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Women of Ophthalmology (WOO) Group Sees the Value of Fellowship

Virginia Lolley, MD, FACS, Assistant Professor in the UAB Department of Ophthalmology, knows how it feels to be an accomplished ophthalmologist in a medical field once labeled “a gentleman’s subspecialty.”

After graduating from Tulane University School of Medicine, she came to UAB to begin her residency in 1995. At the time there were only three female ophthalmologists in Birmingham, and two were UAB faculty members affiliated with the Department of Ophthalmology’s Residency Training Program. Dr. Lolley, like many other women before her, was the only female resident in her class.

“This is just how it was for years,” Lolley says. “Usually one out of every six residents was female. It wasn’t until the mid-2000s that we finally began to see a rise in women entering ophthalmology residency programs. The pattern changed, and we started bringing in more and more female residents. As women came into the program and graduated, some would scatter throughout the country, but others would stay right here in Birmingham and set up practice locally, at a nearby hospital, or join the faculty at UAB. Now there are numerous female ophthalmologists throughout central Alabama.”
 

Camaraderie Among Peers

In 2013, several local female ophthalmologists, including UAB faculty members, decided to get together for dinner. They didn’t know it then, but this was the beginning of a local group known as the WOOs (Women of Ophthalmology). The WOOs meet 2-4 times a year. The get-togethers could be dinner at a faculty member’s home or a cooking class at Sur la Table, but the core idea is the same: women coming together to support one another on a personal and professional level. The group eventually expanded beyond female ophthalmologists in the department. Practicing female ophthalmologists from across the area, along with optometrists, psychologists, researchers, and female residents, were all included.

“I am not an ophthalmologist like most of the other women in the group,” says Laura Dreer, PhD, director of Psychological and Neurological Clinical Research Services in the Department of Ophthalmology. “When I started attending WOO events, I knew it was a great opportunity to learn more about my fellow female colleagues who are in a different field of study, because as women, we share so many of the same issues, such as careers, work-family balance, and leadership. For me, this was a very exciting cross-discipline opportunity to collaborate and bounce ideas off one another, but it also allows for fellowship among female peers. I can say that the WOO events are something I really look forward to and enjoy.”
 

A Guiding Light Through Residency

Currently, in the Department of Ophthalmology Residency Training Program, nearly one-third of the residents are female. These residents are included in WOO events, giving young doctors the opportunity to interact with their faculty advisors and mentors on both a professional and personal level.

“I was the only female resident in my class,” says Sara Mullins, MD, a clinical instructor in the Department of Ophthalmology. “So I understand the associated stress that comes from being not only a resident, but a female resident. It can be a challenge to balance personal and work life, so having a group of women to rely on, who understand what you are going through, is so important. The WOOs didn’t plan on becoming role models for other women, but it has evolved into that. I didn’t have these types of opportunities when I was in my residency. Which is why I think it is important – now more than ever – for women to support other women.”

This type of mentoring during the early stages of a career can be associated with career satisfaction and may guide the development of professional expertise for a young resident. It also increases the chances of helping others as a mentor during their own careers. It serves as an opportunity for residents to get to know physicians, researchers, and other medical professionals outside the classroom.

“Three out of the five residents in my class are women,” says second-year resident Kristen Jijelava, MD. “I am not from the Birmingham area, so becoming close with my classmates and surrounding faculty members has made my residency a much more enjoyable experience. From advice on managing time to balancing personal life, I feel like I have really received lessons from the WOOs for how to make my commitments work.”

Residents often have questions or concerns they don’t know how to address because the topic could be uncomfortable or personal. The WOO meetings provide an opportunity for female residents to open up to faculty members and become more comfortable as medical professionals.

“As women, we all have different perspectives and plans for how we want to set up our lives,” Lolley says. “We wear many different hats and juggle family and work on a daily basis. The WOOs are valuable to both working professionals and young residents as they begin their careers as ophthalmologists. It is important for women to know that we support and value one another. Women supporting other women – you can’t get much better than that.”