Reena has long thought about how her high school years may have influenced the neuro-oncology practice and research she does now. “I absolutely attribute my comfort in very male-dominated fields,” to her single-sex education. She recalls that her ”outspoken nature” and “confidence” was appreciated and nurtured at a critical juncture during her teens. “I definitely think the kind of foundation in who I am, and what I do, comes from Mayfield, for sure.”
After Reena graduated from Mayfield, she headed east—to Cornell in New York for undergrad and Georgetown in Washington, D.C. for medical school—before returning to California to complete her residency at Stanford. Her brother’s experiences with childhood epilepsy ignited her interest in neuroscience early on, and Reena eventually decided to specialize in neuro-oncology. Today, she continues to teach and practice at the Stanford University School of Medicine.
Her professional trajectory is unusual among her female counterparts. “In academic medicine, you're both a professor as well as a physician...you often have to do research, publish, write grants, do the academic side of medicine as well, in addition to the clinical side of medicine,” Reena explains. “That's where there’s a big drop-off... not many women at all enter academic medicine and then stay and ascend the ranks.” Reena shakes her head, her smile a little more rueful. “That's where I think the confidence, the ability to communicate effectively...that's where Mayfield had a significant impact.”
Reena talks about the challenging courses at Mayfield that laid the initial groundwork for pre-med, like physics with Mr. Rush and AP Bio with Ms. Peters. “I loved Mrs. Tighe...but I used to get in trouble for talking in her class!” Reena cackles. “I’d get my name put up on the board!” And it wasn’t just the classes that felt formational to her. The way she was able to participate in Varsity sports and APs, without having to sacrifice one for the other, was meaningful too. “There is something about Mayfield that promotes ambition, self-driven motivation, and a kind of independent spirit.” says Reena.
Reena, who is also the Director of Diversity and Inclusion for Stanford’s neurology department, has a special focus on “recruiting and mentoring folks from underrepresented backgrounds.” She wants young people to go into the profession clear-eyed about what they are getting into. “I tell anyone that I mentor that going into medicine is not a career that you do to make money, or reach a stature because of what your family wants you to do.” Reena reflects on what she sees as the core of her profession: “You take a Hippocratic Oath to the health and safety of others—others in front of you, frankly.”
And what is it like to be practicing medicine in the time of COVID-19? “I personally feel very strongly that medicine is not a job,” says Reena, “it’s a calling.” Reena lives with her husband, Ahmad, and their two sons, James, 8, and Julian, 5. “I explained to my kids and have to remind them that mom has to go to work when everyone else is staying home, and they get it...they grew up knowing that is a big part of who I am.”
Reena’s sister, Anita Vishwanath Fears ’99, is not only a fellow Mayfield alum, but also a fellow medical doctor. She works on the front lines inside an emergency department in San Bernardino County. Thankfully, amidst this health crisis, Anita, Reena, and their families remain healthy.
During this period of “shelter in place” and “safer at home,” Reena says educators should be getting a lot more credit. “The fact they've had to change everything to virtual learning in such a short period of time—it's not easy to do. And also usually having families of their own, kids of their own.” And there is Reena’s smile again—somehow serious, playful, and appreciative, all at the same time. “Teachers are the true unsung heroes of COVID-19,” she says.