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Lymphoma Expert, Doctoral Student Find Gender Bias Upends Work-Life Balance

Series spotlights women who pave the way in medicine every day, explores how the pandemic impacts their careers

minute read

Written by Kiley Carroll on September 8, 2021
What You Need To Know

In recognition of the American Medical Association (AMA) Women in Medicine Month, we are highlighting just a few of the many extraordinary women on the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus throughout the month of September. This week, we feature Manali Kamdar, MD, and Olivia Zarella, MPH, DrPH Student.

Celebrating exceptional women on the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus? No problem.

The women on this campus teach tomorrow’s healthcare experts, move science forward with breakthrough discoveries and care for patients during their most challenging times. They are medical pioneers, wives, daughters, sisters, friends, mothers, role models and heroes.

Throughout the month of September, in recognition of the American Medical Association’s (AMA) Women in Medicine Month, we are recognizing a few of the extraordinary women who work in all aspects of the medical field on this campus. They will share the significance of being a woman in medicine and the challenges of fulfilling their numerous roles during a worldwide pandemic.

Lymphoma Expert Manali Kamdar: Pandemic Highlights Gender Gap

Manali Kamdar, MD, is the clinical director of lymphoma services in the Division of Hematology at the University of Colorado Cancer Center. She is a clinical researcher in malignant hematology with a focus on lymphomas and autologous transplantation. She conducts clinical trials with novel agents and or chemotherapy with the hope of improving outcomes in the field of lymphoproliferative malignancies.

What does being a ‘Woman in Medicine’ mean to you? 

I view it as an opportunity to tap the potential of all women in medicine in order to accelerate overall improvement in medicine. It means inclusivity, equity and creating an even playing field for all. Women typically end up taking a back seat in their professional lives in order to manage their personal commitments. To me, “women in medicine” also stands for the ability to lean on each other to find a way to balance both – personal and professional lives. It means advocating for more leadership roles for women all over and inspiring each other along the way.  

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected you personally? 

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the enormous dependence of society on women at home and at work. Unfortunately, it also brought to light the lack of equity and support for women in medicine. I witnessed many women colleagues who had to halt their professional trajectories in order to manage their families during the pandemic. Working moms were significantly affected since they had to finagle taking care of kids alongside their professional duties. The pandemic made me realize that enormous changes will need to be made in the future in order to redress the disparities so that one can ensure equal gender representation across the board.  

How has it affected your career in medicine? 

I am a clinical trialist with a focus in developing novel chemotherapy free agents that can improve the outcome in relapsed lymphomas. During the pandemic, clinical trial enrollment was paused by pharmaceutical companies, which prevented patients with hard-to-treat lymphomas from being enrolled into these trials. Patients who travel to Colorado from out of state for breakthrough therapies were unable to travel, thus limiting their ability to get potentially lifesaving treatment. However, with the help of modern technology, we were able to provide consultation to our patients online and stay connected with our peers.

Despite these challenges, there were unexpected opportunities as well. The pandemic led to a huge pivot to virtual meetings. This allowed us to provide online consultations to our patients. Many elderly patients who were extremely wary to travel for their appointments found this format to be hugely helpful. Virtual web conferencing also enabled us to stay connected with our peers thus allowing us to continue ongoing collaborations.

Olivia Zarella Fights COVID-19, Advocates for Gender Equality

Olivia Zarella, MPH, is an Environmental & Occupational Health DrPH student at the Colorado School of Public Health. She received her MPH in Global Environmental Health at Emory University with former experience working on infectious disease projects in the international and domestic spheres. During the first year of the pandemic, she was employed as an infectious disease specialist for Environmental Health & Safety at the CU Anschutz Medical Campus.

In her role, Zarella managed the campus COVID-19 contact tracing program, oversaw BSL-3 laboratory safety protocols and provided recommendations to campus leadership related to infectious disease preparedness and response policies. She is now focusing her time on her doctoral dissertation.

What does being a ‘Woman in Medicine’ mean to you? 

In almost all types of professions, women are still a minority. While there has been a clear increase in women pursuing public health and medicine careers, the majority of those teaching courses, writing the literature we learn from and serving on leadership committees are men. Even more, the gender inequalities are further exacerbated by existing racial inequalities. These inequalities leave out more than half of the world’s perspective on such important topics that inevitably define our personal approach to our professions.

Olivia Zarella 2

Olivia Zarella

Being a ‘Woman in Medicine’ is the opportunity to open the door and mentor other women to do the same. Specifically, I hope to support change that prioritizes opening the educational doors to women of minority populations. I am extremely privileged to be pursuing a doctoral degree in public health and have a personal responsibility to help other women do the same. As existing women in medicine and public health work to bring other women to the table, decision making at the higher level will become more gender-equal. 

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected you personally? 

The pandemic inevitably flipped my personal life upside down. Juggling my work as a doctoral student, COVID-19 response work and my personal life was beyond challenging. 

During the beginning of the pandemic, I found myself in a robotic survival mode and focused my efforts on ensuring I was taking all the steps necessary to keep myself and others in my life safe. Immediately, I became a resident “expert” to friends and family regarding COVID-19, which, inevitably, most of the questions I could not answer due to it being so early on in the pandemic and with little data to refer to. My innate social responsibility pushed me to help friends and family the best I could, but with my professional work related to COVID-19 occurring around the clock, I quickly burned out. In other words, I found it extremely difficult to shut the pandemic off after work, and it impacted my work-life balance.

Unfortunately, I find that burnout has become a common challenge for those working in public health and medicine during this pandemic. Ultimately, I’ve had to make tough decisions within my professional life to ensure sustainability in my personal life, and vice versa. The good news is via the pandemic I’ve learned how to better divide my personal and professional life, and spend more time focusing on self-care. I’ve learned you cannot be your best professionally without investing in your personal well-being.

How has it affected your career? 

The pandemic has changed a lot in my career. Prior to the pandemic, my training included a public health masters from Emory University and various infectious disease intervention application experience in international countries. Specifically, I worked on waterborne disease and vector-borne disease prevention projects. Upon the occurrence of the pandemic, I shifted my focus to airborne viruses to help support Colorado during the inevitable healthcare burden from COVID-19. This pandemic created career opportunities in my field, and I soon became the Infection Prevention Specialist at CU Anschutz. I was fortunate to use my experience in public health to create our on-campus contact tracing program, identify and investigate on-and-off campus outbreaks and help with COVID-19 testing along the way. 

To pursue the infection prevention position, I became a part-time doctoral student. As the pandemic had unfortunately become a part of our everyday lives, I decided to refocus my priorities to finishing my doctoral degree and left my fast-paced position in infection prevention after about a year. Someday, I’ll graduate from the Colorado School of Public Health with my doctorate degree, and I aim to apply the lessons I’ve learned during this pandemic to help identify and control outbreaks as an epidemic intelligence service officer with the Center of Disease Control and Prevention. Ultimately, I am very grateful for the experiences I’ve gained during this pandemic, but if I could reverse time and prevent this pandemic somehow, I would.

Featured Experts
Staff Mention

Manali Kamdar, MD

Staff Mention

Olivia Zarella, MPH