Erika Petersen, M.D., First Female Neurosurgeon Named Professor in Arkansas

By Amy Widner

“If you had asked me to predict a few things in my life, that wouldn’t have been one of them. I would not have predicted being in Arkansas for 10 years. I would not have predicted having one patent and having others in the filing process. And I would not have predicted that I would row a half-marathon on an indoor rowing machine,” Petersen said in a nod to the dramatic changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, “but I have done all of these things in the past six months.”

Still, when she officially became Professor Petersen in July, the North Carolina native made Arkansas history. What’s more, female neurosurgery professors are still a rarity nationwide. A study recently published by one of Petersen’s colleagues in the UAMS Department of Neurosurgery, Analiz Rodriguez, M.D., Ph.D., found that only 16 women had reached the rank of full professor in neurosurgery in the U.S. in 2018.

How did she do it? When Petersen first came to Arkansas in July 2010, no one was doing deep brain stimulation surgery. Department of Neurosurgery Chairman J.D. Day, M.D., hired her to build the program from scratch. Looking back now, she recalls a series of events that – while not easy – seemed to flow naturally from one step to the next, something she attributes to the satisfaction she gets from her work and the support she has received from others.

“Ultimately, I’ve tried to do a good job, and luckily I found an environment where I have been supported,” Petersen said. “I have an amazing husband who’s encouraged my career. All along the way, I’ve had a supportive group of colleagues, an excellent chairman and inspiring collaborators in other departments at UAMS as well as other institutions. Having the right group of people around you is so important, especially when they can propel you forward on something you don’t think you’re ready for. Getting that extra nudge from people you trust and who lift you up is a real value.”

Petersen also didn’t start off her career intent to break down any gender barriers. Academics, interests, research, work, patients – these things drove her from one achievement to the next. In fact, as a resident in the early 2000s, she remembers shying away when asked to contribute to research about women. In a time when the popular culture said “girls can do anything” but women entering the workplace faced the reality that many old issues persisted, it seemed better to not draw attention to her gender and focus instead on her work.

“Slowly that started to change for me,” Petersen said. “With every little advancement in career or skills, I felt more confident that I could speak up about certain things. Then about six years ago, several things changed for me: I became a parent, I was in comfortable footing in my career, and I also became the neurosurgery residency program director and took on leadership roles in a few professional societies. I began to think about building for the future and recognized that we need a robust pipeline for neurosurgery that is as diverse as possible.”

Meanwhile, the social conversation around gender in the workplace had changed. It was more frequent, complex and loud. People were speaking up.

“I realized visibility really matters. I realized I was at a place in my career where I could address some issues, and I realized it was almost my responsibility to be more visible,” she said. “There’s an old quote that ‘you can’t be it if you can’t see it,’ and I think that’s true. Any person who sets an example that is different from a stereotype can make a difference. Someone out there will see it, and they don’t even have to see themselves reflected exactly in you. Just seeing someone contradict the historical norm is so powerful. Someone can see it and think, ‘I can do that.’”

Petersen is a proud mentor. One of her mentees recently became the first female neurosurgeon to finish her residency at UAMS. She gives presentations about neurosurgery to medical students, young women, and the general community. She is active on social media and frequently represents the field at presentations, television appearances, conferences and professional societies.

In addition to advocating for young women in medicine, Petersen is a tireless advocate for her patients – the original sources of inspiration for her career.

Deep brain stimulation can make a dramatic improvement in quality of life for people with Parkinson’s disease and other movement disorders. Patients can see radical improvement in the troublesome tremors in their hands that make activities like writing or holding a glass of water nearly impossible.

Petersen is also an expert in implanting nerve stimulators to treat chronic pain. Often the patients who end up in her office have tried everything else to no avail.

“Deep brain stimulation and interventional pain procedures and stimulation for pain are really interesting methods that can help patients in a way that nothing else can,” Petersen said. “They really resonate with me as a physician, and as soon as I found them, I knew that is what I wanted to do.”

However, Petersen isn’t satisfied with “just” performing brain surgeries. She is trying to build a community of support, education and flourishing research for her patients. She is a key figure behind the annual UAMS Parkinson’s Symposium, which brings patients, caregivers and health care professionals together in a daylong event that explores the latest in Parkinson’s care. She leads multiple clinical trials ushering in the future for chronic pain. In addition, she has surprised herself by becoming an entrepreneur and designing her own medical devices aimed at improving treatments for chronic pain.

This is all in addition to her 30-plus published peer-review publications, dozens of published abstracts, textbook on head and face pain, 15 book chapters, countless presentations, and many honors and awards for excellence as a physician, researcher and educator.

What’s next? Petersen doesn’t plan to rest on her laurels. She’s determined that UAMS become an even better home for Parkinson’s, movement disorders, and chronic pain treatment in Arkansas, and is pursuing that goal on multiple fronts. In some ways, becoming a full professor is just the first step toward making the kind of multigenerational lasting change she hopes to see for Arkansas.

Parkinson’s patients already have a multidisciplinary treatment home for their care in UAMS, but Petersen envisions something more.

“What’s next is for us to build on that synergy so that there is more research and more support services for patients and their caregivers. At some point, that begins to snowball, and we can attract more physicians and researchers, clinical trials and cutting-edge treatments and can attract the kind of funding that will make that work continue long into the future, for the betterment of all Arkansans,” Petersen said. “When I came here 10 years ago, Arkansans had to leave the state for a deep brain stimulation surgery. I’m determined that by the time I’m done, UAMS will be home to a complete center for Parkinson’s care that will outlast anything I could do as an individual physician.”