Today we are thrilled to welcome Dr. Valerie Montgomery Rice as our FACES of the South. A renowned infertility researcher and physician, Valerie has dedicated her career to making an impact on health issues for women of color. She currently serves as Dean and Executive Vice President of Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, and in July, she will become one of only two African American women to lead a medical school as president. An immensely talented individual, Valerie is not only a respected scientist, physician and administrator, she’s a delightfully down-to-earth and charming woman who embraces life with joy. We couldn’t think of a more fitting way to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. than by celebrating the achievement of a woman whose commitment and compassion has made such a difference.
Where did you grow up? And what brought you to Atlanta?
I grew up in Macon, GA, and came to Atlanta to attend Georgia Tech in 1979. I left for medical school and returned for my residency at Emory and left again in 1983, returning in 2011 when I became dean of Morehouse School of Medicine.
Why did you decide to become a doctor and specialize in obstetrics and gynecology?
I originally majored in chemical engineering at Georgia Tech and had even completed a co-op at Proctor and Gamble where I’d been offered a job, but I realized senior year that this wasn’t what I wanted to do — I was good at math and science, but I wanted to help people. Being a doctor involved both of those things, so I changed my major to chemistry and started applying to medical schools. I had the great fortune to be accepted to a summer program at Harvard where I was able to learn about the medical profession, and that’s where I attended medical school.
During a rotation in medical school, I discovered a fascination with surgery and reproductive endocrinology. I had the chance to see the first transvaginal egg harvest procedure that is part of the IVF process today and was hooked! I didn’t want to deliver babies (am not a fan of getting up in the middle of the night!), but obstetrics was part of the GYN specialty. I found my way to a lab by my fourth year of medical school and moved toward the research that has been a big part of my career.
You lived in Nashville for a number of years and did important research on women’s health at Meharry Medical College. Can you tell us a little about that?
At Meharry, I founded the Center for Women’s Reproductive Health, the nation’s first research facility dedicated to studying health issues that disproportionally affect women of color. Despite all the advances of medicine in the last twenty years, there are still some major disparities in the health of minorities, especially women. My research and the work of the center was and is focused on understanding why this is in order to find solutions.
As a wife and a mother, as well as a doctor and the dean of a medical school, how do you balance the demands of your personal and professional life?
I think it’s important to take inventory of yourself — where are you physically, emotionally, spiritually — so you don’t get lost in the shuffle of life. None of us are superwomen: we need to avoid reflecting superficial representations of ourselves and we need to be real. Questions I ask myself include: Who am I? Do I possess the characteristics of success? How do I define my success? Is my personal success aligned with my professional success?
Of course you need to take good care of your physical health by eating right, exercising and knowing your family medical history and risks for hereditary diseases. For women of color, this is especially important regarding hypertension, diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease.
I think balance comes from enjoying life and doing the things that provide the most joy. Is that playing a sport, singing, planting flowers? Maybe it’s changing a career to invoke a healthier, more joyful life. I know having a network of mentors is important for me (as is a massage and a trip to a spa on a regular basis!).
You are an obvious role model to so many women, and you’ve broken through the glass ceiling on many levels. As a woman of color, this is even more noteworthy. Can you share any wisdom you’ve acquired on your journey?
Spending time performing surgeries in the operating room has taught me the value of focusing intently on one thing. In surgery, you can’t multi-task: it’s all about the patient in front of you. I try to apply this mindset outside of the OR, too. Being present. Focusing on what’s in front of me and what’s most important at the time. Doing one thing at a time and doing it to the best of my ability.
What’s the most important piece of advice you can give our readers about their health?
We have to reprogram the way we think about food and eating habits. Living an active lifestyle is so important. And as much as we might think that our health is out of our control, it’s really a choice and deciding to be healthy. I’m able to do cross-fit exercise classes now, where juggling exercise classes with work and young children years ago was not an option, but I always worked in buildings with lots of stairs, so I chose to take them every day as a way to keep active.
I also often tell women they should visualize a time when they felt sexy and healthy strive for that, whether that’s a size six or size sixteen. I make a habit of never asking women their weight. Instead, I have them measure their waist. (The ideal waist size for women is 36; for men it’s 39.) Say it with me, “It’s not your weight, it’s your waist!”
Can you share any advice you’ve been given than has helped you?
Look at the person in front of you and ask yourself, “What’s possible?” This makes me think about that person, be it a patient, colleague, family member or friend, and consider their needs first. It’s about finding the best in a person and always assuming they have something valuable to share.
Is there an event you’re particularly looking forward to?
Assuming the presidency of Morehouse Medical School in July and my investiture ceremony and celebration weekend in September are definitely at the top of the list!
Can you recommend a good vacation spot?
The Grand Wailea Resort and Spa on the island of Maui. This is my favorite place.
What’s on your bedside table/e reader?
Lean In by Cheryl Sandberg, Recruiting your Own Dream Team by Jerry Porras (great advice as I look toward helping Morehouse set strategic goals for the future) and period romance novels. (You know the type, where the damsel in distress gets rescued by the handsome prince. Total escapism and I love it!) Oh, and I try to reread The Alchemist once a year. Beautiful book about dreams and passions.
What is your favorite luxury or indulgence?
Definitely getting regular massages. It is a luxury, but it also is key to my well-being.
What things are always packed in your carry-on?
- A wrap (They are a favorite accessory and I seem to always have one with me.)
- Gym clothes and portable exercise equipment
- Ear plugs
- Probably some work-related papers
- My iPhone
- Romance novel (See previous answer and laugh if you like! They’re a great, mindless escape and quite entertaining.)
What meal have you had recently that you keep thinking about?
Over the holidays, my best friend invited my family over and set a beautiful table filled with things she knows are our favorites — filet mignon for my son, lobster for me, my daughter’s favorite croissants, beautiful kale salad, chocolate cake and Champagne. Family, friends, beautiful meal. It was perfect.
Do you have a must-have fashion item? (Or, perhaps a beauty product you really love?)
I’m a fan of Cle de Peau skincare products, and I’m planning to buy a new bikini (yes!) to celebrate losing a little bit of weight for a trip to Maui in August.
Name three things you cannot live without, excluding family, friends and God.
- The opportunity to shop
- Spa visits
- A glass of Champagne
Thank you, Valerie! We’ll be toasting you in July and beyond! And thank you to Cat Maxwell for today’s beautiful photographs.
For more information about Morehouse School of Medicine at the website: www.msm.edu/HomePage.aspx. And see more of Cat’s photography here: catmaxphotography.com