Welcome to the Diversity Page of the AANS. We are the faces of US neurosurgery and are working to ensure a diverse profession with equal opportunities for all trainees and neurosurgeons. Please stay tuned as we highlight new stories over the coming months.
The Face of Neurosurgery, 2022
Ali Aziz-Sultan, MD
Chief of Endovascular and Open Vascular Surgery at Mass General-Brigham Hospital Associate Professor at Harvard Medical School
I am the Chief of Endovascular and Open Vascular Surgery at Mass General - Brigham Hospital (MGB) and Associate Professor at Harvard Medical School. My research, clinical expertise and educational endeavors focus on cerebrovascular pathologies and stroke. I have had extensive training in cerebrovascular neurosurgery and in a variety of other fields critical to creating one of the most innovative and impactful stroke centers in New England. I hope to utilize my training and experience to help change the world in a principled and compassionate way.
Locally, I represent our department at the MGB Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Committee. This hospital-wide initiative focuses on recruitment, retention, promotion and education of underrepresented minorities. As a result of this committee's work, we have significantly increased the number of underrepresented minorities in our department and in our hospital. Additionally, we have been able to start and fund a scholarship for premedical students from underserved communities, providing a unique mentoring opportunity for students through our department and research labs.
Regionally, I have been part of the United Against Racism Committee, an MGB system-wide initiative to bring health care equity and access to underserved populations in New England. We have successfully secured funding and hired an equity coordinator who is working with our underserved communities to help patients overcome hurdles including complexity of access, insurance coverage, perception of trust, language and transportation.
On a personal note, I am a refugee from Afghanistan, and escaped the war with my family at the age of six. I have been given a tremendous opportunity to elevate myself through the aid and compassion of others, and through the opportunities afforded by education. Inspired by my own background, I have been involved in the Afghan American Community Organization (AACO) for five years and am currently on the AACO Board. The mission of our non-profit is to build an empowered, supportive and engaged Afghan-American community. This requires community advocacy with legislators, mentorship of young community members, funding scholarships and providing annual educational conferences.
On an international level, I work with the Harvard Program for Global Surgery and Social Change to support the public health care system in Afghanistan. This program was initiated to map out capacity within the country and build educational bridges with 10 key public hospitals. During the recent civil war and humanitarian crisis, we organized a humanitarian pipeline, raised funds to purchase $700,000 worth of trauma equipment, and got this into the hands of doctors handling casualties â€“ all during a time of Covid lockdown, which saw the departure of the international community and escalations in war casualties. My mission in life is to end suffering through humanitarian diplomacy and to advocate for the most vulnerable.
Arnett Klugh, MD
Division Chief of Pediatric Neurosurgery Omaha Children's Hospital/University of Nebraska
As a midshipman at the US Naval Academy, I helped create the Benjamin Banneker Math and Science Tutorial Program showcasing many practical applications of science through systems available at the Academy - like a working nuclear reactor.
As a medical student at Baylor College of Medicine, I mentored Macy Scholarship students at the Michael E. DeBakey High School for Health Professions.
In the Navy, I helped many corpsmen find their passion for science and medicine, with two-thirds of my sailors obtaining advanced degrees and numerous commissions as officers in the Nurse Corps or as physician assistants.
In partnership with Omaha's High School Alliance, I am helping to introduce underserved students to STEM with an introductory primer to neuroscience. Beyond lectures, the program provides mentorship through shadowing and sharing of life stories and challenges. It's an opportunity to plant a seed of potential and create a bridge of aspiration where students can see themselves in our reflection.
Already at Omaha Children's Hospital, two of my scribes are entering PA school, and I look forward to seeing many others identify their passion for science in the decade to come.
Odette Harris MD, MPH
Professor, Neurosurgery Paralyzed Veterans of America, Endowed Professor of Spinal Cord Injury Medicine Vice Chair, Diversity, Department of Neurosurgery Director, Brain Injury - Stanford University School of Medicine Deputy Chief of Staff, Rehabilitation, VA Palo Alto Health Care System Director, Traumatic Brain Injury Center of Excellence
As one of the few Board-certified women in neurosurgery, I am passionate about supporting and mentoring women in the field. I have served as President of Women in Neurosurgery (WINS), and currently serve in leadership in support of WINS.
As an Endowed Professor at Stanford University School of Medicine in Spinal Cord Injury, and Deputy Chief of Staff in Rehabilitation at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Palo Alto, CA, I oversee multiple programs focused on acute injury of the brain and spinal cord. We have worked to ensure that access into our specialized programs is free from bias. It is crucial that unbiased access to care be available to all patients, and that the care and outcomes of all patients be equally evaluated and researched.
As Vice Chair of Diversity for the Department of Neurosurgery at Stanford, the importance of the neurosurgery workforce pipeline has been a focus of our efforts. We have developed and implemented several programs with significant local and national impact. We work with the Boys and Girls Club and all local schools in our area to ensure that the pipeline has diverse representation, when viewed through a lens of gender and socioeconomic background. We have worked hard to democratize access to neurosurgery on all levels.
I serve on the boards of multiple institutions focused on education. My goal is to continue to foster equity in STEM and to expose students to the varied career options in health care related to the neurosciences.
Sepideh Amin-Hanjani, MD
Professor & Co-Director Neurovascular Surgery Department of Neurosurgery, University of Illinois at Chicago
Path to current position
I was born outside the United States and immigrated to the U.S. to attend university. I attended Harvard Medical School and was fortunate to match into neurosurgery residency at Massachusetts General Hospital in 1994, as the fourth female trainee in the history of the program. I was equally fortunate to work as junior resident under a female Chief Resident, Dr. Nicole Moayeri, who showed me that a female neurosurgeon had the capacity to be even more skilled and respected than her male counterparts. Given the prevailing demographics in neurosurgery, I had many other superlative and supportive mentors during my career who were male, but unquestionably, I benefited from seeing someone 'like' me thrive and succeed during a formative time in my career.
After residency, I completed a Cerebrovascular and Skull Base fellowship at the Barrow Neurological Institute, and then assumed a faculty position at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where I served as program director for almost 15 years, and continue to serve as Co-Director of Neurovascular Surgery. As program director, I valued diversity and worked to create a diverse residency group that would benefit from exposure to different perspectives during training.
What diversity means to me
I am passionate about encouraging and promoting the roles of neurosurgeons and neurosurgery in patient care, policy and scientific advancement, as I feel that we bring unique value to each of these realms. For our specialty to have the greatest impact, we need to attract and retain the best across the full spectrum of students and trainees. The way to achieve this is to fully embrace diversity as a necessity to elevate our specialty and optimize our impact.
As the first female Chair of the Joint AANS/CNS Cerebrovascular Section in 2012, I recognize the underrepresentation of women in our specialty, and the critical need for increasing diversity across neurosurgery, and within its subspecialties.
Contributions to diversity over the years
Over time, I have transitioned into a more mindful and deliberate approach to diversity. When I began my faculty appointment, and as a program director, I focused on providing equal access and engagement to students regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, etc. As time has become an increasingly precious commodity, I particularly value and prioritize my longitudinal, active research and academic mentorship of underrepresented students.
Some of my recent national activities around diversity include:
- Member of the recently formed AANS Diversity Committee
- Mentor in the inaugural year of the WINS mentorship program
- Working with colleagues in the NIH funded Neurosurgery Research Career Development Program's National Advisory Committee to promote diversity initiatives related to surgeon-scientists
Aruna Ganju, MD
Associate Professor of Neurological Surgery and Orthopaedic Surgery at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine
Neurosurgeons spend their professional days in pursuit of the meaning of life- more specifically, how does one qualitatively and quantitatively define life? What is a life worth living? Does the presence of bodily pain, functional disability, or inability to communicate render such a life less meaningful? Neurosurgeons analyze the data and attempt to calculate the benefit of intervention and its effect on another's life.
My neurosurgical life has its genesis in middle school, when I realized that the nervous system allows for humanity and defines life. My dream of becoming a neurosurgeon remained dormant until I had the opportunity, as a first-year medical student, to meet a neurosurgeon and learn about her journey. Seeing this female surgeon's passion, tenacity and skill gave substance to my dream - seeing a woman succeed in the environment of academic medicine encouraged me to pursue my childhood dream.
Following neurosurgical residency, I joined the faculty at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in 2001, where I have served as Medical Student Clerkship Director and Residency Program Director. Throughout my career, I have been a mentor and sponsor of students at all levels: high school, undergraduate, graduate, medical school, and fellowship. The results are personally rewarding; one hundred percent of my high school mentees have gone on to pursue a career in medicine. Of the medical students I have mentored, some have pursued careers in neurosurgery, while others simply explored their interest in the field, ultimately deciding that their passion lay elsewhere.
I have been elevated by those who came before me, and I expect that my students will go on to advance the field. As populations diversify, it is imperative that medical specialties concomitantly diversify to meet the needs and changing demographics of the world. Numerous studies have demonstrated superior patient outcomes when patients are treated by practitioners of a similar ethnicity. With incoming medical school classes comprised of at least 50% female students, it is critical that surgical subspecialties - historically male-dominated - educate and create a diverse workforce to meet the needs of the U.S. population. As the mother of two young daughters and as a surgeon whose life partner is also a surgeon, I feel a need to be a role model for the younger generation. I believe that pursuing and seeing success in both personal and professional goals create a more meaningful life.
The best and brightest students and practitioners are needed to optimally advance a field. I hope that Neurosurgery continues to diversify through identifying, training, and supporting all people equally.
Everyone has the potential to pursue their dreams, but it takes a world of diversity to reflect the individuality of each of us. I persist so that others can achieve their goals and define for themselves the meaning of their lives.
Avia Abosch, MD
Professor and Chair, Nancy A Keegan and Donald R Voelte Jr. Chair in Neurosurgery, University of Nebraska Medical Center, Department of Neurosurgery
Innovation, creativity, positive change, and forward progress within neurosurgery are rooted in embracing diversity at all levels of our educational system and workforce. As a woman in the field of neurosurgeryâ€”which remains an overwhelmingly male-dominated professionâ€”as the first female President of the American Society of Stereotactic and Functional Neurosurgery (ASSFN), as a Past President of Women in Neurosurgery (WINS; an advocacy group), and as the third ever female chair of a North American neurosurgery department, I understand personally and professionally the importance of a diverse workforce.
On a personal level, I would never have been able to navigate my challenging training and career path to national prominence without the help of mentors, peers, coworkers and administrative staff who have similarly embraced the spirit of diversity, fairness, and inclusion. My conscious recognition of the challenges I have faced informs my selection of residents, my mentoring of faculty and fellows, and my approach to training the next generation of clinicians and clinician-scientists.
My personal and professional experience is reflected in my commitment to enhancing diversity, equity, and inclusion, and I have championed this commitment in the public forum through national and regional projects, presentations, and publications, and in personal and professional behavior. Additionally, as a leader within organized neurosurgery, I am frequently in the limelight as a female neurosurgeon in academic medicine and have thereby consciously and subconsciously influenced many trainees and junior colleagues. Through my efforts to make neurosurgery more inclusive for women and other minority groups, I have been approached for guidance by trainees and faculty of various backgrounds and at various stages of professional development. My ongoing efforts to bring science into the classrooms in the local public schools, is another crucial example of this commitment to encouraging diversity in the world around us.
The delivery of the best possible clinical care and the continued progress of academic medicine depend entirely on engaging the hearts and minds of talented teams of people who represent all the patients we serve. Embracing diversity in all facets of religion, race, gender, ethnicity, age, socioeconomic background, and creed is the only way forward for our patients, our trainees, our work environment, and the future of our profession.
Holly Gilmer, MD
Chief of Pediatric Neurosurgery and Associate Professor of Neurosurgery at Oakland University Medical School
I have been involved with organized medicine and neurosurgery for many years, as I believe that it is crucial to have a "seat at the table", and to be able to open doors for others following behind me. My engagement will help increase diversity in the leadership and ranks of US neurosurgery.
From 2004 - 2005, I was President of Women in Neurosurgery(WINS) At that time, neurosurgical residency training programs still existed that had never trained a female resident. During my tenure on the WINS Executive Committee, partly through our efforts, the percentage of female residents in training programs increased from 5% to 20%. This was also the time that the first female Chair of a Neurosurgery department was named. WINS promoted the nomination of women to leadership positions in the major neurosurgical organizations and advocated for women to be nominated to representative voting liaison positions in these executive committees and boards of these organizations.
WINS also worked to ensure that female residents and attendings were included as speakers, moderators, and panelists at national neurosurgical meetings. I have had the same goals in other leadership positions throughout my career and with many different organizations.
As a surgeon, I am committed to protecting the health of the public, but I am also committed to fairness and the equitable treatment of physicians. As such, I served for 3 years on the AANS Professional Conduct Committee and was the first woman appointed to this committee since its inception. Similarly, I now serve as a member of the State of Michigan Board of Medicine.
I have always been involved in mentoring students. During residency, I persuaded my faculty to allow middle school and high school students to watch our brain and spinal cord surgeries. As an Assistant Professor at Wayne State University Medical School, and then Associate Professor at Oakland University Medical School, I continued mentoring medical students and encouraging them to consider neurosurgery as a career choice. I am the sponsor/advisor for the new Oakland University AANSCchapter, and I have been the faculty advisor for the 4-year clinical Capstone projects for our medical students. I was honored to receive the Oakland University AMWA Chapter's Women in Medicine Leadership Award in 2015.
I am proud to say that one of the students who shadowed me as a high school student is now a successful neurosurgeon, specializing in brain tumors. I believe that it is crucial for the good of our patients and our profession to increase the participation of women and underrepresented minorities, particularly in Black communities. While advocacy from leadership is critical in this endeavor, I believe that advocacy remains a grassroots effort that should be encouraged at all levels of healthcare.
Julie G. Pilitis, MD, PhD
Dean and Vice President of Medical Affairs of Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine at Florida Atlantic University
As a woman working in the heavily predominantly male profession of neurosurgery, I have experienced first-hand the lack of diversity in neurosurgery. Though neuroscience has greater diversity at the entry level, there remains a lack of women and underrepresented minorities in Professor or Chair positions. When I became the Chair of the Department of Neuroscience and Experimental Therapeutics (DNET) at Albany Medical College (AMC) in 2015, one of my important initiatives was to foster diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) across disciplines related to medicine and science.
- We formed a DEI committee to implement DEI initiatives in the department, including outreach in the community, and a DEI journal club and newsletter.
- 60% of graduate students in the department now identify as underrepresented minorities, in contrast to 0% when I began as Department Chair in 2015
- We established a virtual Neuroscience Summer Program for high-school and undergraduate students to introduce them to neuroscience research and scientific communication skills, and to provide educational guidance. In 2021, 50% of all Neuroscience Summer Program attendees were minorities historically under-represented in the sciences.
- We created a Junior Faculty Development Program (JFDP), a year-long program designed to support the development of early-career faculty in academic medicine. To date, 70 faculty have completed the JFDP at AMC. The graduating classes have been 70% women and, in some classes, 20% of graduates identified as underrepresented minorities. Further, we brought this program to a national level by incorporating it into the North American Neuromodulation Society.
Analiz Rodriguez MD, PhD
Director of Neurosurgical Oncology, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences
I am an Afro-Latina brain tumor neurosurgeon. I grew up in Southwest Florida, and for as long as I can remember, I wanted to be a doctor. Sometime in elementary school, I decided that I would become a neurosurgeon after watching a TV show. That dream pretty much stuck with me from then on.
I loved science and math throughout school. Seeing my passion, my high school teacher encouraged me to do an independent research project for our local science fair. I never expected that this would change my life, but I was selected to attend the International Science and Engineering Fair in 9th grade. This experience, along with encouragement from my teacher, inspired me to obtain an MD/PhD.
In college, I spent my summers in Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REUs) sponsored by the National Science Foundation. After college, I entered an MD/PhD program sponsored by the National Institute of Health. Now, I am a neurosurgeon with an independent research laboratory and thus far have trained 8 women and other underrepresented minorities in my lab. I am grateful that I can now help students take advantage of opportunities and achieve their goals.
I always enjoyed teaching. In college and medical school, I participated in after school programs at local Boys and Girls Clubs. As a medical student, I had the opportunity to teach English as a second language to kindergarteners at the Luis Munoz Marin School in a program sponsored by the Cleveland Municipal School District. I myself learned English in Kindergarten, so this truly was a full circle moment for me. I enjoy talking to underrepresented minority students in high school and college about entering STEM fields and participating in various programs sponsored by the College of Medicine.
I am passionate about promoting and mentoring women and other underrepresented minorities in science and medicine, especially in surgical subspecialties. My unique experiences have given me a greater understanding of how to advocate for others. I look forward to continuing that advocacy on the AANS Diversity Task Force.
Linda M. Liau, MD, PhD, MBA
W. Eugene Stern Professor & Chair; Chair & Executive Medical Director, UCLA Department of Neurosurgery
Being a 5'2" Asian-American woman within the male-dominated field of neurosurgery, I have a keen understanding of the barriers facing women and underrepresented groups and have made substantial efforts throughout my professional career to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion.
My understanding of barriers that exist for historically under-represented groups stems from my personal experience and background. I grew up in an underprivileged neighborhood in inner city Los Angeles, where my mom worked as a seamstress in the sweatshops of downtown LA in the 1970's. Through odd jobs and financial aid, I was the first woman in my family to ever attend college (Brown University, 1987), and then the first generation in medicine (Stanford M.D., 1991). I was the second woman to graduate from the UCLA Neurosurgery residency program (1997), and then became the first (and only) tenured woman faculty member in the UCLA Department of Neurosurgery (2003). In 2017, I became the second ever female Chair of a neurosurgical department in the United States; and am currently the only Asian-American female neurosurgery Chair in North America. At the regional and national leadership level, I was the first woman President of the Western Neurosurgical Society (2016), and the first woman Chairperson of the American Board of Neurological Surgeons (2020). Being a minority in my field throughout my professional career, I am deeply aware of the explicit/implicit barriers that exist and understand the importance of fostering a climate of equity and inclusivity in which all members of the community are supported and can reach their individual and collective potential.
Along with my residents, medical students, and colleagues, I have co-authored several research articles and editorials that contribute to our understanding of the barriers facing URGs in neurosurgery:
- Wang A, Shlobin NA, DiCesare JAT, Holly LT, Liau LM. Diversity in neurosurgical recruitment and training in the United States: A systematic review. World Neurosurgery, 2022; S1878-8750.
- Thum JA, Chang D, Tata N, Liau LM. Neurosurgeons in 2020: the impact of gender on neurosurgical training, family planning, and workplace culture. Neurosurg Focus, 2021; 50:E11.
- Kondziolka D Liau LM. Sexual harassment in neurosurgery: #UsToo.. J Neurosurg, 2020; 10: 1-3.
I hope that my contributions to the diversity effort will continue to nurture an equitable, diverse, and inclusive community that reflects the diversity of the populations that we serve. I understand that leadership matters, and just recruiting a diverse group of faculty, staff, and trainees/students is not enough. It is also important to provide mentorship and advising to help ensure success, to enhance educational opportunities to advance promotions to leadership, and to support research that can further contribute to our understanding of barriers and biases that URGs face in neurosurgery. Equity, diversity, and inclusion have always been central core values for me, and I hope to continue to use my leadership roles in the future to continue accelerating progresses in EDI within the neurosurgery community locally, regionally, and nationally.