Carolyn Meltzer is the dean of the Keck School of Medicine of USC. (USC Photo/Nigel Lizaranzu)

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Keck School of Medicine of USC Dean Carolyn Meltzer beats impostor syndrome

TITLE IX: Leader seeks to create environments that ensure that people of all identities feel included and valued.

May 22, 2023 Greg Hernandez

 

Editor’s note: Title IX — the landmark legislation that prohibits sex discrimination in educational institutions that receive federal funding — was signed into law on June 23, 1972. In recognition of this anniversary, we’ll be profiling Trojan Title IX trailblazers throughout the year.

 

As a student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in the 1980s, Carolyn Meltzer remembers being plagued with feelings of impostor syndrome — especially each time she walked by the famous portrait of the university’s founding physicians known as “The Big Four.”

Title IX logo“It was where men are men and giants walk the halls,” she said. “If you were a woman, you were a bit of an outlier. My frame of mind was always to fit in with the guys and be twice as good to be recognized.”

Meltzer, dean of the Keck School of Medicine of USC and the May S. and John H. Hooval Dean’s Chair in Medicine since 2022, describes those years as “an arduous journey” that she had to push through. Only one-third of her classmates were female, and positive reinforcement was hard to come by.

“I remember a moment when I was a senior medical student and a female chief resident said to me, ‘You know, you’re really talented. You really do a good job,’” Meltzer said. She was speechless, and the chief resident wondered why. “I said, ‘Nobody has ever told me that since I’ve been here.’”

Speaking out to help others

These are among the experiences that inform Meltzer’s work overseeing the operations and academic affairs of Keck School of Medicine and its 16 major research institutes and 26 basic and clinical academic programs. She is mindful that it remains more common for women and other underrepresented and marginalized groups to doubt their abilities despite successfully performing at a high level.

When you’re early in your career … it’s very hard to speak up for yourself.

Carolyn Meltzer, Keck School of Medicine

“It’s only as I’ve gotten more senior that I’ve been able to speak out, to maybe be able to help others,” she said. “When you’re early in your career and at the bottom of the power and privilege gradient, it’s very hard to speak up for yourself.”

Meltzer has done a lot of work in the diversity space and has often heard people talking about impostor syndrome as if it were a character flaw that people need to get over.

“There’s a big part of our environment that helps create it,” she said. “Speaking now as a senior leader, we have to create environments that ensure people are feeling included and valued for the identities they bring to the table.”

Despite any self-doubt she battled as a student, Meltzer believed in equal opportunity “from a pretty young age” and “didn’t see a reason I shouldn’t be able to do anything the guys could do.”

Early role models

Meltzer earned her undergraduate degree with honors from Cornell University, where she was president of the Women in Medicine club and would try to find female physicians to come and share their experiences with students.

At Johns Hopkins, she was influenced by Catherine D. DeAngelis, a professor and physician who went on to become vice dean for academic affairs and faculty at the university and the first woman editor in chief of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

“Some of those giants who walked the halls were women,” Meltzer said. “Not too many, but just their presence had a great impact on me.”

Meltzer became an expert in neuroradiology and nuclear medicine and has conducted research to understand the structure and function of the brain during normal aging, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and psychiatric disorders later in life. She also specializes in cancer imaging research.

“I went into a field that was very male-dominated with a lot of technology, innovation, PET [positron emission tomography] imaging and research areas — just very physics-heavy,” she said. “We still struggle with having women go into the hard sciences at equal rates.”

Meltzer was recruited to Keck School of Medicine after spending 15 years at Emory University School of Medicine, where she was chair of the department of radiology and imaging sciences. She also served as executive associate dean of faculty academic advancement, leadership and inclusion and as chief diversity and inclusion officer.

Meltzer had earlier held various academic and administrative appointments at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, including creating and leading the school’s clinical PET center.

Protecting hard-earned rights

Although she wasn’t yet in high school when Title IX went into effect, Meltzer is grateful for the law and the protections it provides.

“It often takes federal legislation to put a stake in the ground and move the world forward, whether it’s civil rights or gender rights,” she said. “I don’t think we would have made as much progress in higher education and created as many opportunities for diverse individuals if Title IX hadn’t become law when it did.”

Progress is not linear, and it tends to be made by a series of tipping points. Then there are also moments where things slip back.

Carolyn Meltzer, Keck School of Medicine

While she celebrates Title IX’s 50th anniversary, Meltzer remains very concerned about gender equity overall in the United States, including women’s reproductive rights, the rights of the transgender community and the rights of professionals who provide gender-affirming care.

“Progress is not linear, and it tends to be made by a series of tipping points,” she said. “Then there are also moments where things slip back. I feel like we’re in a moment where there are both tipping points and slides back happening at the same time.”

Meltzer is working to make sure these setbacks don’t happen at USC.

“I think it’s a very optimistic place through the lens of Title IX,” Meltzer said. “I work with some wonderful women leaders and men leaders, and we’re trying to build a diverse team to give more voice to the complexity of the problems we’re focused on.”