Odette Harris M.D. ’96 has made history by becoming America’s second African-American female professor of neurosurgery. Stanford’s department of neurosurgery announced her promotion on Tuesday.
Harris joins Lu Chen as the second female professor in the department of neurosurgery at the School of Medicine.
Harris, who specializes in traumatic brain injury, has served as the director of brain injury in the department of neurosurgery and the associate chief of staff of polytrauma and rehabilitation at the Palo Alto Veterans Administration Health Care System since 2009. Harris is also a Clayman Institute Faculty Research Fellow and was awarded the William P. Van Wagenen Fellowship Award from the American Association of Neurological Surgeons.
Harris said she developed a passion for the physical sciences and chemistry while studying at an all-girls high school.
“All those cliches about girl schools and empowering girls and women, I think they’re true,” Harris said in an interview with Stanford Medicine.
During her undergraduate years at Dartmouth College, Harris said she sought to surround herself with “strong women.”
It was not until she attended Stanford School of Medicine that she said she experienced a “turning point both in terms of gender and race.” Harris was the only black woman in the School of Medicine’s class of 1996. She was also one of only two women during her neurosurgical residency at Stanford University Medical Center.
Nonetheless, Harris described her experience in medical school and residency as a positive one.
“My mentor was a white man who is blond and as East Coast as can be,” Harris said. “His skin color was irrelevant, as was mine to his experience of mentoring me.”
Both gender and race have affected Harris’ day-to-day experiences working in all-white hospitals, she said.
“I could list probably a hundred different experiences where I was asked to empty the garbage or take out the trays, clean out the toilets, when I was just there to use the bathroom myself,” Harris said. “My [male] co-resident used to always say to the patient, ‘Actually, she’s our chief.’”
Outside the department of neurosurgery, Harris said she is concerned about what she regards as a gender imbalance among the senior leadership at U.S. universities.
“The statistics for presidents of universities, deans of universities, chairs of departments – we’re not seeing women represented at those levels,” Harris stated.
Harris said she believes in the value of championing greater diversity and inclusivity in science.
“You could only win by increasing the diversity, be it women, be it religious minorities, be it from the standpoint of race,” Harris said. “That’s a win, [because] you’re seeing it from a different place.”
An earlier version of this article misstated that Odette Harris is America’s first African-American female professor of neurosurgery. In fact, Harris follows Alexa Canady as the second African-American female professor of neurosurgery in the U.S. The Daily regrets this error.