A New Take on Leadership in Orthopaedic Surgery

Tamara A. Scerpella, MD, finds a way to balance leadership with research, teaching, and orthopaedic surgery practice
For more than 20 years, Dr. Tamara A. Scerpella's research efforts have focused on understanding the role of childhood and adolescent physical activity in the development of bone structure and strength. In 2008, she received a National Institutes of Health (NIH) Research Project Grant (RO1) for this work, which continues as the longest-running longitudinal study of its kind.

As one of the few female, tenured, full professors in orthopaedic surgery in the United States, Dr. Scerpella's influence and impact on the field extends far beyond her institution. She is an exceptional leader, a dedicated and passionate educator, and a gifted sports medicine surgeon.

The following interview explores the factors that motivate Dr. Scerpella, what gives meaning to her work and life, and what skills she has developed to be a successful leader.

Dr. Mulcahey: What drives you?

Dr. Scerpella: The relentless pursuit of excellence. It's a product of my upbringing and genetic makeup; it's who I am. I love having the opportunity to make a difference for women in orthopaedics. I really enjoy mentoring medical students and residents and hope to do it on a larger scale, if I'm blessed enough to have that happen. I love the opportunity that a leader has to project their values and to improve an organization through professionalism, mentorship, and fairness.

Dr. Mulcahey: What gives meaning to you in your life?

Dr. Scerpella: Self-actualization. On a day-to-day basis, I can make a difference in this world via the clinic and operating room. And I want to continue doing meaningful work. I've used my talents in a way that I can be proud of. I work to expand my efforts by supporting women who want to be orthopaedic surgeons and women who are orthopaedic surgeons. I feel very privileged to do what I do, and I want to facilitate that sense of reward for others.

Dr. Mulcahey: It sounds as though mentorship is important to you.

Dr. Scerpella: Yes! I've been a mentor to medical students and residents since the beginning of my career. In particular, women have sought me out for advice and insight regarding a career in orthopaedic surgery. Over the past six or seven years, I've come to realize that mentorship is one of the most rewarding and worthwhile roles that one can have. To be a mentor is an honor, and with this honor comes responsibility. A mentor should provide the best possible assistance to people with less experience, less power, less know-how. I derive tremendous satisfaction from the success of the people who I have mentored. As I get older, I see these aspects as something of a legacy—my mentorship contributes to the success of others who will, in turn, mentor the next generation, and so on. It's a little bit like being a parent.

Dr. Mulcahey: What are some skills that have enabled you to be successful?

Dr. Scerpella: Compassion, putting others first, and being a good listener. I like to hear what other people want and need. I lead with the influence of the group and incorporate the opinions of others into my decision-making process.

Dr. Mulcahey: How did you grow into a leadership role?

Dr. Scerpella: I've always resisted leadership. I'm somewhat introverted and didn't think I'd be comfortable in a leadership role or be good at it. Women were not really leaders when I was a resident, so I didn't have any female role models. During my career, I assumed leadership roles simply because I was needed to do the work. I was named the head of the sports division at SUNY Upstate in the early 2000s and was in that position for seven or eight years before I left. I was also on the education committee, but my bigger leadership role at SUNY Upstate was on the executive committee. I assumed these roles under the leadership of Steve Albanese, MD, who took over as chair midway through my time at Upstate. He has a sister who is an orthopaedic surgeon, and I always felt that he saw women as equally qualified. I was flattered when he offered me these leadership positions. He wanted to include me and use my expertise to help the department. I was encouraged and enfranchised. I felt like I had a seat at the table.

When I moved to Wisconsin, I can't say that I was looking for a larger leadership role. I thought it might take away from time available for research and my family. That said, when I was offered the position of division chief of sports medicine at the University of Wisconsin, I felt like I could do a good job. I had observed and taken note of what was being done, and I had ideas of how I might lead.

Dr. Mulcahey: How do you balance leadership with research, teaching, and orthopaedic surgery practice?

Dr. Scerpella: Balancing all of these pursuits is challenging. I am also married to an orthopaedic surgeon, Patrick Scerpella, MD, and we have four children, two still at home. Life has been very busy. In the past few years, I must credit the chairman of our department, Tom Zdeblick, MD, who awarded me an endowed research professorship, allowing me to take on greater leadership roles, while remaining active as a researcher. The endowment enabled me to put less emphasis on the time-consuming and unpredictable activity of grant writing. I use those extra hours to work on departmental and division leadership initiatives.

Dr. Mulcahey: How do you project your values through leadership and conflict resolution?

Dr. Scerpella: Leadership roles provide both opportunity and responsibility. As a leader, one can shape the growth and direction of an organization or group. The influence and resources of a leader make it more likely that his or her values and goals will be realized than those of other individuals in a group. But, I believe that it is the responsibility of the leader to understand and represent the needs and goals of the whole group, which are not necessarily the same as those of the leader. Sometimes, this nuance is very difficult—particularly when there is disagreement or conflict. Resolving conflict and moving the group together in the right direction can take a lot of time and effort. Usually people are willing to come to a consensus for the good of the group if they have had a chance to be heard. Listening, compromising, and negotiating are time consuming but usually worthwhile. This kind of leadership is far more effective than the authoritative kind, especially when dealing with a group of independent, type A physicians.

Dr. Mulcahey: How did you decide to take on a leadership role with the Forum (Society for Women in Sports Medicine)?

Dr. Scerpella: Being involved in the Forum, a group of female orthopaedic surgeons who have a sports medicine focus, and its leadership was always appealing to me. I joined the group in 2002 and over the next several years, I watched the Forum grow and develop. This organization is extremely valuable to me, and I am honored to serve in the presidential role, so that I can help it continue to evolve.

Dr. Mulcahey: What propelled your career?

Dr. Scerpella: I received an NIH RO1 award in 2008 for my work evaluating peak bone mass improvement from childhood and adolescent exercise. I started that longitudinal project in 1997 at SUNY Upstate, and it is still ongoing there. I think this award was critical to my success. It placed me in a very small cohort of orthopaedic surgeons and set me on the path that led to my endowed research professorship at the University of Wisconsin.

When I decided to move to a new institution, I only looked at Wisconsin. I wanted a change in practice that would focus on education, mentorship, leadership, and research. I was also interested in being part of a strong academic program where those types of activities were encouraged and were part of the culture. I did residency at Wisconsin, so I knew the chair, Dr. Zdeblick, and some of the faculty, and my husband had an opportunity to take a job in Madison. I emailed Dr. Zdeblick and asked if he would be interested in having me bring my NIH grant and my clinical expertise to join his faculty. I told him I'd take on whatever role he thought was needed. I got the job, partly because he knew the kind of work I would do, but also because of my NIH grant. It opened the door.

Dr. Mulcahey: Were there specific male or female mentors who helped you get to where you are today? Was there anyone in particular who modeled leadership qualities that you have tried to emulate?

Dr. Scerpella: I didn't have significant mentors during my career, and I'm pretty sure it put me at a disadvantage in some ways. But on the other hand, it made me tough. I learned to count on myself and to do the things that mattered to me. Research was one of those things, and I was fortunate to find collaborators and colleagues outside of orthopaedics who were able to offer me advice. I now provide mentorship to many people, in the area of research and orthopaedic surgery, and I hope to grow that role. Women in orthopaedics don't have enough mentors.

Looking back, I did receive support from a few orthopaedic surgeons over the years. One was William Clancy, MD, who was head of sports medicine when I was a resident at Wisconsin and again when I returned to Wisconsin later in my career. He stands out to me because he took an interest in me and supported me the same way he educated and interacted with the male residents. Almost no one else did that.

Dr. Mulcahey: How do you deal with conflict?

Dr. Scerpella: I don't like conflict. I tend to have emotional reactions to it. That said, I work very hard to reach common ground and consensus to resolve conflict when it arises. I want to be fair and do the right thing for the group. I talk to individuals and try to get them to see my point, using different communication styles with different people. Eventually, we resolve the conflict or agree to disagree in peace. I work to make sure everyone is comfortable with the decision.

Dr. Mulcahey: Do you consider yourself an optimist or a pessimist?

Dr. Scerpella: I am a complete optimist about human nature. People are inherently good. If you help them, they will do the right thing. That gets me into trouble at times because they don't always do what I expect. But it also helps me to be successful. I look at things that aren't necessarily good and realize that they can be made better.

Dr. Mulcahey: Describe similarities and differences between female orthopaedic leaders and leaders in other medical fields.

Dr. Scerpella: Most of my judgment on this topic is based on books written by women leaders in other industries such as Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. I think women have further to go in orthopaedic surgery than they do in most other professions. Some of the tactics described by other leaders are not as effective in our world as they are in other fields because it's only been a few years that gender equity has even been considered in orthopaedic surgery. We are less empowered now than other women leaders, and we have come from further behind. It will take us awhile to catch up.

Dr. Mulcahey: What advice would you give to women who want to be leaders?

Dr. Scerpella: Believe that you can attain a leadership role even if you don't take the normal path. Look for a mentor, yes, but also just do good work. Women who put their heads down and do the work will be noticed and will rise into leadership positions.

Mary K. Mulcahey, MD, is director of the Women's Sports Medicine Program at the Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans and chair of the professional development committee for the Ruth Jackson Orthopaedic Society.

More About Dr. Scerpella
Tamara A. Scerpella, MD, is a tenured professor of orthopaedic surgery and the Ballantine Endowed Professor of Orthopedic Research at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. She is chief of the division of sports medicine, vice chair of the department of orthopaedic surgery, and team physician for the University of Wisconsin. She is also president of the Forum (Society for Women in Sports Medicine).

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