UCLA spine, neurosurgeons reflect on changing diversity in the field


Neurosurgeon Linda Liau, MD, PhD, and spine surgeon Langston Holly, MD, were the only woman resident and Black resident when they graduated from Los Angeles-based UCLA Medical Center nearly 25 years ago.

Today, representation in the field remains low, according to a Feb. 23 feature from UCLA Health. Less than 4 percent of neurosurgeons are Black and 6 percent of board-certified practicing neurosurgeons are women.

Dr. Liau and Dr. Holly have spent their careers mentoring aspiring neurosurgeons and continuing conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion in the field. Dr. Liau was told in initial residency interviews that "women should not be in this field." Dr. Holly said he encountered discrimination where "people's behavior and their interactions" suggested he wasn't welcome in neurosurgery.

Now, Dr. Liau is chair of neurosurgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, and Dr. Holly is executive vice president and co-director of the UCLA Spine Center.

As a leader, Dr. Liau said intentional efforts in mentorship and promotions will make a difference. UCLA's neurosurgery residency program is now 43 percent women.

"We realized it was not just enough to look at the pool of applicants we had," Dr. Liau said. "We made a bigger effort to reach out to a diverse group of applicants. You need a critical mass to change the culture of the program."

Dr. Holly spends time mentoring and counseling Black students at all levels. 

"Often, patients from underrepresented backgrounds are more comfortable seeing physicians who look like them," Dr. Holly said. "Augmenting the number of physicians from these groups helps because the doctors are also comfortable being engaged in these communities."

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