In this edition, Georgette Dent, MD, talks about pathology, public service, and the power of education.
Where did you grow up? What was your childhood like?
I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, but in December 1969, my dad had a midlife crisis and moved my mom, sister, brother, and me to North Carolina. My parents had roots in North Carolina before moving north; they were part of the Great Migration of African Americans who left the South after World War II.
Moving from Brooklyn to North Carolina was a bit of a culture shock, but I think I’ve benefited from having two vastly different perspectives. Unlike my siblings (who never quite forgave Daddy for moving us), I’ve grown to love it here − especially the natural beauty. It’s an incredibly diverse geography: We have the mountains and the coast, and we’re the northernmost point for some species of plants and animals and the southernmost point for others. I was 13 when we moved, and I haven’t left since!
What was your first job?
When I was 16 years old, I worked at the Hudson Belk department store in Raleigh. I was part of the team that opened the store and continued working in the crafts department during summer and winter breaks until I graduated from medical school at Duke University. Working in retail taught me some valuable lessons about customer service, working with different personalities, and calming people down when they are upset.
When did you know you wanted to go into medicine? Was there another career you could see yourself in?
I come from a long line of educators (in fact, there’s a building named for one of my ancestors at North Carolina Central University). My mom and step-grandma are both schoolteachers, so I grew up assuming I would be one, too. I had a natural interest in the subjects my mom taught (social sciences and history), but when I was selected to spend a summer studying social sciences in Winston-Salem as part of the Governor’s School of North Carolina, I found that I was more interested in what the students in the basic sciences were doing! The experience changed my perspective, and I decided to go to medical school.
From then, when did you decide to focus in hematology, and specifically hematopathology?
I majored in zoology as an undergrad at Duke and I initially wanted to study psychiatry in medical school because it seemed like a good mix of biological and social sciences. When I got to medical school, though, I discovered that I hated psychiatry. Many of the patients were depressed and that made me depressed.
Back then, women in medical school were encouraged to go into one of the “three Ps:” pediatrics, pathology, or psychiatry. I had ruled out psychiatry and had considered pediatrics, but I developed an interest in cancer and thought that pathology would be a good way to get involved in the field because pathologists spend much of their time discerning what is cancer and what isn’t. In 1985, a hematopathology fellowship opportunity became available here at the University of North Carolina (UNC). I interviewed, was accepted, and never looked back.
Dennis Ross, MD, PhD, and Stuart Bentley, MD, PhD, both now retired, were the directors of the hematopathology program when I began my fellowship. They both had a passion for science and education and were supportive of me early in my career when it mattered most. They are one of the reasons I’ve been at UNC for so long. Another important mentor was the Chair of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine when I started here, Joe Grisham, MD.
While I am a practicing hematopathologist, I am primarily an educator. I never aspired to be a dean of student affairs, but as someone who is passionate about higher education and its ability to change lives and improve health care, this has been the perfect position for me. I get to work with students, encourage their research, get involved in global health, pursue public health, and do so many things that can improve health care and the world we live in.
What career accomplishment are you most proud of?
I’m proud of the fact that our school has one of the largest MD/MPH programs in the country. Also, last year, our hospital’s epidemiology department presented me with a “Friend of Epidemiology” award, which meant a lot to me as someone who is a big believer in the power of public health, behavioral change, and epidemiology. If I could do it over again, I probably would have also gone to UNC’s School of Public Health.
Have you had any major disappointments in your career, and how have you handled them?
My experience has been that situations that look like disappointments are often, in hindsight, opportunities for something better.
For example, when I was finishing my residency at Duke, my dad was having some health issues and my mom wasn’t getting any younger. I didn’t want to leave North Carolina because, as the oldest sibling, I felt like I needed to stay close to home to help my parents. I considered a fellowship opportunity at Duke, but it ended up not working out. It certainly seemed like a setback at the time; I wasn’t sure how I would advance my career and be able to help my family.
“I love the idea that I am nurturing the next generation of … physicians, scientists, public health workers, global health experts, and biotech entrepreneurs. I’m counting on them to make the world a better place.”
However, because it didn’t work out, I ended up coming to UNC and becoming a hematopathologist, which has turned out to be the best thing that could’ve happened to me.
What lessons do you try to instill in your students?
I think it’s important for students to learn to be true to their passions. One of the wonderful things about medicine as a career is its diversity. If you’re passionate about writing and medicine, you can pursue that. If you’re passionate about public health and medicine, there’s a pathway for you. If you’re passionate about science and medicine, there are many wonderful opportunities. If you’re passionate about computer science and bioinformatics, we need people like you. My standard approach is to try to get to the root of what is driving my students, because I think that individuals who follow their passions will have the most satisfying careers.
Once we figure that out, I ask, “Where would you like to be in 5 or 10 years?” Some of the challenges that students are facing seem like a huge deal right now, but won’t matter in the long term, so I ask them to consider the endgame. Then we can talk about how to get them there.
What do you love most about being an educator? And least?
I love the idea that I am nurturing the next generation of learners, educators, physicians, scientists, public health workers, global health experts, and biotech entrepreneurs. I’m counting on them to make the world a better place. Talking with students is the best part of my day.
I’ve also appreciated working in a public medical school at a public university. I have much respect for private institutions, but I appreciate the ethos of public service. I feel that the best way I can serve the public is by training the best and most diverse physicians. When I say “diverse,” I’m not just referring to demographics; I’m talking about diversity of interests. In the future, we’re going to need physicians with a range of interests and expertise to have a positive impact.
Of course, as an administrator and Associate Dean for Student Affairs at a large organization, I have to handle frustrating bureaucratic challenges. We need guidelines, rules, and processes to avoid chaos, but it can be challenging when I’m also responsible for imposing some of this on my students.
Tell us about your life outside of medicine. What do you do in your off-hours?
A physician gave me a wonderful piece of advice when I turned 40: “After age 40, you must work to be healthy.” So, I’ve been going to the gym every morning since then – even though I’m kind of a klutz and have no athletic ability. I also practice yoga, for the stretching and the strength as well as the stress relief. My job can be stressful, and I have found that yoga and practices like mindfulness meditation help alleviate that. When I was younger, I knitted, sewed, and crocheted – which is why I liked working in the Belk’s craft department. I still consider these my hobbies, although I don’t indulge in them as much as I did before I became a dean.
I don’t have children, but I have a niece who lived with me from kindergarten to high school, so I do feel like she’s my kid. She lives in Los Angeles – too far away – and is expecting a baby. I visit her occasionally, and, of course, I’ll visit her after the baby is born.
I have a partner who lives in New Hampshire, so we have a long-distance relationship. He’s kind of a workaholic, and I’m kind of a workaholic, so this relationship works well for us. We see each other periodically and meet up in fun places throughout the year. Last summer, I spent several weekends in New Hampshire as a “political tourist,” though I only realized that’s what it was called after I did it. I heard Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Beto O’Rourke speak. We even managed to talk our way into the New Hampshire Democratic Convention!
What is one thing most people don’t know about you?
I am a member of the Baháʼí faith. Going to the Baháʼí Center in Durham to hear an inspirational presentation has become part of my “perfect Sunday.” Many people don’t know what the faith is and there aren’t many Baháʼís out there, so I’m sure most people I work with would be surprised to learn that about me.