Dr. Stacey Schroeder-Watt works to level playing field for women in sports, STEM careers

Dr. Stacey Schroeder-Watt works to level playing field for women in sports, STEM careers
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Sat, Jul 30th 2022 07:00 am

Story and photos by Karen Carr Keefe

A phenomenal track star at Grand Island High School, Dr. Stacey Schroeder-Watt got a boost on her career path in medicine through sports. “Because I had a scholarship as a result of Title IX,” she explained.

Title IX is the groundbreaking legislation that, with its passage 50 years ago, changed the face of women’s sports forever.

And 2022 also marks 30 years since Schroeder-Watt made a record-breaking discus throw of 172 feet, one of two state records she achieved that still stand today. She says however, she would be happy to see the records fall. “They were made to be broken … someone else should enjoy it; I’ve had my fun.”

Schroeder-Watt, chief of service for the department of anesthesiology at Kaleida Health, is not only a strong advocate for women’s athletics, but also for encouraging girls and women to break through another barrier and enter the STEM careers of science, technology, engineering and math.

In STEM fields, as on athletic fields, women are still underrepresented compared to men, she points out. Schroeder-Watt works to level the playing field in both arenas.

Grand Island High School Athletic Director Jon Roth recalls her as an outstanding three-sport athlete at GIHS. She excelled in volleyball, basketball and, most notably, track and field.

Recently retired Grand Island teacher and coach Craig Davis remembers that record-breaking day, May 9, 1992, when Schroeder-Watt’s discus throw astonished the crowd at the Jamestown Classic, a big track and field event.

“The guy that was out measuring – most of the throws are going like, 100, 110 feet – so he was standing at about probably 130 feet, and she threw it right over his head. So he watched it go over his head and then land and he marked it and it was 172 feet,” he said.

“There was a lot of excitement. Everybody that was there was clapping and applauding her,” he remembers. “She was competitive … and I never saw her lose.”

“I believe she helped out the track team this year, so she’s come full circle,” Davis said. “She’s a great athlete, great student, great physician and a great mom.”

Schroeder-Watt said she’s grateful for the opportunities that Title IX has afforded her and so many other women since June 23. 1972. That’s when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was updated to protect women from discrimination in all educational programs – but with an effect that was especially felt in women’s sports.

“Title IX, especially since this is now its 50th year, it’s been really an eye-opening experience to remember all the people that come before you and all the opportunities that have been generated as a result of Title IX.”

“Everyone knows that football teams, basketball teams, they generate a lot of revenue and they are self-sustaining, but it’s nice to see that schools have invested, and now, because of their investment initially in Title IX, women’s sports have taken off .”

“I wish they would say they were to the level of men’s sports right now, but unfortunately. we’re not there yet. Do I hope we get there? Absolutely!

“So, I’m really a huge fan of athletics overall. I think it adds depth to a person’s resume, but also their life experience. I think they make better teachers, better doctors, better lawyers, better people, better community citizens when sports is involved because they learn how to work together. They learn how to be a team and a unit and fight for a greater cause or greater good. And I think that’s sometimes missing, right now, especially.”

Dr. Stacey Schroeder-Watt, with her daughters, Espen “Alexandra,” 15, left; and Audrey, 13.

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Schroeder-Watt stresses how important it is to re-energize school athletics and shake off the ripple effects from the COVID-related cancellations.

“I think it’s a call to action for everyone to say, ‘Let’s get back to it and return to the fields, return to athletics.’ It’s going to take a community to do so.”

She is equally passionate about sports and the STEM fields as keys to growth and community involvement for young people.

“The community part is key. I think not only does sports really round a lot of people out, but I am a big supporter of the STEM fields … I think we have to return to that. Because not everyone is going to have a video channel on YouTube and make a million dollars.”

She said when she goes to schools to give talks, she asks students, questions such as, “What do you want to do with your life,” and “What are you going to do to improve the world?” She said that too often for her, the answer is something like, “Well, I’m going to do it through my Instagram channel.”

Schroeder-Watt said, “Things have gotten away from community and activism, getting out there and learning about what your community needs and what can you do with your skills.”

For several years, Schroeder-Watt has organized a panel discussion at the high school about STEM careers. The program is sponsored by the Zonta Club of Grand Island, of which she is a member. It’s held in memory of Amelia Earhart, a Zonta member who was the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean.

COVID sidetracked the program, but it returned this April with a panel of five young University at Buffalo students pursuing careers such as nursing, pharmacy and medicine.

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She hopes girls are inspired to pursue STEM careers in greater numbers to overcome the sizable gap between men and women in these fields. “They’re still vastly underrepresented, and I can tell you as an anesthesiologist. Although women in medicine are 50%, women in anesthesiology are only in the 30% range, and if you go up to leadership roles in anesthesiology, our numbers drop to 8% to 13% — and that’s sad, and that’s low.

“We all have a path, and I am going farther than the last woman did before me. So they blaze a trail, I went a little further. I’m hoping maybe I can make it broad enough, more people could follow behind and go even further.”

“The challenges again are women are usually told, ‘Math is for the boys; you know, science is for the guys. And don’t worry, you could do creative writing or you could do art.’ Even though those are wonderful fields – I celebrate them – why can’t you just celebrate every field?” she asked. “Support them in whatever field they choose.”

“I think we’re farther along, we’ve moved the needle, but it’s not yet at the point we need to be.”

Schroeder-Watt illustrated her point with an anecdote from a previous Amelia Earhart panel discussion.

To be inclusive, the school district wanted all students, both boys and girls, to be invited to the panel discussion, a decision she agreed with. Yet, a key goal of the Amelia Earhart panel is to encourage girls to pursue STEM careers to swell the ranks of women in those professions.

“A boy came up in the first row and he shot his hand up and he said, ‘How come all the panelists are women?’ And I pointed out to him, I said, ‘Well, you heard who the panelists are;’ and he said, ‘Well, yes, of course. I heard that we have a pilot, a scientist, a doctor, an engineer and we have a person that works in mathematics.’ And I said, ‘Yes, they just all happen to be women,’ and the light bulbs that shot up in this kid’s eyes were just, ‘Oh!’ I said, ‘Don’t look at them because of their gender, look at them because of the fields they represent and who they are.’ ” She added, “No one remembers when they put a panel of all men up. No one beats an eye.”

Schroeder-Watt said having a sports background helped her in academics, as well. “It made a huge impact in my ability to manage time, to actually prioritize tasks, to really get goal-setting under control at an early age, and that set a very early stage up for success in not only college, but beyond, in medical school.”

A sports analogy illustrates her point: “You know when it is the last second of a game and you’re down by two points and that stress is on, you can manage it better than most,” she said. “You remember that and you can handle it.”

Schroeder-Watt’s home life is a strength, as well. She and her husband, George, have two daughters, both of whom are involved in sports. Her husband holds down the fort at home with the kids. “Him being a collision specialist and then giving that up to be a stay-at-home dad is really an amazing thing!” Schroeder-Watt said.

Audrey, 13, started out as a dancer, moved on to indoor track and field and hybrid defense training, and is interested in volleyball for the upcoming fall season. Her older daughter, Esten “Alexandra,” 15, earned a first-place in 8-to-13-year-olds in power lifting in a national competition for bench press. She also has done throwing, like her mom, and is also interested in hockey. Schroeder-Watt is just glad they’re going into athletics. “I want them to know what it feels like to be part of a team,” she said.

“I owe a lot to the field and I owe a lot to the sports community. I owe a lot to Grand Island. They supported me through high school and they cheered me on through college. And they welcomed me back after medical school to rejoin the community and be a part of it … and raise my family here. I mean, I couldn’t say enough about this Island.”

“My parents were a huge backing for me … There were no restrictions on what you wanted to try,” she said. “They wanted me to experience everything and I really have tried to bring that to my own kids. You know, give it a go. And I think that’s the way in life, too.”

At first, she thought she would become a civil engineer. But when her grandfather became ill during her freshman year, she witnessed a heartbreaking lack of concern and regard from a doctor who was treating him. Her grandfather turned to her after the physician left his hospital room, and told her, “You could do better than that,” and encouraged her to consider becoming a doctor. After doing some research on what it would take, she said she decided, “For him, I’ll try.”

Throughout her athletic and medical career, Schroeder-Watt said there are high points that stand out:

“Thirty years of holding a record – the discus state record – has been an honor; being inducted into the Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame; and the New York State Athletic Association Hall of Fame have been real highlights of my athletic career,” she said.

“When it comes to my academic and medical careers, serving as Kaleida Health Chief of Service has been incredibly important to me, especially being part of the John R. Oishei Children’s Hospital. I make a difference every day. Going to work, I feel that. because also, as an educator at the University of Buffalo, teaching anesthesia residents. I’m teaching the people that will take care of my kids in the future – and me. If I can teach them how to be good people, do it right, and everything else, they’re going to take off. “

Helping others to find their calling is a central part of Schroeder-Watt’s mission in life.

“I am such a believer that you give back. If you only focus on your individual footprint … and you don’t bring your head up and look around, you’re missing out on life. I love that I have footprints in multiple places. Eventually, they’ll wash away, but for now, they’re still there.”

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