“Data does not speak for itself … stories are our reality”

Conference leverages mentorship spectrum to reclaim stories as essential tools in medicine

November 15, 2017

The OHSU chapter of the American Medical Women's Association (AMWA) is aiming to stop the "leaky pipeline" – the attrition of women in STEM fields as they progress in their careers. M.D./Ph.D. student Mollie Marr helped revive AMWA at OHSU, and believes that building a strong network of mentors and colleagues is essential to this mission.MollieMarr2017

To catalyze Marr's vision of "multilevel mentoring," AMWA is hosting a day-long conference on Saturday, Dec. 2. "Strength Through Stories" is organized around the three P's: professional, personal and political. Each theme features a keynote address followed by breakout sessions where attendees participate in skills-focused workshops.

The idea for this conference began with student organizers recognizing a lack of focus on storytelling in medicine.

"In medicine and science, we get focused on data, and forget that there are stories in everything we do," says Marr.

Student planning committee member Elizabeth Swanson, an M.D./Ph.D. student, adds, "I am hoping attendees are able to reconnect with the human side of medicine. Medicine is a demanding profession and I think one of the ways we can address burnout is by reconnecting with stories, both patient stories and our own stories."

Jackie Wirz, Ph.D., assistant dean for graduate student affairs, OHSU School of Medicine, is leading a session in the professional component and says: "As scientists and as medical practitioners, often we hear the word 'story' and we balk against it because we think they're fictional stories, and that story does not have a place in science or medicine. I fundamentally do not believe that is true. Data does not speak for itself – there's always a story behind the data. Medicine does not exist in a vacuum; there's always a patient that's part of that story. My hope is that people will understand that stories are not fiction – stories are our reality."

Bringing the story to life

Dr. Jackie Wirz"The passion Mollie is putting into this is always the firmest foundation upon which a successful conference can be built," says Wirz, whose enthusiasm for the event is contagious.

Swanson says of the planning process, "We have been working together, along with Dr. Molly Osborne, to create a conference that will bring together people from all stages of medical training, from undergraduate students preparing to apply to medical school up to faculty."

Student planning committee member Alexandra Pincus, also an M.D./Ph.D. student, says the experience of organizing the conference has been "incredibly empowering, to be the one making decisions on speakers and workshops."

The keynote speaker selection was "totally selfish," according to Marr. Pincus adds that the speakers are "amazing female physicians, who everyone on the planning committee looks up to; I am excited that our attendees will get to hear their stories and I hope they will leave feeling inspired in their own lives."

In planning the breakout sessions, Pincus says "the workshops … are designed to give people more concrete skills and tools, so that they can take what inspires them in the conference and transform it into action." 

Marr described the workshop curation as a process of identifying "useful skills that aren't usually taught – such as selling yourself, and not apologizing. For the personal workshops, we thought 'what would be fun?'"

Swanson speaks to the political element of the conference: "I am hoping attendees learn the skills they need to confidently engage with the political process. During these uncertain political times, I think many people in medicine are looking to become more involved politically, but aren't always sure how to do so. We have workshops on engaging the political process through social media as well as how to become involved with policy discussions on the local and state levels."

Wirz's goal for her own workshop is clear: "My job in this session is to help people articulate why they are a wonderful human being, and do so in a way that empowers them to be the best professional they can be."

This conference aims to provide something for everyone, at any stage of their career, whether you prefer to sit and listen or get up and dance.

Conference information page

Conference agenda

Conference registration