VBS 2022 – Dr. Julia Haller – Lifetime Mentorship Award

Sruthi Arepalli, MD
Tennessee Retina

The 10th annual Vit-Buckle Society meeting in Las Vegas featured a dazzling array of both medical and surgical retina cases with a sprinkling of valuable career building talks. One the highlights was the Lifetime Mentorship Award and Lecture – A Bigger Tent: Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Retina, delivered by Dr. Julia Haller. Her introduction by Dr. Nika Bagheri and Dr. Priya Vakharia showcased her wide and incredibly accomplished career along with her remarkable personal attributes, including raising five children, maintaining fierce friendships dating back to her Princeton days, and her overall boundless enthusiasm.

Her talk on diversity started off with a humorous story of her acceptance to the Vitreous Society, which had assumed she was a man in her welcome letter. In true trail blazer fashion, she wrote back “It’s time for me to come out of the closet…as a female.” She used this personal anecdote to pivot into a larger issue: the long-standing need for equity in retina and in medicine. As an avid learner, Dr. Haller shared pearls from a Wharton session emphasizing the need to broaden the scope of inclusion in the boardroom. Mainly, bringing diversity to leadership roles, which may be initially uncomfortable and time consuming, ultimately delivers balance to the scales of research and innovation while simultaneously yielding higher quality decisions.

Dr. Haller further honed in on why diversity is vital. She showcased statistics that female residents operate less than their male counterparts, females obtain less senior authorship status than males, still represent a smaller percentage of authors in retina overall, and are underrepresented in key industry partnerships and podium roles. But, despite this, certain strides have been made in the last years to tilt the scales towards female inclusion, with a significant increase in female authorship between the years of 1995 and 2020. She also taught that women tend to include women: when senior authors are women, there’s a higher chance of other female authors being on the manuscript. On a broader scale, other fields benefit from female investment as well, with female led-inventor teams develop more female focused interventions.

Her talk artfully wove together scientific research with popular culture references to push females equity, as she played a video clip of various entertainment and business women pushing for the banning of the word bossy (#BanBossy). She playfully divulged that her favorite tidbit was Beyonce Knowles stating, “I’m not bossy, I am the boss.” It’s clear that Dr. Haller seeks inspiration from a multitude of sources, and focused a portion of her talk on a recently discovered virtual role model: Tahu, a blind female archer who has sharpened her other senses to compensate for her loss of sight, while leading an army of female archers. Her motto resonated with many of us in the audience: “You are no longer blind when you can see through your fear.”

While there is a fair amount of information about the gender gap and where to focus our efforts, Dr. Haller did illustrate that less is known about other types of diversity, including cultural and racial disparities. She touched upon relevant and important work authored by Dr. Rebecca Soares and coauthors analyzing the access issues existing for patients to retina clinical trials, including their geography, ethnicity (particularly Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians), and income level. To broaden our understanding, she has also been working within various avenues to address how and why certain races are less likely to receive anti-VEGF treatments and clinical trial enrollment. She commented on what we can do as a field, including placing a priority on recruiting diverse, representative patients into our clinical trials, identifying barriers to care and circumventing them, and the importance of training health care professionals to represent our diverse and varied patient population.


She ended her thoughtful and inspiring talk by thanking some of her real life female colleagues, including Dr. Carol Shields and Dr. Marlene Moster, as well as her patients for inspiring her with their courage and resilience. She urged for the audience to seek out their own heroes and teammates to push for the greater goal of increasing diversity on all levels. Increasing diversity can only bring the field forward and Dr. Haller is a prime example of the good it can bring.