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A Spotlight on the Founding Officers of the Executive Committee

Chicago Medical School Women in Medicine and Science (CMS-WIMS) celebrates its one-year anniversary March 2022. In honor of the anniversary and Women’s History Month, we want to shine a spotlight on the founding officers of the CMS-WIMS executive committee, by sharing their stories and insights.

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Biana Kotlyar, MD

Founding President, CMS-WIMS

Chicago Medical School Women in Medicine and Science (CMS-WIMS) would like to introduce Biana Kotlyar, MD, as the founding president for the CMS-WIMS Executive Committee. She completed her psychiatry residency at the Chicago Medical School at Rosalind Franklin University in 2015. In her third year of residency, she was appointed chief resident of medical student education, and, in her final year, she was the overall chief resident. This experience solidified her passion in medical student education and her desire to take a leadership role in education. She was awarded “Outstanding Resident Award” for her teaching, dedication and leadership in 2013 and “Outstanding Medical Student Chief Resident” for her dedication and enthusiasm in 2014.

Following residency, Dr. Kotlyar became an attending, and eventually the Medical Director, at Columbia St. Mary’s community hospital in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where she was an adjunct assistant professor at the Medical College of Wisconsin. While in this position, she also served as Site Director for students and residents, while simultaneously fulfilling her passions for inpatient psychiatry and consult-liaison service.  She was awarded the “Outstanding Teaching Award” by the Medical College of Wisconsin in 2016. 

In 2019, she obtained her dream job at Rosalind Franklin University as the Education Director for Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. When she is not working as the Education Director, she continues her clinical work as a psychiatrist at Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center. Here she continues her work as an attending psychiatrist in consultation-liaison services and electroconvulsive therapy, where she is one of the core faculty for the CMS psychiatry residents and interim Site Director for the medical students. In her role as Education Director, Dr. Kotlyar oversees the Psychiatry Clerkship. Most recently she started a Psychiatry Sub-Internship, in which she takes great pride. 

Dr. Kotlyar feels that her greatest achievements, however, were in 2016, 2018, and 2021 when each of her daughters (Sophia, Ivy, and Sienna) were born.

Q: What initially got you into the field of psychiatry?

A: I originally went to medical school to be a pediatrician. Psychiatry was so far off in my mind as an option, so I scheduled my clinical psychiatry rotation first and I loved it. I never felt tired even after working an 11 hour day and I compared that to all of my other rotations. I believe that’s what helps me avoid burnout; I feel that I am doing what I am passionate about and that it’s meaningful. It’s an incredible privilege and honor to be able to do the work I do. 

Q: Who are some people that had the most significant impact on your career along the way?

A: My psychiatry preceptor, Dr. Stevenson from Shreveport, Louisiana, taught me that the maintenance phase of treatment can be just as difficult to treat since the patient recovering from an acute episode may now have to repair and rebuild many relationships with friends, family, and work. Beyond diagnosing and prescribing, it is critical that we support patients through dark and difficult times and celebrate with them all their victories. 

During my residency, I was drawn to strong women in psychiatry. Dr. Vaidya and Dr. Moss, with their biological and neurological minded knowledge, and Dr. Zaror, with her mastery of psychotherapy, were incredible mentors.  They helped guide me and advised me to follow my career passion but also how integral it is to commit to my family and personal goals as well. I remember walking away from each supervision session feeling inspired and motivated. I hope to be able to provide some of that same mentoring experience to the residents and medical students that I serve as a mentor now.

Q: What is one of your biggest accomplishments in work? 

A: Patient care victories and awards for teaching and mentoring are amazing. But I really love the look on a resident’s face when they are on rounds and they use ECT to treat a catatonic patient and the patient starts to wake up and something clicks in that resident and now they can see themselves maybe doing this as a career. I am so lucky to see that transformation and I love being a part of students finding their career passions.

Q: How do you maintain a work-life balance?

A: Someone once said you have to learn how to juggle work and personal life. But you have to recognize which balls are plastic and which are glass because eventually one of the balls is going to drop. You never want a glass ball to fall. Occasionally, a plastic ball will fall and that’s okay. You can pick it up and resume juggling. A plastic family ball may fall and you may miss having dinner together or a ballet recital because there was a glass work ball and a patient’s care required you to stay at work longer. The key is to recognize which balls are plastic and which are glass. Let yourself have some grace when things don’t work out perfectly, it may be better at the end than you ever imagined. 

Also, you have to say “no” to things that do not advance your career or aren’t enjoyable. This extends to personal life too. My worth as a mother is not affected by whether I cooked the meal or picked it up on my way home. Learn to pick out the important things and minimize the things that don’t matter.

Q: What is some advice you would give to women who want to pursue a career in science and medicine?

A: Be true to yourself and your decisions; don’t look back. If you made the best decision you could have based on the information you had at the time, there’s no point in being a Monday-morning quarterback. Move on and let all that experience teach you and guide you as you move forward. Also, don’t do it alone. Create a team around you that is built on trust and respect. 

Q: What is a fun fact about yourself?

A: I never plan what I am going to do on vacation. Whenever I go to a new place, I never have an itinerary. I like to plan out when I am going to be spontaneous. 


 

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Jaime Vantrease, PhD

Founding Vice President, CMS-WIMS

Chicago Medical School Women in Medicine and Science (CMS-WIMS) would like to introduce Jaime Vantrease, Ph.D., as the founding Vice President of CMS-WIMS. She received her Ph.D. in Pharmacology from Loyola University Chicago in August 2014, under the supervision of Dr. Karie Scrogin. In January 2015, she came to RFU for a postdoctoral position in the laboratories of Amiel Rosenkranz and Janice Urban. During this time, she examined the sex differences in the neurocircuitry underlying anxiety and mood disorders. Last July, 2021, she transitioned to a Research Assistant Professor in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics to continue her main research focus on sex differences in mood disorders and to obtain independent funding. 

Why did you choose a career in research?

When I attended college, my career path was focused on pre-medicine because I had assumed this was the only option with a biology degree. Then, during my junior year of college, I was advised to do a summer internship in research to make my medical school application more competitive. I went to Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Florida, where I extracted and purified compounds from deep-sea sponges and examined their antibacterial properties. During this time, I realized that my love of laboratory work and experimental design could be applied to a career in scientific research. Once I returned home, I switched my focus and began to apply to doctoral programs in pharmacology. 

Did you have any role models or inspiration to pursue a career in science?

While I had many teachers that fostered my interest in science, my AP biology teacher, Mr. William Donato, really helped me realize my passion for science and solidified my decision to be a biology major in college.

What do you find most exciting about a career in science? 

I like the idea of asking a question and trying to find an answer, and I guess if I had to pick a component of it that I like the most, I think it would be when I need to troubleshoot. I don't know if that's because I had to do a lot of it, but I like the challenge of an experiment that isn’t working. I enjoy tweaking components of the experiment until I can get it to work. There is something very satisfying about getting an experiment that keeps failing to work for the first time.  

If you had to change something about your career path, what would it be?

I think probably one regret I have is that I left my Ph.D. convinced that I would do a short postdoc and then move on to an industry setting. A career in academia was never a primary focus for me. When I first started my position, I applied for a grant and received a good score, but it wasn’t funded. Instead of reapplying for that grant, my priority was on experiments and publishing papers. So, I let it fall to the back burner, and now that I'm seeing more of a career path in academia, I regret not reapplying for that grant. Now I would tell anybody in their postdoc to apply for grant funding and stick with it because you never know how your plans might change. Always keep your options open. 

Do you have a piece of advice to share with young girls and women in STEM? 

I strongly feel that having a supportive mentor is critical to success. You won’t necessarily stumble upon someone, sometimes ‘you need to seek out someone to mentor you and don’t be afraid to’. I know that not everyone feels this way, but for me, I have often felt the effects of 'imposter syndrome' or feeling like ‘you're not quite good enough.’ I hope that it is something we can free future generations from. I would like other women in STEM to know that ‘you are just as good as everybody else, and you're just as competent and capable’. I also hope that future generations don't ever feel guilty about having a family and being in science because I feel like that is something I sometimes still struggle with. I have two wonderful young daughters that are the best things in my life, but I sometimes have a hard time feeling guilty about not putting in the long hours that I used to do, but now just can't do, and that is something that I've had a hard time letting go of. I hope that parenthood becomes more normalized as we progress, and people don't feel like they have to pick between work and family. 


 

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Neelam Sharma-Walia, PhD

Founding Secretary, CMS-WIMS

How did you get involved with RFUMS, and how did your work evolve?

I joined RFUMS in 2005 as a research faculty in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology. I was a full-time researcher and was genuinely passionate about pursuing a career in academia and applying for external grant funding. With the guidance and support of my mentor at RFUMS, I wrote my first NIH exploratory/developmental grant and got funded. This was my first opportunity to work on an independent project. In 2011, I was promoted to Assistant Professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology. I got my lab, Ph.D. students, and a research technician. I studied inflammatory pathways of arachidonic acid (cyclooxygenases and lipoxygenases), focusing on the inflammation process in herpes virus-associated Kaposi’s Sarcoma and inflammatory breast cancer. In 2016, I got funding for my projects from NIH, the American Cancer Society, and other agencies. In 2017, I got promoted to Associate Professor. At this time, I was studying how viruses try to evade the immune response and how the host adapts. 

Wherever I am, it’s because of my mentors and students. I evolved with all my interactions with students, both professionally and personally. The students I work with, including graduate students, and students from Lake Forest College, and Chicago Medical School, have always taught me something new and valuable. 

How has your upbringing and education impacted you?

I received my Ph.D. in India. Growing up with brothers and a sister, I felt that my entire family always supported me. I learned early that hard work was the only way to succeed. I was also greatly influenced by my teachers, who were always engaging, humble, and compassionate. They were always ready to devote extra time to explain something to me that I didn’t understand in the classroom. I give all the credit [success in early education] to my teachers and family. Grades used to be posted publicly [which I think should be confidential] in India for everyone to see, and I was always at the top. However, I felt that book smarts weren’t everything. There are other important talents. I felt that my brother was more talented than me, but I had better grades, so I was expected to go to medical school. Everyone expected me to be a “doctor doctor.” 

How did you choose to go the Ph.D. route? 

My mom died when I was 19 years old, and it was extremely difficult for me to see her in the hospital. I also did not want to be a financial burden on my family by going to medical school. I enjoyed the Science outside of the hospital [clinical setting]. This also significantly impacted me when I became a mom to my daughter. I wanted to spend that precious time with her. 

How do you balance research and teaching?

It is always challenging to balance research and teaching in an academic career. Teaching had been a challenge for me, but it evolved over time. Sometimes you are an excellent researcher, and you know all the details and the methods, but you may not be a good presenter. Being involved in ‘teaching’ adds to your growth and development as a presenter and stimulates you to get organized and present topics difficult to comprehend more effortlessly and effectively. In addition, it is beneficial to get student feedback, address their concerns, and continue to evolve. 

What role did mentorship play in your career?

I was lucky to have great mentors throughout my career. There were always good people around me. Many women faculty from the university and outside the university have been supportive of me. I want to make sure that other women are supported by me. Unfortunately, things are not always flowery and pleasant. As I progressed in my career, I’d see less and less of my female friends and students as they would give up on their careers despite coming so far. Being a woman and a person of color, I felt demotivated at times. So, I consciously participated in mentoring in STEM, the ‘INSPIRE program’, and opened my lab on ‘Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day’. I deeply care to have representation from WIMS that can motivate girls and women to feel inspired and choose science and academia as a career path.

What advice would you give to women and girls interested in STEM? 

Create your path and neglect the negativity. Be prepared to persevere. 

What advice would you give to women in STEM balancing motherhood and their career?

Learn to say NO. Also, block time on your calendar for your family. 

What is your next career goal?

I want to get more research grants and empower more students. I want to continue evolving to be a better human being by learning from my mistakes.