"Hold that saw like a girl," is a refrain that teenagers might well hear at the University of Connecticut Health Center this October, which, for the first time, is hosting the Perry Initiative for high school girls.
The Delaware-based nonprofit aims to put a saw and drill in the hands of as many girls as possible across the country to perform “mock surgical exercises,” in hopes of enticing them to the field of orthopedic surgery or the engineering of orthopedic implants. The students will also attend lectures by women surgeons and engineers.
“Our goal is twofold,” said Laurie Meszaros Dearolf, executive director of the Perry Initiative. “Orthopedic surgeons have been traditionally men; so if you don’t see role models who look like you, you don’t even realize the possibility. Second, there are some stereotypes about the work that orthopedic surgeons perform—that you need to be strong and big [to use equipment to cut through bone]—and the professional life is not conducive to having a family. That’s not true and our programs address this.”
The organization runs more than 40 one-day outreach programs nationwide in partnership with universities and hospitals, including programs for medical students in their first and second years, who are yet to pick their field of specialization. This year's program at UConn takes place 21.
Even though more women are entering medical school in the U.S., women comprise just 6.1 percent of accredited orthopedic surgeons, according to a survey by the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons in 2014. Latest data from the American Medical Association for 2013 show that only 28 percent of all surgeons in Connecticut were female, as compared to 25 percent of all surgeons nationwide. Among female surgeons in Connecticut, just 8 percent are orthopedic surgeons, or 31 women.
Dr. Katherine Coyner, an orthopedic surgeon at the UConn Health Center, is on the board of the Perry Initiative and was instrumental in bringing the program to UConn.
“Middle and high school girls will wear scrubs and see what life is like for an orthopedic surgeon,” Coyner said. “They will work with drills and saws and we’ll open their mind and heart to something they might like. Eighty-five percent of girls that go through the high school Saturday Perry program choose STEM majors in college.”
Susan Prihar is a high school science teacher at the CREC Academy of Science and Innovation in New Britain, which specializes in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
“We have many students at our school who are motivated to go into the medical profession,” Prihar said. “Any time we can give them real world experiences to explore how science and engineering is applied, and any time they are able to interact with professionals who give them hands on experience, then we have more students who are committed to achieving their dream of going into the medical or engineering profession.”
Prihar also said such programs help students who are a little lost when everyone else is talking about going to college, which can make it hard for them to commit the time and energy to get the grades to go college.
“There is a lot of value in exposing these students to such a program,” she said. “If they can be inspired to go into the medical profession—to manage the business side of hospitals, to design better operating rooms, to make better equipment for doctors—if we can get these students motivated, then we are going to celebrate later on.”
Other locations for the Perry Initiative in Connecticut include Yale University. The programs are funded via grants and are offered at no cost to students.