Women in Medicine: Rébécca Phaëton, MD
September is Women in Medicine Month, presented by the American Medical Association Women Physicians Section. Penn State College of Medicine honors Dr. Rébécca Phaëton of the departments of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Microbiology and Immunology in part four of this seven-part series.
Dr. Rébécca Phaëton started out knowing she liked science, but because she had no friends or family members who were doctors, it wasn’t on her list of career choices. Her parents, who were from Haiti, asked her regularly to write papers on science to encourage her interest, but they never talked to her about medical school.
“I didn’t know what my next steps would be toward a career,” she said. “Everything was an excavation, an excursion into all possibilities.”
As she thought about her options, Phaëton joined AmeriCorps and worked with women who had HIV and AIDS. That experience made her think seriously about a career in medicine.
After graduating from Marshall University Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine, in Huntington, W. Va., she went on to complete her obstetrics and gynecology residency at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and a fellowship in gynecologic oncology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Montefiore, N.Y.
Balancing research with patient care
Her journey brought her to Penn State College of Medicine in 2014 where Phaëton is an associate professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology’s Division of Gynecologic Oncology and the Department of Microbiology and Immunology. She also is part of Penn State Cancer Institute.
Along with caring for patients, Phaëton conducts research to find better treatments for cervical cancer. This is a big issue, she explains, in rural and underrepresented communities.
One of her passions is mentoring. Phaëton works with diverse students and helps them navigate their individual journeys. As the director of the College of Medicine’s Physician Scientist Training Program, she takes real joy in developing programs that will streamline opportunities and create mentoring communities for the next generation of researchers.
Career vs. family
As the mother of young daughter Abigail, Phaëton knows how challenging becoming a physician can be for women who want to have a family. It can be a lonely place.
“You can’t give 100% on everything, and that can be hard to admit,” she said. “What you can do, though, is try to be 100% present in whatever you are doing at the moment as much as possible.”
Phaëton remembers a student who became pregnant during her second year in a busy OB/GYN residency program. She was criticized by her peers.
“Women who say they want a family get discouraged from what could be a dream career,” she said. “They need to know they can be successful in a surgical field of medicine and also have children.”
Phaëton draws her daughter into her work life whenever possible. During the busy time of year when she is applying for grants, she talks about them at home, and she and her daughter celebrate when she receives one.
Prove it again
Working as a woman and woman of color can be challenging, she said. She has been in meetings run by a woman, but people automatically assume a man in the room is leading the discussion. Overall, she would like to see more diversity in health care leadership.
“Women need to prove themselves over and over again, which is not something men are asked to do,” she said.
As for advice, Phaëton said she would tell female medical school students to focus on finding their voices and, above all, find joy in what they do each day.
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