STARTING AT A YOUNG AGE, Dr. Sheri Dewan spent a lot of time at the library. Her love of science, which would lead to a career in neurosurgery, was fueled by an appetite for reading.
“I first became interested in science and neuroscience when I was a child of 9 or 10 years old, and it started with books,” she says. “I really loved reading and as a child I would go to the library every weekend and check out eight or 10 books and finish those, then come back the next week and get more. Eventually I started reading books about science and neuroscience, and that set the tone for me.”
Dr. Dewan was born at Central DuPage Hospital in Winfield, where she currently practices medicine, but her family moved to Seoul, South Korea, when she was just in infant. Her father was in the oil business so after a few years her family moved to Saudi Arabia, returning the U.S. when she was 10.
She did her undergraduate work at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana and attended medical school at Northwestern University. She completed her residency in neurosurgery at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. In addition to her interest in science that was developed early on through books, a family situation became a key factor that inspired her career.
“When I was in my early twenties my mom developed a brain aneurysm and almost died, and her life was actually saved by a neurosurgeon,” Dr. Dewan says. “He was the first neurosurgeon I ever met and because he had such an impact on me and my family and our path. I became enamored with the field and the possibilities of what I could do to help people.”
While there are several PhDs in Dr. Dewan’s family, there were no medical doctors. She says it was somewhat expected for her to pursue a career in science or engineering, so her choice raised a few eyebrows.
“I was told many times by people in medical school, by family, and by friends, asking if it was really the path that I want to choose, because it’s a very difficult life,” she says. “It’s very high-stress, high-pressure. They asked if this is the life that I really wanted. But what propelled me really was the inspiration of being able to help people with neurologic disorders, and that really came from my mother’s illness.”
Dr. Dewan says she was often told that a career in neurosurgery would mean she wouldn’t have time for marriage or children, that she wouldn’t be able to balance having a family and taking care of her patients. She dismissed the warnings.
“Like many things in life, I decided to follow my own path and follow what felt right for me. I did get married and have been married now for 16 years to my husband, who’s a biology professor at Lake Forest College,” she explains. “We met at Northwestern and now we have three beautiful kids.”
While there are challenges, Dr. Dewan says she has plenty of help when it comes to achieving work/life balance.
“I would say that I’m a product of a lot of love and support, and a village exists around me which includes my parents and extended family,” she adds. “They have helped and been there for us during times when it got challenging.”
Only six percent of neurosurgeons in the U.S. are women, and Dr. Dewan’s commitment to increasing that number—and to supporting girls and young women as they pursue careers in science and medicine—is unwavering.
“One of my visions for the next five or ten years is to really help grow and mentor and shape the futures of women and girls who are interested in the field or medicine in general,” she says. “I’ve also written a book titled Cut Your Own Path; I just found a publisher and it’ll be coming out next year about my story and my path to neurosurgery.”
Through Northwestern and Brown, Dr. Dewan takes female medical students under her wing, helping them with the application process and making sure they have what’s needed to apply for the right programs. She also regularly speaks to women’s groups and serves on the board of Women in Neurosurgery, which works nationally to support women in the field.
“These have been some of the things I’ve done in the last couple of years that I feel like have faithfully helped some girls forge ahead despite of adversity,” she says. “I do see more women in medicine being more visible or vocal about their careers.”
Dr. Dewan, who resides in Lake Forest with her family, says her advice to girls and young women is not to be deterred when being advised or told what they can’t do.
“If you have big dreams that seem formidable, you should follow them and you should follow your heart,” she says. “I didn’t want to look back in ten years and think about a situation where I could have become a neurosurgeon but didn’t do it, to give in to all of the reasons why I was fearful of doing it.”