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Faculty Focus

Joyce DeLeo, Ph.D.: Super-mentor
By Laura Stephenson Carter

Being an internationally known expert in the neuroimmunology of pain, the director of Dartmouth's Neuroscience Center, and a professor of anesthesiology and of pharmacology keeps Joyce DeLeo, Ph.D., pretty busy. But she has managed to achieve what eludes many busy people—balance in her life. As a result, the thing she is most passionate about is helping other young researchers learn how to be successful in their careers while maintaining balance in their own lives.

She wants to share "what I've learned . . . what mistakes I've made, what things went well." She encourages people to seek out her help, as well as the help of other people established in their careers, and ask questions such as: "What do you do day-to-day?" "What are your suggestions for me?" "How do you like your position?"

DeLeo would have benefited from advice like that back when she was a student. Instead, she struggled along on her own, sometimes feeling overwhelmed but somehow managing to overcome the obstacles that presented themselves. "I look back, and there were times I just cried because the plumbing wasn't working in my apartment," she says of a time when she was a Fulbright Scholar at the Max Planck Institute for Psychiatry in Martinsried, West Germany. Her command of the German language was poor. She was nervous and scared. "I wondered, 'What am I doing in this country?'" Now, at least, she can laugh about it and says, "It was one of the best things I've ever done."

A researcher who focuses on the neuroimmunology of chronic pain, DeLeo has often found herself in stressful situations. But now she realizes that working outside what she calls her "comfort zone" has helped her to grow professionally and personally. Every difficult scenario has turned into something wonderful.

She felt lost when she was doing her graduate work in Germany— but her Ph.D. advisor coaxed her out of her introvertedness and she met the man who was to become her husband, Mark Splaine, M.D., a DMS graduate and now a fellow faculty member. She was scared to death as a graduate student the first time she had to speak in public— and now she loves doing so. She was a little rattled when she took on the job of being a grant reviewer on a National Institutes of Health study section—and now she enjoys the activity and encourages others to try it. And she was worried, in 2001, that she would feel overwhelmed by the workload when she was the first Dartmouth faculty member chosen as a fellow in Drexel University's Executive Leadership in Academic Medicine (ELAM) program—but though it was a lot of work, it was a great experience, she says.

The ELAM program "was really the type of learning where you're forced to do things," she says. "I had to interview all the key officials here at Dartmouth in order to write a very large paper about the culture of Dartmouth. We had to read many books. It was a constant— almost every week, we had to do something." But, she says, the program helped her to become a better mentor. ELAM is also "like a life-long mentoring program" for its participants, she adds. "The people that I met there have continued to mentor each other. I look for ways to mentor. I think more of us should do that."

Joyce DeLeo "certainly is brilliant and super and a woman," says M.D.-Ph.D. student Katie Chatfield, but she's "not some kind of crazy-ambitious-brilliant-superwoman type."

Although DeLeo was mentoring others even before she participated in the ELAM program, she only came to realize how much mentoring meant to her about five years ago. At the time, she was struggling to find balance in her life. She was exhausted by juggling a career and a family with two young children, and she constantly felt as if she was shortchanging either her job or her family. So she took a workshop based on Dr. Stephen Covey's book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

"I would say that that was a real life changer for me," she says. The workshop helped her to define what was most important to her—her family and helping people. And she was helping people. She knew that her research might one day lead to therapies for patients with neuropathic or other types of pain. And she knew that her mentoring of students would help them to become successful in their careers.

They "bring such energy and such great ideas to the group that for me I can clearly say that's the highlight of my career," she says. "It's funny when I talk to my kids. They get very attached to my graduate students—they get attached to everyone in the lab—and they say, 'Mom, how come everybody leaves your lab?'" DeLeo laughs. "I'll say, 'They're supposed to. We just launch them and I still keep in contact with everyone, which is great.'"

One of the students she launched is bioengineer Beth Winkelstein, Ph.D., now an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Winkelstein, a postdoctoral fellow for two and a half years in DeLeo's lab, investigated the role of injury biomechanics in low-back pain. "I wanted to immerse myself in learning neuroimmunology of pain, but also maintain my own engineering interests," says Winkelstein. "Joyce was incredibly open to that, whereas other postdoc mentors I had interviewed with were more interested in having another pair of hands. Joyce provided strong mentorship for me in many scientific areas, ranging from didactic training, grant writing—I was awarded two NIH grants while in her lab, classroom teaching, and management of students in the laboratory."

Winkelstein and DeLeo still stay in touch and talk about "ongoing projects, planned research, scientific hypotheses, advice about managing a laboratory of graduate and undergraduate students, and of course," adds Winkelstein, "our families and personal lives."

DeLeo's current students and postdocs are as enthusiastic as her former ones about working with "one of the world experts in the neuroimmunology of pain," says Michael LaCroix Fralisch, a second- year Ph.D. student in pharmacology who is researching sex differences in pain. When he proposed that topic to DeLeo, she encouraged him to pursue it. "She's really excited about the ideas we bring forward," he says. "She's helped me focus my research. She's a good mentor."

DeLeo has also helped international students to develop their talents as well as to feel comfortable in a new culture. "First I was very worried. It's a new culture and new environment for me," says Raghavendra Vasudeva, Ph.D., a postdoc from India who is trained in pharmacology and immunology and has research interests in neuroimmunology, chronic pain, and immune response to chronic pain. But DeLeo's advice on how to design studies and apply for grants, as well her counsel on more personal matters, has helped Vasudeva to feel at home in the United States. He has even published four papers and two book chapters with her. "She's a great boss," he says.

DeLeo not only talks projects through with students but sometimes even pitches in. "She will help with experiments—she'll put on a lab coat and help," says M.D.-Ph.D. student Vivianne Tawfik. Tawfik is impressed that although DeLeo "has a lot going on—family, Neuroscience Center director, scientist—she manages to do it all well."

But DeLeo is the first to point out that she is no superwoman. She works hard to achieve balance in her life, and she is eager to help others learn how to do that, too.

Joyce DeLeo runs a research lab and directs Dartmouth's Neuroscience Center, but it's the mentoring of young scientists that she feels is ultimately her most important role.
Photograph by Mark Austin-Washburn

"She is so successful and still so normal," says Katie Chatfield, Ph.D., an M.D.-Ph.D. student who organized a seminar series on women in science and medicine to help young women identify role models. "By 'normal' I mean that she is someone I can really relate to, not some kind of crazy-ambitious-brilliant-superwoman type. She certainly is brilliant and super and a woman, but one you aren't afraid of as you are thinking to yourself, 'I can't be this kind of woman, so I must not have what it takes to be a woman in a leadership position.' Maybe it's because she seems so balanced, and that's what I'd like to have, balance between a rewarding career and a life."

With so many people singing DeLeo's praises, one wonders who her role models have been. "Definitely my parents," Deleo says. "My father was key inspiration—'If you like medicine, go for it.' He bought me a Gray's Anatomy book when I was in ninth grade, and I read it. He showed me an autopsy when I was in high school." Her father was a police officer and later a sheriff and a security officer.

"And then I had great teachers in high school," DeLeo goes on, "especially science teachers, really good role models. And . . . my boss when I was a research assistant treated me like a graduate student, which is what I like to do with my research assistants. Give them freedom, give them flexibility, have them think their own thoughts. And then my Ph.D. mentor in Germany—he's a wonderful person. Not only did he teach me about science, he taught me about life. I was pretty introverted as a young kid, even in college and when I got to Germany. He would say, 'What do you want to do?'" She would reply, she recalls, "'I don't know.' And he would say, 'Joyce what do you mean you don't know what you want to do? Tell me what you want to do.' He brought out a part of me. . . . He cared for me more than just 'Okay, be productive.'"

Her mentors have also included, DeLeo adds, "people here: Bill Hickey and Ethan Dmitrovsky. Jim Weinstein—he's the one that got me interested in low-back pain. There are wonderful mentors here." In fact, when she is sought out by young women, she tells them, "Don't just look for a woman mentor. Men are great. They are so super. And they become colleagues and friends. I think a lot of times women are maybe reluctant to have male mentors. I don't know why. You need to have multiple mentors." She attributes much of her own success to the many mentors she's had.

She earned her Ph.D in pharmacology from the University of Oklahoma, did postdoctoral research fellowships in neuroscience and anesthesiology at Harvard, and joined the DMS faculty in 1989. Her research has focused on the role of the immune system in acute and chronic pain; neuroimmune activation following nerve injury; and the role of inflammatory mechanisms in lumbar pain. She has more than 150 publications to her credit. She serves on the editorial board of the journal Spine, has been a reviewer for other journals, and is a member of a number of professional review committees.

But as accomplished as she is in her own career, she feels that mentoring other young scientists is one of the most important things she can do. "I feel like that's our role," she says, "it's really to help other young scientists, because I think that's where the future is."

Laura Carter is the associate editor of Dartmouth Medicine magazine.

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