MUSC women surgeons share their passion and guidance with students

May 01, 2023
Two tables facing each other with young women seated behind them working on suturing.
Students at a suturing workshop at the Association of Women Surgeons event at the Medical University of South Carolina. Photos by Lauren Hooker

The Association of Women Surgeons (AWS) is a not-for-profit educational and professional organization. With a membership of approximately 3,300 women and men, AWS is one of the largest organizations dedicated to enhancing the interaction and exchange of information between women surgeons. AWS is committed to supporting women surgeons at all career stages – from medical school to retirement.

Dr. Laura Hollinger 
Dr. Laura Hollinger

The MUSC College of Medicine (COM) AWS chapter is one of 11 chapters in the southeastern U.S. supporting medical students interested in all fields of surgery. At MUSC, the chapter is led by medical students Emily Watson and Olivia Walkowiak, co-presidents, and pediatric surgeon Laura Hollinger, M.D., who serves as the chapter’s adviser. The AWS chapter hosts events throughout the year to guide those interested in pursuing surgical specialties. The chapter holds meetings quarterly, including suture workshops, Q&As with surgical attending physicians, rotation advice sessions and post-match M4 student panels.

One highly anticipated event is the annual surgical education conference, which attracts high school and college students from across South Carolina who are considering careers in surgery. This year, 87 students attended, including higher education students from Furman University, Wofford College, Clemson University, the University of South Carolina and the College of Charleston. The conference included speakers from various surgical specialties, a hands-on ultrasound workshop hosted by the COM Ultrasound Interest Group and a suturing workshop hosted by the COM Surgery Interest Group. 

During Hollinger’s session, she spoke about her path to surgery from medical school, getting into a general surgery residency and later choosing pediatric surgery as a fellowship. She shared some typical pediatric surgical cases she encounters, ranging from inguinal hernias to gastroschisis. 

View from the back of an auditorium filled with students looking forward at three screens. 
Almost 90 students attended the conference at MUSC to learn from surgeons and get an idea of what working in the field entails.

“The students loved seeing the variety of highly complex procedures Dr. Hollinger does day to day,” said medical student Shipra Bethi, who helped to plan the conference. “They learned about the breadth of knowledge required to be a pediatric surgeon and how long-term patient relationships are frequent in Dr. Hollinger’s field.” Bethi is one of three conference coordinators and medical students along with Katherine Bishara and Kelly Atherton. 

Other presenters included Colleen Donahue, M.D., Colorectal Surgery (read about her shift from Team USA skater to standout surgeon here); Sara Van Nortwick, M.D., Orthopaedic Surgery; Eliza McElwee, M.D., Obstetrics and Gynecology; and Clarice Clemmens, M.D., Otolaryngology. 

Donahue, in her session, explained the challenging road from undergraduate education into medical school and residency training, focusing on how to persevere when times get tough. “While the journey to becoming a female surgeon may have obstacles along the way, the end result makes it all worthwhile,” she said. She then touched on some highlights from her time in training, including lifelong friendships she made and mentors she found along the way. She shared one of her favorite experiences of traveling to Guatemala as part of a surgical mission trip as a resident, which she has continued to do annually. 

A key benefit of the event was the valuable opportunity for high school and college students to connect with medical students and faculty. Hollinger shared that the speakers generated such robust interest that students formed lines to ask each presenter questions afterward. Many more have since contacted MUSC faculty members expressing interest in shadowing opportunities. 

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