When Dr. Bonnie Ramsey entered medical school at the advice of an undergraduate professor in the early 1970s, she and her female classmates at Harvard Medical School were still among the early coteries of women to pursue careers in science and medicine.
“We were the first bolus of women,” Ramsey said, using the medical term to describe their injection into a field dominated by male physicians. “It was interesting. When you are the first cohort, there is a tendency to compete with each other rather than work as a team.”
Since finding her footing in those early days, Ramsey has pioneered therapies improving the lives of children with cystic fibrosis (CF). Today, she leads all clinical research efforts at Seattle Children’s as the director of the Center for Clinical and Translational Research.
Her career will no doubt leave a lasting impact for the future physicians, researchers and women that will follow her, but for Ramsey, it’s a personal legacy that makes her most proud. Over the last decade, she’s watched her daughter enter the medical field and become a formidable physician-scientist in her own right.
“I am so incredibly proud of her,” Ramsey said. “Watching what she has to juggle and balance is in some ways harder for me than doing what I did with no real generation ahead of me to look to for guidance.”
Following in her mother’s footsteps
Ramsey’s daughter, Dr. Ann Dahlberg is a clinical researcher that specializes in pediatric stem cell transplants. Her primary research focus at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center is in cord blood transplant where she runs clinical trials focused on improving cord blood transplant in patients with high-risk leukemia who often do not have other available donor options. At Seattle Children’s, she leads the Bone Marrow Transplant Transition Clinic in providing post-transplant care to childhood cancer patients.
During her residency at Seattle Children’s, Dahlberg witnessed the special connection her mother cultivated with her patients. She remembers one time attending to a child with CF who was very ill. Unaware of their relationship, the family asked Dahlberg if she could get Dr. Ramsey as they wanted her guidance.
“I decided to go into medicine before I fully understood all she accomplished in the realm of CF, but it was very poignant to see firsthand the trust this family had in her,” Dahlberg said. “I knew the commitment she had to her patients and the relationships she formed and how she could also advance a field while also having those relationships is a unique type of profession to pursue.”
Dahlberg realizes that she’s lucky to have her mother as both a personal and professional role model.
“Most of my other colleagues do not have the built-in mentor that I have,” she said. “I’m so blessed and fortunate to have a mother who’s basically one of my best friends and we can connect on that level, but who can also help guide me professionally in the challenges and hurdles you face as a physician.”
On being a woman in STEM
When asked about the areas that continue to improve for women entering STEM careers, both Ramsey and Dahlberg point to work-life balance.
“I don’t think anyone had heard of work-life balance until the 1990s,” Ramsey said. “It’s now valued and talked about, and it’s something that’s at the front of people’s minds. I don’t think we’ve solved the problem, but at least we’re talking about it.”
Dahlberg adds that the conversation around work-life balance is evolving still today.
“Even during my time as a physician it’s become more of an open dialogue,” she said. “I think we all have the same goal of wanting to be productive physicians. It’s really about accepting that not everyone’s definition of work-life balance is the same and then supporting them in actually making changes to achieve their ideal balance.”
She is also encouraged by the many different STEM career paths available to young people today.
“It seems there are more diverse opportunities to shape your career around your passion compared to the couple of paths that were offered in the past,” Dahlberg said. “I hope the options continue to expand, so people can match their strengths and passions to their chosen career and do the most they can to contribute to the field.”
The future is female
According to Ramsey, women are entering the medical field at higher rates higher than their male peers. Working in science and medicine has always been attractive to her because of the fast-moving, ever-changing environment.
“I’ve always found it very interesting and fun,” Ramsey said. “It’s like something’s new every day. You never know what’s going to come up.”
For Dahlberg, it’s the opportunity to bring two very different skills together to make a difference in the lives of children.
“This is certainly a career where you get to pair your scientific brain and your caregiver side,” Dahlberg said. “You get to push yourself everyday to think of new ways to approach problems and then bring those innovations to your patients.”
Both hope by joining the conversation about women in STEM, they can help inspire future generations of female scientists.
“I have a 10-year-old son and a 7-year-old daughter, so it’s possible that our family could have three generations of women in science,” Dahlberg said.
On this International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we invite you to celebrate our female clinicians and researchers who are advancing hope, care and cures at Seattle Children’s.