Interview with Dr. Katherine Chen: Medical Doctor, Mentor, Mother and Mensch

Dr. Katherine Chen is an Associate Professor and Vice Chair of Education for the Obstetrics/Gynecology Department at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai . She also directs the third year medical student six-week Obstetrics/Gynecology clerkship. Recognized for her excellence in teaching through various awards at Harvard Medical School and Columbia University, her most recent honor in 2012 is the Mount Sinai Institute of Medical Education Excellence in Teaching award. She was also a faculty member AOA inductee in 2010.

The Rossi editor-in-chief had a chance to sit down with Dr. Chen and discuss her philosophies on teaching, as well as her life as a physician, mother and book enthusiast.

Q: What attracted you to Mount Sinai?

I came here specifically for an administrative position in education. Prior to that, I was at Columbia University on an NIH grant, primarily doing research – 75% research, 25% clinical. Then I had a midlife crisis and decided I wanted to focus more on education. I’m very grateful to my chair Dr. Brodman for offering me the position and for supporting me in my endeavors.

Q: What was this midlife crisis?

I always knew I had a knack for teaching, even while I was a resident. But at that time, I had gotten advice that to advance in the academic world, you needed to be a clinical expert with productive research activities. So I went down that path first. I spent several years focusing on Obstetric Infectious Diseases, gathering clinical research skills, and performing studies. When I turned 40, I realized that the projects I enjoyed most were the ones I did with students and residents. I couldn’t get away from teaching.

Q: You’ve had an extensive history of awards, most recently the Excellence in Teaching Award this year at Sinai. You won four teaching awards at Harvard as a resident, a faculty award at Columbia, and two additional faculty awards at Sinai. Can you share with us your philosophy on teaching?

First and foremost, my philosophy is to make teaching fun and interactive. I utilize the Game Method whenever possible. For example, on the Labor and Delivery Unit, I would ask the student to provide me with a roadmap of which patient I should see first, second, etc. – a game to test their triage skills. When I lecture, I like to use many images and videos and invite students to participate.

Q: I remember the review sessions where you would ask students who had delivered the biggest baby, who had taken out the biggest fibroids etc.

That’s right – the Guinness Book of Ob-Gyn Records! Another principle I value is to get to know my students. I’m picky about making nametags at the beginning of every clerkship to assist me in learning the students’ names. I make an effort to sit down with each student on mid-rotation day to provide feedback.

Q: You’ve shared your story with students about having a baby during the New York City Blackout of 2003. What else can you tell us about your personal life?

I can tell you that my husband and two children are very important to me and I relish the time spent with them. That’s why I tell students that I try not to check my emails after I leave work. There was a New York Times article recently about addiction to electronic devices. Everyone’s heard the term “crackberry.” Outside of the hospital I really focus on my family.

I am a movie buff. I’m on a few mailing lists where I’m invited to attend screenings for movies that are in production. Sometimes I go with my husband, sometimes with my children, and other times as a family – depends on the demographic target of the movie.

I’m also an avid reader. Recently, Dr. Muller was giving books to thank faculty who worked on LCME accreditation. He let the committee members pick the book they wanted. However, I looked through the selection and I had read all of them already!

Q: What are some of your recent favorites books?

My favorite in 2011 was Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone. Others that I have enjoyed are Tina Fey’s Bossypants and the Hunger Games series – yes, I do read my older daughter’s books. Favorite authors – Geraldine Brooks; my classmate in college and medical school, Atul Gawande; mystery writer Elisabeth George; and Agatha Christie.

Q: Do you watch any medical shows?

I don’t watch much TV, but when I was a resident I watched ER. I did watch the first season of Grey’s Anatomy as a young attending, but I didn’t continue. Recent non-medical shows I’ve liked are two British series: Sherlock Holmes and Downtown Abbey.

Q: You mentioned that your family is important to you. Do you have any advice for medical students trying to juggle their life in the hospital and outside?

You have to choose a career that you thoroughly enjoy. When you choose something you love, you get things done much faster and you’re much more efficient at work. At the end of the day, there isn’t as much work left over or problems to worry about to take home. And I’ll say this: your family, friends, significant others – they really are more important than your job.

The most difficult times in my career where I really had to learn how to balance family/work life is the first two years of each of my daughter’s lives. My mother and husband were a big help.

Q: Given our generation’s emphasis on work/life balance, do you think we also have a different view on studying medicine?

Your generation is an interesting one… “The Millennial Generation”, “The Internet Generation”, “The Digital Natives”. You do have different learning methods. It’s been studied that attention span for your generation isn’t quite as long, but you can multitask! I think what is important is for educators to make learning very interactive and at the same time, very organized. The students need to be engaged but also know what is expected of them.

Q: Speaking of changing with the times, you’re the only teacher who started a Twitter account for your clerkship. How did that come about?

I learned about the idea from an educational conference. However, I’ve stopped using the Twitter account. When I polled the students, only one or two were active Twitter users. In contrast, many use Facebook. I have not thought of a useful way to utilize Facebook yet.

Q: I think Twitter is popular with the age group a few years younger than mine. Maybe in a few years it’d work.

Right. For now I’ve reverted back to just email to post notifications or to elicit questions from the students. It’s not anonymous though which I thought was the benefit of Twitter.

Q: What advice do you have for students interested in a career in medical teaching?

It’s important to understand how adult learners learn. There are medical education conferences that you can go to — some that are specific to one specialty, and others focused just on education which are attended by all specialties.

The challenge is that there’s no formal educator training programs, so it’s harder to gather the skills you need. It’s different than going into research, where you can receive formal training and receive a degree. If you want to be a great clinician, there’s more mentorship, more ways to practice and refine your skills. I suggest attending conferences, emulating others, and paying attention to student feedback.

As for attaining teaching positions, always show interest in whatever way you can at your academic center. Be able to negotiate so that you can teach and be rewarded for it, while maintaining the objectives of your department.

Q: Can you describe a typical day for you as a medical teacher?

That would depend on the day. Three and a half days of the week, I am doing administrative work which is related to the Ob-Gyn clerkship, 1st – 2nd year courses, 4th year electives, residency applicants, the residency program, and fellowships. On Wednesday mornings, I co-direct an Infectious Diseases Obstetrics Clinic. On Fridays, I supervise the Labor and Delivery Unit which is the most challenging and stressful part of my week.

Q: That’s a lot of different settings that you work in. Where in the hospital is your happy place?

My office is my happy place, because that’s where I meet with students and trainees. I interview high school students for my college in my office. I meet with college kids interested in medicine. Obviously, I spend much time with medical students. I see residents, fellows, and young attendings in my office to advise and mentor. I also spend time with the coordinator of the clerkship and electives – Ms. Bustamante – brainstorming and organizing.

Q: This might be a tough question: If you had to choose only one: Doctor or educator?

I’d choose to be a doctor. A doctor is an educator. As a doctor, I’d still get to educate my patients, students, and trainees! I don’t think I can be a high school teacher of biology.

Q: You were recently inducted as a Mount Sinai AOA Honor Society Faculty member. What was the process of you winning the award?

That was a great privilege and one of the awards I treasure most. That is because Harvard Medical School, my alma mater, didn’t have an AOA society, so it wasn’t an honor that I could achieve then. I actually don’t know the process and just assumed the graduating students of that year nominated me.

Q: Do you have mentors of your own that have shaped you?

I’ve had many mentors for my career. All my chairs have played significant roles. There are also many female faculty members in and out of Ob-Gyn that have helped me. I am still enlisting new mentors as I go through my career. The way they have helped is to listen to my goals and set me in the right direction.

Q: How do you resemble some of your mentors today?

I emulate the part that I admire in each mentor. There was one mentor who really knew how to balance her work life and her family, so I learned that from her. Another was very quick in decision-making and always followed through, so I picked that up from her. Another mentor used the Socratic method to teach, so I’ve incorporated his technique into my own clinical teaching.

Q: If you could speak to yourself as a young medical student in Harvard, what advice would you give to her?

Make sure you enjoy what you do. That’s why I moved into education. Also, recognize that your passion can change. I was passionate about research at one point, now I am excited about education. If you think you need to make a change, go ahead and do it. Women are less likely to make major changes. I would advocate that they do. Finally, take advantage of opportunities outside of the United States. I regretted not going to Oxford during my years as a Stanford undergraduate when the two institutions had a strong program.

Q: The gap between medical school enrollment of men and women is closing. Do you think we are finally beginning to see gender equity in medicine, or is there still a long way to go?

There’s work to do before gender equity. Yes, in the initial pipeline of trainees, within some specialties there may be more females than males. However, the leadership positions are still mostly populated with men.

Q: If you could impart one quality in all medical student graduates at Sinai, what would that quality be?

I would like all my students to become great educators. No matter what field in medicine, you’re always a teacher to your patients. In academia, you teach trainees; and in private practice, you teach your staff. There is so much knowledge out there, so much information, that you must distill for your patients, students, and staff in a meaningful way.

Q: My last question: Please choose the one that best describes your relationship with your medical students – mother and children, aunt and nephews and nieces, older sister and younger siblings.

Aunt and nephews and nieces! I don’t want to have more children than my two!

Thank you so much for this interview, Dr. Chen.

It was a pleasure. I have to say this – I’ve been very happy at Sinai because of my position. It was a great move from Columbia to Sinai and it’s great to know that others appreciate my teaching.

K. H. Vincent Lau

This article was first published in The Rossi: Medical Student Quarterly Report.

2 thoughts on “Interview with Dr. Katherine Chen: Medical Doctor, Mentor, Mother and Mensch

  1. Permalink  ⋅ Reply


    January 3, 2013 at 7:04pm

    Dr. Chen is such an awesome teacher, I’m so glad she was featured here! Very inspiring for future female physicians.

  2. Permalink  ⋅ Reply

    B. Aarabi

    January 3, 2013 at 7:07pm

    Such a thoughtful interview. It’s nice to hear from the educators on a personal level, sharing their thoughts and advice with the students.

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