In conversation with Drs. Jesse Berry and Linda Lam.
By: Eric Weintraub
In honor of Women’s History Month, the USC Roski Eye Institute interviewed two of our faculty who are women in ophthalmology to ask about their experiences in the field and their roads to becoming physicians.
This year, we talk to:
Jesse Berry, MD
Associate Professor of Ophthalmology, Clinical Scholar; USC Berle and Lucy Adams Chair in Cancer Research
Linda Lam, MD, MBA
Professor of Clinical Ophthalmology; Vice Chair for Satellite Clinics in the Department of Ophthalmology; Medical Director, Arcadia
What inspired you to pursue ophthalmology?
Linda Lam: As a freshman neuroscience major in college at Brown University, I took a class entitled “The Biology of Vision” taught by Professor James McIlwain. His teachings and the subject matter were so captivating and compelling that I as a college freshman decided to pursue retina surgery and research as a career to explore ways to cure blindness.
Jesse Berry: After medical school, I decided I’d go into ophthalmology. The surgeries are delicate and they’re really beautiful. The tissues are thinner than a millimeter and you can see the fine retina with its intricate blood vessels diving into the optic nerve that connects this organ directly to the brain. It’s astonishing. On my first day of internship, my mentor diagnosed a child with retinoblastoma, a cancer that forms in the eyes of young children, when it seemed like no one else could figure out what was wrong. He diagnosed a deadly and lurking eye cancer simply by LOOKING into the eye. I’ll never forget watching him build trust and connect with that family. I said to myself, “This is the type of doctor I want to be.”
Who were your role models?
Jesse Berry: When I was young, there was a local dentist who took care of my teeth when my family didn’t always have the resources. He made such an impact on me in my life, I don’t think I had really understood what being a doctor meant before then. He taught me what it means to care for a patient—that it can change that patient’s life. I decided to become a physician so that I, too, could impact people’s lives.
My grandmother was also one of my role models. She was always there to help me, even if it was to help me with something very small, and I want to be that kind of person. A lot of my work ethic comes from her.
Linda Lam: My father and mother have always been my guiding light. My mother passed away at the age of 36 when I was just seven. Even though I was little, she laid the foundation for my life in service as I watched how compassion and acts of service influenced her daily actions. My father has been the “North Star” throughout my life and deserves the “World’s Best Dad” award. His dedication as a parent, sense of perseverance, and eternal encouragement have shaped me into a person with tenacity, gratitude, kindness, and optimism.
What were some of the challenges you faced early on?
Linda Lam: My mother passing when I was age seven was a difficult time for our family. Not having a mom as a young person and having a father who was busy at work definitely influenced me to be more of a self-starter and to problem solve on my own. I felt compelled to be “jack of all trades” as a kid, so I was a voracious learner of all things in life and liked to come up with solutions. For instance, my town of Claremont did not have any after school programs for latch-key kids like me. When I was in grade school, I approached city council and proposed starting a “Claremont Teen Committee”. Through this new civic organization, I helped design the after-school programs for sports, music, and the arts in my hometown of Claremont that still exists today.
Jesse Berry: More challenges than I can count. I’m a scientist and I trust data. If you had looked at the data of my demographics, you would not have predicted that I would make it here. I was raised by my grandmother and spent my childhood bouncing from home to home, school to school. We were focused on survival, not “extra” things. By “extra,” I mean things like planning for my future. Nowhere in their dialogue was there room for discussions of college, much less Harvard. I learned grit very early on. I think it prepared me to be a surgeon — surgery is a skill and a skill that is learned, crafted, honed. That means, by definition, there’s a learning curve. I always knew I could get back up after being knocked down and it has served me again and again.
What advice do you have for women who are starting out in the field?
Jesse Berry: To make this work you really have to be intentional about your time and your commitments. I have blocks for the kids’ bedtime in my calendar. Not my home calendar, my WORK calendar. I also have blocks for taking the girls to school and daycare. I can’t take them every day — and I almost never make it to pick them up (operating room and clinic days are impossible for this) but on the days I can show up as a mom, I do. And my work needs to know I am not available for that time. I also try to block my clinics well ahead for the first day of school, graduations, etc. But it’s a hand off, because there are also weekends that I need to write — I love having research in my career, but it takes time to write papers and manuscripts and this bleeds into late nights and early mornings. I love it. It makes me happy. I really think I will leave the world of ophthalmology and ocular oncology a better place at the end of my career and so it’s worth it. But truly, it’s less of a balance than an ebb and flow.
Linda Lam: Inspiration and mentorship have been important facets in my career. Find people and causes that motivate you. It is important to have a support system. Seek out mentors who can guide you in your career and in life. Don’t lose sight of what stirred you to become an ophthalmologist.
How does your role as a woman in ophthalmology influence your work with your patients, trainees, research?
Linda Lam: I have been a bit of a tomboy most of my life having been raised by my father, so I can empathize well with both genders. Additionally, having lived in a myriad of countries and environments has enabled me to better understand people. Being a woman does influence the way I lead and interact with others, in particular attributes such as patience, kindness, empathy, and teamwork. I am currently involved in many projects focused on restoring vision in patients who are blind. I continue to strive to help our patients every day and hope to inspire others to pursue a career in science or medicine to eliminate blindness.
Jesse Berry: It’s no secret that I think women are awesome and I see part of my role as a woman as making sure I advance the narrative for future generations. I don’t want women to ask, can I be a mom and a surgeon? Will my patient’s take me seriously because I am a woman? Can I tackle research? The answer is YES but many people need to see that in action again and again, and I hope I am an example of it.
I also like to think (and share!) that I am a better mom for being a surgeon — I am teaching my daughters they can do anything — and also how becoming a mother has given me that extra 10% as a physician. I can relate to how it feels to hand your baby to someone, so I’ve become more attuned to building that relationship and that trust with a family.
What I like to remind people is that while I wear many hats, they’re all still me. Even when I am at work, I am still a mom, even when I am in the lab, I am still a surgeon. Being proud of these roles — and recognizing their interplay together and celebrating it— is what makes being a woman in medicine so awesome. There’s still work to do. I see a future where women thrive in academia and grow their careers alongside their family, a day where half of all professors are women, where half of all ophthalmology residencies are led by women. We have made incredible strides in medicine — that I have so clearly benefitted from — and I am excited at the progress we will make in the decades to come.