Mentorship is Not Hierarchical

Dr. Tiffany Hodges

Dr. Sherise Ferguson

After a long day of completing a neurosurgical case in the operating room, my neurosurgery attending and I (a fellow at the time) both went out for a well-deserved sushi dinner. During dinner, we had the opportunity to sit, eat and connect as we have done dozens of times prior. Our conversation flowed from the happenings of the workday to recent world events and finally circled back to our common bond: neurosurgery. That evening we shared an epiphany about training and mentorship within our field. Like nearly all neurosurgeons, we can easily trace our neurosurgical training lineage. With Dr. Harvey Cushing as the “father of neurosurgery,” his influence extends with proximal and distal branches of the ever-extensive neurosurgery tree. Indeed, each neurosurgeon comes from a known neurosurgical pedigree. For example, this physician trained under this person, who trained under this person, who subsequently trained under this person at that institution, etc. There are surgical and technical nuances that are certainly passed down through such neurosurgical lineages.

If you were to chart this out visually, perhaps in the style of a family tree, you would certainly note the hierarchy. But undoubtedly, you would notice that as neurosurgeons who happen to be both female, it changes the family tree in a fairly dramatic way. As Dr. Diana Beck became perhaps the first female neurosurgeon, this branch in the neurosurgery family tree began to change in the 20th century as female neurosurgeons were completing neurosurgical training and entering into practice. Indeed, confirmation bias tells us that it probably does not pay to be too different from your peers, as challenges certainly appear when it comes to navigating a neurosurgical world where one is not the same as the majority. We can only surmise that our female predecessors sought out mentorship from senior staff, colleagues and even each other.

In recent times, as more women are entering into neurosurgery (even though representation of women in neurosurgery is still small), there is certainly a sense of encouraging mentorship, whether seeking out mentors or providing mentorship. In our practice, we have been fortunate to have both friends and mentors who have taught us lessons and pearls of wisdom during training and during our careers. As women, we have relied on both male and female peers in neurosurgery. However, beyond the standard hierarchy that has defined the neurosurgical past, we have certainly learned that mentorship can also be lateral. It was through this awareness that we were able to not only look up to those in senior leadership, but also seek mentorship from our peers who offered just as much value to our career and personal growth …. and great sushi along the way!

Dr. Tiffany Hodges, MD is an Assistant Professor of Neurosurgery at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, specializing in neurosurgical oncology and as has trained at MD Anderson Cancer Center for her tumor fellowship. Dr. Sherise Ferguson, MD is an Assistant Professor of Neurosurgery at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, and specializes in neurosurgical oncology.