Women in Medicine Month Spotlight: Dr. April Hatcher

April Hatcher, PhD, is an associate professor in the University of Kentucky College of Medicine Department of Neuroscience and was recently named chair of Women in Medicine and Science (WIMS), an organization facilitating networking and mentorship opportunities to support career advancement for women.

Dr. Hatcher teaches gross anatomy, histology, and embryology to a variety of student groups. Her scholarly interests include innovative approaches in classroom instruction, development of anatomy educators, transparency in higher education, and incorporating the humanities into anatomy education.

September is Women in Medicine Month. To commemorate the achievements of women in the medical field, Dr. Hatcher shares her answers to questions about her new role with WIMS and what she hopes to achieve in advancing women in medicine.

What is your new role at WIMS?

My new role is chair of WIMS. I began this new role on July 1, 2020. I have been an active member of WIMS since 2016, when I first became involved as a member of the mentoring subcommittee. I later became co-chair of the bylaws committee in 2017, and more recently co-chair of the program committee since February 2018. In these roles, I have been fortunate to have an opportunity to help define the organizational structure and guiding principles for support to women in medicine and science. As co-chair of the program committee, I was involved (along with my co-chair Dr. Meera Gupta) in planning a variety of college-wide faculty development sessions, ranging from emotional intelligence and understanding generational differences in the workplace to composing a teaching philosophy and practices for well-being. One of the highlights of this role was planning the WIMS annual visiting professor day each fall, when a renowned woman in medicine and science is invited to share her insights and participate in a day of keynote addresses and workshop sessions.

What do you want to achieve through this new position?

As chair of WIMS, I hope to add to the culture of support and interconnectedness among female faculty in the College of Medicine and beyond. I envision a network of support for personal development in addition to career development. I want to see an increase in WIMS membership, opportunities for interactions, and an understanding that this is a source of support for women at all stages of their careers and in all walks of life. I want to ignite a sense of connection among the faculty, students, and trainees, such that they know they have support, stimulus for growth, and respite if needed, and to look for ways to pass it on to the next person.

Why did you pursue neuroscience and education?

I knew from an early age I wanted to teach. I would also say I knew early on I wanted to teach the incredibly fascinating discipline of human anatomy, a foundational discipline for health care careers. I am so fortunate to love what I do, and to spend each day at an intersection of so many influential people and careers. I love that I can teach future health care providers, collaborate with faculty on projects, and be a part of an organization that supports women and the next generation of leaders.

How has medicine and medical education changed for women since you began your career?

Since I began as an educator 12 years ago, I have been fortunate to witness the voice of women elevated in this profession. There is more opportunity and transparency for identifying qualified women to step up into prominent academic roles. I feel efforts for leveling the playing field between men and women have been intentional, and in so doing, women have more seats at the table, where vital discussions for ensuring a cultural change occur.

What still needs to be accomplished?

I feel that a true partnership for women is still needed. I truly believe we are making significant progress in supporting women in their careers and workplace, but in order for this support to be universal, grounded, and most impactful, we need to cultivate relationships with individuals who not only support the advancement of women in word, but in everyday action. Take note if a woman is overlooked in a meeting, and make a point to reclaim her thought. Take note the next time a woman is not addressed by her title on the heels of a proper introduction of a male colleague. We must recognize the small steps toward change, yet encourage longer strides.

What have been some of your proudest moments in your career, both as a professor and as a neuroscientist?

Some of my proudest moments have come when a student has persevered and overcome a struggle academically. Once, a student sent me an email thanking me for my support on the first day of class when I said that I wanted them to succeed and would assist in whatever way I could to help make that happen. This student was taking the course for the last time possible, and their graduation was dependent on it. They had struggled significantly during past course offerings. However, this last time, the student took my words to heart, and throughout the semester they performed better on each exam, until they finished the course successfully. I didn’t realize their personal victory until they emailed a picture of themselves in their graduate gown posing with their family. They remarked they couldn’t have done it without my support and belief in their capabilities. This particular student warmed my heart. I didn’t know those words on the first day of class had such an impact. Rarely do we truly know the impact of our words, and I have tried to keep that lesson in mind ever since. I want to be an encouragement to my students, my colleagues, and friends.

Another impactful experience in my time as an educator was when I taught a student who was blind principles of human anatomy. When I first learned this student would be in my course, I was terrified, to be honest. I did not know how I was going to teach a highly visually discipline to someone who could not see. I received an award on behalf of this experience, the Breaking Down Barriers Faculty Award from the Disability Resource Center. As I reflect on this experience and the meaning of this award, I realize I had my own barriers to break down as well in order to effectively reach this student. I had to let go of my bias that anatomy must be seen in order to be known. I grew as an educator during this time, because it forced me out of my comfort zone, to think creatively in how to communicate anatomical concepts, and how to use more than pictures to convey one of the most amazing disciplines there is —the intricacies of the human body. We used raised-print line drawings of anatomy, wikki stixs for shaping anatomical structures, text–to-speech for exams, and kinesthetic approaches for capturing the essence of the human body through touch. This student excelled and went on to enroll in a graduate degree program. The Disability Resource Center was instrumental in equipping this student-teacher experience with the necessary support to succeed. I will never forget my doubt in the beginning of this journey, and how this prevailing emotion was replaced with gratitude for the life lessons this student taught me through her own perseverance.

I am also very proud of the graduate and health care professional students who have gone on to become successful faculty in academia. As director of the graduate certificate in anatomical sciences instruction, I have had the opportunity to train students as they prepare for faculty positions at other universities, and I am always so very proud of their accomplishments.

What are some ways you have paved the way for women in your field?

I have mentored several students and faculty in training throughout my time in academia. I have been fortunate to participate in their education of foundational concepts of human anatomy, but also in their development as a future academician. I have had the opportunity to share my own story of how I grew up in a small, rural town in southcentral Kentucky, completed my BA and PhD, and pursued a career in higher education. I strongly feel part of my calling has been to encourage those who may feel like they don’t belong in this culture of academia and related professional careers. I feel I have a special opportunity to provide that voice of support for students and colleagues that resonates with their sense of confidence and capabilities.