Hail to the Chief: Dr. Lisa Knowlton

American Association for the Surgery of Trauma Associate Member Council

November 16, 2020

This article is part of a series of interviews with Stanford Surgery faculty who were, are, or will be presidents of surgical societies. Dr. Lisa Knowlton is an Assistant Professor of Surgery in the Division of General Surgery’s trauma and acute care surgery section and a member of the S-SPIRE Center faculty. She was elected Chair of the Associate Member Council of the American Association for the Surgery of Trauma (AAST) earlier this year.

Rachel Baker: You are the inaugural Chair of the Associate Members of AAST, what is that like? There's no blueprint, no one before you to give you advice. I feel like that would be both freeing and terrifying. 

Lisa Knowlton: Standing up a new group within an incredible organization like AAST has been exciting and challenging. It is such an honor to lead a talented and diverse group of trainees and junior faculty. I work with an incredibly motivated Executive Council; we push each other to think big while maintaining focus on our members. We also receive excellent guidance and mentorship from the broader AAST leadership, so our work feels like a true partnership. The fact that there is no blueprint is an opportunity to create an agenda that is highly relevant to our associate members, while adding value to the broader AAST community.

RB: How did you become Chair? Are you elected by the members? Did you campaign? (How was this even decided?)

LK: Associate Members were allowed to self-nominate and asked to submit a short essay regarding what they hoped to accomplish in their respective positions. There was a “live election” webinar where each candidate campaigned and members of the AAST executive, as well as Associate Members, voted.

RB: What do you hope to accomplish during your term? How do your goals align and diverge from the overall societies? 

LK: Throughout my training, I received outstanding research and scholarship support, as well as mentorship, from the broader AAST community. My goal in applying for Chair was to actively pay it forward and give back to AAST members-in-training by sharing what I learned. I see no better way to do this than to work with the AAST to strengthen research, scholarship and education programs for residents and junior faculty. We are accomplishing this through our efforts to set up dedicated Associate Member workshops and a paired mentorship program. Identifying a pipeline of mentors and mentees with a process to effectively match them is one of my personal priorities. Our Associate Membership Council is very engaged with the broader AAST, so our missions are well-aligned.

RB: Why do you think it's important for there to be an "associate members" category in the AAST? Would you recommend it to other surgical societies? 

LK: Having a distinct “associate membership” of the AAST primarily helps to serve the specific needs of trainees (residents, fellows) and junior faculty and is a great way to increase engagement early in their career. As these junior members consider fellowships, search for their first faculty position, explore research opportunities, and begin their careers, it is important for them to have a Council focused on serving their needs. We are working hard to create a dedicated educational and mentorship curriculum for junior members, as well as providing them with an opportunity to take on early leadership roles in broader AAST committees.  

There are actually a number of other surgical societies, including the American College of Surgeons and EAST, who already have dedicated junior membership programs, and we continue to learn from and build on their positive experiences.

RB: Women in leadership roles are limited in number, particularly in surgery. What advice would you give other women who aspire to take them on.

LK: Very true! My first piece of advice is to take the daunting step of volunteering for roles where your voice will be heard, whether that’s a small leadership role or a high profile one. Build off that experience and continue to grow. Find mentors who not only offer advice but push you to grow and take managed risks. I am fortunate to have found a number of incredible female mentors and role models in surgery, and those relationships have pushed me to find my voice and add value to our community. Finally, I think it’s important for women to surround themselves with successful people who are in positions that you aspire to be in but especially people who are very supportive, and to take every opportunity to learn from them.

RB: How do you manage to take on a leadership role in addition to being a surgeon and a researcher and manage to have a life outside medicine?

LK: Finding ways of balancing clinical work, research, leadership activities and family is a constant struggle. Needless to say, life is very busy! I try to continuously check in with myself to re-evaluate my career and personal priorities, and it helps that I have a supportive family. Also, a leader is only as good as his/her team and I already mentioned that my other Associate Member Council members are incredibly hard-working and driven. Being organized and keeping in touch with personal priorities are critical to finding some balance in our demanding profession.