Women in medicine finally have spotlight in COVID-19 fight after decades of diversity building

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- The battle against COVID-19 has thrown a lot of heroes from the Bay Area medical community into the spotlight. And increasingly, the faces we see informing us about the fight are women. For some of them, it's been a lifelong journey through a world once dominated by men.

Dr. Yvonne Maldonado of Stanford began her journey into medicine as the daughter of immigrants, growing up in Los Angeles.

"My parents immigrated from Mexico, a young couple moving trying to find a better life for themselves," explains Maldonado.

Dr. Melanie Ott of San Francisco's Gladstone Institutes immigrated herself after falling in love with medicine in her native Germany.

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"Oh young Melanie was a very hungry girl who grew up in the countryside and always wanted to be urban," she remembers, smiling.

They both share in a passion for virology, honed in the early days of HIV. Maldonado spent part of her early career with the CDC, eventually leading efforts to vaccinate vulnerable populations around the world. Ott moved from caring for AIDS patients in Frankfurt to earning an advanced degree she needed to become a researcher as well.

Both rose steadily, in a world of science and medicine led by mainly by men.

"Eighty percent of the workforce in global public health are women, and yet you rarely see women in leadership positions. It's the same thing in public health, so we've just been invisible," argues Maldonado.

"I remember when I was at the Gladstone, starting at the Gladstone there were no female principal investigators, there were only male P.I.'s. So it was a, you know, long path," Ott remembers.

But fast forward several decades to one of the greatest health crisis of our time and Maldonado and Ott have joined a highly accomplished, and now highly visible, mix of Bay Area women helping to lead the fight against COVID-19. And perhaps as importantly, becoming the public face of it.

"It comes with the territory that you are more exposed, so you will be asked to be commenting, while before if you're not in the position and it's only a male person in that position, then of course you don't see female faces," Ott believes.

As director of her own lab at Gladstone, Ott is often called on to explain the sometimes frightening nuances of the coronavirus, while Maldonado shares updates on the vaccine trials she oversees at Stanford. And while they may be pioneers, they're also mentors, paving the road for up and coming women like Dr. Fatima Rodriguez of Stanford and researcher Parinaz Fozouni of Gladstone.

"In my career I've found it's important to have someone in your corner who understands what struggles you're going through," explains Fozouni.

"It's been inspiring and I think it suggests that things are changing, and that the face of medicine is changing to be more representative of what it should be," echoes Dr. Rodriguez.

For Maldonado, it's the beginning of the beginning. "And if you can't promote 50% of the population, then you know there's something wrong with the system."

While improving the system may still be a work in progress, the benefits are becoming perhaps more visible than ever before. Expect the mentoring to continue as well.

Maldonado is also serving as the senior associate dean for diversity and faculty development at Stanford, while Ott also serves as a professor of medicine at UCSF.

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