The annual ATS Women’s Forum delighted attendees with two speakers who exemplify accomplishment in their fields of thoracic care.
ATS President M. Patricia Rivera, MD, ATSF, welcomed guest speakers Refiloe Masekela, MD, and Margareth Pretti Dalcolmo, MD, PhD, on Monday to share their experiences and insights as clinicians and researchers.
Dr. Masekela is the president-elect of the Pan African Thoracic Society and associate professor and head of the Department of Pediatrics and Child Health at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa.
She gave everyone a glimpse into her journey as a pediatrician during apartheid in South Africa. She planned for her future as a clinician from a young age, unaware of the historical significance of the racial segregation and discrimination in her homeland at the time.
“All I knew was I wanted to be a doctor,” she said. “My whole family wanted to know, why did I want to be a doctor? And I said, ‘Doctors make people feel better.’ And that was the dream that started me off on this journey.”
Dr. Masekela had mentors who guided her and taught her some of the most important early lessons of her career: the value of data and how it helps improve people’s lives, and the satisfaction of following her passion and pursuing the subspeciality of pediatric pulmonology when there were only eight such specialists in the whole country.
One of her mentors, Sonia Buist, MD, who was instrumental in the formation of the Pan African Thoracic Society Methods in Epidemiologic, Clinical, and Operations Research, taught her that networking was essential.
“One of the lessons I learned from Sonia was, ‘Say yes to everything in the beginning,’” Dr. Masekela said. “That’s my message to younger professionals. That way, when you get older, you don’t have to say yes to everything. Find your niche, your passion, and pursue that goal.”
She called attention to the leadership gap for women in health care in low-income countries and reported that through a grant from the National Institutes of Health and Care Research, she is able to offer opportunities to three women from Africa to pursue a doctoral degree.
Dr. Dalcolmo is the president of the Brazilian Thoracic Society, a respiratory physician and senior researcher at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation in Rio de Janeiro.
Her grandparents were Italian immigrants who relocated to Brazil and planted coffee. Her father was a lawyer, and she grew up in what she called “a just environment” at home. Her parents wanted her to be a diplomat.
“I said, ‘No, I’m not going to be a diplomat; I’m going to be a doctor,’” she said. “I liked taking care of people and had a natural way with it.”
She said that presenting and sharing experiences is inspirational, explaining that she has been fortunate to present her research, participate in panels, and share her insights for 25 years, including a presentation in Iran in 2001 about AIDS and tuberculosis.
Life provided her with many opportunities to travel and meet important public figures, including South African Bishop Desmond Tutu. She also has global experience in health care, having worked on new drugs and treatments as a consultant for the Tuberculosis and Essential Medicines Expert Group with the World Health Organization.
She also was elected to the National Academy of Medicine in Brazil two years ago, which she called a great honor.
“Of the 100 members, there are six women,” Dr. Dalcolmo said.
She recalled the difficulty of the past few years as she and others fought the government’s rhetoric against science and vaccines during the COVID-19 pandemic. But she used the opportunity to work on a clinical trial, write for a national newspaper in Brazil, and author an award-winning book. She also worked on the cutting-edge triple therapy for cystic fibrosis.
“I tell students life is always a fascinating adventure filled with empathy and generosity,” Dr. Dalcolmo said. “But don’t surrender when you know you are right.”
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