Dr. Jody Tanabe Interviewed by Dr. Ashesh Thaker

Dr. Jody Tanabe is chief of neuroradiology at University of Colorado, prior Vice Chair of Research, and prior senior editor of the AJNR. She is an accomplished physician-scientist with a focus on neural correlates of substance use disorders. In her career, Dr. Tanabe has mentored numerous students, radiology trainees, PhD investigators, and neuroradiology faculty. I recently had the opportunity to interview Dr. Tanabe as I transition into my own leadership role as chief of neuroradiology at Denver Health, a University of Colorado affiliate.

You have mentored many junior faculty and know that it can be difficult to find focus and momentum when starting out in research. What advice would you give to those who are in years 1-2 of academic practice?

I’m going to start with advice given to me years ago which was “say yes to everything.” Clearly this would not be sage advice today, though it might have been at the time. Today you must be deliberate in what you say yes to. I think the difference reflects the fact that there are many more opportunities now than there used to be. The plethora of opportunities now makes it harder for junior faculty because you have to decide what path you’re going to go down.

My recommendation for early career faculty is to choose two areas to focus on: one is a disease and the second is a technique. You’ll be able to use the technique across different disorders in neuro and within a disease you can use different techniques. Think of it as an intersection—a way to try to narrow it down. It might feel slow at first because by limiting yourself, you will have to say no to other low-hanging fruit. In the end, I think this is a good guideline, kind of a north star.

In academics, it is increasingly challenging to juggle the demands of clinical work, trainee education, and scholarly pursuits. What practical productivity or efficiency tips have worked for you?

You have to compartmentalize, something I still struggle with, as do most people. One tip is to set aside an hour and a half a day for thinking and writing. I have not found that to be too successful. I think the best is – once you get into a flow with your writing, just stick with that for as long as you can. Basically, block off time. It is difficult. Don’t beat yourself up if you can’t get it all done because it’s very hard to have a young family and meet your other expectations. Meetings are actually a good block of time away from home commitments. When I was junior faculty, I would go to a meeting and set aside time to work on papers or grants. At a meeting, you’re in work mode, away from distractions, and you have no domestic obligations. I actually did that quite a bit in the beginning of my career, I don’t do it much anymore.

As an experienced leader locally and nationally, what advice do you have for those who are taking on new leadership roles?

You have to understand yourself, how you best interact with people, and your blind spots. For me, I like to listen a lot. The downside is that sometimes decisions don’t get made as quickly as they could otherwise. My advice is to lean into your own personality and understand how it informs the way you manage people. Your leadership strengths come with downsides and try to be aware of them. You can read leadership articles, but if you implement advice that is unnatural, it will be difficult. I do enjoy learning about leadership because it helps your personal as well as work relationships. You will learn along the way.

What advice do you have on successfully navigating and cultivating career relationships—with referrers, research collaborators, and other leaders?

The first thing to consider is: “what are the motivations of the person I’m dealing with?” Try to align. It can be like threading a needle when there are different agendas, for example, between the health system and the School of Medicine. Always think–what are their motivations, their agenda, what are they trying to accomplish? Think about this when you go into a meeting. Research collaborators often seek our clinical expertise which we are happy to provide because it’s second nature. But be prepared to ask for a scientific role and understand that fleshing out exactly what that means takes time. When meeting other leaders, be prepared with documentation and knowledge.

Personally, I’ve benefitted from being at the University of Colorado for such a long time because I’ve gotten to know many people and generally understand their motivations. It’s hard to negotiate and interact effectively when you don’t know who’s on the other side.

With increasing burnout in medicine, the rise of remote work in radiology, and a generational focus on work/life balance, how do you make the case for academics to current trainees?

We all define wellness in different ways. I feel I have given up things in my personal life, but I don’t feel burned out. I do experience burn out over certain aspects of work that feel a bit like the mill, but it is a job after all. If I’m interested in something, I can work on it a long time and never get burned out. It’s not simply about time away from your family versus time at work, rather how much you value what you’re doing.

I just came back from the CPDD (College for Problems on Drug Dependence) meeting feeling energized. I’ve been doing drug addiction research for years and am still excited to learn about the latest. When we go to meetings, we’re energized because we’re surrounded by people who have the same interests and work on the same problems. One way to lead trainees toward academics is to make them feel that sense of belonging. Figure out their interests and identify a community who lives and breathes the same interest.

This idea is a little more challenging in radiology. When you look at a cool case, you might talk about it for 5-10 minutes and it’s the end of the case. In academics it’s easier to engage in long term, long-vision projects that foster relationships with colleagues because of a shared goal. It’s bigger than yourself and bigger than that one interesting case.

I believe that to do good research, radiologists need to get out of our comfort zone just being about imaging. We have so much to learn about other aspects of medicine and health care. We love radiology but progress might require letting go of an image-centric view.

What keeps you positive and optimistic about the future of neuroradiology as a specialty? Will we be replaced by AI?

Radiology as a specialty has done a good job integrating with health systems. I used to feel that radiology was seen solely as a service—it didn’t have prime position. Today, the health system understands how critical radiology is so we are in much better shape to determine our future. For neuroradiology, there are always discoveries to keep our job interesting and fresh. Think of how the role of brain imaging has evolved in stroke treatment since 1995, since tPA, from DWI to perfusion, to a huge change just this year in how we approach large infarcts! Imaging is integral to those discoveries and that keeps me positive and optimistic.

We’ll never get replaced by AI. I welcome the day that AI will find the incidentals so I can focus on the interesting questions.