Leadership: Learning to Stand Up For Yourself and to Nurture Others


‘I saw it as a great opportunity, because I was asked to build a vision’

Ellen R. Gritz, PhD, is a leader in cancer prevention and was an early advocate for finding ways to help people quit smoking to reduce their risk of lung cancer.

The granddaughter of Russian immigrants, she grew up in a family of Orthodox Jews in New York City. Her parents respected education and encouraged young Ellen and her younger brother to enroll in courses for gifted children in the public school system. The siblings thrived in a diverse and inclusive atmosphere.

“I never remember anything that had to do with gender discrimination in school, never,” she recalled. “The teachers in elementary school were mostly women...and the same for junior high school, (and) when I got to high school at Bronx Science.”

In 1960, she entered Barnard College. In a same-sex school, young women did not compete against men. Their focus was on personal excellence.

“There’s something about the intellectual approach to science, or the arts, or anything,” Dr. Gritz recalled. “It’s just fascinating and exciting, and motivating, and very rich.”

At Barnard, she had her first experience as a leader, assuming responsibility for retreats and outings at Barnard Camp.

She worried that she wouldn’t be a good leader. But she enjoyed the experience, which inspired her to take on another leadership role with the Hillel at Columbia University.

At UCLA, she had a mentor who was a physician, an assertive man who taught her to stand strong on issues she believes in.

“He was a wonderful mentor… and a very strong leader,” she said. “He was very confrontational when he had to be, and I was able to observe that and maybe learn some things about standing up for yourself when I honestly, in areas where challenge was involved, usually didn’t stand up for myself.”

Dr. Gritz achieved balance through the example of another woman, a co-director of research at UCLA who effectively led others by offering them nurturing and support. "She taught me that dimension, which is a critically important dimension of leadership,” she said.

Actively honing her leadership skills helped, too. She participated in the Executive Leadership in Academic Medicine program sponsored by Drexel University, a year long program for women in academic medicine.

In 1993, she was recruited to lead cancer prevention efforts at MD Anderson in Houston. In taking on that challenge she was able to help realize her personal and professional vision.

“I saw it as a great opportunity, because I was asked to build a vision statement, and a plan for five years,” she recalled. “And I wrote down my heart’s desires, which was to address cancer prevention and control from primary prevention in healthy community-dwelling populations all the way up to cancer survivorship and issues of patients and quality of life, and family.”

She also assumed leadership roles in organizations dedicated to cancer prevention. From 2006-2007, she was president of the Society for Research in Nicotine and Tobacco. She was president of the American Society of Preventive Oncology (ASPO) from 1993-1995.

In 2008, she became the tenth recipient of the Alma Dea Morani, MD, Renaissance Woman Award, an honor bestowed by the Women in Medicine Legacy Foundation to recognize the national leadership of outstanding women in medicine and science.

This story is taken from the oral history of Ellen R. Gritz, PhD. The full oral history is available here as part of the Foundation’s exhibit at the The Countway Library of Medicine, through our partnership with the The Archives for Women in Medicine.

Alicia Lazzaro