Women Celebrate Historic Day at Neurosurgery Residency Graduation

Medical residents pose for picture

Mayfield Lecturer Karin Muraszko, MD, seated, with graduating residents Marcella Madera, MD, (left) and Ellen Air, MD, PhD. Photo by Martha Headworth/Mayfield Clinic.

That tinkling sound heard at the 2010 graduation ceremonies of the UC Department of Neurosurgery and the Mayfield Clinic residency program on June 4 was another crack in the glass ceiling. For the first time in the program’s history, the graduating residency class was entirely female.

Ellen Air, MD, PhD, and Marcella Madera, MD, were the second and third female residents to complete the grueling, six-year residency program, which was founded in 1946 and graduated its first neurosurgeons 1952. Drs. Air and Madera celebrated by making scientific presentations at the Mayfield Neuroscience Symposium in the morning and by accepting an avalanche of accolades that evening during graduation ceremonies at the Frank H. Mayfield Society Annual Banquet.

Philip Theodosopoulos, MD, Director of the Neurosurgery Residency Program, praised Dr. Madera for having “the best technical hands around here in a long time.” He lauded Dr. Air as “the most intelligent person we’ve had here, bar none.”

Mario Zuccarello, MD, Chairman of the Department, described Dr. Air as “an icon” in the residency program. “She is a star already and she will be a superstar,” he said. “We hope Ellen comes back to us.”

Dr. Air, a Cincinnati native, will continue her training at the University of California San Francisco, where she will be a fellow in functional neurosurgery. She received her undergraduate degree from Northwestern University and her doctorate and medical degrees from UC.

Her presentation at the Mayfield Neuroscience Symposium was titled, “Longitudinal Comparison of Pre- and Postoperative DTI Parameters in Young Hydrocephalic Children.” A paper on which the lecture was based earned her the 2010 Ellen and Stewart B. Dunsker, M.D., Award for Clinical Research. The award is given annually to a resident.

Dr. Madera will continue her training at Johns Hopkins University, where she will be a fellow in spine surgery. She received her undergraduate degree from Washington University and her medical degree from the University of Oklahoma. Her symposium presentation was “Atlantoaxial Fixation: Review and Description of a New Technique.”

While women made up nearly 49 percent of medical school graduates in 2009, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), they continue to enter neurosurgery in small numbers. Women accounted for only 12.2 percent of neurosurgery residents in 2008, according to AAMC, the smallest percentage of any specialty. Orthopedic surgery (12.9 percent) and thoracic surgery (13.2 percent) were a close second and third.

Prior to 2010, only one woman, Cynthia Norrgran, in 1989, had graduated from the UC/Mayfield neurosurgery residency program.

In recognition of the historic occasion, the Mayfield Lecturer at the Mayfield Neuroscience Symposium was Karin Muraszko, MD, who became Chair of the Department of Neurosurgery at the University of Michigan in 2005 and remains the only woman chair of a neurosurgical department in the United States. “There was a time of the old boys’ club,” Dr. Muraszko said during a lecture about leadership development. “It’s now the club.” (Dr. Muraszko’s primary lecture was titled “Update on Chiari I Malformations.”)

Dr. Air said that both of her parents tried to discourage her from going into medicine, because they knew first-hand the labor and long hours involved. Her father is an orthopedic surgeon; her mother, Dorothy Air, PhD, is Associate Senior Vice President for Entrepreneurial Affairs at the UC College of Medicine “They made certain I had opportunities to look at other career paths,” Dr. Air said. “But I was very hard-headed. I was very interested in medicine, in the brain, in science. But it wasn’t until I did my rotation on the neurosurgery service that I knew that this was what I wanted to be.”

Dr. Madera said she discovered that she was a surgeon in medical school. “At first I didn’t know what kind. When I took a rotation in neurosurgery as an elective, my eyes lit up, my heart lit up. I fell in love. I knew that this was what I was supposed to do. Being in the OR felt like home. I get chills when I talk about it. I found that working with my hands, being so close to a person, is an honor and a privilege.”

In addition to their talent, dedication and enthusiasm, Drs. Air and Madera have brought something else to their field – the ability to work 80-hour weeks and still show up for meetings in four-inch heels.

“They are two of the finest residents I’ve worked with,” noted Robert Bohinski, MD, PhD, at the graduation ceremonies. “And they are also the two best dressed – with killer pairs of shoes.”

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