Life's choices

Balancing work and leisure

Radiologist Dr Myriam Hunink is a Professor in the Epidemiology and Biostatistics

Photo: Lifes choices

and the Radiology Departments at the Erasmus MC in the university medical centre, Rotterdam, the Netherlands, where she is also project leader for several research projects focused on radiology and epidemiology.
Among her achievements are a Fellowship in Cardiovascular and Interventional Radiology, at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, USA, and a professorship in Health Policy at Harvard School of Public Health, Boston
The Professor is married and has one teenage daughter. She and her husband, Marijn Franx, who is Professor of Astronomy at Leiden University, had posts at Harvard University before coming to the Netherlands. 
During a recent interview, Daniela Zimmermann asked why Professor Hunink decided to take up her current role in the Netherlands.
Prof. Hunink: The job at Harvard was a highly regarded and well paid position but, to me, these things are secondary issues. For me it’s more important to see what potential a position offers. Who will I work with? What are they offering apart from my own position? Can I combine radiology and epidemiology, will that work out? Those were questions I asked myself and, of course, it was a difficult choice! Here at Erasmus MC I have a 50:50 position: Half the time I’m working in the radiology department, the other half in the epidemiology department. That is what I wanted to do, because I feel that real innovative research occurs where disciplines merge. Most people are either radiologists or clinical epidemiologists, but not many combine those fields. Combing those two fields means assessment research of radiological technology (ART). One very nice example of that work is a randomised controlled trial that we completed recently where we compared CTA and MRA for patients with peripheral arterial disease. In our clinic we randomised patients across these two imaging tests as initial test in the workup of the patient.  After the initial test, additional imaging tests were sometimes necessary which could include the reference standard angiography. During follow-up we measured the number and type of additional imaging tests required, patients’ quality of life, and costs with the aim of deciding whether to use CTA or MRA as initial imaging test for this indication.  Apart from designing the trial and supervising the research, I also read the imaging studies as part of routine clinical practice. In this way I am able to merge my clinical work and my research into one effort.
You asked why I decided to come back to the Netherlands. Well, another issue is a question of mentality: In the United States there is a very strong focus on work, success, and wealth, whereas in the Netherlands people try to balance things more: make time for family and friends, sports, and hobbies; do the things you enjoy and enjoy the things you do.
 But I did not completely opt out; I still have an adjunct position at Harvard and teach summer courses every year, which is something I really enjoy doing! I feel that now I have the best of both worlds.
DZ: One opinion is that gaining a name in the medical community – maybe even more-so if you are a woman – is connected with living for your work and not caring about any work/life balance, but focusing on the struggle for position. In this case, you are a special case. How can you afford to take that attitude?
Enjoying life does not mean being unambitious, or not working hard. Of course I’m ambitious in my work and always have been, but ambition to me implies having a positive impact on the people around me, helping others, and improving health care. Becoming a professor was one goal I definitely wanted to reach, but not for financial reasons – I love doing research together with PhD students and I enjoy teaching. I don’t have to climb a career ladder anymore. For five years, I was chair of the research advisory committee of the whole organisation at Erasmus MC, which was interesting, but not my job. I am not interested in power, position, and money.
Reaching this attitude today was definitely a process. I had to learn to say no when I recognised that something does not feel good for me. For example, I rarely do any lecturing engagements and I always think twice before I participate in a project that I am not convinced about. And playing games of power just causes me migraine headaches, so I simply don’t do it anymore.

Then you are in an enviable position: You reached your goals and are satisfied with that situation. How did you manage it? Was good luck an element that led to your well-balanced life? Did you ever experience any gender bias?
For me, the door was always open. I have never experienced the fact that I am a woman as an issue and I’ve always been able to do whatever I wanted to do. When moving to the US and back, I always did that together with my husband and we managed to find jobs for both of us at the same time in the same place. So I never had to choose between my family and my own career. But that was not just luck; we did something to achieve that. Nothing came on a silver platter. It’s part of networking, saying the right thing at the right time, letting people know that you are ready to move. Finally, if you want to achieve something as a woman in academic medicine I would suggest:  Do it with humour, with a smile, stay centred, and most importantly: Be yourself!

30.10.2007

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