The Michigan Daily sat down with Dr. Nancy Ascher, a member of the University of Michigan’s undergraduate class of 1970 and Medical School class of 1974, who is one of four pioneer surgeons featured in the Netflix miniseries “The Surgeons Cut.” She discussed her experience as a woman in medicine in the early 70’s, memories from Ann Arbor and her continued work to make medicine a more inclusive space for others. Dr. Ascher is a world renowned transplant surgeon, former Chair of the University of California, San Francisco Department of Surgery and the first woman to perform a liver transplant.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Michigan Daily: Tell us about your time in Ann Arbor. Why did you choose to study at the University of Michigan? Do you have any fond memories from being on campus?
Dr. Nancy Ascher: I have many, many, many fond memories! I was fortunate because I grew up in Detroit and Ann Arbor was and is such a great institution that it was very easy for me to choose it for my undergraduate. My fondest memory of Ann Arbor is, of course, the fall smells. You come back to campus (of course now it’s COVID), but when you come back to campus in the fall and you have that great smell and you’re about to start a new year … that for me was very inspiring and very wonderful.
I had to decide between staying in Ann Arbor or going to the University of Pennsylvania for medical school. I chose to stay. We had 20 women in a class of 220. We had some very sexist teachers in those days. We (the women) were completely militant. I mean it was during, you know, the heady days of the feminist revolution. And we were into it. So, I have very wonderful memories. The University is celebrated. It’s an even better institution now.
TMD: The time that you were on campus coincides with the Women’s Liberation movement of the 70’s. What was campus culture like during that historic time?
NA: It was remarkable because not only was it the feminist revolution but the most popular book for women was “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” and it was all about women empowerment and about demystifying medicine as it relates to women’s health. So, we taught women how to do self examinations, how to be more autonomous and more knowledgeable. So it was a very wonderful stimulating time. I think that fed my interest and my decision to go for it (pursue medicine), in a way.
TMD: Has your time in Ann Arbor in any way influenced the person you are today?
NA: I think it certainly has. Ann Arbor to me was about meritocracy. I mean there was some hierarchical stuff, but Ann Arbor with the women's movement and with what I was finding in medical school and all new things I could learn about, and kind of be exposed to, it was really about expanding my mind. In those days it was quite a free-spirited time, but free-spirited in an academic way too, which was really fantastic. We were not just having a good old time but also the freedom to study what you wanted to just expand your mind, it was really fantastic. The wonderful thing about Michigan is it gives you choices, and you don’t want to have your choices limited as you grow up. You want to have endless choices, right?
TMD: Do you remember your freshman year residence hall?
NA: Ooh, it was on the Hill. I’m trying to think … I remember my freshman year I joined a sorority and then quit the sorority because I hated it. We had this sort of rush thing, and we didn’t have any women of color in my sorority. So, a woman of color comes to the event, and the women in the sorority started talking about how she “might not fit in,” and so I quit the sorority the next day. Is there a dorm that is like something well? Stonewell?
TMD: What was your favorite class that you took at the University?
NA: Organic Chemistry. We had this really great instructor. I can’t remember what his first name was, his last name was Smith, and he drove a motorcycle to class every day and wore a leather jacket, and he would tickle us with these Grignard reagents and all these wonderful mind games that he would play with us to get us to make compounds and stuff. And I just found it to be really stimulating to be able to do it, and it was really fun.
TMD: One of the moments in the film that stood out from your description of the challenges you faced in medical school includes a requirement of an additional interview for women applying to medical school to consult with a psychiatrist. Do you mind telling us a bit more about that, what do you think the school was trying to accomplish with this requirement?
NA: I think they were trying to make sure that the women who were in the classes were not going to drop out. I mean they wanted to make good use of every slot in medical school, and I don’t know if I said in the film but one of my classmates was a 49-year-old woman who had … five children or something like that. And they gave her an incredibly hard time because she was so much older. And her argument was that her grandmother was still active at 105. So I think they wanted to make sure that we were serious about it, and that we knew what we were getting into. You know, we had to justify. I think we had to justify our existence and our not taking away a slot from a man.
TMD: In the film you say, “I really wanted them to know that I was a serious person.” Did you feel like you always had to be on your toes about making sure you come across as someone dedicated to your job more so than others?
NA: Well, I am pretty serious, but I wanted to be taken seriously. And I think that maybe that’s what came out of that challenge, if you will. Again, getting into the University of Michigan, being accepted in surgery was the notion that I really wanted people to know that I was serious about it. This wasn’t a frivolous desire on my part, I was willing to go the mile.
TMD: In 2019, for the first time in history, the number of female medical students (50.5%) outnumbered the number of male students, which is vastly different from the time you were a medical student. Do you think this is a good sign for the progress that has been made with making medicine a more inclusive space?
NA: Yeah, I mean that’s the scandal in medicine that it’s 50% at the medical school level. And then as you move up the academic track to a professor and then to chair, it diminishes and diminishes and diminishes, and that is still a scandal. Still a giant problem.
TMD: What happens after? Because once you’re into medical school, isn’t that getting your first step through the door?
NA: Well that’s what they talk about with the pipeline, that ‘Why aren’t there more women chairs of surgery?’ And people said, ‘Oh, it’s because there aren’t enough women in the medical field pipeline.’ But it’s much more than that. There is all this implicit bias, it’s still a little bit of a closed organization, although that’s all changing.
At my institution now, UCSF when I was chair, more than 50% of the surgical residents were women, and 40% of our faculty are women. So I think it’s a matter of the women who make it lending a hand to the next generation, and those women lending a hand to the next generation.
The truth is, I’m not a believer in having all women at all. I think that you want it based on meritocracy, and the advancement of women cannot be at the expense of men, it has to be based on merit. So that’s what I’m passionate about.
TMD: How do you convince those with notions that diversity is being promoted at the expense of merit?
NA: So you have to have men, different people, be part of the conversation and be part of the decision making. And the way I did it as cchair was just to bring on the best candidates. And then as more women saw more women in the department they felt more comfortable.
As more men saw that the women who were there weren’t just freeloading, that they were serious colleagues, it changed the environment, made it nicer, made it so that people were more accepting of it. But you can’t just dictate it, you can’t have a lot and have it happen, it’s a process. This is about giving people an opportunity, giving them the tools so that they can use the opportunity but not giving special treatment that is not based on merit.
TMD: And finally, what advice would you give to women who wish to go to medical school today, and what can they learn from your journey?
NA: It’s good to find mentors. It’s good to find women who you watch, women and men who you watch, just to see what their lives are like, to see whether their lives resonate with you. Not that you want to copy them, but you just want to come and check it out. And I think it’s also important to recognize that a bunch of different people can give you lots of lovely advice, and you mustn’t just have one mentor. You got to figure out what you can get from different people, because you can get different stuff from different people.
And I think that the notion that you can’t have it all is incorrect. You can have it all. You might not be able to have it all at one moment, but you can have it all. You can have a full professional life and a full personal life. You just have to figure out what suits you.
Daily Staff Reporter Varsha Vedapudi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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