The conclusion of Women's History Month provides an excellent opportunity to reflect on the motivations and efforts of women who are reversing long-standing trends, such as the increasing number of women in STEM fields. In the United States, women are applying to medical school at a higher rate than men. The trend began in 2017, when women made up more than half of all medical school applicants for the first time in the country's history. The increase in the number of women in medicine is a significant achievement in the process of normalizing women in medical leadership roles.
Rachna T. Shroff, MD, MS, is an Associate Professor of Medicine and Chief of GI Medical Oncology at the University of Arizona Cancer Center, as well as the Leader of the Gastrointestinal Clinical Research Team. She is the Director of the UArizona Cancer Center Clinical Trials Office, the Director of the Arizona Clinical Trials Network (ACTN), and the Department of Medicine's Vice Chair of Clinical Research. She came to the Cancer Center after completing her medical oncology fellowship at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, where she worked as a faculty member from 2010 to 2018.
Dr. Shroff is a pancreatic and biliary cancer clinical and translational researcher who is working to develop new treatments. She serves as the Hepatobiliary Subcommittee Co-Chair for the Southwest Oncology Group (SWOG) and as a member of the GI ASCO Program Committee due to her expertise in these areas. She also serves on the Cholangiocarcinoma Foundation's Scientific and Medical Advisory Board. Dr. Shroff has led several pancreaticobiliary tumor clinical trials and is the national principal investigator for SWOG 1815, which is testing a triplet chemotherapy regimen as a potential new standard of care for biliary cancers. This is based on her leadership of a phase 2 study that was recently published in JAMA Oncology. Dr. Shroff has presented on topics related to targeted therapies for pancreatic and biliary cancers at national and international meetings, and she has numerous peer-reviewed publications in this field.
She says that oncology is the perfect intersection of the humanity of medicine and s-cutting science that drives discovery. As a biochemistry major, oncology speaks to her love for understanding aberrant cell signaling. But taking care of patients, hold their hands through their journey, is the most fulfilling part of her career. Being a clinical researcher in oncology bridges these two spheres beautifully as she can write and design trials aimed at bringing novel therapies to patients who desperately need them while getting to care for them in the clinic. She says it is truly the best job.
Rachna previously said she joined the Women in Oncology as part of her work to empower and bring a voice to women in the field, following in the steps of her mentors and role models.
"My advice is simply, don’t underestimate your value and your worth! Women are shattering glass ceilings in every field, and there is no reason it should be any different in medicine. I have had the privilege of having fantastic women mentors and role models. My suggestion to young women is seek out these women and hold on to them. There are incredible leaders in our field who are all about supporting and amplifying women. These women have stories you can learn from and advice you need to hear. Medicine needs strong, smart people and there is not a doubt that women should be part of the narrative of medical science. We have incredible ideas to bring to the table, so trust that and find people who allow you to shine."
In medicine and oncology, she has found incredible mentorship from both men and women. Her mother is the first and most influential woman she encountered. In the 1980s, she established a private practice in Tucson as a woman of color. She was frequently the only woman in the doctor's lounge and was frequently misidentified as a nurse. But, thanks to her intelligence, grit, determination, and compassion, she held her own and built an incredible reputation. "THAT is the type of doctor, wife, mother, friend, and human I want to be," Rachna recalls thinking as a child as she watched her. If she can be half as amazing as her mother, she will consider herself successful.
She has had incredible mentors throughout her career, both at MD Anderson in Houston and now at the University of Arizona Cancer Center. Each of these mentors has pushed her to be a better physician, scientist, and person, and she believes they have done so by setting an example.
"I am lucky to be at an institution that has incredible women leaders. Watching them shine and lead with humility has been inspirational as it has shown me that perhaps I too could step into leadership and inspire the next generation."
"Diversity of thought comes from a diverse team," Rachna always tells her teams. When it comes to providing the best medical care for patients, representation is crucial. We can't possibly comprehend how to eradicate disease without first comprehending the existing health disparities and care inequities. We can better understand the diverse communities we serve if we have a diverse workforce. It's an important part of moving medical science forward.
"There is no doubt that we are seeing positive changes in representation, but we still have more work to do. Women still make up a smaller percentage of senior positions in academia and industry. We need to work together to ensure that women see their value and step into leadership. That said, the impact of seeing diversity in leadership is incredible as it allows you to see yourself in those roles. It also engenders mentoring of junior faculty to grow into these roles. While we have a ways to go, the steps that we are taking will absolutely positively impact the medical workforces of the future."
Rachna believes that women in science and research have a bright future. There have been pioneering trailblazers who have broken down barriers for women, and we must seize the opportunities that are available to us. Her primary career goal as a female leader is to pay it forward. She wants to make sure she's paving the way for future generations of women.
Thank you, Rachna, for helping to #BreakTheBias about who we believe will discover the next cancer cure, develop the next surgical techniques for cardiovascular disease, and make smarter and better medicine.