knowledge, and the confidence in your expertise, is really key.

Dermatology Times: Mentorship plays a crucial role in career development. Could you share your thoughts on the importance and value of mentorship opportunities for girls and young women interested in entering the STEM or dermatology fields?

Ugonabo: I think mentorship is critical. For me, personally, I know that I would not be where I am today without the number of mentors that I've had throughout different phases of my life. I think for STEM in particular, it helps to provide not just support during challenging times or obstacles that you might come across as you're pursuing a career in STEM, but also just guidance in terms of what steps to take, what path to consider, and then sometimes practical advice, too. I think that mentorship serves as almost an opportunity to connect with someone who has walked that same path, and maybe you can dodge some of the landmines that might come across based on what they had experienced before.

With STEM in particular, I also think that there's an aspect to mentorship that is almost more like role modeling. I think sometimes it's hard to picture yourself in a certain position, because you just don't see a lot of people who look like you, and so when you get a mentor, it's inspiring, right? Because it's just like, “Okay, this is someone who I want to role model my career after and I want to learn from,” and I think there's just an element of knowing that it's feasible when you see someone who has done it.

I can't underscore enough how important I think mentorship is. When I was in residency, we did a STEM mentorship program for a local elementary school that was nearby, and I remember there were these girls, and one of them said to me, “you know, I want to be a doctor, but I go to X school, and I don't think that that's feasible,” then I told her that I grew up in Rockaway, Queens, and I went to high school in Brooklyn, I just remember her being so shocked, because it was very similar to the environment that she was describing. With that role modeling aspect of it, I think mentorship is really just a way to really foster people who have the skills who have the skills, who have the know-how, who are very hardworking, and just need a little bit of guidance to get to where they want to go.

Infante: Girls Inc. and Allergan Aesthetics share a similar theme. If you see it, you can be it. By providing girls with the opportunity to see potentially future versions of themselves and see themselves in these women, I think it's hugely inspirational and accessible for them to achieve their dreams. That is really the aim, one of the aims of our partnership with Girls Inc., is to provide those experiences to the girls with professional science focused or STEM-focused women, to really be able to make that connection: to be able to see it, to believe it, and believe in themselves, that they can also achieve those goals, as well. The mentorship focus really provides a safe space, a kind of connectivity to be able to ask questions that maybe they don't know to whom they can ask those questions, or maybe they're embarrassed to ask a question, and by having that connection with women who have blazed those trails, they have an ability to ask those questions, get that firsthand experience, that can hopefully inform their path in life, as well.

Dermatology Times: What is the impact of the partnership between Girls Inc. and Allergan Aesthetics?

Infante: Allergan Aesthetics has been a partner with Girls Inc., both at the national level and locally in Orange County, California, where our headquarters are, for 5 years, and we've really made it our mission to help support young girls explore options in STEM. Obviously, there are very young girls who are elementary school or high school age. They're learning about paths and options and subjects of interest, and helping them see how they can take that interest, that early interest and turn it into higher education or potentially a career. One of the things that really highlights the need for that connectivity is that women only make up just over a quarter of the workforce in STEM fields. But when they're younger, in elementary school age, the percentage of girls and boys who express interest in STEM is equal. So sometime between elementary school, high school, college, and the workforce, there is a significant drop off in women being interested in STEM and continuing to pursue that. We want to help address that gap, close that gap, by helping them be able to envision what they can do and pursue within those fields of STEM.

Dermatology Times: What are the key objectives of programs such as Girls Inc. and Project Accelerate?

Infante: Girls Inc., just a little background, they are a national nonprofit organization that's dedicated, as I mentioned, to inspiring girls of all ages to be smart, strong, and bold, through a variety of fields. Historically, they have served girls in those younger ages, and there was a lot of interest from alumna of the program to continue to have that connectivity through their college years and through early career transitions, and that's what this Project Accelerate is really all about, is helping to serve the older girl, young woman, leaning into her first career and providing that connectivity, providing that mentorship, providing that vision. These girls are a little bit older, probably a little bit more focused, have a greater idea of what they want to pursue, and so it's a little more specific. Our partnership with Girls Inc. is to help these older girls who have expressed interest in STEM connect with some of our women physician customers and ask them the questions: how they pursued medicine, how they knew STEM was where they wanted to go. The questions really can range from anything from educational to professional to, frankly, personal, and work-life balance: how you balance a family, how you balance personal interests with a very demanding career. That mentorship connectivity really aims to help these girls get more insight as they pursue higher education and potentially careers.

Ugonabo: I really like the emphasis on getting to these girls early. I think when they're younger, like Adelle said, the interest is similar amongst the girls and the boys, and then something kind of drops off later in education. When we can have access to these young girls when they are thinking about these careers in STEM and be able to provide them with not just opportunities for mentorship, but also just access to mentorship in general, I think it makes a tremendous difference, in contrast to maybe only getting to them when they're like at the end of high school are already going to college and have already sort of formed ideas about what they can and cannot do. I love that these programs are also targeting young girls in particular.

Infante: Project Accelerate, which is for that older girl, early career, it is new from Girls Inc. And again, as I mentioned, it was it was from a request from the alumna to say, “Hey, can we continue to have that connectivity?” We're really proud to be an early partner of this program. Girls Inc., has a national network of 80 local organizations, and so our goal is to continue to partner and help expand this level of connectivity that has not happened between Girls Inc. and their alumna before, so we're really excited about that.

Dermatology Times: In what ways do Project Accelerate and Girls Inc. aim to accelerate women's trajectories through careers and college, including some of the student internship and early career opportunities offered through the partnership?

Infante: Girls Inc., is well positioned to really make a big change. Through their network, their legacy, and historical involvement with supporting younger girls, and now with this program, they have an opportunity to really advance equitable change and gender equality, which is a primary focus of their mission. This new program helps these young women as they begin to narrow their options and educational path. I think one of the things that's significant is STEM fields typically have a much higher income, and women are primary breadwinners in nearly 40% of families. Entering the STEM field as a women is an opportunity to bring economic change, economic benefit and societal impact. We're really excited about this opportunity.

Ugonabo: I think there's a common misconception that mentorship is something that happens under a limited period of time, and you check the box. You've got a mentor for a year, and then you move on for the rest of your life. Mentorship is a lifelong thing. I think in every phase of your life, you need a mentor, and sometimes you need a different kind of mentor. The person that is going to be helpful to you when you are in the fifth grade is different from the person that would be most helpful to you when you're in the 12th grade, trying to decide what college to go to and what major to select, compared to when you are in medical school or graduate school, things like that. I've had different mentors in different phases of my life, and so I love the fact that this organization is going after different types of girls in terms of their age groups, because the reality is you're going to need a mentor probably for the majority of your career. I still have mentors to this day, and I'm technically done with done with my training. I think it's super important to address the needs and all the different age categories, and I love that they've added Project Accelerate to do so.

There was a recent JAMA study that came out that showed that female surgeons have, in essence, better surgical outcomes, or at least a lower rate of post-surgical, post-operative adverse events. I think it's just a testament to the fact that when we can really increase the number of women in these medical fields, in my opinion, there's a positive impact of doing so, whether it's surgery, or dermatology, or things like that. I think everything that we can do to foster the next generation of female physicians and also other STEM careers as well, will go a long way, and I'm excited to be part of it.

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