A Doctor Like Her Mom: Nina Niu Sanford

IF/THEN Ambassador provides STEM example for girls
Dr. Nina Niu Sanford visits a 3-D printed statue of herself. (Photo: Courtesy Nina Niu Sanford).

Perhaps more girls will become doctors after visiting NorthPark Center and viewing an orange statue of Dr. Nina Niu Sanford.

“I think having realistic role models is always the most important,” said Sanford, a radiation oncologist who lived near Highland Park before moving to Preston Hollow this summer.

Inspired by her mother, Sanford pursued medicine, becoming among the 30% of women in her field and one of the 125 American Association for The Advancement of Science (AAAS) IF/THEN® Ambassadors. The ambassadors are female STEM innovators chosen to encourage more girls to pursue science, technology, engineering, and mathematics careers.

Lyda Hill Philanthropies’ #IfThenSheCan – The Exhibit showcases the ambassadors by depicting them in life-sized, 3-D printed statues outfitted in gear typical of their jobs. Their careers range from the CEO of a gaming company to a fashion designer. 

Sanford is excited to serve as a role model to young girls. 

“I believe I am in a position that allows me to change the status quo,” she said. “It is important for my daughters to have strong and diverse female role models who instill in them the confidence and independence to succeed. If we want girls to pursue careers in medicine, then we need both women and men to support them.”

Also, it is essential to have a realistic perspective on what the career entails, something she said she was grateful to get from watching her mom, who was a doctor in China.

After immigrating to the United States, Sanford witnessed first-hand the dedication medicine requires and how rewarding the field is as her mom retrained to become a licensed physician here.

For North Texans interested in exploring a career in the medical field, she recommends the STARS (Science Teacher Access to Resources at Southwestern) Program. 

“It is where they [high school students] get paired with a mentor, a physician, and they get to be involved with research,” Sanford said.

UT Southwestern Medical Center launched the program in 1991 and has served more than 20,000 teachers and an estimated 90,000 students in 4,000 North Texas schools, according to utsouthwestern.edu.

Sanford has earned many accolades in her career, such as being named a Dedman Family Scholar in Clinical Care, but also faced challenges.

Sometimes systems in place — such as no maternity leave and meeting schedules that conflict with school pick up and drop off times — can work against female practitioners, she said.

Her advice: Don’t compare yourself to others.

“There’s always someone you perceive is doing more, doing things better, and doing things at a faster rate,” Sanford said. “Let you define yourself, and let you define your personal goals.  Stop with the comparison trap as early as possible because it is very damaging.”

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