This spring, The Lotus Scroll interviewed George Yang, MD, PhD. Dr. Yang is the Assistant Chief of Staff for Surgical Services at the Birmingham Veterans Affairs Hospital, as well as a Professor of Surgery and the Vice Chair for Veterans’ Affairs in the Department of Surgery at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Dr. Yang is a former President of the Society of University Surgeons (SUS) and recently received the inaugural SUS Trailblazer Award. Dr. Yang is also a founding member of SAAS.
LS: Where did you grow up?
GY: I was born in Taiwan and lived there until I was 4 years old when I immigrated to the U.S. I grew up in Chicago from the age of 4 until I left for residency at the age of 30.
LS: What challenges did you experience as an Asian kid?
GY: Not atypical of a lot of people of my generation … I went through all the things that other kids did: the taunts, the slant-eyes thing, the “say something in Chinese,” the “show me some kung fu.” It was part of growing up there, to be honest.
LS: Where did you go to college?
GY: I went to Northwestern. It was tremendous. I was in a diverse environment where I didn’t feel like I was singled out for the way I looked. I was treated more for the ability I had intellectually. And I found it a terrific environment for me to grow intellectually.
LS: What led you to medicine?
GY: Like a lot of first-generation Asian kids, for as long as I can remember, my parents were like, “doctors are a good thing.” Luckily, when I got into medical school, I found things that captivated me. Research was part of it. I was curious and wanted to be the one answering questions and investigating questions. I fell into the academic world and found purpose in medicine.
LS: What led you to surgery?
GY: I did a PhD as part of medical school because I wanted to do research and I thought a PhD would best prepare me. I also really enjoyed surgery. I enjoyed physically working with my hands. I enjoyed sewing, I enjoyed dissection, I enjoyed the pace of work. But I thought surgeons didn’t do basic science research. It was actually a PhD researcher I was collaborating with who said, “Oh no, I’ve met plenty of surgeons who do basic research. You can certainly do it.” And that made me start thinking of it.
LS: What barriers do you think you experienced in medicine/academia because you are Asian?
GY: I don’t think I ever encountered overt obstacles. Where I felt held back was in a lot of the implicit biases that exist against Asians, which is we’re not great leadership-type people. We’re good worker bees, we crank out the RVUs, we’re good at getting grants, we’re good at being a foot soldier. But we’re not leadership material. We’re not able to motivate a department, to have a vision. This implicit bias exists in a lot of places. And I feel like that has played a part in holding a lot of Asians back from leadership.
LS: Now that you have been put in a leadership position, how do you think being Asian affects your leadership style, if at all?
GY: I’ll be the first to admit that part of the reason people didn’t think of me as a leader is that, in a meeting, I’m not the talking one. I’m very traditionally Asian in that you speak only when you have to and otherwise keep quiet. One of the things I’ve learned is that when you are a leader, you have to force yourself to speak more. People value meetings and value hearing from you. So, I’ve learned to be more communicative in that sense.
LS: What advice do you have for young academic surgeons?
GY: I’ll focus on Asians. I’ll go from my own experience: Being the quiet, reserved Asian doesn’t help you. You need to learn to speak up for yourself, you need to protect your own self-interest and ask for the things you want. Opportunities in this climate are given to you as much because you ask for them as for anything else.
One thing that has changed significantly since SAAS was founded is the number of Asians in leadership positions. It means a lot to have people in leadership who look like you and have been through the same things you have. You can look at them and say, “Oh, yes, I can make it.” You can go to somebody for advice who has gone through the same things. It is good to have mentors who come from your background to say, “Whether you perceive it or not, these are the hurdles you face, and these are the things you need to work on to advance yourself.” These are the things that will help you progress. And those are the most important things for a young academic.
Beyond that, the other thing that I’ve learned is, be a good mensch. Do things because you care about them, not for the purpose of advancement. You have to care about more than just climbing the ladder. You have to care about something deep down: the people you work with, the people you train, the patients you take care of. Always be true to yourself and be as genuine as you can as to what your goals and purposes in life are.
LS: What advice do you have for people who want to serve on councils or committees? How can people jumpstart?
GY: You just have to ask, bottom line. Don’t be shy about asking. Go directly to the people in the leadership and say, “Hey, I’d like to get more involved. How do I do that?” Start networking, start talking. It’s not self-promotion, it is saying, “I have an interest in this.” One of the things we can do as mentors is work to tell that to younger Asian surgeons: You have to change your mindset and ask for things. You cannot expect someone to lift you up out of the goodness of their heart.
LS: What are your hopes for SAAS in the next five and 10 years?
GY: I am perpetually amazed by how much it has grown. What I am extremely happy about is how there is a core of people who are engaged and committed. I want SAAS to become a place where you walk into it and you are immediately comfortable because everyone has shared some sort of similar background as you. More than the scholarship, it is a community where all of us come to recharge, meet with people with shared experiences, gain knowledge from each other and find that sense of community.
The other thing that is important in the future is what it means to be an outsider and how much it means to find community. For that reason, I hope SAAS can support other new organizations (the Latino Surgical Society, the Association of Out Surgeons and Allies). These are other groups who are searching for the same thing we have: sharing experiences and supporting each other in the face of discrimination. We should support them to grow.