Joan Weinberger Berman, Ph.D. '74, P'05, P'11
This interview is dated 3/30/2015.
Dr. Joan Berman is a Professor of Pathology and of Microbiology & Immunology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, where she manages a large research laboratory studying the mechanisms by which HIV enters the brain and causes neuron damage and cognitive impairment in a large number of infected individuals.
Dr. Berman serves as the Senior Faculty Advisor of Einstein's graduate division and the Director of the graduate student program in experimental pathology at Einstein. She is the Co-chair of the Medical Student Research Committee and the Director of Translational Research for Einstein medical students.
Dr. Berman serves as Co-Chair of the Brown Women's Leadership Council Mentoring Committee and is also on the Pembroke Associates Council, serving as the Chair of Pembroke's Programming Committee. She is on the Executive Boards of the International Society of Neurovirology and of the International Society of Neuroimmune Pharmacology. In 2012 she received the Women in Neuroscience Award, and in 2013 she was recognized with the Einstein Basic Science Mentoring Award for her contributions in mentoring Einstein faculty in their career development. She has several NIH funded programs, and serves on numerous study sections and review boards.
When reflecting upon your time at Brown as a student and how it contributed to your current personal perspective and career success, what are the first thoughts that come to mind?
The flexibility to craft my own academic path gave me independence. Because of the manner in which students are allowed to explore different academic paths, I felt empowered to take courses outside of my comfort zone. I remember taking a history of architecture class and language courses, and they all contributed to enabling me to see things from different perspectives.
Is there a particular woman that you considered a role model or mentor?
Yes, my mother. She is an incredible woman. She taught me how important it is to be able to see things from many points of view other than my own. She has always been able to take into account different perspectives, and that is reflected through her interactions with other people, when approaching a subject or task, and when resolving conflict. I think it is so important to be able to put ourselves in someone else's shoes. It makes for richer interactions, approaches, and solutions. It gives individuals the ability to bring forth the best from everyone by acknowledging that we all have something important and different to bring to the table.
What is the best piece of advice you received as a young woman?
There was one piece of advice that I received from my father, and I don't even think it was given as advice, but rather as a comment one day while we were having a conversation. He said to me, "If you don't ask, the answer is always no." His words continue to resonate with me.
It's important to ask the question, and I have tried to pass my father's wisdom on to many. In particular, I have advised my children and my students that they have to ask questions and ask them politely. Know that whomever you ask has the option to say "no", but hopefully will not. It is very easy not to ask. Sometimes people don't want to look foolish, or to impose, but if you don't ask you've already answered your own question with a "no."
How did you first get involved with mentoring and what would you say to other women who are interested in mentoring for the Women's Launch Pad?
I was invited to join the program by Susan Pilch Friedman '77, P'08, founder of the Women's Leadership Council. Susan knew about my enthusiasm for mentoring and for Brown.
I would advise any woman who is interested in mentoring, and is committed to doing so, to contact the Alumni Relations Office at Brown and fill out an application. She should explain why she is interested and how much she thinks she would enjoy mentoring. Also, if she is able, it would be helpful to attend one of the regional events or to come to one of the WLC or WLP events on campus. Mentoring is a phenomenal opportunity for both the mentor and the mentee.
To me, it is especially exciting to see former mentees already serving as mentors. I think they bring such a thoughtful perspective. It is something about which I am very proud. I am also delighted that we have engaged women who graduated nine or ten years ago, and although they weren't part of the program (because back then there wasn't one), they are now participating as mentors. They bring a fresh and energetic excitement to the group. It's wonderful to see the wide age range of alumnae who participate in the program.
Through all of your mentoring efforts and initiatives, not only at Brown but also in your field, it is evident that you are very passionate about mentoring. What do you find most rewarding about being a mentor?
Mentoring is exciting to me. Throughout my career I have mentored young men and women. What I enjoy most is helping young individuals gain a broader perspective. It is rewarding for me to share my experiences and to learn of theirs. When mentees seek my advice, I enjoy exploring paths with them that perhaps they hadn't considered, or exchanging ideas that help to resolve an issue with which they are struggling. Mentoring is rewarding for both the mentor and mentee. By helping my mentees see things they hadn't considered before, I very often also learn something about which I hadn't thought. It is very rewarding because of the wonderful relationships that are formed and the broader perspectives one acquires. It is a great joy to see mentees flourish into confident and extremely capable people.
From your tenure as Co-Chair of the WLC Mentoring Committee, what achievement(s) are you most proud of and what is your vision for the Women's Launch Pad?
My Co-Chairs Sharon Curham, M.D.'83, P'10 and Amy Reiss ‘85 have been extraordinary. The achievement this year of which I am most proud is that, with Assistant Director of Career and Leadership Programs Heather Wilkerson, we brought a social media component to the Women's Launch Pad. Now, through the LinkedIn Group, mentors and mentees can stay in touch and share information. With this and subsequent generations being very connected through social media, the fact that we moved into that arena is very important and exciting.
What I would most like to see in the coming years is our ability to grow. I know that it is expensive, but I would like us to grow to be able to serve the needs of however many senior women are interested in being mentored. Of course, that would mean having the resources, such as support staff and new technologies that are needed. There is so much interest and excitement about the program, and I understand that the mechanics of growing may be challenging, but I would like to see us try to meet that challenge.
Through your involvement in HIV research, you have made significant contributions to our understanding of how HIV affects our central nervous system. What do you consider the most important skills graduates need in order to make a difference on a broader scale?
I think there are several skills needed for graduates; the first is being able to think outside the box. I know that's a cliché, but seeing things from many different perspectives is crucial. If you just see it one way, that's good, but if you try to incorporate the other perspective, the other views, and other scientific approaches, you have a more complete picture. By searching in depth for answers to specific questions (not accepting the obvious), students are broadening the scope of their research and understanding.
The second skill that comes to mind is determination. You can't be daunted by a lack of getting what you want. You have to recognize that not succeeding in something is contributing to your success. What you learn from a failure can help you learn how to succeed. I don't consider failures a "fail"—I consider them to be a different kind of success. You learn a better way of doing, a different method, and specifically, you learn why your approach didn't work. I have learned to evaluate and reevaluate, but not to be daunted by experiments that do not work the first time, because through non-successes come big successes, and that's extremely important.
The third skill to learn is perseverance. Keep trying, keep going—you have a vision, and it's extremely important to network with people who share your vision. It's also important to talk to everyone of interest who can contribute new ideas. For example, I'm not in business but I love listening to business commentary on the radio when I drive home from work. I like to listen because the approaches that entrepreneurs have taken help me in my laboratory by helping me to think about something in a different way. It's important to be open to change and refocusing your approach. Don't give up if something doesn't work or isn't working the way you envisioned—try a different approach. For me, it's really important to think broadly, persevere, be undaunted, and talk to as many people as I can. It's important to be open to attending networking events and not be afraid to "put yourself out there." You need to enjoy what you do. "Don't think about what you're good at, think about what you like to do." That's very important because you can be good at a lot of things but not enjoy doing them.
I'll also add confidence to the list. It's important not to second-guess yourself. There are no mistakes; there are just better choices next time. I hear people say, "Oh, I wish I hadn't done that, I should've have done this instead." Don't be that person—figure out what makes you happy and then go do that. Have confidence in yourself that you can succeed, and you will.