Virginia Brooks, Ph.D.
Professor, Department of Physiology & Pharmacology
A logical path to success in academic medicine
Top tier scientists at academic medical centers sometimes begrudge the time spent away from their labs to pass on their wisdom in the classroom to the next generation. Virginia Brooks is indisputably not one of them. She’s passionate about teaching, a quality that has earned her a raft of excellence in teaching awards.
It’s a labor of love, but it doesn’t come easily, she claims. One reason she went into science, she laughs, was because she was so challenged in English. “I don’t want to tell you what my English GRE score was. Little did I know that, oh yeah, what would I do 90 percent of my time? Communicate. I have to think a lot about the words I use. I’m not naturally articulate. Even now I still spend a lot of time thinking through the words I will use and the logical progression. I work really hard at that.”
“It’s important to be logical and efficient. It goes without saying that you have to work hard, but you also have to learn to prioritize, to multi-task, but to pace yourself.”
Her strength in the classroom, she believes, is her ability to give well organized presentations. She teaches renal physiology to medical students and, with Dr. David Ellison, teaches graduate students about blood pressure regulation.
Her teaching chops got their first workout when she was a graduate student in physiology at the University of Michigan. A unique aspect of the Michigan graduate curriculum was a strong emphasis on teaching, including a required course on strategies to improve teaching effectiveness. Which is how she ended up delivering some lectures to undergraduates on introductory chemistry as background for their physiology course. Facing a lecture hall packed with 500 students was a true baptism under fire, yet somehow it made her realize she really enjoyed teaching.
She attributes her success both as a scientist and as a teacher to a logical mind, the ability to prioritize, a bottomless capacity for hard work, a nagging fear of failure and the willingness to seek out help when necessary, which is almost daily, she says.
Ginny Brooks is unusually self-effacing for someone who is at the top of her game as a scientist, is conducting path breaking research on, among other things, the role of the sympathetic nervous system in blood pressure regulation; has, with her husband, raised two “awesome” daughters -- and, on top of all that, has beaten back cancer. She’s a 18-year breast cancer survivor.
The daughter of an auto industry toolmaker, she grew up in the Detroit suburb of Troy, Michigan, and as a child was excited by the idea of becoming a nurse. She went to college not far from home at Oakland University -- “near the Silverdome,” she proudly points out, the stadium that for years was the home of the NFL’s Detroit Lions. Her undergraduate degree was in chemistry. She spent a year after that in a medical technology internship at nearby St. Joseph Mercy Hospital, but concluded that the repetition of assaying multiple test tubes wasn’t the right fit for her after all.
A physiology course she had taken at Oakland taught by “an amazing teacher” named Barry S. Winkler, a professor of biomedical sciences, with whom she still keeps in touch, had a profound effect. “He kind of pushed me,” she recalls. When her boyfriend, now husband, went off to graduate school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, she decided to follow and landed, serendipitously it turned out, in “one of the best physiology departments in the country.”
“In terms of career progression, that was one of the luckiest things that ever happened to me,” she says.
The importance of the right mentors
"Seek out good mentors who not only are able scientists but also are skilled at teaching you the ropes, who can open doors for you, introduce you to people who can be helpful, help you get grants and how to get your research published."
Ginny Brooks gives credit to luck for many of the turns her career has taken. The luck to be in the right places at the right times. The luck to have matched up with inspiring mentors. “They were all really excellent in different ways,” she says.
Her graduate mentor, Richard L. Malvin, now a professor emeritus in Michigan’s physiology department, specialized in the kidneys and how they function. He pointed her toward a knowledge gap that would become the subject of her Ph.D. thesis. It was on how angiotensin, a hormone produced by the kidneys, affects brain control of the kidneys, leading to increased retention of sodium and elevated blood pressure. It opened up avenues of research that she continues to travel today. Dr. Malvin paved the way toward advancement in many other ways. He would say, “Look Ginny, I’ve been asked to give a talk, but why don’t you do it?” As a result, Ginny Brooks delivered not one, but two, symposium talks at national meetings, even before completing the requirements for her Ph.D.
After Michigan, she came west to do her post-doctoral work at the University of California, San Francisco. “Another lucky thing,” she says. William Francis Ganong, a well-known neuroendocrinologist and chair of the UCSF physiology department at the time, had assembled an unusually dynamic faculty. For at least a decade it was ranked the top physiology department in the country by the National Academy of Sciences. Among those Ginny Brooks rubbed shoulders with was David A. Ramsay, the Oxford educated physiologist, who later became president of the University of Maryland. “He was the one that really pulled me up the ladder even after I left UCSF, helping me get funding and papers published.”
Her post-doc mentor – Ian A. Reid – helped sharpen her critical and research focus. His interest was the renin-angiotensin system, the complex array of hormones that rush to stabilize blood pressure and fluid balance when there is a hemorrhage, for example. Dr. Brooks’ research probes more specifically into the role of the renin-angiotensin system plays in the sympathetic nervous system’s regulation of blood pressure. Another line of inquiry she pursues is how blood pressure regulation in women is altered during pregnancy, something she began looking at after hanging out with the fetal physiology group shortly after arriving at OHSU and attending their journal clubs.
Dr. Brooks received her PhD in 1978 and has been a faculty member at OHSU since 1984. In that time, she says, women have become a considerably larger presence in academic medicine. That fact alone, she says, has smoothed the pathway for young women coming into the profession, but it’s still not entirely a cakewalk, particularly for women with young children.
Palpable but not crippling discrimination
"Dr. Brooks, you’re one of only three women we have, and they’re just out to get you."
Over the years, the discrimination she encountered as she climbed the ladder was palpable but not crippling, she says.
Dr. Brooks reflected on one event at OHSU that took its toll. It occurred years ago, she recalled, when the year’s crop of male medical students proved to be particularly belligerent. They peppered her with hostile questions each time the class met in what seemed like a feeding frenzy to her. “ I finished one lecture, and I asked some of the women students in the front row, ‘What’s going on?’ and they said, ‘Dr. Brooks, you’re one of only three women we have, and they’re just out to get you.’
“But that doesn’t happen anymore,” she says. "Times have changed in that regard.”
Looking back, Dr. Brooks says, “I’m very happy with the way my career has gone. I’m satisfied. I feel like we’ve made some discoveries that have influenced what other people have done..”
What she does have real regrets about is not spending more time with her kids as they were growing up. “I don’t know how I could have, but I wish I had.”
She and Dan Schwass, the guy she followed to the University of Michigan, were married while they were in graduate school. She gave birth to her first child, Erin, when she was at UCSF and a second child, Katharyn, was born shortly after Dr. Brooks arrived at OHSU.
Accept the need for help
"Accept the fact, particularly if you have young children that you need help – help and understanding from your spouse, help with childcare, and help from the institution."
She is grateful for the flexible schedule she has had as an academic scientist, something her clinical colleagues don’t enjoy. “Very early in my career I had a laptop instead of a regular computer and I could go to soccer games and work, or while the kids were taking a nap I’d work, or if Erin was sick I could be home working. That’s a huge advantage.”
Still, she says, women in academia, especially if they have children, need to recognize and accept the fact that they need help to succeed. “You also need to accept that you’re never going to be the best scientist or the best parent that you can be because you’ll have to make sacrifices on both ends and you have to get over the guilt about that if you can.” More and more, she says, this is true for both men and women.
“I have seen some women leave science because they have a child and it is hard. When I was a young assistant professor there wasn’t any recognition of how hard it was. The numbers have improved, but if an institution wants to help young academics – men or women – help them with child care.” It was a challenge when she and her husband were starting out and struggling to make ends meet. “If you make enough,” she advises young women, “hire as much help as you can.”
Has Dr. Brooks employed any conscious strategies for making her way in the profession? “Finding mentors is really important, a mentor to help teach you how to do your job, introduce you to people, and open doors for you. Being efficient is really important, which means being able to prioritize. Serve on a lot of committees. That’s important. And network, network, network. You need to make friends. And you have to seek help, from men, from women, from colleagues.”
But her career path also offers another bit of guidance perhaps: Don’t overdo it. Shortly after she had won tenure, Ginny Brooks took a sabbatical and it was during that time she discovered that she had breast cancer. She had taken the sabbatical, she says, expressly “to shed all the committees I was on, local and national.” She had been on a path toward national leadership in her professional society, the American Physiological Society. The cancer scare initiated a lot of soul searching.
“One of the decisions I made was to forego those sorts of administrative positions. I decided that I wasn't willing to make the sacrifices of time and perhaps research progress to devote to those sorts of things.”
“When you think about successful women with young children in academia, or even in other professions, there’s almost always a helpful spouse there,” she says.
Ginny Brooks counts herself lucky on that score as she has been in her choice of mentors. Today, with their children now grown, she and her husband take full advantage of Oregon’s natural wonders – as they did when they had their kids in tow. They hike, fish, kayak and cross country ski, using their little log cabin in Sisters as a jumping off point.
Lessons learned, lessons shared: Advice from Dr. Brooks
What advice would Dr. Brooks give to young women starting out in academic science?
- It’s important to be logical and efficient. It goes without saying that you have to work hard, but you also have to learn to prioritize, to multi-task, but to pace yourself.
- Seek out good mentors who not only are able scientists but also are skilled at teaching you the ropes, who can open doors for you, introduce you to people who can be helpful, help you get grants and how to get your research published.
- Accept the fact, particularly if you have young children that you need help – help and understanding from your spouse, help with childcare, and help from the institution.
- Make friends among your colleagues and those in your field at other institutions. Network, network, network.
- Join committees and seek out leadership roles, but don’t overdo it at the expense of your research – or your health.
- Maintain some balance between your personal life and your career. If winning a Nobel Prize is your goal, you need to understand the sacrifices. Even if it’s not, and you have a family, you may need to accept that you’re never going to be the best scientist or the best parent that you can be because of the sacrifices you’ll have to make on both ends. Get over the guilt about that.
- As much as you are able, take advantage of a flexible schedule to most efficiently blend family time with work time.
Article written by Harry Lenhart