GUMC Convocation Honoree: ‘Ask a Question that Matters’

Posted in GUMC Stories

NOVEMBER 7, 2014—The honored speaker at the Seventh Annual Georgetown University Medical Center Convocation shared her journey on an unconventional career path that has led her to become one of the world’s leading authorities on the use of imaging to study neuropsychiatric disorders. 

For Helen S. Mayberg, MD , professor of neurology, psychiatry and radiology at Emory University School of Medicine, her nonlinear path and her interdisciplinary expertise demonstrate that as long as you “ask a question that matters, the rest will solve itself.”

Mayberg received GUMC’s highest honor, the Cura Personalis Award, at the Nov. 5 ceremony, which recognized faculty and student achievement at the medical center.

Among the other honorees, Miriam Toporowicz, MD, MPH, received the award for lifetime contribution to GUMC, and Albert Fornace, MD, received the GUMC Leadership in Research Award. GUMC’s Outstanding Service Award went to Patricia Cloonan, PhD, RN, who serves as interim dean of the School of Nursing & Health Studies.

Howard J. Federoff, MD, PhD, executive vice president for health sciences at GUMC, was joined by Georgetown University President John J. DeGioia, PhD, in presenting the awards.

A complete list of awardees can be found here .

‘Find a Way Around’

Mayberg stressed the value of remaining flexible in one’s pursuits and being open to shifting terrain.

“We can’t be in a hurry because we don’t actually know where we are going. Every time we take a step, where we are actually changes and the direction we are going alters as well,” said Mayberg, a member of the Institute of Medicine, who has pioneered the use of deep brain stimulation (DBS) for patients with treatment-resistant depression.

Mayberg describes her own path as a “series of iterative approximations.” Each time she thought she was close to defining her research focus, something would happen that would cause her to reevaluate.

She said staying true to the important questions might require the courage to veer outside one’s scientific ”lane”—even when others try to push you back into yours.

“Find a way around. When the question becomes that important, find the way to ask [it]. Partner … find your allies … be willing to fail … be willing to fight. Do it anyway,” she said.

Most importantly, she advised to remain attuned to “defining moments” that at the time might seem uncomfortable. One of those moments for her was when she was confronted with the full magnitude and responsibility of altering the brain of a patient who is battling severe depression—and who has nowhere else to turn.

“I consider this experiment [regarding deep brain stimulation] an absolute gift, because it allowed me to move from the very comfortable position of third person to first person. And first person is where we have to live to ask the questions that matter,” Mayberg said.

Delving Deeper into the Issues

On the morning of Convocation, Federoff moderated a morning Colloquium on “New and Emerging Perspectives on Mental Health.”

Mayberg was joined by GUMC experts who dove into of the ethical, clinical and social issues around severe depression: Mayada Akil, MD, professor of psychiatry at GUMC and vice chair for education and medical director of outpatient programs at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital; James Giordano, PhD, professor in the Department of Neurology and chief of the Neuroethics Studies Program at the Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics at GUMC; and Edilma Yearwood, PhD, RN, FAAN, associate professor and interim chair of the Department of Nursing at the School of Nursing & Health Studies.

“Clinical depression is a burden, an active anguish, a real pain. It is something that is not transient, and people have no ability to recover on their own,” Akil said.

Yearwood discussed the importance of social determinants of health and of working closely with communities where mental health issues are prevalent.  Giordano expounded on the ethical considerations surrounding DBS and other procedures that entail procedures in the brain with uncertain outcomes.

By Lauren Wolkoff
GUMC Communications 

For more event photos, see our Facebook album .