Celebrating Women in Science and Medicine: Interview with Julie Levison

During the month of March, Massachusetts General Hospital is celebrating Women’s History Month by highlighting our outstanding women scientists, physicians and staff members. In the coming weeks we’ll be sharing a few of their profiles, and be sure to visit the women’s history month landing page to see the full series.

Julie Levison, MD, MPH, MPhil

Julie Levison, MD, MPH, MPhil
Physician Investigator, Division of General Internal Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital
Infectious Disease Physician, MGH Chelsea HealthCare Center
Assistant Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School

Dr. Levison’s clinical interests are in general infectious diseases, HIV medicine and immigrant health, with a focus on a team-based, patient-centered approach to care delivery. Her research focuses on understanding and addressing disparities in HIV care adherence and outcomes in minority populations, with specific attention to immigrant populations.

What is special about Mass General?

Mass General is a special place to work for several reasons, including the patient-centered ethos and the emphasis on teamwork and universal excellence. Perhaps what is most extraordinary is the emphasis not just on “doing” but on “advancing”—that is, how can we advance the practice of medicine and science in ways that improve the health of patients and address health disparities in communities?

At MGH, we have numerous international experts across methodologies and content areas, which facilitates innovative inter-disciplinary collaborations.

What do you like most about your job?

I am grateful that as a physician in the Division of General Internal Medicine and Department of Medicine I can focus on improving health disparities. I work at the intersection of infectious diseases and community health as a physician, scientist, community partner, and teacher/mentor.

My team and I work on developing novel interventions to improve patient engagement in HIV care in diverse populations. The opportunity to work across a multi-cultural and inter-professional team (e.g. psychologists, physicians, nurses, social workers, case managers, community leaders) to problem-solve, create, test, refine and implement interventions together is incredibly rewarding.

Our goal is to be able to apply these interventions to improve health behaviors for other conditions.

What is one piece of advice you would give a woman entering the field of medicine and/or healthcare?

Discover the alignment of what you are uniquely good at and enjoy, and pursue it with fierce determination.

Has there been an influential woman in your life who supported or inspired you on your journey into health care/medicine?

I would not stand where I am, nor continue to run, without the investment and inspiration of my family, notably my husband and children, parents, brother, and grandparents who have made incredible sacrifices for my education and well-being.

Also important were the teachers who encouraged me and taught me key life lessons, such as critical thinking, compassion, and persistence.

My mother Sandra Levison, MD, as a nephrologist, taught me the important role of sex and gender issues beyond solely reproductive health, and my medical school teacher and mentor, Carola Eisenberg, MD, showed me the influential role of physicians as human rights activists. They have led with dignity and an intellectual and moral force that has inspired my career incalculably.

How can we encourage more women and girls to enter the sciences?

It was critical that I had support and encouragement at home and in school to go after a career in science and medicine. A high school summer program for women in science was crucial for me to develop a peer group of girls who were inquisitive about the sciences.

At Wellesley College, a liberal arts college for women, there were many women role models in science and medicine. They instilled in me the expectation to step out and make a difference in the world.

Drawing from my experiences and seeing the data on the correlation of early STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) exposure and entrance into careers in STEM, I would say that early childhood education in sciences and critical reasoning, both formal and informal exposures, are critical to making science an appealing option for girls. In many communities where models of successful women physician/scientists may not be present, the media may be the major source of such inspiration along with developing outreach opportunities to meet such successful women.

But the story is not just about getting women entrance into the sciences, it is also about how to retain them and promote their growth.

Opportunities such as the HMS Eleanor and Miles Shore and MGH Claflin Distinguished Scholars Awards enable women researchers to continue to grow their labs while also building a family. This kind of support is critical for early career scientists, particularly women, who often take on a disproportionate share of care-taking responsibilities.

Girls and women become discouraged from entering careers in STEM when faced with the challenges of bias that prevent advancement when compared with their male peers. Recognition and elimination of such bias and the creation of a more level playing field for career advancement encourages girls and women that the effort is worthwhile.

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