A Science Role Model for Girls

The strong STEM education that orthopedic surgeon Erica Rowe Urquhart, MD, PhD, received has produced her passion for educating the younger generation and encouraging women to enter science and engineering.

There’s something special about “firsts.” A first date. Your first car. The first man to walk on the moon.

Last October, when orthopedic surgeon Erica Rowe Urquhart, MD, PhD, performed the first orthopedic surgery as part of the new “Live From… Orthopedic” program — a joint venture between Jersey City Medical Center and the Liberty Science Center — and became the first female surgeon featured in the long-running “Live From…” series, she was quick to deflect the attention away from herself.

“It’s nice, but I think it’s more important for the students who were involved to have that exposure — especially if there are girls at the science center watching the procedure — to have that exposure to a woman in the operating room,” Urquhart says.

The deflection is genuine, and not surprising given the path that Urquhart’s life and career have taken.

A product of the system

Urquhart says she chose medicine because she has always had an affinity for science. She also enjoys biology, understanding the pathophysiology of how things work, but she also really enjoys interacting with people. While doing her rotations as a medical student she discovered that she enjoys taking care of healthy people.

“One of the beauties of orthopedic surgery is that you really are able to have an impact on an individual’s life,” Urquhart explains. “For most of the things that we treat, these are generally healthy people that we’re taking care of who have functional limitations. So, it’s very gratifying to be an orthopedic surgeon, because nine times out of 10 your patients actually get better. And so, you know, that just makes it very fulfilling as a career.”

Urquhart is a product of what she refers to as a very powerful Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education. She participated in a Math, Science, Computer Magnet Program while growing up in California, calling it a “wonderful, gifted education,” that afforded her many exposure opportunities. As such, she says it’s not surprising that — based on the quality of her education — she would end up becoming a physician.

However, she’s concerned over the changes taking place in the field of education today.

“A lot of our students are just sort of being shuttled along with exposure to these fields but not necessarily encouragement to pursue these types of fields,” Urquhart says. “And so that’s sort of a passion for me because I know it was [the STEM education] I had that allowed me to even consider majoring in engineering in college and going on to medical school to become a physician. That’s sort of how the relationship began for me with Liberty Science Center. I just feel that that it’s something very important for me to do.”

Leading the orchestra

Urquhart likens her role as an orthopedic surgeon to that of the conductor of an orchestra, setting the tone.

“And for the types of surgery that we do, the joint replacement, it’s kind of like a dance,” she says. “You know exactly how things are supposed to go. There’s a sequence. For girls to have the opportunity to see a woman directing, I hope that’s inspiring for them.”

Urquhart performed the first orthopedic surgery in the “Live From…” program on Oct. 2, 2012, in an operating room at Jersey City Medical Center that has been specially outfitted with technology allowing her and her staff to speak with the students watching from Liberty Science Center’s Interactive Theatre.

“It was much more fun than I thought it was going to be,” she explains. “Usually when we do procedures, we’re trying to make things go pretty quickly, and that’s for a number of reasons. But with the understanding that this is for educational purposes as well as for the purpose of taking care of the patient, we arranged things so that we could slow down a little bit.”

Addressing challenges

Urquhart, who trained as an orthopedic surgery resident at The Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan and holds both her MD and PhD degrees from The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, is also a member of the Liberty Science Center Women’s Leadership Council. The council was formed to engage women in the community, as well as sponsor students for a summer internship program that the center coordinates called Partners in Science.

“What we’re doing right now is helping to pair members of the Women’s Leadership Program with the Partners in Science female students; to provide networking and mentorship opportunities to those students as they begin to apply to colleges and look at, we hope, science and engineering,” she explains.

It’s a challenging task, but Urquhart is familiar with challenges. She and her husband, Marc W. Urquhart, MD, FACS, are in private practice in northern New Jersey. However, the trends in terms of reimbursement and patient referral are toward larger groups.

“It’s not as easy as it used to be — just sort of hanging your shingle and announcing that you’re there,” Urquhart explains.

Strictly from an orthopedic surgery standpoint, the challenges are that a lot of orthopedic injuries require emergency room care, Urquhart says. However, she and her husband are beginning to see is that it’s very difficult for those patients who are uninsured or underinsured to get that follow-up care after they’ve been seen in the emergency room.

“So that’s another challenge — really being able to provide the care that you would like to within the confines of the metamorphosis of health care in the United States,” she says.

Wouldn’t change a thing

Urquhart says the most rewarding aspect of the work she does centers on the patient care she provides. She knows that as an orthopedic surgeon she doesn’t build long-term relationships with patients, referring to the interaction she has with patients as more of a snapshot. Still, she looks to maximize the time she does have.

“To make a change in someone’s life by doing a surgical procedure that’s going to take care of a problem that they have, or by giving them insight into some of the lifestyle modifications that they can make that might facilitate them getting over the limitations that they have, that’s just amazing to watch.”