Building Natural Connections

As president of the UNC student chapter of the Association of Women Surgeons, Mary Shen focuses on mentorship opportunities for fellow students. Her efforts recently earned her the University Award for the Advancement of Women. The award is given each year by the Chancellor and administered by the Carolina Women’s Center.

By Jamie Williams,

Mary Shen was a teenager in a hospital in Africa requiring surgery to save her legs. She was scared. Would she walk normally again? What would the recovery be like? When would she be able to go home? Luckily for her, she had a surgeon who was able to take care of her, not only with clinical skill but with a patient ear and calming demeanor.

Up until that point, Shen had wanted to be a writer. She’d spend her Friday afternoons in the local library and her weekends consumed with books.

After her surgery, though – after months of rehab still in Africa– her interests began to change. As she healed and moved on from her experience, she contemplated the possibility of a career in medicine.

Following her undergraduate work at UNC, Shen completed a master’s in nutrition at Columbia University. When it was time to consider her next step, Shen remembered the impact of her physician.

“When you’re a patient, the reflex reaction is to feel frightened and vulnerable,” Shen said. “In that moment, you want someone there who is going to take care of you medically, but also take care of your emotional needs. I realized that I wanted all patients to have a doctor who would do that for them and further, I felt like I could dedicate my life to fill that role for future patients.”

To Shen, the decision seemed natural. Medicine provided her with a way to combine her growing academic interests with her desire to make an impact on the lives of others.

“UNC is a place that develops clinicians who really care deeply for their patients.That’s why I knew this was the perfect place for me.”

Since coming to UNC, Shen has built connections with her fellow medical students, prospective students, and residents.

As president of the UNC chapter of the Association of Women Surgeons, Shen successfully expanded mentoring opportunities for other female students interested in surgery.

“My experience as a trauma surgery patient is what initially led me to medical school, but surgery generally has a smaller proportion of women in the field to serve as role models,” Shen said.

In addition to facilitating personal and professional opportunities for mentoring, she has also organized panel discussions and social events for more informal conversation.

“There are certain issues – like sexual harassment or gender discrimination – that affect women but can be difficult to talk about,” Shen said. “Through this group, we’ve been able to have honest conversations.”

The goal of the group, Shen said, has always been to combine the personal with the practical: a wine and cheese networking reception one week, for example, followed by a workshop on proper suturing technique the next.

Her work was recently recognized with the University Award for the Advancement of Women. Shen said the honor is a tribute to her mother, who raised Shen and her brother singlehandedly while maintaining a successful career of her own.

“It was an amazing honor to be recognized with this award,” Shen said. “It also speaks highly of UNC that this award is so celebrated.”

Shen was recognized in the graduate student category. An undergraduate student, a faculty member, and a staff member were also recognized. Shen and the other winners received a monetary award and partook in a reception with Chancellor Carol Folt.

Shen credits the faculty members and residents who have given their time to help make her initiatives reality, as well as her fellow co-leaders, Sophia Brancazio and Eunice Yim.

“I couldn’t have done these things without my own great mentors, Drs. Shell Brownstein and Jennifer Nelson, and all of the other residents and faculty members who have been so receptive to what we’re doing,” Shen said. “I’m truly touched by their willingness to help us.”

Shen has also created an undergraduate mentoring program for female students interested in medical school and surgery, with Shen personally mentoring seven students. She described the experience as an “incredibly rewarding experience that has doubled as a time-management challenge.” But speaking with students helps remind her just how much she has to share.

“As a medical student, it’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day work, but it’s been important for me to take a step back and reflect on the experiences that I’ve had and all of the information that might help others,” Shen said.

She knows that she still has a lot to learn as well. Shen said she realized work needed to be done to build stronger connections between medical students and residents. With surgical resident, Rebecca Brown, MD, Shen helped to organize an event where medical students were able to practice pre-rounding and giving presentations. Residents volunteered to offer candid feedback.

“This year was the first time we’d had an event like that and it was a huge success,” Shen said. “Being around the residents, hearing how we could best work together, and understanding the day-to-day responsibilities outside of the pressures of the clinic was very beneficial.”

She’s also taken on other leadership roles at the School of Medicine, working as a triage team leader at the Student Health Action Coalition clinic in Carrboro and as the vice president of educational development for the Whitehead Medical Society. She also continues to pursue research opportunities on the impact of nutrition on surgical outcomes.

Entering her third year of medical school, Shen said she feels prepared to begin the clinical phase of her training.

 “Any time I get the opportunity to work with patients, it makes all of the studying worth it,” she said.

Her first rotation: surgery.

“I really hope I like it,” she said laughing. “I know I will.”

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