When the Mount Sinai School of Medicine opened in 1968, Sandra Masur was among the first female faculty members hired. Since Dr. Masur moved into her first lab, in Mount Sinai’s Basic Science Building—a converted bus garage—she has led two major research programs and trained generations of scientists. Fifty years later, she is still at Mount Sinai, now on the 22nd floor of the Annenberg Building (yet to be constructed when she joined the school). She has seen the face of Mount Sinai change.
Today, women at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai are deans, department heads, and directors of research centers. Five of these physicians and scientists reflect on their experiences.
Sandra Masur, PhD
Professor of Ophthalmology, and Pharmacological Sciences
Director of the Office for Women’s Careers, Chair of the Committee on Special Awards, and Title IX Coordinator
Research field: hormonal control of membrane transport, and wound healing
Years at Mount Sinai: 50
I was hired when the medical school opened, so I represent 50 years at Mount Sinai. In 1968, I was on a tenure track elsewhere, but I knew that that job wouldn’t be viable if I decided to have a child. So I went around New York and talked to leading scientists about how I might be able to stay active in research while caring for children. Each of those men I asked said something like, “My wife is staying home. She has a PhD, and she’s very happy.” Finally, someone at Sloan Kettering referred me to Irving Schwartz, MD [the first Dean of the Graduate School of Biological Sciences, 1965-1980]. He told me he was starting a medical school at Mount Sinai. The first time I met him, Dr. Schwartz said: “If I don’t hire you, my wife will divorce me.” His wife was Felice Schwartz, a crusader for working women, who also had family responsibilities, and was the founder of Catalyst, an advocacy group for that cause. Together, their goal had been to help women combine their professional goals and family. So I became a prototype for the “mommy track.”
Dr. Schwartz hired me to work three days a week. There was a tradeoff: I stepped back to instructor from assistant professor, but he also hired a full-time lab technician for me. This was crucial as it meant that I could do the thinking and writing at home, come in and perform experiments, and then have my technician complete the processing of tissue that I would subsequently examine using electron microscopy. So my efforts on lab days were optimized.
After seven years, I resumed working full-time and soon got my first R01 grant, re-entered the tenure track, and in the end was funded by the National Institutes of Health for the next 35 years. My research overlapped with Dr. Schwartz’s, so eventually we co-authored a few papers. He made a good investment in me, and I’m very grateful that he was creative in thinking about my career.
When I arrived at Mount Sinai, there was one woman in a leadership position, the chief of endocrinology. Over time, some of us formed our own women faculty group. In the mid-1980s, Dean Kase [Nathan Kase, MD, Dean of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine from 1985 to 1997] provided funding so that we could hold a series of lectures every month. Our topics were broadly professional: How do you collaborate? How do you write grants? How do you think about time management? How do you advance in academia? Our posters were decorated with flowers, and they explicitly said Women Faculty Group. And every month, the room was half-filled with men, because at that point, women were the only ones doing this kind of mentoring. It turns out, when you help women achieve their professional goals, you’re helping the men as well. I went to the Dean to talk about the problem. His response was to congratulate me and make me Dean for Faculty Development.
Fostering women’s career development creates diversity. There have been studies on the importance of diversity in creativity. Scott Page, a social scientist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, found that the most creative groups in solving problems are the most diverse ones. If you have the standard group of all white guys, you don’t come up with as many new options as you do with a mix of gender, ethnicities, and experiences. Another study characterizing the collective intelligence of groups found that the most creative groups weren’t the ones with the highest IQs, but rather the groups whose participants took the most turns speaking and listening cooperativity, and a surrogate for the cooperativity of a group was the number of women. Thus the more women participate, the higher the collective intelligence. And that has been my experience here at Mount Sinai.
For the last 10 years as director of the Office for Women’s Careers, I’ve been organizing a platform for women’s leadership called Just Desserts. Once a month, we serve chocolate and fruit, while featuring an outstanding woman scientist or physician. We meet informally and behind closed doors, so people speak frankly. We ask the speaker many questions including, “How did you do it? Who were your mentors and tormentors?” And my takeaway from scores of such interviews is that each woman has created her own path—there is not a single path to success for a woman scientist or physician. As in the mentoring series, men also attend Just Desserts, because in the current generation, when men scientists and physicians decide to have a family, they face many of the same pressures, concerns, and goals as women. Everyone needs to be creative in juggling multiple roles. Everyone needs to find a circle of mentors and advisors—people who can help with the science or the medicine, with career issues, or with interactions with administration. My advice is to have as many mentors as you can in these diverse career arenas.
Things have changed a lot since I started at Mount Sinai 50 years ago. Dedicated mentors and forward-looking leadership have brought about real change. Thanks to them, women who started their careers in the past 15 to 20 years have entered into a really different situation—and a better one.
Miriam Merad, MD, PhD
Mount Sinai Professor in Cancer Immunology, Director of the Human Immunomonitoring Center
Research field: immunology and immunotherapy
Years at Mount Sinai: 14
I came to Mount Sinai because I shared its belief in the centrality of translational science, which is the term we use for an approach that tries to conflate research and treatments. My own background aligns with the Mount Sinai approach. I was trained in hematology/oncology and then started a PhD in immunology after I had finished my residency. It was my clinical experience that directed me toward research. I was tired of incremental cancer trials based on empirical chemotherapy regimens. The realization that cancer lesions were heavily infiltrated by a large number of immune cells drove me to immunology, the science of the immune system. I started a PhD at Stanford in immunology after completing my residency and fellowship in Hem/Onc at Paris University, and I have been studying the immune system since then.
I was recruited to Mount Sinai in 2004 to build a program in innate immunity, after finishing my postdoctoral fellowship, also done at Stanford. At Mount Sinai, my lab studies a group of innate immune cells called antigen presenting cells. These cells are unique as they educate effector immune cells, called lymphocytes, to kill damaged cells while preserving non-damaged cells. I mostly focus on the role of these cells in cancer and inflammatory diseases. In particular, my work seeks to understand how these cells can help induce immunity, specifically against the tumor cells, without affecting normal cells; another focus is on whether these cells are contributing to the damaging inflammatory response observed in inflammatory diseases.
To better study human disease lesions, I have founded the Human Immune Monitoring center at Mount Sinai, dedicated to the profiling of human disease lesions using novel technologies that maximize information obtained from limited biological samples. The center has heavily invested in single cell technology that allows us to analyze every single cell present in disease lesions. Together with my colleagues, Adeeb Rahman, Myron Schwartz, and Raja Flores, we have used this technology to analyze lung cancer and liver cancer lesions, providing unprecedented knowledge of immune changes that occur at the cancer site. This information is not only helping us design rational therapy, but also to identify novel targets to strengthen antitumor immunity. Together with Judy Cho, we are also using the same single-cell technology to dissect the distinct immune defects present in inflammatory bowel disease lesions to help guide therapy and design rational combination treatment. Our goal is that all patients, whether with cancer or inflammatory lesions that include inflammatory bowel disease lesions, but also neuro-inflammatory lesions such as MS, rheumatoid arthritis, or atherosclerosis, will undergo this type of deep single-cell analysis to guide therapy.
I still vividly remember my first years at Mount Sinai. Three months after joining I became pregnant with my first child, and a year later I was pregnant with my second child. In most places in the United States, having kids while setting up your laboratory would have severely hampered your career. Mount Sinai was different; the collegiality and respect for family needs is remarkable. The fact that the Dean of our medical school has five kids, including four well-accomplished daughters, likely contributes to it.
Mount Sinai is also remarkable in the way they value junior faculty. I remember that four years into my tenure, I was encouraged to take a leadership position. I had never asked for it; I was not sure whether I had the ability to do anything beyond leading my lab, but the trust empowered me and forced me to see beyond my own research, and that decision has significantly affected the course of my career.
Mount Sinai has also enormously invested in female leadership. The number of women chairs and Institute directors is very high compared to most United States institutions, by choice and design, and it is remarkable to be working among so many fantastic female colleagues who have similar experiences and needs. Still, as a community I wish we could provide more affordable and accessible child care to our junior trainees, and especially women, who are most vulnerable during parenthood. However, Sandy Masur and a fantastic crew of women trainees are working on creative solutions, and I am hopeful that they will be able to help soon.
Barbara Murphy, MD
Dean for Clinical Integrations and Population Health, Murray M. Rosenberg Professor and Chair of the Department of Medicine
Research field: transplant immunology
Years at Mount Sinai: 21
In 1997, I came to Mount Sinai to continue my research in kidney transplant immunology. Two years later, I was one of the first investigators to research the outcomes of kidney transplants in HIV-positive patients, and shortly thereafter, our team was one of the firsts to perform this.
I am currently the principal investigator of the Genomics of Chronic Renal Allograft Rejection study (GoCar), which examines gene expression profiles associated with the development of chronic rejection by using biopsies performed over two years following transplantation. We are also establishing a larger cohort of donor and recipient pairs to identify specific immunological genes, which may be associated with chronic rejection and the development of donor-specific antibodies. Published in The Lancet, this study shows how we can use genomics for early diagnosis and prediction in renal transplant patients to individualize the management of immunosuppression.
Recently, the Mount Sinai Health System announced our partnership with RenalytixAI, an artificial intelligence solutions company, in a groundbreaking initiative to improve kidney disease detection, management and treatment by using Mount Sinai’s clinical data repository of more than 3 million patients in combination with prognostic biomarkers. This has the potential to be a game changer for all our diabetes patients or those at risk for kidney disease.
All of this life-changing research was possible because of Mount Sinai’s emphasis on large interdisciplinary groups. As a result of this encouraged collaboration among physician-scientists, our discoveries are being translated into health care applications. I believe that this culture of collaboration truly sets us apart.
As the Chair of the Department of Medicine for the Mount Sinai Health System, it is not just my responsibility, it is my mission and privilege to support our junior faculty. In our department we have 50 junior faculty following the clinician-scientist track, and we have achieved twice the national average of turning our fellows into faculty, as measured by the transitions from NIH-funded K-series grants to R-series grants. I have been fortunate to have had mentors who have given me opportunities and guidance along the way. At our core here at Mount Sinai is the commitment and advocacy for those following in our scientific and clinical footsteps and whose own discoveries are changing the future of care for decades to come.
Lisa Satlin, MD
Herbert H. Lehman Professor and Chair of Pediatrics, Professor of Medicine (Nephrology)
Research field: developmental renal physiology
Years at Mount Sinai: 21
I joined Mount Sinai in 1997 as I sought to relocate to a Department of Pediatrics that was research-focused and fully embedded in a robust academic institution. As a developmental renal physiologist and pediatrician, I wanted to join not only a superb pediatric nephrology division, but also participate actively in a robust nephrology division in the Department of Internal Medicine. Access to investigators engaged in cutting-edge research was also a high priority for me. A faculty appointment at Mount Sinai allowed me to interact seamlessly across clinical disciplines as well as the basic, translational, and clinical research institutes and centers. The ease of collaboration at Mount Sinai greatly facilitated the success of my research program and career development.
Although my research career began with a focus on maturation of kidney function during postnatal life, it has become increasingly apparent that such discoveries help us understand how the adult kidney responds to injury. In addition, elucidation of developmental changes in kidney function that allow the growing subject to precisely meet its metabolic needs has led our lab to discover new roles for proteins, and specifically a potassium channel, overlooked for decades. We found that an increase in dietary potassium intake—which occurs at the time of weaning—and an increase in urinary flow rate activate this channel. While the absence of channel activity early in life, while a newborn is taking in only mother’s milk, allows for growth, activation of this channel in the adult may not be beneficial, potentially leading to significant losses in potassium. Ongoing research is directed at identifying strategies to limit the activity of this channel.
A major strength of the Mount Sinai academic environment is the culture of collegiality and collaboration across disciplines. In preparing my last NIH grant submission, I needed expertise in mouse genetics. At Mount Sinai, we have one of the world’s leading experts in this field, Philippe Soriano, Professor of Cell, Developmental and Regenerative Biology, and Oncological Sciences. I emailed him to see if he could review a portion of the grant with me, and the very next afternoon, I sat with him for a few hours to discuss how to present my research plan. I believe that his willingness to share his expertise and our conversation were crucial to my success in securing funding for that grant.
Collaborative mentoring is another hallmark of Mount Sinai. I’ve trained a number of fellows from the Departments of Medicine (Nephrology) and the Department of Environmental Medicine and Public Health. The Mindich Child Health and Development Institute, of which I am a member, serves to unify investigators throughout the system whose research focuses on child health, whether they be in the Department of Pediatrics or other basic science departments.
Since my appointment as Chair of the Department of Pediatrics eight years ago, I have been delighted to see a tremendous increase in the number of women in leadership positions at Mount Sinai. When I started as Chair, I was the only woman attending the Dean’s Chair meetings. Now I look around the room at such meetings, and note how our number has grown. It is important to acknowledge our Dean, Dennis S. Charney, as a champion in promoting the careers of women.
Annetine Gelijns, PhD, JD
Professor and System Chair, Population Health Science and Policy
Research field: Translational science and public health
Years at Mount Sinai: 9
What really attracted me to Mount Sinai is that its leadership sees translational and clinical research as central to the mission of the institution, and its incredible commitment to innovation. The administration is willing to take risks and invest in new ideas. When I came nine years ago, the Department of Population Health Science and Policy was relatively small. But since then, we’ve grown the department into a vibrant research engine and added multiple new centers and affiliated research institutes, in such areas as biostatistics, clinical trials, health care delivery science, health equity, and women’s health research. This reflects the institution’s willingness to create new organizational constructs to move research forward.
It is a fascinating time to be part of research in the health sciences. Over the past few decades, we have seen enormous advances in our understanding of the molecular and genetic bases of disease, and a tremendous rate of technological change. However, you can’t meaningfully change the future of medicine without evidence about whether new interventions actually work in humans. Ultimately, risks and benefits associated with these innovations need to be measured in populations of patients. Moreover, we also need to ask whether these risk-benefit tradeoffs are the same for women versus men, for minority populations, or for the elderly with multiple co-morbidities.
As translational scientists, we focus our research on testing medical innovations in action. Clinical trials are the gold standard for assessing the value of diagnostic and therapeutic innovations in improving population health. In a sense, they are the critical link between discovery and bringing new therapies into practice. Our department has a robust portfolio of clinical trials that address important clinical questions and public health issues.
Although trials are the most powerful tools to assess value, they have often been expensive and very slow to enroll patients, and haven’t addressed the questions that matter most to patients. We are committed to making the clinical trials enterprise more efficient and patient-centered. We are innovating the design and analysis of trials by making and using methodological advances in statistical and information technology approaches, including machine learning, simulation modeling, and geospatial analysis. We are also fundamentally changing the strategies by which we recruit patients, and collecting data on patient-centered outcomes through novel apps.
As a result, we are bringing promising innovations to patients more quickly, and we are changing practice. For example, we have designed clinical trials that are creating new treatment paradigms for patients with heart failure. We have shown that left ventricular assist devices, a type of partial artificial heart, have doubled survival rates for patients with the most severe form of heart failure. We are now doing trials with injecting stem cells that can regenerate damaged heart tissue in heart failure patients.
Mount Sinai provides a particularly receptive environment for this kind of research. The very high degree of interdisciplinary research makes this school relatively unusual. Most schools maintain a much sharper divide between basic research, clinical research, and the public health sciences, but at Mount Sinai the organizational architecture is such that these sciences are integrated into interdisciplinary research institutes. Such collaboration and communication across disciplines is key to medical innovation. Moreover, for population health researchers, it is a tremendous benefit that Mount Sinai serves such an amazingly diverse population. One very important consideration in our work is looking at the issue of health equity, because striking differences in mortality rates still persist for many conditions, such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes, to name a few. The diversity of Mount Sinai’s patient population allows us to identify the root causes of disparities, and then undertake the intervention trials or even policy experiments to assess whether we can reduce disparities based on ethnicity, race, socio-economic status, or gender.
Finally, Mount Sinai offers a work environment that truly supports diversity in its workforce, which includes having women in leadership positions across the school and the Health System. Enhancing diversity has many important social benefits. Among these is the increasing recognition that diversity enriches creativity and sparks different types of innovation.
To learn more about how scientists are translating research into life-changing treatments, visit the New Heights in Medicine.