Donna Ferriero: Baby-Brain Specialist

First published June 2003

Donna Ferriero never planned to be a physician. But while in graduate school getting a PhD in immunology and biochemistry, she became interested in the medical aspects of a project she was working on and started interacting with patients. As a result she "became confused," dropped out of school and went to work as a research assistant at the Roche Institute. Two years later, she knew what she wanted to do. "For two years I was able to pay attention to pure research in a rigorous environment, and I decided that that wasn't enough for me."

Always fascinated by the brain and nervous system, Ferriero enrolled in medical school and decided that neurology was going to be her focus. "I was interested in doing community medicine, but I couldn't figure out how to be a community medicine neuroscientist."

By the fourth year of medical school her plans had become even more specific: she wanted to be a pediatric neurologist. "The reward in early treatment is in halting what could be a lifelong disorder. Also, you can't understand decay in the nervous system unless you understand its development."

Breathing Freely

At UCSF Children's Hospital, she has started the Neonatal Brain Disorders Center, which seeks to understand brain development and early brain damage while facilitating the translation of that research into new treatments. Ferriero's own work has been in understanding how the fetal or newborn brain responds to a lack of oxygen. "Everyone gets hypoxic when they are born, and most of us are normal. However, when babies experience 'birth' asphyxia, many actually have some problem that occurred in utero." In her laboratory, Ferriero investigates what causes neurons to die after a severe hypoxic challenge and how to predict when the damage will cause problems later in development.

Being a woman can make things even more difficult in medical school and residency, but Ferriero credits an unwitting coach. "I always thanked my father for being the hard-nose that he was," Ferriero says. "I haven't met many men who were more difficult."

Growing up in a traditional Italian American family in New Jersey meant that her father wondered why she even wanted to go to college and forbade her from leaving home. Luckily, Ferriero was within a bus ride of campus and could live at home while she attended. "My father just didn't get it, but by the time the fourth daughter applied to college, he did."

She remembers complaining in medical school about the treatment she sometimes received from faculty teachers and says she was "probably one of those obnoxious medical students." But it is important never to ignore an undercurrent of disapproval or harassment, Ferriero says, and there are now very effective avenues to deal with such matters. "When someone says something nasty you naturally tend to ask what you did to precipitate that remark, but you have to believe that what you are hearing is not your fault."

One of the challenges she faced was having her own children early and being a young mother through her residency. In addition to the extra demands of having children, she faced a not-so-subtle discrimination from her teachers. "I used to get asked if I planned to have more children, and I responded that I planned to finish the program," Ferriero says. "Those [feelings] still exist, even though people are now not allowed to ask if you have children or plan to have children."

The advice she gives now to female medical students who think about having children is to talk to a lot of people and to think about whether they can realistically handle the demands. "People have to do some soul searching about what is best to do," Ferriero says. "Some people are good at juggling. Others can't deal with leaving their children with someone else when they are very young."

For the past six months, Ferriero has been on sabbatical and enjoying the time to concentrate on her lab research. "This is my time to think," she says. "It's not until you step outside your job that you realize what a frenetic life you have."

Donna Ferriero. Photo by Robert Foothorap.

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