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Serpil Erzurum, MD, is the Chief Research and Academic Officer and the Chair of the Lerner Research Institute at Cleveland Clinic. She is a practicing pulmonologist and has innumerable scientific accomplishments and awards that have been far-reaching including more than 200 peer-reviewed articles and more than 20 federal grants. In this conversation, we dive into characteristics of effective leaders, the importance of psychological safety in teams, and the power of mentorship.

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Serpil Erzurum, MD

Podcast Transcript

Dr. Cara King:

Hi, my name is Dr. Cara King, and my cohost Dr. Mary Rensel and I, want to welcome you to the Women's Professional Staff Association podcast called Inspirations and Insights from Cleveland Clinic women docs. In this podcast, we will share conversations with women doctors from all career stages and practices, exploring the highlights and challenges of being a woman in medicine. We hope these thought provoking stories inspire you and provide insight into the unique challenges and accomplishments of remarkable women docs.

Dr. Cara King:

Welcome back to Inspirations and Insights from Cleveland Clinic women docs. Thank you so much for joining us today. We are very excited to have Dr. Serpil Erzurum on our show today. Serpil has been a member of the Cleveland Clinic staff since 1993, and is a chair of the Lerner Research Institute of Cleveland Clinic. She's a practicing pulmonologist and has innumerable scientific accomplishments and awards far reaching, including more than 200 peer reviewed articles and more than 20 federal grants. We hope you enjoy our discussion today, as we dive into characteristics of effective leaders, the importance of psychological safety and the power of mentorship.

Dr. Cara King:

Welcome to Dr. Serpil Erzurum to our WPSA podcast, and we are so thrilled to have you today, Serpil. So thank you for your time.

Dr. Serpil Erzurum:

Thank you.

Dr. Cara King:

So I want to take a moment to congratulate you on your new Global Center for Pathogen Research that you are helping to lead. This is a really exciting and incredible accomplishment. Can you tell us a little bit about the center?

Dr. Serpil Erzurum:

Well, thanks so much. It's very exciting for me to see it all come together. I really just helped organize the whole team. The leaders that put this together were amazing scientists, clinicians really, that came up with the idea prior to the COVID pandemic. In fact, we started on this path towards pathogen research in early 2019, before COVID was even in our dialect. We were recruiting for cancer research and inflammation research, two of our focus areas for research at the Cleveland Clinic. We had stellar candidates, we ended up recruiting Thaddeus Stappenbeck (M.D., Ph.D.) from Washington University, and Jae Jung (Ph.D.) from the University of Southern California, and Tim (Timothy) Chan (M.D.) from Sloan Kettering, and Michaela Gack (Ph.D.) from University of Chicago.

Dr. Serpil Erzurum:

All of them were studying inflammation in some form and fashion, and the response our bodies has to foreign invasion either by a pathogen, a virus, or perhaps cancer. Jae Jung and Michaela Gack were specifically focused on pathogen research, viruses that invade the body and cause consequent disease, not just the infectious disease, but even sequelae of those viruses. It's was really Dr. Jung who proposed that there should be a pathogen research center with the Cleveland Clinic because of our global footprint.

Dr. Serpil Erzurum:

We have infectious diseases here, of course in Ohio, but much more in Florida, and in Abu Dhabi and London. It made sense, and our CEO Dr. (Tom) Mihaljevic agreed, and so we recruited Dr. Jung to lead cancer biology, the department of cancer biology, but also to start a new center of pathogen research, and that was formalized in 2019 and approved by our Board of Governors.

Dr. Serpil Erzurum:

And then when all these leaders came to the Cleveland Clinic and joined our team, we had just started to learn about SARS-CoV-2 or COVID-19. The pandemic became a reality here in Northeast Ohio, and really all around the globe, late 2019, early 2020. It then became imperative that we work together to rapidly advance the missions that we already hold so dear, research, discovery for innovations to help patients. And so, we put together the team and the new center, which is a larger, more encompassing center is the Center for Pathogen Research and Human Health.

Dr. Cara King:

I didn't realize that all this was in the works before even COVID. I just automatically thought that COVID was the catalyst for this, but that's pretty remarkable at your insight and what needed to happen.

Dr. Serpil Erzurum:

Well, it was really all of us collectively, and I really give them all the credit to Dr. (Tom) Mihaljevic who saw it immediately upon presentation and said, "Yeah, we have to do this." There's a saying, “chance favors the prepared mind”, so we could not in a moment's notice have put together this team, there would have been no way, it would have been impossible, but because we have the right team and the right culture and values, we were rapidly able to come together even though these individuals had never really worked together before to put it together and then move it forward to benefit the world.

Dr. Cara King:

I want to dive into this team building that you did a bit, and the diversity and how you built this collaboration. I know you have prioritized diversity in the workforce at the Lerner Research Institute from the very beginning. You've stated that diversity in thinking leads to better solutions and is critical for success. You've also said that team science is the future. Can you talk a little bit about how you have accomplished this diversity when creating teams and what strategies have you used to foster team collaboration as well as effectiveness?

Dr. Serpil Erzurum:

Diversity is what gives us strength in every form and fashion. I know for myself personally, my own laboratory teams, my working administrative team, I want diverse ideas, diverse ideas come from different kinds of people. We have all the same sorts of people on the team. We're going to have all the same idea. Coming from different backgrounds, cultures, gender, race, ethnicity, everything, and all above allows us to view the world through the eyes of that other person.

Dr. Serpil Erzurum:

As we communicate in the team openly and authentically with each other, there has to be great psychological safety in a team to have diversity and allow for honest input to the team. So I think that's one of the most important things that I personally foster in my teams. It's one of the things I always tell individuals when they join our team, you should speak up, we want to hear your ideas. We want you to listen to the other people's ideas, that's the only way we can get to a collective solution, everyone all together is smarter than some of us, and certainly more than one of us.

Dr. Serpil Erzurum:

And so when you have that sort of team with security around their ability to speak up, that they will be heard, that they won't be judged, that there's value to what they say it is then a pretty magical thing that happens to the team, where there's a great deal of joy and coming together that way, fun things happen, creative things happen, things you could never have imagined start to happen. So I think that's partly how I hope my teams feel, and I hope that they will always feel that way. So whether it's a smaller team that I have, or the larger team of the center or the (Lerner) Research Institute, or even across the entire Cleveland Clinic, when I, when I work in teams, you play different roles. Sometimes the role is really to listen deeply and other times it's to speak up, work together,

Dr. Cara King:

I Love the idea of psychological safety. That's the only space that true forward motion can happen, and I was recently reading, you need to create a space that such that psychologically safe, not only to say what I want to hear, but the truth, right? And so you really need to have that different lens to make that synergistic moment forward. I think that's a really important point that you make. So I want to just kind of switch to leadership, in your experience, what characteristics or attributes are most important in a leader, and also, do you think these characteristics differ at all between men and women?

Dr. Serpil Erzurum:

Oh my gosh, that's a great question, leadership traits. When I think about people that I enjoyed working for, people that led me on my path, I can describe some of the attributes that I thought really made them a great leader. I guess number one would be integrity, which means honesty, fairness, this ability even if I didn't like the decision the leader made, I understood why, they were transparent about it. And at the end of the day, even if it wasn't personally good for me, I could see it was the right thing to do. So someone who does the right thing, even when it's not convenient and is transparent and honest about it. Integrity is the most important thing, I think, in a leader.

Dr. Serpil Erzurum:

Coming with that, the second most important thing and something that we all try to do every day is communicate. Communication means they really listen, they don't just talk. And when they listen, they hear and they respond. So that back and forth communication so very important. It's not just sending uniform direction outward, but receiving it inward, processing, making it part of their strategy. I would put communication right there at the top with integrity. A third thing that I find very important in leadership is a sense of humor.

Dr. Cara King:

I love that.

Dr. Serpil Erzurum:

Some of the best people I've ever worked for it was fun because they kept their calm, they're cool and collected under pressure, and really could keep a perspective that allowed still some humor and humor about themselves. The ability to poke fun at themselves and recognize their own limitations, perhaps through the humor, it also creates comradery and collegiality to laugh together, to share a viewpoint that is so silly, silly because it's true. Why it's funny, it's funny because it's true. You can say a lot of things with humor that otherwise might not be so easy to relate to. I guess there would be so many more to list, but I guess if you have those three things you could work through the rest.

Dr. Cara King:

That's fantastic. I wouldn't have originally thought of sense of humor. That kind of snuck up on me, but I think that probably goes along with your psychological safety. Showing that you're humble and that you have your weaknesses and be able to poke fun at that, I bet you, that really builds the team overall.

Dr. Serpil Erzurum:

You're absolutely right. When you are together with your team and it's obvious that I've done something that's kind of silly, or maybe the world has done something silly and you can share it with the team that leads to psychological safety because Serpil said that and we all laugh at it. And then maybe I could say something too, and it's a shared view of the world, then it allows us to speak more openly perhaps about other things.

Dr. Cara King:

Absolutely. I want to go back to your communication piece for a moment as well. I think listening for the sake of listening and not listening for the sake of responding, it's so subtle, but I think that oftentimes when people speak and I'm at fault for this as well as I'm already trying to think about how I'm going to respond. I think you make a really subtle but important point that listening for the sake of listening is very unique and distinct.

Dr. Serpil Erzurum:

Thank you. I learned that from a prior mentor who told me that when I became a full professor and staff member, I had a lot of young people I was mentoring and talking to students, post-doctoral fellows. And he said that when I met with those young people that I needed to listen very carefully and focus on them as if they were the only person in the world for the 15, 20 minutes maybe that I would spend with them because they had probably been thinking for days, if not weeks, what they were going to be telling me. So to really listen, focus, and then understand before you can reply. And I have always treasured that advice, it's very meaningful to people.

Dr. Cara King:

You just gave me goosebumps, truly, because I feel like that's so rare now, especially when we have cell phones, I've got dings from emails, I've got so many things that when you're speaking with someone, I can think about the times when I've sat down with a mentor that I've been preparing for for a weeks and they're on their phone the whole time, and just what that feels like they have them not present. It can be really debilitating for your mentee, so really good point.

Dr. Serpil Erzurum:

I'm so glad you recognize that to be present for someone is really attending to them. I agree with you.

Dr. Cara King:

Moving on, Serpil, you've been described as the rare triple threat physician scientist excelling as a researcher, clinician, and educator, and that's everyone's dream within academia. When you first set out in your career, it's so hard to know what to say yes to and what to say no to and how to make yourself this triple threat. Can you describe any critical moments in your life that changed the direction of your career?

Dr. Serpil Erzurum:

Well, thank you for saying that. I hear that and I never can quite absorb it, I don't know how to answer that question, I think about it sometimes. I never imagined my career would take this direction. I never had the idea that I would make a career doing research and innovation. I just did what I enjoyed doing. I've been so fortunate to have great mentors and advice along the way. I do work hard, I mean, it just takes a lot of hard work and there is some good fortune involved. I had some great mentors, some real fortune with how I was able to make some discoveries that turned out to be important, and the teams that I've worked with have been fantastic.

Dr. Serpil Erzurum:

The one thing I'll say is I don't necessarily say no to things, but I do prioritize so that I have in my mind a sense of how much time I'm going to spend on any one thing. It's the advice I give young people now, when they say, what should I do now come with a list of things, should I do all these things? And I'll ask, well, is it more important than spending time with your family? Is it more important than enjoying time with your friends? Because we all are human beings and we have to have a complete life. Even though I worked very hard, I always prioritized my children and I never regretted it. And so what I do tell people is you don't necessarily have everything all at the same time and it sounds silly, but it's true. I really think that's an important concept for men and women. You can devote large amounts of your time and invest your entire energy into one thing, but I would not encourage you to do it for very long periods of time.

Dr. Serpil Erzurum:

Hopefully the balance that I have comes with partitioning my priorities over the course of my lifetime. I don't know how other people do it, but that's how I did it. Again, one of my mentors gave me great advice, it sounds old fashioned now. When I was training and I was rounding with one of my mentors in Colorado and he said, "Serpil it doesn't matter what happens, always get home to dinner with your family even if you have to go back to work." And I never forgot that either, that's right, even if I have to work after dinner, I should spend time with the family. What he was saying was making time for family, whatever that family time means to you. Again, I think that's how I find balance inside myself, where I feel content.

Dr. Cara King:

Your wisdom is incredible.

Dr. Serpil Erzurum:

From my mentors.

Dr. Cara King:

What I'm hearing you say is that, number one, you can't pour from an empty cup. If you don't tend to your own needs then you're not going to be able to put that energy into things, maybe professionally, research-wise, clinically, and I think that's so important. The other thing I'm hearing you say is that things are going to ebb and flow depending on where you are in your life.

Dr. Cara King:

I've never heard anyone say, look at your goals over the course of your lifetime, but that's realistically what we should be looking at, but I feel like as physicians, we're always like now, I need to get these things in now and there's three month window, there's six month window, but taking a step back and maybe flexing with your priorities as your life changes is a really important piece of advice.

Dr. Serpil Erzurum:

You said it so much better than I did. I'm glad I could communicate it, but that's exactly right. There are times in my life, and I'm sure in everyone's life where, just relax a little. I think that's healthy.

Dr. Cara King:

Yes, absolutely. So I want to dive into that a little bit more. So talk to me about... You must have these periods of time of self-reflection. You have to allow yourself space to understand where your priorities are. How do you build that in right now? I'm just curious. Do you journal, do you meditate, do you run? like there's must be some place that you're reflecting to be able to ebb and flow with your needs?

Dr. Serpil Erzurum:

That's a really tough question for me. I know people journal. I've never been a person to journal, but I have good friends who do that and they really enjoy it. I used to run and that used to be how I reflected and kind of centered myself. I enjoyed running for decades, but stopped that a couple of years ago. For me, I really like creating a peaceful spaces, so I've been working on my home, trying to create a space that is peaceful, calm, a creative kind of space. So I've been pouring a lot of my time and energy into my yard, my home and friends.

Dr. Cara King:

I love that. Are you familiar with the word hygge?

Dr. Serpil Erzurum:

No.

Dr. Cara King:

I'm obsessed with this word. I think it's spelled H-Y-G-G-E. It's a word from Denmark and there's no straight definition into our language, but it encompasses exactly what you just said in regard to safe space, good conversation, candlelight, just like really good wholesome feeling that nurtures creativity and relationships.

Dr. Serpil Erzurum:

Yes.

Dr. Cara King:

I love that. I have one last question for you, is that all right?

Dr. Serpil Erzurum:

Yes, I'm learning from you, I wrote that word down. Look it up, the next time somebody asks me, I'm going to use that word, it's going to sound really smart.

Dr. Cara King:

I'm telling you, that word, when I wake up in the morning, I just say “hygge”, and it like puts me into a good mental space.

Dr. Serpil Erzurum:

Fantastic. Thank you.

Dr. Cara King:

You have been awarded a million awards, but the one that really touched me was this Elizabeth Rich Award (Elizabeth A. Rich, MD Award) from the American Thoracic Society for your extensive and successful mentoring of trainees and junior faculty. You've really inspired so many young faculty, especially women in medicine and science. I'm just curious of any tips that you have for young faculty or trainees in choosing mentors. How do you recommend that young people choose mentors? Do you think that we should only have one? Should we have multiple? How do you foster that relationship?

Dr. Serpil Erzurum:

Well, first of all, thank you for mentioning that award. That's one of the awards that means the most to me, I really got emotional when I was awarded that, it means so much to me. One of the most important things that I've done in my life is I hope I've helped people in their careers and their personal life. You have a lot of mentors over your life, and I have mentored so many people in different ways. It's sometimes structured sometimes not so structured, casual, it can be check-ins once in a while with people, how are you doing, supporting them emotionally, sometimes helping them with their careers, sponsoring them, going places, introducing them to people.

Dr. Serpil Erzurum:

I've had so many mentors of different types of people, my advice is probably atypical, I suggest you have a lot of mentors and you have mentors and sponsors and you learn from each and every one of them, you incorporate bits and pieces of those individuals into your own make up. When I think about how I mentor it's based on how my mentors mentored me, because I've spoken a lot about them here today when you asked me, so you can tell that I really... And many are dead now.

Dr. Serpil Erzurum:

So, for me, I guess it's in that phrase, “pay it forward”, when I was younger why in the world are they helping? They're so nice. Why is this person so nice, go out in their way, spend hours? I felt like a stone, it was so dumb. I felt like, all my gosh, I'm wasting their time. Why are they doing this? It really was a mystery to me until I started to see how much they helped me. And it made me feel good to use that knowledge to help others. I felt like I was compelled to do it.

Dr. Serpil Erzurum:

So, this idea of paying it forward... I just was with a mentor earlier today and she said, "You're so busy, I hate to take up your time." And I immediately thought, Oh wow. I used to feel talk to my mentors, she seems so busy I don't want to take up more of your time than I need to, and I understand spend what they used to say to me, "I enjoy spending time with you." I do, and I'm sure they did too. So now I get it, and I'm really appreciative that I can share some of their kindness to me. I guess if you're looking for a mentor, what you're really looking for is all the people that mentored that person who are the ones that gave them input, and so you can learn something from everyone.

Dr. Cara King:

I love that, and you're right. Sometimes it seems selfish in that, like the mentors, we really enjoy doing the mentoring, right? It's like a good balance of the rest of our lives, right?

Dr. Serpil Erzurum:

Yes, definitely.

Dr. Cara King:

It's funny that mentee perspective, the first thing you do is apologize, "I'm sorry I'm taking your time."

Dr. Serpil Erzurum:

Yes.

Dr. Cara King:

Another thing I want to make a point of for trainees or anyone who is looking for a mentor, don't be afraid to formalize that relationship. Call it out, ask that person to mentor, make it formalized, it's going to get much more rich. What do you think about that?

Dr. Serpil Erzurum:

100% yes, I encourage people to do that. When I speak to folks also just contact them, have a coffee or just meet them for a few minutes and then ask, would they mentor you? Definitely, I would encourage people to do that. A lot of people are so shy and there's no downside to asking.

Dr. Cara King:

The other thing I just want to jump off that is in this new virtual world, you can look outside your institution too.  At the (Cleveland Clinic) clinic, we are so fortunate that we have the most amazing minds right here in Cleveland, but if you are at a smaller institution, you can reach out like this virtual world it's endless, really.

Dr. Serpil Erzurum:

Yeah, it's opened the world to me, I'll tell you that. So yes, definitely everything you're saying.

Dr. Cara King:

Excellent, Serpil. Thank you so much.

Dr. Serpil Erzurum:

Thank you so much. I enjoyed it very much. You were a thrill to talk with was easy.

Dr. Cara King:

Thank you. Good. Is there any last comments or thoughts that you wish that I asked about or anything else that you want to bring up?

Dr. Serpil Erzurum:

I really want to thank you for doing this. I think this is a wonderful way to expand mentorship too. Isn't it?

Dr. Cara King:

Absolutely, it's my honor. So thank you so much for your time. You're just an absolutely phenomenal human and all of the things. So thank you so much.

Dr. Cara King:

Thank you for listening today. Join us again as we draw inspirations and insights from women doctors past, present and future. You can follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram at @WPS1. That's at @WPSA and the number one, this podcast is supported by Cleveland Clinics, Women's Professional Staff Association, as part of the Cleveland clinic, Centennial Celebration.

Inspirations and Insights from Cleveland Clinic Women Docs
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Inspirations and Insights from Cleveland Clinic Women Docs

In celebration of Cleveland Clinic’s centennial, hosts Dr. Cara King and Dr. Mary Rensel share conversations with women doctors at Cleveland Clinic, exploring the highlights and challenges of being a woman in medicine.
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