Sharon Curhan M.D. '83, P'10, P'20
Interview is from 3/14/16
Sharon Curhan '83 is an M.D. and clinical researcher at the Department of Medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School. After taking a career "pause," Sharon returned to school to pursue her dream of collaborating with her husband, Gary '81. They conduct research on chronic disease prevention with a focus on the prevention of hearing loss and tinnitus. Sharon is a member of the Women's Leadership Council and Women's Launch Pad, through which she has had the opportunity to mentor several Brown women.
What was your time like while you were at Brown? Did you always know that you wanted to attend medical school?
My time at Brown was wonderful! As a freshman, medical school was barely on my radar screen. My family background did not include any doctors or scientists, so studying medicine wasn't within my realm of experience. I had always enjoyed science during high school but never imagined myself as a scientist. A key aspect of Brown's curriculum that appealed to me was the opportunity to explore and experiment in disciplines outside of my comfort zone. I loved theater and the arts, music, languages, political science and communication, and dreamily envisioned myself as a high-powered lawyer presenting dramatic closing arguments in tension-filled courtroom scenes (clearly, watched too many movies). Nevertheless, I started with Biology and Psychology as a way to test the scientific waters, and continued to dip my toes in deeper and deeper until junior year when I took neuroscience and was completely hooked! At the time, there wasn't a concentration in neuroscience, which meant I was able to design an independent concentration that included all of the classes that I wanted to take. This gave me the opportunity to work in a neuropharmacology lab on an independent research project and write an honors thesis as a junior and to see whether science was really for me. My lab experience helped crystallize the decision to apply for med school but convinced me that I wanted to be a clinician and was definitely not cut out for research. Of course, >30 years later I am a full time researcher and couldn't love my work more! A helpful lesson: it's okay to change your mind! (many times)
Why is mentoring important to you and how have your learned from your mentees?
Although I have always been fortunate to have wonderful and supportive "life" and "family" mentors (in particular, my amazingly supportive and caring husband and family), I would have loved to have had a woman career mentor to help me navigate the many challenging career and life decisions that arose during my senior year at Brown and in the early years of my career. My career path has followed a somewhat unconventional route, and my decisions and choices were most often based on what "felt right" and "fit best" with my family life, values, and vision. Even though I always felt fully supported by my family in my choices, unfortunately, this was not always the case professionally. In fact, when I chose to take time off from my career to be a full-time, at-home parent for my four children, this was strongly discouraged by my professional advisors. More than once, I was told that this would be an end to my career and a "waste" of my education. At the time, "multi-tasking" was all the rage and the goal for women was to "have it all." I did want to have it all, but I realized that I didn't need to have it all at the same time. I wanted to be "all in" as a parent—at the time, this felt to me like having it all. Eventually, I did re-enter my career and the path I took was invaluably informed and shaped by my experiences as a parent. I love the work that I do now and cannot imagine doing anything else, yet I never would have had the insight or opportunity to discover this path had I not traveled this circuitous route.
Reflecting on those transitional years in my career and family life, I think it would have felt much less scary and lonely if I had had the benefit of a mentor—someone to help me sort out my priorities, consider the options, reflect on the alternatives, and share her perspective. Someone to help me articulate the key issues, give objective feedback, or even just serve as a safe vessel for my feelings and a calming presence. When I first learned about the Women's Launch Pad many years ago, there was no question in my mind that this mentoring program had the potential to meet a critical need and to serve a powerful and meaningful role in the lives of Brown women as they transition to life after Brown. I signed up right then and there!
Here's the best part: I have learned so much and had such an enriching experience with my Brown mentees! I have been so fortunate to have had the pleasure to build relationships with the most inspirational, extraordinary, brilliant, talented, dedicated and hardworking group of mentees, Each and every year, I have had the pleasure of getting to know a new wonderful mentee and the thrill of watching from the front row as my previous mentees grow and thrive in their lives and careers. What an honor and a gift for me to have the privilege of traveling the path alongside these inspirational women. The years after college are filled with so many decisions, challenges, successes, confusion, changes and milestones—I am in constant awe as I watch and learn how each of these women find the way that fits them best. Hearing updates when we meet for coffee or dinner, watching a white coat ceremony, seeing photos from a trip to Europe, and being able to connect these women with each other and with younger Brown alumnae to share their wisdom—it is magical to watch these women grow and evolve into mentors themselves.
You have accomplished so much through various levels of education, what do you think is the most valuable aspect of your education?
Wow—that's a hard question! Maybe it has been learning to appreciate that often the hardest questions can be the most interesting to explore and that sometimes I can discover so much from the process of tackling the challenge, whether or not I eventually find an answer.
What attracted you to join the WLC?
Brown is such a special place and the experience and education that Brown provided has played a vital role in shaping the course of my life. I enjoyed staying connected to Brown through alumni interviewing and informal mentoring relationships, so the invitation to join the WLC offered a special opportunity and privilege to collaborate with an extraordinary and inspirational group of women who share a similar dedication to building a strong community of Brown women and a commitment to giving back to the University.
Can you tell us how you manage being a mom and also having a thriving career?
We laugh a lot at our house and prioritize being kind and supportive of one another. My husband, Gary (Brown '81), has been my partner, collaborator, mentor, cheerleader, inspiration, shoulder to lean on, biggest supporter, and lifelong best friend. The joy and the love that I get from all of my kids keep my feet firmly planted and help me stay focused and centered when I need to be, but silly and unproductive whenever I don't! I always feel that I'm part of a team and that I have incredible strength and support to draw on. Over the years, my family has faced some very serious and incredibly scary medical challenges, and I cannot imagine how it would have been possible to navigate them without each other. Most important, these experiences remind us to stay mindful and value the moment, celebrate each other, and not to take the "small stuff" or ourselves too seriously. It has also shown us how important it is to reach out and to do this for all of the people in our lives. It's remarkable how powerful just holding someone's hand can be, especially when there are no words to say.
As for the management and balancing aspect of career and family, what has worked for me has been my love for major league organization and planning. I love structure and work best by creating a detailed master calendar, literally and figuratively. I'm perpetually aware that at any moment I may have to erase and rewrite the plan, yet having the flexibility to do so promotes the forward momentum. Even when I had stepped out of my career for a time to raise my family, I was still working on my "calendar," which continued to evolve and adapt over time as I learned more, discovered new interests, and life unfolded. Many of my choices were shaped by life experiences that were unexpected and would have been impossible to predict when I was a student. For example, my oldest son was born 3 months early and had a very complicated and difficult start to life. One result of his challenging medical course in the hospital was a severe hearing loss. It wasn't until I was personally touched by having a hearing impaired child, that I realized I had never learned about the auditory system or hearing during medical school or when studying neuroscience! Somehow, there was not much attention given to the ears in those days, and I hadn't even noticed the omission. This not only inspired my interest in learning more about hearing and auditory function, but it charged me on a mission to raise awareness about the importance and implications of hearing loss and ignited my desire to move the field forward in the areas of early detection, treatment and, most of all, prevention. I started by working on committees to enact Universal Newborn Hearing Screening (testing the hearing of all newborn infants), advocating for accommodations and support for children in academic and recreational settings, and empowering parents by providing information and valuable skills that may be helpful in raising a hearing impaired child. As my focus expanded, my frustration with the limited scientific knowledge base grew as well. Here was somewhere where I felt I might be able to make a meaningful contribution—advancing the understanding of hearing and acquired hearing loss.
It was tricky with four kids at home to take the time to go back to graduate school to study epidemiology and public health so that I would have the education and training I would need to become an independent investigator. Yet, it was easy to pull everyone in the family "on board" with my mission and I tried hard to be mindful and to structure my responsibilities in a way that fit with our family needs. As a long distance runner, I am used to pacing myself and waiting to break into a sprint only when I can see the finish line. So, I may not have gotten to this point in my career by the fastest or most linear route possible, but I'm glad I took the time to take some detours and to enjoy the scenery along the way.
You were able to pursue your career dream; what advice you can give to others about pursuing a dream?
Oh, my! I'm not sure I ever had what I would describe as a "career dream." (Full disclosure: I've always dreamed about singing in a musical on Broadway, but that one will probably stay as a dream…). I wonder if my career dreams might be better described by what I have hoped to accomplish in my career. My dream was to find a way to make a difference and bring about positive change that can improve people's lives. I have always hoped to do something that contributes, moves things forward in a positive direction, and brings people together. It's easy to feel passionate and to enjoy the work when I can envision it making a positive impact. My vision of how I might do that changes over time, but this has given me the chance to immerse myself in a variety of different pursuits. So, I'm not sure what advice I have to share other than to think broadly and flexibly—define what you hope to accomplish, envision the many different ways that you can bring this about, and appreciate that there are many effective, valuable, meaningful and satisfying paths that you can take on your way to making these dreams real. The best part is that you don't have to limit yourself to only one!