A New Frontier
Plastic Surgery Products, October 1, 2002
Dr. Copeland expands the role of women in plastic surgery with her involvement in research, education, and women's health.

by Renee Dilulio

The best advice Michelle Copeland, D.M.D., M.D., F.A.C.S., P.C., ever received came from her parents. "Study and learn as much as you can," they advised, and Copeland went with it.

She decided on her career early in life. "For as long as I can remember, I have always wanted to be a doctor," Copeland says. She graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University with a degree in dentistry in 1977. Three years later, she obtained a Harvard medical degree and became the first woman plastic surgeon to obtain a dual degree in the United States. Downplaying her trailblazing, Copeland notes that there were not many women in medicine when she completed her schooling. "When I started training, women were not supposed to go into medicine. The long training period was seen to conflict with childbearing," she says.

At 12 years, Copeland's chosen specialty required a particularly long training period and was, therefore, a very male-dominated discipline. Even today, only about 4% of all board-certified plastic surgeons in the United States are women.

Yet, Copeland's unique background made her well-suited to a career in plastic surgery, particularly her dual degree and the research she had undertaken in biochemistry and connective tissue during her medical training. "Reconstruction is intimately related to tissues," says Copeland. "When this knowledge is applied to cosmetic surgery, the discipline can be approached in a new way."

She decided to subspecialize in oral and maxillofacial surgery and trained at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. She then returned to her native New York City for training in general surgery at the New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center.

In 1985, after her plastic fellowship, Copeland was asked to join the staff at the Division of Plastic Surgery for the Mount Sinai Medical Center, New York City. She later served as Chief of the Division of Plastic Surgery for the Mount Sinai Services at the City Hospital Center in Elmhurst. She is now an assistant professor of surgery and an attending surgeon at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and an attending surgeon at the Manhattan, Eye, Ear, and Throat Hospital.

In these capacities, she is able to teach and practice—responsibilities that require her to remain knowledgeable about the latest developments in techniques and technology. The process is time-consuming, but enjoyable. "The exciting thing about plastic surgery is that it is always improving," says Copeland. "We are constantly seeking better ways to do things and creating new technology and products. Methods are better today than even 5 years ago."

To learn about the latest developments, she attends conferences regularly, reads constantly, and stays networked. She is certified by the American Board of Plastic Surgery, a fellow of the American College of Surgeons, and a member of a number of professional societies, including the American Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, the American Society of Plastic Surgery and Reconstructive Surgery, the American College of Maxillofacial Surgeons, the American Society for Laser Medicine and Surgery, the American Medical Association (AMA), and the American Women's Medical Association.

Empowering Women

Despite the demands of this full schedule, Copeland finds time for issues close to her heart. She is a member of the Medical Health Advisory Boards for the Society for the Advancement of Women's Health Research, and, as such, advises Congress on health issues affecting women. "I noticed how women were approached within the discipline. Typically, we were ignored in research," she says.

The council meets several times a year. "Initially, we were concerned with planning, developing the concept of gender-based biology, setting goals, and determining the knowledge offered by the different specialties. We focused on the uniqueness and similarities of women compared to men," says Copeland.

Once the foundation was established, issues could then be considered within this concept, resulting in research that looks at subjects such as the relation of hormones to the body, the effects of smoking, body image, sun worship, cancer, fetal alcohol syndrome, and aging. "We bring the issues to Congress and help set the agenda for women's research," says Copeland. The effort requires the input of other professionals, whose involvement can occur at a local level, by raising awareness within the hospital and community, or at a national level, by submitting abstracts and presenting updates at conferences.

In addition to influencing agendas, Copeland is also trying to influence those within the medical system. Her specialty in maxillofacial surgery brought her into contact with many women facial trauma patients. Frequently, their injuries are due to domestic violence. The impact of their experiences motivated Copeland to advocacy and she joined the AMA's National Advisory Council on Violence and Abuse. The group had developed initiatives to train residents to recognize victims of domestic violence in the emergency room. "The purpose is to get doctors to treat domestic violence and raise it to the level of being a condition that needs to be recognized," says Copeland. The council advised the AMA and other member organizations on effective strategies and programs for the elimination of family violence, and promotes and coordinates these activities within member organizations as well as the National Coalition of Physicians Against Family Violence.

Copeland also extends her time to women physicians. She is involved with the American Women's Medical Association and its financial assistance fund, created to help women medical students who need financial assistance. The association's website states that, as of 1994, 19% of practicing physicians were women. By 2010, it is expected that 30% of all physicians and 50% or more of all medical students will be women. Copeland says that she believes women are more accepted by both schools and patients today than when she first started.

Art, Science, and Humanity

Yet even with all these responsibilities on her plate, Copeland is still not done studying and learning. In addition to her teaching position, Copeland has authored numerous scientific articles and has become a reliable source for periodicals such as The New York Times, Town & Country, Allure, Women's Health, Parade, Lear's, and Cosmopolitan. She has also been featured on NBC's Today Show and ABC's Good Morning America.

Based on her early research in biochemistry and connective tissues, Copeland developed her own line of skin care, Dr. Copeland's Skin Care Programs. She has also found time to write Change Your Looks, Change Your Life: Quick Fixes and Cosmetic Surgery Solutions for Looking Younger, Feeling Healthier, and Living Better, due early next year. Written with Alexandra S. Postman, a senior edition at Elle magazine, the book combines Copeland's perspective with facts about plastic surgery, including how to get through the process, the actual procedures, and patient experiences. "I interviewed some patients who were very forthcoming," says Copeland. "We are at a frontier in plastic surgery. Procedures are readily available, and millions of Americans are considering permanent changes. This book empowers them to change their looks and their lives by showing them how to be a partner in the process and understand their options, both surgical and nonsurgical," says Copeland.

Plastic surgery is no longer just about surgery, according to Copeland. Rather, it now incorporates the concept of cosmetic wellness. "Plastic surgeons not only change people's looks surgically, but they help maintain those looks as their patients age, and so a more holistic approach is necessary," she says.

Copeland points to quick fixes, a major trend in the field today. "People are busy and do not have time for major procedures. They want to look better and live longer, without looking like a different person. The discipline requires a blend of art, science, and humanity," she says.

Finding Balance

Copeland applies a similar well-rounded approach to her life. Despite delaying childbirth to complete her training, she is married and has two children, a balance that may seem difficult. However, Copeland says that raising children and the responsibilities of family life are, in essence, no different for a plastic surgeon than any busy mother—except, perhaps, she can approach cuts and bruises with a bit more confidence. "I try to teach our children that it is possible to be both a responsible parent and to have a productive professional life," she says.

When asked how she finds time to fit in a personal life alongside her many other obligations, Copeland offers her own advice: "You cannot do everything by yourself and you cannot do it all at once. Organize, delegate, schedule. Find the right timing and support." Copeland credits her family and staff with helping her achieve her goals of studying and learning as much as she can.

1. Kuczynski A. Why are so few plastic surgeons women? New York Times. July 12, 1998; sect 9.
2. History of AMWA. American Medical Women's Association. Available at: www.amwa-doc.org/abouta.html. Accessed September 4, 2002.