When Lauren Fontana, DO, was six years into her nursing career, she decided it was time to bet on herself and fulfill her dream of going to medical school.
“It was an evolution over time,” she explains. “I just kind of always had a desire to go to medical school, but it wasn’t until that point that I felt confident I could really do it.”
Although Dr. Fontana considered nurse practitioner school, she knew that what she really wanted was to be a doctor. Faced with stereotypes about age and societal expectations of women to be family caretakers, Dr. Fontana was scared to make the leap. Before applying to medical schools, she met with a premedical school counselor who told her that if there was any chance she would ever want children, medical school would not be a good choice.
“As someone who was growing into the idea of going to medical school, I had to become confident in my own decisions and that this was the right decision for me,” she recalls. “I had to emerge with a sense of confidence because there’s always going to be naysayers in life. I had to build enough confidence to say, ‘Yes, I want to do this regardless of what you tell me.’”
Today, Dr. Fontana is an infectious disease physician specializing in HIV medicine and transplant infectious diseases. In addition to her clinical work, Dr. Fontana is an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School and passionate about helping female physicians find their voice in medicine.
“I think there’s still a lot of gender biases that do exist, especially when it comes to leadership and promotions,” she says. “Being able to amplify the voices of female physicians and female leadership is really important.”
Dr. Fontana sees everyday the unique skills and perspectives that women bring to the physician role, including patient-centered communication, partner-style relationships with patients and an inherent desire to be inclusive.
“Of course, it’s not that our male counterparts don’t do those things, but I think that women really advocate for those qualities in medicine,” she explains. “There have been research studies to show that diversification in any field improves ideas and clinical outcomes.”
As an assistant professor and leader herself now, Dr. Fontana brings that empathy to the next generation of physicians, encouraging all trainees, but especially women, to find mentors that will be in their corner throughout their career and help them navigate the world of medicine.
“My approach is to be encouraging and try to really listen to what someone is expressing they’re interested in to try to foster that interest,” she says of her personal approach to mentoring. “I encourage women to share their experiences with each other and create professional and social networks of women to provide a support system.”
Dr. Fontana remembers just what it was like to be a woman considering medical school and worrying whether it was the right choice. Being on the other side as a practicing physician, she has a couple pieces of advice for females in that position.
“If this is a dream of yours, you should go for it,” she emphasizes. “Seek out mentorship early, and build your leadership skills early. And I think that the importance of male allies is underestimated a bit, especially when it comes to leadership. Find people you can learn from, and continue to build each other up.”