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Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech: Dr. Christine Limonte Of The University of Washington On The 5 Leadership Lessons She Learned From Her Experience

An Interview With Penny Bauder

Limonte-Christine

"If you are feeling unmotivated or overwhelmed by a task, just plan to work on it for 5 minutes. As you get “in the zone,” 5 minutes will become 10 minutes will become 20 minutes and so on." ~ Christine Limonte, MD


Christine P. Limonte heralds from Miami, Florida. She attended college at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, where she obtained a Bachelor of Science degree in Neuroscience. Afterwards, she attended the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where she received her medical degree. After completing Internal Medicine residency at the McGaw Medical Center of Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois, she moved to Seattle, Washington, for her Nephrology Fellowship at the University of Washington, where she remains today as a Clinical Research Fellow. Her research focus is diabetic kidney disease and precision medicine. Throughout her clinical and research training, she has received numerous awards and recognition for research and clinical presentations. She was recently awarded the American Kidney Fund’s Clinical Scientist in Nephrology Fellowship Award, which supports her research.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I was drawn to Nephrology while in medical school. I was absolutely fascinated by the physiology of the kidney and was struck by how so many people in the country are affected by kidney disease. Kidney injury is very common in the hospital setting, and kidney disease as a chronic illness affects almost every aspect of people’s lives. Going into Nephrology means helping care for some of the sickest people in the hospital, but also establishing years-long relationships with your patients as you help them navigate life with chronic kidney disease.

I was inspired to pursue a research career as a way of delving more deeply into scientific questions with the goal of bettering people’s lives on a larger scale. Specifically, I am interested in better understanding the mechanisms underlying diabetic kidney disease (diabetes is one of the most common causes of kidney disease) and answering questions such as: why do some people with diabetes get kidney disease and why not others? Can we predict who is at risk for kidney disease? Do some treatments for diabetic kidney disease work better in some people versus others? This falls under the umbrella of “precision medicine,” the goal of which is to target risk assessment and treatment to the individual.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

It’s hard to pick out any one story from my few years in research training. I’d say what has overall been notable about my experience is how different it is from most of what I’ve done during my medical training. The bulk of my day is spent thinking up new study ideas, organizing projects, analyzing data, or writing — many of these skills were new to me, and the learning curve has been steep. It’s given me a lot of appreciation for and insight into the “scientific process,” in particular the number of people and the amount of brainpower it takes to bring an idea from start to finish.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I don’t know about “funniest” mistake, but I’ve definitely made tons of “neutral” mistakes! I remember during my first few weeks of my research fellowship I was asked to write a proposal for a study. I had never seen (let alone written) a study proposal before, and my first draft was awful and far from what I was actually supposed to do. That experience taught me not to be afraid to ask for help or guidance, especially with an unfamiliar task.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

The University of Washington’s Division of Nephrology and Kidney Research Institute are truly leaders in the delivery of patient care and in research. Our division is large and multifaceted, and contains national experts on kidney disease management as well as physician-scientists and investigators who are leading important studies designed to answer impactful questions about kidney disease. It has been a privilege to learn and work amongst so many incredible people, all who are united under the goal of improving the lives of people with kidney disease.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Yes! One project I am very excited about involves using eye images to predict kidney disease in diabetes. Diabetes affects the small blood vessels of organs throughout the body — these include the kidney and eye. Research has shown that people with eye disease related to diabetes are at greater risk for developing kidney disease. The only way to confirm someone has diabetic kidney disease is by doing a kidney biopsy. My research involves looking at associations between eye imaging and kidney biopsy features in people with diabetes with the goal of better understanding the disease mechanisms that are common to both eye and kidney pathology in this population. I was recently awarded a Clinical Scientist in Nephrology fellowship from the American Kidney Fund (AKF), to support this work. In the long-term, I hope my research will be able to contribute to a future where we can diagnose diabetic kidney disease by performing eye imaging and conducting blood or urine tests instead of having to do a kidney biopsy. Diabetes is very common, and about 30% of people with diabetes end up developing kidney disease. Thus, any measures we can take to facilitate risk assessment and diagnosis of diabetic kidney disease have the potential to improve the lives of millions of people.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

Absolutely not satisfied. Despite an increasing number of women pursuing careers in the medical field, stark inequities remain with respect to salary and promotion. These inequities are pervasive across major academic medical centers — a New England Journal of Medicine article published last year described persistent gender disparities in promotions to associate and full professor positions, as well as in appointments to leadership and administrative positions. Strikingly, these inequities have remained unchanged or worsened over the last 35 years. What good is building a “pipeline” of women in medicine and research (a current goal of many institutions) if this is not accompanied by legitimate opportunities for career advancement? It is particularly in these high-ranking positions where women are most likely to inspire and influence the culture. The specific factors underlying these disparities are myriad and complex — ranging from overt discrimination women face in the workplace when having children to the more subtle establishment of a group dynamic where women do not feel as though they belong. Women researchers have disproportionately been affected during the Covid-19 pandemic, submitting and publishing less manuscripts, which will likely further impede opportunities for career advancement. I believe it is essential to identify and address the underlying issues that contribute to these disparities at the institutional level in order to enact positive change.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

Implicit gender bias harms women and perpetuates misconceptions such as “men are better leaders than women” or “women aren’t as good at science and math as men.” To seem comparable to a man in STEM roles, a woman may need to demonstrate greater competence. Also, the “softer” skills (caregiving, demonstrating empathy, working well a team) that tend to be associated with women sometimes carry unfavorable connotations, and are seen to lie in opposition to the “strength” that should be held by a good leader. Increasing awareness of implicit gender bias, ameliorating structures that perpetuate these biases, and valuing the myriad of skills women contribute to their team (without gendering these skills) are just a few of the many steps needed to address the challenges faced by women in STEM.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?

One myth I’d like to dispel about STEM is that some people are “naturals” at it. STEM careers are challenging and pursuing them takes time, effort, and dedication. Struggling with scientific and analytic concepts is part of the learning process.

Another myth I’d like to dispel is that STEM careers are not “creative.” Impactful research studies reflect a synthesis of personal curiosity and observation that expands on existing scientific discoveries. Research, as a dissection or analysis of the world, is very much a form of putting something new into the world.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

I’m not sure if these count as “leadership lessons,” but I do have some practical suggestions for staying motivated, organized, and productive that I’ve heard from mentors and friends. I’m sure these are tips you’ve heard before, but I find them helpful!

A mentor of mine suggested coming up with a “vision statement” summarizing your big-picture, long-term research or career goal. Refer back to the goal often — for example, when planning new projects or taking on new tasks (how will these help you reach the goal?) or when feeling demoralized (a reminder of why you are doing what you are doing).

Break down bigger projects into 2–3 tasks a day that you can reasonably accomplish. If you give yourself more to-do’s than you can handle, you’ll just get overwhelmed.

If you are feeling unmotivated or overwhelmed by a task, just plan to work on it for 5 minutes. As you get “in the zone,” 5 minutes will become 10 minutes will become 20 minutes and so on.

If something will take less than 10 minutes to do (say, an e-mail you’ve been putting off sending), just do it.

Learn when to say “no.” Recognizing when you do not have the bandwidth (time-wise, mentally, physically) to take on a new project or task will keep you focused and prevent you from feeling overwhelmed.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

I think it is important to remember that everyone on the team is united by the same goal of bringing a project to fruition. Recognizing the skill sets of team members, setting clear and attainable goals, and celebrating milestones is key. I would also recommend seeking regular feedback and being open to changing direction to make the team/project run more smoothly.

What advice would you give to other women leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

I wouldn’t say I’m currently in a position where I manage large teams, but I have learned plenty from the team-based projects I’ve helped lead. I’ve learned that good notetaking, setting deadlines, and assigning clear tasks helps large projects with a lot of moving parts run more effectively. Regular meetings help keep everyone motivated and on-task. Reminding the team of the underlying mission of the work is key for morale.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I am tremendously grateful for the guidance and support of all my research mentors at the University of Washington, especially that of my primary research mentor, Ian de Boer. Ian is a Nephrology physician-scientist at the University of Washington with a research focus on diabetic kidney disease. Ian was brave to take me on as a mentee with little research experience under my belt. In addition to being a brilliant and insightful researcher, Ian is patient, supportive, and an excellent teacher. During our weekly meetings, he provides helpful guidance and critical feedback on the various projects I am working on. I’ve come to appreciate how important a strong and effective mentoring relationship is to developing a research-driven career — I definitely would not have any of the success I’ve had until now without the support of Ian or my other mentors.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

My parents are Cuban immigrants. I appreciate what my parents have sacrificed and the struggles of the largely Hispanic community in which I grew up. I hope my background lends me perspective which will help me better listen to and address the needs of my patients. I hope this perspective helps me maintain focus in my research, inspiring me to pursue research directions that are in line with my specialty’s common goal of wanting to improve the lives of people with kidney disease. This is the “goodness” I hope to bring.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

Increasing awareness of kidney disease and promoting measures that will lead to early identification and treatment of kidney disease and its risk factors has the potential to improve the lives of millions of people. According to a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, more than 1 in 7 adults in the United States have chronic kidney disease — that’s about 37 million people! As kidney disease doesn’t usually cause symptoms until later stages of disease, many people with chronic kidney disease may not even know they have chronic kidney disease. The most common causes of chronic kidney disease in the United States are diabetes and high blood pressure. Early diagnosis and adequate treatment of these conditions may drastically reduce one’s chance of developing chronic kidney disease and kidney failure. The onus here is on public systems and policies that limit access to health care and that perpetuate inequities which place specific populations at risk for worse outcomes. The burden of chronic kidney disease is disproportionately higher in Black and Hispanic populations compared to White populations. Addressing the high prevalence and incidence of chronic kidney disease means addressing the systemic discrimination that affects social determinants of health and contributes to healthcare inequities. Specifically, this means supporting policies that are designed to improve health care access and quality, increase affordability of medications, and enhance environmental safety, economic stability, and quality of education.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

In her novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula Le Guin writes: “To learn which questions are unanswerable, and not to answer them: this skill is most needful in times of stress and darkness.”

To me, this quote is about composure, practicality, and focus. The last year and a half have been full of uncertainty — quelling anxiety arising from this by focusing on the present, the actionable, and accepting that there are things that we can’t and won’t know has been important for my peace of mind. From the perspective of a researcher, it is also of course important to know the right questions to ask.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Lately, I’ve been listening to this great podcast called “No Stupid Questions,” co-hosted by Angela Duckworth, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research pertains to the psychology of “grit” and “perseverance.” As I’ve started along the research path, I’ve started to think about the rewards and sacrifices of pursuing a career in academia. I would love to meet Angela and pick her brain.

 

WRITTEN BY
Penny Bauder
Environmental scientist-turned-entrepreneur, Founder of Green Kid Crafts
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