by Colleen Nielsen
When she was born, Lynne Jan Marie Lightfoote was delivered by a doctor affiliated with Foxhall OB/GYN Associates. There’s nothing extraordinary about that – until you realized that today, Lynne is Dr. Lightfoote, and her practice is none other than Foxhall OB/GYN Associates.
It’s not that surprising, really, when when you consider Lynne Lightfoote’s pedigree and lifelong connections with the DC medical community. The doctor who delivered her was one of three then in the Foxhall practice – all men. He was also a family friend, having met Lynne’s father, a neurologist, during his medical residency at The George Washington University Hospital.
Lynne’s mother was a doctor, too. William Lightfoote II met Marilyn Frances Madry in the 1960s, at Howard University Medical School, where Marilyn was one of only 10 female students. Some years later, while Dr. Marilyn Lightfoote worked on her Ph.D. at the University of Virginia, she and Lynne decamped to Charlottesville. Lynne attended St. Anne's-Belfield School for her early elementary years, and on the weekends, mother and daughter would return to the family’s northern Virginia home. Marilyn, a molecular immunologist, had a distinguished research career at The George Washington University, National Institutes of Health, and U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Lynne says, “I think I always wanted to be a doctor. I saw my parents’ careers, and when I got a little older, I worked in my father’s office in the summers. I always thought I’d be a doctor, too. I just didn’t know what kind.”
Lynne entered The Potomac School in third grade, and in 1991, she was a member of the new Upper School’s second graduating class. She has stayed connected with her alma mater and has many fond memories of her Potomac days. In particular, she recalls her French classes and the summer that she spent at the American University of Paris through a joint program with Alexandria’s Episcopal High School. Lynne also took pride in her strong performance in math throughout school.
Though she feels that she was encouraged and supported at Potomac, Lynne says that negative stereotypes about girls’ mathematical abilities inevitably creep in. She notes, “The idea that girls aren’t good at math is an underlying societal message – it was then, and I think it still is. Girls can end up internalizing that. I probably had some of those negative thoughts, but my mother made sure I overcame them.”
Starting with the eighth grade, Lynne notes, Potomac offered a regular track and an advanced track in math. She says, “My mother’s thought was that she would do whatever it took to get me on that faster track and keep me on it.” There were advanced-study books every summer, evening courses at Northern Virginia Community College (which Lynne’s mother took along with her, sitting in the back of the classroom), and a summer math program at Harvard University.
After high school, Lynne’s parents steered her toward Wellesley, an elite, academically challenging women’s college. Her love of French and aptitude in math led her to a dual major.
While a student at Wellesley, Lynne had an internship at the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Research on Women’s Health (ORWH), which had been established in 1990. There, she helped prepare documents to support a new research initiative before the Senate Appropriations Committee. Lynne gravitated toward ORWH’s director, Dr. Vivian Pinn, who was a Wellesley alumna and the first African American woman to graduate from the University of Virginia School of Medicine. Dr. Pinn quickly became a mentor to Lynne, and that relationship continues to this day.
For medical school, Lynne chose the University of Virginia, largely because of its great reputation, her personal connections, and the beauty of the Charlottesville area. During medical school, Lynne considered a number of specialties. She was intrigued by anesthesia, especially because it involves so much math. She considered cardiovascular, as well as orthopedic, surgery. She also liked the notion of sports medicine. Lynne laughs, "But the students interested in orthopedic medicine were expected to do scut work, including wrapping football players' toes before games. There went ortho for me! Especially coming from Wellesley? No, thank you."
She hit upon her future when she had the opportunity to spend a month shadowing Dr. Caryl Mussenden, an obstetrician/gynecologist who trained with Lynne’s father. She recalls, “I absolutely loved her job. It couldn’t be more rewarding. Bringing life into the world? I thought, ‘This is awesome.’” Dr. Mussenden became an important role model for Lynne and one of her most significant mentors. Looking back, Lynne says, “I was right. Her work – now my work – is awesome.”
She continues, “I would do what I do for free. When you have patients who feel comfortable enough to share the most intimate parts of their lives with you so you can help them to live healthier, help them to start or build their families… that’s everything. It’s a huge privilege.”
Opportunities for women in medicine have expanded greatly since Dr. Marilyn Madry Lightfoote was one of just a handful of female students at Howard Medical School in the 1960s. In 2017–18, for the first time, more women than men enrolled in U.S. medical schools, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. The number of new female medical students has grown by almost 10 percent since 2015, and women now represent 51 percent of incoming med students. In addition, the entering classes continue to reflect greater racial diversity. From 2015 to 2017, black or African American entrants increased by almost 13 percent, and those who were Hispanic, Latino, or of Spanish origin rose by about 15 percent.
Lynne says one of the biggest changes in her field during her career has been the influx of female doctors. Foxhall OB/GYN, which had just three male doctors when Lynne was born, now includes nine physicians – eight of whom are women.
Even with these strides, however, women represented just 40 percent of all practicing physicians and surgeons last year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Women of color are especially underrepresented. A very small proportion of physicians and surgeons are black women (4.4 percent) and Latinas (2.5 percent).
As a result, the public still may not envision African American women as doctors. “There have been several times here, in my own hospital, where our volunteers will see me walking in the hall and say, ‘‘Ma’am, you’re not supposed to be wearing scrubs out here. Please just sit and wait for your family member,’” Lynne says. “I just introduce myself, ‘Hi, I’m Dr. Lightfoote.’”
Part of Lynne’s personal and professional mission is to ensure that African American girls envision themselves as prospective doctors and professionals in other STEM fields – broadly defined as occupations involving science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. According to a 2017 report from the U.S. Department of Commerce, women account for only 25 percent of STEM professionals. And for every 100 women who earned a STEM-related degree in 2015, just 10 were African American, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
“I can hear my mother’s voice,” Lynne says. “She would say, ‘We will do everything we can to help the people in our community become exposed to whatever they need to succeed and excel.’”
Lynne sees every African American girl in her life as an opportunity to deliver on the promise that her mother expressed so eloquently. Looking at a picture on her phone, she smiles, “This is Paige, the daughter of one of my friends.” In the photo, Paige is dressed up for Halloween, wearing a white lab coat and a stethoscope. “She’s dressed as me!” Lynne beams. “She says, ‘I want to do what Dr. Lynne does. I want to take care of the babies.’ That’s how it all starts.”
Whenever Lynne gives a gift to her 10-year-old goddaughter, Lena, it’s computer-related. And she hangs on Lena’s every word about her high scores in math. She says, “I encourage her, just like my mother encouraged me. I want to see her be like me – but better.”
Lynne joined the Foxhall practice right after her residency at Albert Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia. Since then, she has kept an open door for job-shadowing requests from middle- and high-school students – mostly, but not exclusively, girls. “I just have them meet our office manager to receive instructions on patient privacy and complete a HIPPA form," she says.
The young people who shadow Lynne fully participate in her day. She details a recent experience: “We started at seven. I did a caesarean, then a vaginal delivery, then removed fibroids.” The rest of the day was spent doing rounds with patients at Sibley Memorial Hospital.
Lynne also works to help guide and motivate youth in the wider community. She has spoken to area school groups, church groups, and Girl Scout troops about her profession and women’s health topics. She also tutors students who are struggling with math. In addition, The Links is an important part of Lynne’s life.
Lynne's mother was intensively involved with The Links, a 12,000-member international association of professional women of color founded in 1946. In 2008, Lynne herself became a Link in the DC chapter, and now she works with the chapter's Empower program. She explains, “Our goal is to assist young women in becoming stronger, more culturally aware, and more civic-minded."
The chapter has partnered for two years with Excel Academy, a former public charter school in southeast Washington that reopened this fall as DC Public Schools' first all-girl campus, serving 600 pre-K through eighth grade students in Ward 8. The chapter conducts monthly programming for middle-school girls with an emphasis on interactive activities, as well as field trips. Last school year, chapter members took Excel Academy students to the Howard University Health Sciences Simulation Center to pique their interest in medical careers. The girls were able to tour the fully outfitted emergency room, intensive care unit, and operating suite and see high-tech human-patient simulators that breathe, sweat, bleed, and even give birth.
DC Chapter President Dr. Jacquelyn Dunmore-Griffith, a radiation oncologist affiliated with Howard University Hospital, explains, “These girls have very limited exposure to math and science careers. What they experience in their neighborhood and at school, what they see on TV and hear on the radio, may be the extent of what they know about the professional world of science and technology.”
Starting this fall, Lynne will help coordinate mentorships between Links and Excel Academy students and their families. She hopes that the relationships will last at least through high school, providing the girls with guidance that will foster their personal and academic success and put them on the path to college. By engaging the girls with the doctors, lawyers, judges, and other professional women who make up The Links, Lynne and Jacquelyn hope to help them dream big.
Although more women are now entering careers in healthcare and the life and physical sciences, far fewer are going into engineering, computing, and math, which account for about 80 percent of all STEM employment, according to the Commerce Department. Asked why she thinks that may be the case, Lynne says the obstacles for women are likely similar in all STEM fields, but the lack of early exposure in school may be a determining factor. “We’ve long had biology and chemistry in schools. But we didn’t have coding and robotics when I was in school. They do now, so I think you’ll see more girls in those fields, with time,” she says.
Though her focus is largely on medicine and STEM education, Lynne, a pianist, also appreciates the importance of the arts in a well-rounded life. She serves on the board of Imagination Stage in Bethesda and is currently arranging a field trip for Excel Academy students to attend an opening night performance this November. She says, “There’s a big world out there, filled with all kinds of possibilities. If I can play even a small part in helping to expand these girls’ horizons, I think that’s time and effort well spent.”