Athena Poppas Blazes Trails for Women in Cardiology

April 12, 2023
VOL 25 NO 1

After she earned her medical degree from the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in 1989, it would have been easy for Athena Poppas, MD ’89 (PG ’92), to have chosen a specialty that was more typical for women.

But taking the path of least resistance has never been Poppas’ style. She was intrigued by cardiology and was not about to let the sparse representation of women in the field steer her away from realizing her dream.

“Dr. Poppas was an incredibly smart and serious medical student at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health and resident at UW Health,” reflects Patrick McBride, MD ’80, MPH, emeritus professor of medicine and former associate dean for students at the school, and a retired cardiologist at UW Health. “She was among very few women in our program who decided to specialize in cardiology. It’s a challenging field in its own right, let alone for a woman entering a heavily male-dominated specialty at the time. Despite that, I knew she would be going places because she was brilliant, and she worked incredibly hard.”

A native of Janesville, Wisconsin, Poppas completed an internal medicine residency at UW Health and a cardiology fellowship at the University of Chicago. Next, in 1998, Poppas joined the faculty in the Division of Cardiology at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Over the past 25 years there, she has amassed a substantial array of awards for her clinical, teaching, and research accomplishments.

A Rare Female Cardiology Chief

Since 2017, Poppas has been chief of the Cardiology Division and a professor of medicine at the Warren Alpert Medical School. She also serves as director of the Lifespan Cardiovascular Institute of Rhode Island, The Miriam and Newport Hospitals, where she leads a faculty of 45 and specializes in echocardiography and treatment of patients with valvular heart disease and heart disease during pregnancy. Poppas is one of very few female cardiology chiefs in the United States.

Thinking back three decades to her internal medicine residency at UW Health, Poppas says she felt supported by her peers and mentors, and she ignored any odd comments because of her gender. She was encouraged to dream big by her assigned mentor, Mary (Molly) Carnes, MD, MS ’01 (PG ’81), professor emerita, Departments of Medicine and Psychiatry, School of Medicine and Public Health, and Industrial and Systems Engineering, College of Engineering.

“I wanted to lead by example and to improve the system for the future,” Poppas says. “In my leadership roles at Brown and within the cardiology field nationally, I’ve focused on making cardiology a more welcoming specialty for women and others.”

A Platform for Advocacy

After serving in many leadership roles in the American College of Cardiology (ACC), including as a member of the board of trustees, chair of scientific sessions, and chair of the Women in Cardiology Section, Poppas rose to become the organization’s board chair and president in 2020-21. Her priorities included helping all underrepresented groups, including women in cardiology, overcome barriers and enhancing overall physician well-being.

“Colleagues and I explored a number of avenues to improve the climate for women, including increasing female representation at meetings and shining a brighter light on issues such as compensation, discrimination, and sexual harassment,” Poppas says. “We also started a health equity task force and advocated for greater physician well-being, which is often overlooked but has become more salient during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Although more than half of all medical students are female, women currently represent no more than 15 percent of practicing cardiologists and 18 percent of cardiology fellows, according to ACC data.

“We’ve made progress since my fellowship days, when fewer than one in 10 cardiologists were women,” Poppas says. “Clearly, however, we have a long way to go.”

Poppas attributes much of her passion and commitment to her late mother, Bessie Poppas, who was an investigative journalist when few of her women colleagues were assigned to cover hard news.

Sophia, Nick, and Alex Gould; Philip Gould, and Athena Poppas
Left to right: Sophia, Nick, and Alex Gould; Philip Gould, PhD; and Athena Poppas
Photo by Ava Poppas

“While working for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, my mom asked if she could cover politics, but they told her it was too complicated and ‘dangerous’ a beat for a woman,” Poppas recalls. “Initially, they assigned her to the society page. She also advocated for equal pay for equal work, which few women did in the 1950s.”

Poppas and her husband, Philip Gould, PhD, an English professor at Brown and fellow UW–Madison alum, have three grown children: Alex, Sophia, and Nick Gould. The family enjoys outdoor activities, including skiing, kayaking, and canoeing.

McBride, who worked with countless medical students, residents, and fellows throughout his 40-year career at UW–Madison, says he is proud of Poppas’ achievements and considers her to be among the top five percent of trainees he has mentored.

“It’s really heartwarming to see Dr. Poppas reach a pinnacle that she so richly deserves,” McBride says. “When you consider everything cardiology asks of someone, Dr. Poppas is nothing short of an exceptionally accomplished clinician, researcher, and trailblazer.”