October 1, 2022
For Kerri M. Woodberry, MD, MBA, FACS—associate professor and chief of the Division of Plastic Surgery at West Virginia University in Morgantown—it all started with a childhood interest in jigsaw puzzles.
“Throughout my life, I’ve always had an interest in putting things back together. And that was probably my attraction to plastic surgery and hand surgery because I thought, ‘You have a broken bone or complex laceration or traumatic injury, and I have the visual acumen to see how those pieces should fit together,’” said Dr. Woodberry, the first Black woman to serve as chief of a division of academic plastic surgery in the US.
Dr. Woodberry attended medical school at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, MD. She stayed in Baltimore to complete her general surgery residency at Union Memorial Hospital, and then completed a plastic surgery residency at The Ohio State University in Columbus and a hand surgery fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
Dr. Woodberry’s clinical and research interests include hand surgery, hand tumors, hand trauma, breast reduction surgery, breast cancer reconstruction, medical education, and healthcare disparities.
In this Q&A profile, Dr. Woodberry discusses her trailblazing leadership role, Black representation in the House of Surgery, and what trainees should consider in their quest for strong mentorship.
When I did my internship year, the chair of surgery offered me a categorical spot to stay at Union Memorial and do general surgery. It was after taking the position that I found this out. In 1990, I did not expect to hear that they had never had a Black graduate from their surgery training program. However, I was not surprised that they had not had a Black woman graduate because, at that time, there were few women in surgery. I thought, “Wow, what if something happens to me, and for whatever reason, I’m not offered to continue in my residency?” Pyramid programs were common at that time, and progression in residency each year was not guaranteed. But I worked hard, and I knew that I was going to do above and beyond what was required to get through the program.
I try not to focus on the fact that I’m the first Black woman in my role, but instead, I focus on being good at what I do. I think when you are aware of being “the first” it can feel overwhelming, because you think people are watching you more carefully. Even when I was in residency, when people said they’d never had a Black woman go through the program, I didn’t want that to be the main focus. I just said, “I’m here to take care of patients. I want to do a great job at that and let my ethics and my quality of work speak for themselves.”
I think my interest in academic medicine stems from having two parents that taught at Tennessee State University—my dad taught chemistry and my mother taught nutritional sciences. So, I grew up basically on the university campus. I spent a lot of time in the chemistry lab, and I liked the fact that you could answer questions through experimentation. I also liked the impact that my parents had on the lives of so many students. Even when I traveled to other cities, I would run into their students and they would say, “Oh, you’re Professor Woodberry’s daughter!” I enjoy teaching and consider myself a lifelong learner.
The first thing is to find strong mentorship. Throughout my life, I’ve had people who have helped guide me. In terms of academics, particularly now, research is extremely important. Get involved with research as early as possible in your career so that you can continually develop skills and grow.
I think fellowship training is another thing that’s important. I did a hand fellowship and I think going into the academic setting it’s great to have an area of focus, particularly in a larger environment where you have so many people.
I love being able to give back, and that is one of the aspects of academics that I like because it’s not just about what you can get out of medicine, but what you can give. Giving to patients and giving to medical students and residents is something that I find very fulfilling.
I do a lot of mentoring. I think students sometimes shy away from asking for help and it’s important for them to recognize that people want to help. It’s okay to email someone just out of the blue and say, “I read your biography or your research article, or I heard about you and I’d like to get some advice.”
It’s also important to remember that sometimes your mentor does not look like you. I’ve had many mentors who have given me advice and have helped me along the way. Sometimes a person who looks like you may have a better understanding of your situation and what you’re going through—but that doesn’t mean that you’re limited to people who look like you for guidance.
Absolutely. I thought about that long and hard when I was in medical school because I knew that surgery, at that time, was a male-dominated field. I thought about whether or not I wanted to be in an environment for the rest of my life where I probably wouldn’t see women or people who look like me. I think my passion for what I was doing outweighed the thought that I would be in an isolating environment, and I was willing to make that sacrifice.
When I came here to West Virginia University as division chief, one of my concerns was whether I would feel isolated in this environment. And so, I helped to start a group called People of Color Forum, which brings together people across the university who may feel isolated to share their experiences. Sometimes you have to go out of your way to create a safe space in which you can talk about your experiences.
I would say that I am more of a democratic and servant leader. I look for everyone’s strengths and place them in roles to maximize their potential. Communication, collaboration, and equity also are important in my role as a leader. I try to look at things from the perspective of all team members to make decisions with the best interests of all involved. We have an amazing group of physicians, residents, and staff and I could not have asked for a better opportunity as a division chief.
Tony Peregrin is Managing Editor, Special Projects, Division of Integrated Communications, Chicago IL.