Mentoring makes for an extended family

29 October 2019

Misogyny, health, and life - the hurdles haven't stopped Professor Jane Dahlstrom OAM achieving her aspirations

For more than 15 years now, Jane Dahlstrom has mentored countless medical students and colleagues and has kept in touch with many of them, in what she warmly refers to as her "extended family".

"I feel very proud of their achievements and who they have become," Jane says, adding that her interest in mentoring comes back to who she is - someone who loves to see others become the best that they can be.

"Mentoring has also given me great personal satisfaction over the years - seeing some students and colleagues, I have mentored, achieve their goals. Those that I stay in contact with, I do remind them of the importance of putting back and mentoring others!"

Currently the Executive Director of Pathology at ACT Pathology, Canberra Health Services, Professor Dahlstrom's ties to ANU date back to the 80s when she did her PhD here. Her ties to the campus, much like her warm personality, make her such an endearing and inspirational person.

"If someone had told me when I was 18 years old that I was to become an Academic Anatomical Pathologist living in Canberra who went on to raise six children I would have laughed," she says. But that's exactly what she has done.

To get there, Jane went from student to teacher, registrar to pathologist and level B clinician researcher to Professor. She has also been interim Dean for the ANU College of Health and Medicine.

"Each of these paths had a ceiling and each a role I wanted. I have had a very privileged career," she says.

But her road to get there has had a few bumps.

For the senior ANU academic and ACT Health professional, Jane recalls that she has faced situations where she has been treated with misogyny and contempt. In one instance, she was asked to assess a pathology initiative at an interstate medical school.

"I was quite junior in my academic career and so I was a little surprised to be asked," she says.

"Keen to do a good assessment, I prepared well but it became evident that some things you cannot prepare for.

"On entering the meeting room, I was introduced to five senior academics - all men. As the Dean of this medical school provided some background to the program, I heard one of the other academics say to his colleague - so the whole room could hear - "what is this dolly bird doing assessing us."

A little taken back by the comment, Jane didn't know how to respond or what to say. So she ignored it and continued the assessment.

"I had thought of shying away from addressing the inappropriate behaviour altogether, but then felt it was best to address it with the Dean face to face, which I did.

"Experience has taught me that people do not act in such ways without reason - it often comes down to poor communication about an issue or their anxiety."

Six months later, she met the same senior academic at a function.

"He approached me, was very pleasant, and thanked me for my report, despite the fact I had not recommended continuation of the project at that site. I think he was in fact relieved."

But it wasn't Jane's dealings with men in the early stages of her career that have been the most challenging.

"I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2003," she says.

At the time she had just taken on the role of inaugural academic lead of Anatomical Pathology at the ANU Medical School. One of her first tasks was to develop the curriculum, as well as continue to contribute to multiple research grants - some relating to breast cancer. She also had a full clinical load as a pathologist and was very involved with her professional college (RCPA) in education and assessment.

On top of all of this, it was a difficult time in her personal life with her children needing support. There were also domestic financial pressures at play.

"At the time, I thought the breast cancer could not have happened at a worse time and stupidly I even delayed seeking treatment knowing what lay ahead. My initial reaction was to refocus my life and withdraw from academia all together.

"It however did not feel right for me, or my family," she says. So she decided to go through treatment and continue in academia.

Afterwards, her desire to help others - something she says was ingrained in her from her childhood - continued via pathology and medical education.

"I feel this is why I continued with probably greater resolve to make a difference after my breast cancer treatment."

Jane continues to mentor young women and men - not all of them in science either - by providing them with advice on how to push forward. She was recently approached by a PhD student from an ANU college with no links to medicine asking Jane if she could mentor her.

"She wanted to know how to become successful in a 'man's world'. She quoted statistics about equal number of men and women doing PhDs in her school but few academic women on staff. She asked about life after a PhD - how do you decide?"

Despite the hurdles, Jane says there wasn't one particular mentor helping her get through, but rather "a number of supportive supervisors or colleagues, both men and women" who either gave her the opportunities to shine or supported her ideas.

"Life is what you make of it. There will be times when a door you want to walk through is locked, perhaps for family reasons or timing. Remember there will be other paths and often another door opens that is far more rewarding, so have courage and walk through that door."

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Professor Jane Dahlstrom is a patron of the Canberra Mentor Walks, which launched in early 2019.

If you're a woman aspiring to reach new heights in your career and would like to meet her and hear more about her inspirational story, sign up to the last Mentor Walk of the year, on Wednesday 6 November. Details, including registration to become a 'mentee', can be found at:  http://mentorwalks.com.au/become-a-mentee-canberra/