ST. LOUIS – Maren Loe has always been one to make her mark.
The 2016 University of Chicago graduate only finished a sparkling four-year volleyball tenure as the program's leader in career kills (1,960), season kills (617) and match kills (30) en route to conference most valuable player (2014) and NCAA Division III All-American (2014 & 2015) honors.
So, it's no surprise that in her third year of the MD/PhD program at Washington University in St. Louis, the former Maroon is pushing herself again: but this time through research.
Loe joins several others in the medical school to solve issues related to gender bias in the medical field. Specifically, she part of a team of researchers from the WashU School of Medicine (WUSM) that was recently awarded a grant to from the American Medical Association (AMA) to continue their work in examining the language used in written evaluations of third-year medical students from rotations in medicine, surgery, pediatrics, and obstetrics/gynecology.
The research of possibly gender disparity stemmed from an earlier project Loe and others worked on with Dr. Arghavan Salles, MD, PhD, an assistant professor of minimally invasive surgery as WashU. The findings of studying the language evaluating surgery residents showed a problem.
"We found that despite no difference in the quantitative scores of resident performance, evaluators wrote more positive comments about men, and they were more likely to use words like 'outstanding,' 'excellent,' 'superb' and 'leader' to describe the men than women," Loe said.
Why is this important?
Because the comments in evaluations during this time in the development of a medical student prove to be quite formative – and can directly impact what specialty a student might choose to pursue. The results tell the story: in 2017 and for the first time ever, more than half of students entering medical school were women, according to the AMA. The issue remains, however, that the number of practicing female physicians over the past decade has remained below 35 percent.
Loe and her team then hope to create guidelines to aid in changing such gender disparity in the language used in evaluations, which would hopefully lead to more retention of women practicing medicine.
"We hope to generate guidelines to help physicians writing the evaluations mitigate any of their implicit biases and ensure that all students are being fairly assessed," Loe said.
While Loe still has plenty of work ahead of her before she completes her goal – where she's aiming to be practicing in an area related to neuroscience, perhaps even someday medical education – she's also managed to keep the sport of volleyball in her life: as an assistant coach for the WashU squad. She helped lead the Bears to the second round of the NCAA Division III Tournament in 2018.
"I love being around the sport, and being able to coach has been very rewarding and so much fun," she said. "It's hard to describe how that feels, watching younger athletes learn and grow in their positions and seeing changes that I helped them make, but I always looked forward to the days I got to be in the gym this fall."
Volleyball, Loe contends, has its own similarities with the field of medicine, after all.
"Medicine is truly a team sport," Loe said. "Whether it is working with physicians from different specialties, other students and residents, or the other members of your medical team, including nurses, dietitians, physical and occupational therapists, and technicians, I have already experienced parallels to athletics: like knowing your role on your team, being open to feedback from all members, and having difficult conversations.
"Additionally, learning time management as a student-athlete at such a rigorous college has been an asset for me in medical and graduate school. I can balance research deadlines with classwork and extracurriculars because I did that all of the time during college.
Loe graduated from the College in 2016 with a bachelor of science degree in Computational and Applied Mathematics. She's currently in her third year MD/PhD training at WashU, studying computational neuroscience in the Systems Science and Math doctoral program.