University of Vermont

College of Medicine

Vermont Medicine Magazine

Leading the Heart/Lung Charge: Parsons, Tracy and Cushman Play Major Role in Top Organizations

(From left to right) Mary Cushman, M.D., M.Sc., Paula Tracy, Ph.D., and Polly Parsons, M.D.
(From left to right) Mary Cushman, M.D., M.Sc., Paula Tracy, Ph.D., and Polly Parsons, M.D. (Photo: COM Design & Photography)

The American Heart Association (AHA); the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI); and the International Society on Thrombosis and Haemostasis are among the most influential organizations worldwide in the field of cardiovascular, lung and blood-related science and medicine, and they count among their principals three University of Vermont College of Medicine professors—women who talk energetically about their work, describing it as fun, invigorating, and exciting.

Mary Cushman, M.D., M.Sc., is in the middle of a two-year term on the AHA’s board of directors, a position that has stretched her professional interests in ways she didn’t foresee. Cushman, a professor of medicine and pathology and a hematologist, first became involved with the association by presenting at the annual scientific conference of its Council on Epidemiology and Prevention, and eventually volunteered to coordinate the entire event.

The AHA, celebrating its 90th anniversary this year, is the nation’s oldest and – with some 32,000 professional members and 22 million volunteers – largest voluntary organization committed to raising awareness of and supporting research around heart disease and stroke. It’s essentially divided between science and fundraising, says Bernard Dennis, chair of the board of directors, and “usually people stay in their swim lanes. But what’s unique about Mary is she’s crossed over, interacting with patients not just as a doctor, but as a volunteer, a peer.”

Indeed, says Cushman, being on the board has allowed her to learn about business, including planned giving, fundraising, budgeting, mission-oriented activities, and strategic planning.

“I’ve enjoyed having these opportunities through my volunteer life, to apply my knowledge in a different way than I do in my normal day,” she says. “Here at the university, I’m doing interesting research, I take care of patients, and I teach. I love all of that, but working with the AHA has allowed me to have an even greater reach.” She’s been invited to help AHA staff roll out strategic plan initiatives around kids and healthy lifestyles, including increasing physical education in schools and eliminating junk food from cafeterias. Her work with the AHA also inspired Cushman to tackle new research areas, including studying implications of the AHA’s 2020 goals to improve the cardiovascular health status of the nation.

Collaborative initiatives have been a focus for Polly Parsons, M.D., E.L. Amidon Professor and Chair of Medicine, through her position on the NIH’s National Heart, Lung and Blood Advisory Council, where she is wrapping up a three-year term. As for all NIH-supported institutes, the NHLBI has been challenged by recent funding cuts, so the advisory council, which is the oversight committee for the institute’s research portfolio, has spent the last year giving extra attention to strategic planning and program reviews.

“Decreased funding has actually opened up the opportunity to have a lot of conversations,” says Parsons, a pulmonary and critical care physician. “It’s really an exciting time to see things move along. It’s not uncommon for big organizations to operate in silos, and our work is to think about how to break down some silos and increase broader collaboration with different kinds of investigators at different levels.”

Susan Shurin, M.D., former acting director of the NHBLI, says that all of the NIH institutes rely on their advisory councils to spread the ever-dwindling budget across the spectrum of research in a balanced way, and that in assembling the councils, they look for those individuals who keep the big picture in mind and consider a portfolio of opportunities without focusing only on their own specialties, as Parsons has done.

“She brings expertise in her field,” says Shurin, “but also a much bigger sense of the entire biomedical research space, how all these things fit together, and how to maintain some balance.” Furthermore, in an environment in which people frequently clamor to be heard, Parsons, “is careful about what she says, and as a result,” says Shurin, “people listen to her.”

People are also listening to Paula Tracy, Ph.D., who is four years into a six-year term as a council member of the International Society on Thrombosis and Haemostasis (ISTH). Tracy, a world-renowned researcher in blood clotting and professor of biochemistry, says mentoring brings her real pleasure, particularly when her mentees are young women, scientists who are just getting their careers going. That’s something she’s been doing in her lab for three decades, and through the ISTH since 2009, when she was program chair for the organization’s biannual meeting and noticed that not many young women were stepping up into either scientific or administrative leadership roles, although their numbers within the ISTH were – and still are – substantial.

“It’s getting them to take center stage, take leadership roles in the meeting to chair a session, for example,” says Tracy. “Just little things, but they’re really important for them to build their self-esteem and demonstrate their competence.”

The ISTH’s mission is to increase understanding of the science behind thrombotic and bleeding disorders, particularly since thrombosis is the number one cause of most mortality in heart disease. The society’s ten working committees focus on various policies and programs; Tracy is chair of both the Ethics and the Governance committees. Under her leadership, those committees have guaranteed to the public that the ISTH would maintain objectivity when interacting with corporate partners and earmarked a council seat for a representative from a developing country, the so-called Reach the World seat. Tracy was delighted when the first person to hold it was a Brazilian woman.

“For me, it’s really interesting to see the role that women play in different countries, and that’s sort of why I took this on,” says Tracy. “We have so much to offer and sometimes women are afraid to make that offer.”

The ISTH’s executive director, Thomas Reiser, appreciates that Tracy routinely offers.

“She’s been one of our best leaders that I’ve ever experienced because of her diplomacy, her ability to bring a group together and work through very complex issues,” says Reiser, adding that Tracy is “one of those leaders that you want on a board who is critical and challenging, but at the same time who is supportive when the organization makes a decision. She contributes to that decision-making process very actively, and then she supports whatever the final decision is.”