“Be your own best advocate and be passionate . . . that is what has taken me the furthest.” Mary Anne Tarkington, MD, FACS
By Ashley N. Nicholls, Registered Patent Attorney at Jones Robb, PLLC
In honor of Women’s History Month, Jones Robb attorney Ashley Nicholls asked surgeon, inventor, and entrepreneur, Dr. Mary Anne Tarkington, MD, FACS, to share her experiences as a woman in medicine, technology, and business, as well as what she has learned navigating the patent process to bring her innovations to market. We also asked what advice Dr. Tarkington would give to other women looking to follow in her footsteps.
Dr. Tarkington received her Bachelor of Science from Vassar College and her Doctor of Medicine at Georgetown University. She also completed her general surgery internship and a urology residency at Georgetown University. Following her residency, she conducted research in the field of urologic oncology with both the Lombardi Cancer Center, at Georgetown University, and the American Foundation for Urologic Disease. She is the recipient of multiple honors and awards, including first prize for her urological research at the Washington Urological Societies’ Resident’s Scholars Conference. Dr. Tarkington is also the author of numerous publications and holds multiple Patents, both U.S. and Foreign, relating to medical device technologies, including portable exercise devices that may be used to actively engage the lower extremities to stimulate venous blood flow. Her current U.S. Patents include U.S. Patent Nos. 8,430,796 and 9,914,009. Dr. Tarkington, through TS Medical LLC, the company she owns, is presently working to prototype and bring her portable exercise devices, which are particularly designed to boost circulation and reduce the risk of venous thromboembolism, to market.
Prior to starting the interview, Dr. Tarkington (Mary Anne) and I chatted briefly about women innovators and why women inventors hold so few patents. Although the number of women graduating with hard science degrees, and entering jobs as scientists, engineers, doctors, and even patent attorneys has increased significantly, unfortunately, women inventors are still greatly outnumbered by men, and in general women comprise only a small minority of patent holders. In fact, according to a report released in February 2019 by the USPTO, although the share of patents that name at least one woman as an inventor did increase from about 7 percent in the 1980s to about 21 percent in 2016, women inventors still only made up about 12 percent of all inventors on US patents granted in 2016[i]. Such a disparity highlights the untapped potential of women to spur U.S. innovation, a problem which we attempted to explore in our discussion.
Ashley: What women in history do you find inspiring?
Well, I thought about that and truthfully couldn’t think of a famous female historical figure that stood out in my mind. I thought, to be honest, it would really have to be my mother. The greatest influence in my life came from my parents. I grew up in a household in which it never occurred to me that I could not be anything that I wanted to be. My parents believed that there was nothing more important than education, which was remarkable given the time.
My mom grew up very poor on a dairy farm in upstate New York. I can’t remember if she had eight or nine brothers in addition to her sister, but they all worked on the farm. My mother was limited in what she could do but her spirit was never limited. And I remember that she had wanted to be a doctor. She was told that, well, woman were not doctors, but they would give her a full scholarship for nursing school. Her mother had breast cancer. As the only caregiver, she could not leave New York and so she became a nurse. After her mother passed away she joined the Army to see the world. She taught me the importance of hard work and service to others. She always said that “you are only as good as the service you provide to others” [and] that lived in my head. When she wanted something, she went after it. She was my role model.
Ashley: When did you first become interested in science and how did you ultimately choose your career path into the health field?
I have always been fairly creative. I was a good student but not as serious as I should have been until the end of high school. But I thought that I was going to be a fashion designer. I could, in my mind, see the most amazing designs, sort of the classic Ralph Lauren kind, you know just sort of chic, beautiful dresses and gowns. I can’t draw to save my life and never took any art classes, so fashion design wasn’t a viable alternative. One of my best friends was less fortunate, with fewer opportunities, [but was a] very smart girl. She looked at me one day and said, “what’s wrong with you? You can go to any school you want because your parents can pay your tuition and you are smart enough to get in. What are you doing?” That was it, this was serious. Her words were like a slap, like wow what am I doing? Now I had to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I like to help others, which is definitely from my mother. I loved math and science, but I especially liked to be challenged. My father was a doctor and thoroughly enjoyed his work. I thought, you know what, I am going to go to medical school and do what my mother was told she couldn’t. I attended Vassar college, majoring in Biochemistry.
Ashley: Did you have any role models/mentors in your youth and during your career advancement?
My favorite class at Vassar was physical chemistry. It’s all math, I loved it. Hands down, it was my favorite class and the instructor, Mr. Mucci, my favorite professor. He was thoroughly engaged in not only his research but also in teaching. He created a classroom environment that was demanding yet lowkey, stimulating, and fun. Dr. Fisher, a biology professor, was also an important role model. She was an ardent researcher and an amazing teacher. Caring and compassionate. I believe those two professors really taught me to think, analyze, question, dream, and, most importantly, do. In truth, I had so much support along the way from family, friends, and all of my professors.
Ashley: As a woman, and in a profession that is still dominated my men, could you share an example of a hurdle or obstacle that you experienced during your career and how you overcame it?
I have a lot of advice on this one! I knew that I wanted to do surgery. I loved surgery and wanted to be a neurosurgeon. I had an amazing mentor, Teo-Forcht-Dagi, who is helping me to this day. He is back in Boston now, but when he was at Georgetown, where I was a medical student, he took me under his wing. I did all sorts of research with him and he had me write journal articles, which he edited, of course. He is the smartest person I’ve ever known, always taking thoughts to the next level. His passion was inspiring and contagious. During my neurosurgery rotation, however, I was disheartened that the patients were almost always asleep when we made morning and evening rounds because we were in the OR twenty-three hours a day! I exaggerate a bit, I know, but decided that interacting with people was important to me, I do like to talk, as you know, and determined [neurosurgery] was probably not a great field for me. Telling Dr. Dagi that I was not pursuing neurosurgery was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.
My next surgical rotation was in urology, a field in which there were very few women. I’d never considered urology but felt that, as a surgeon, I would have a lot to offer in terms of treatment options and could help people across the age spectrum, which was appealing. Urology combined open and endoscopic surgery with an active office-based practice. But a lot of my classmates teased me, swearing I’d never have any patients. It really was not my teachers; it was really more of my colleagues or my peers during medical school that were discouraging. But I thought I have to get up and go to work every day and love what I’m doing, something my parents had always emphasized when discussing professional choices. I have to do what I love and I can do this. So, instead of doing something else, choosing another field based on what other people thought, I decided this is my life and I have to be happy. And so, I chose to go into urology. We were required to do two years of general surgery before starting a urology residency. There were five women [when I started] in [general] surgery. Interestingly, I was the only one that stayed in surgery. But I think that, especially in urology, when you are in a man’s world, you have to do a couple of things. Learn what to ignore. Most of the time people are simply trying to get a rise out of you, just like when you are a little kid. If you completely ignore it, don’t respond, it tends to stop. But the other thing I think you have to look at is the intent, when somebody says something to you, what is the intent? There were no other women in urology in any of the hospitals in which we trained, residents or attendings, so as far as everyone was concerned, I was one of the guys. Taking offense at every off color joke was not a recipe for success. I recall one older doctor who really pushed me to go into research/academics. I remember thinking that he just believes that I, or women in general, should just not be urologists, treating men, as many of our patients are male. Now that I am older, and theoretically wiser, and look back on it, that really wasn’t the case at all. He was saying that research is a strength I have demonstrated and should pursue. Understanding the intent is important.
Ashley: I mentioned this when we were first talking about how women are underrepresented in the patent field. Although in the last 40 years, women have quintupled their representation among patent holders, women inventors still hold an extremely small share of patents. You, however, are one of the few women who is not only named on a patent but is the main named inventor on multiple patents. What gave you your creative spirit, drive to pursue your ideas, and perseverance to make it through the patent process, which as you now know can be kind of lengthy?
I like to solve problems and am extremely persistent, just ask my husband, and maybe because my parents grew up in the depression, I learned that you don’t waste things. If you use it for one thing and you don’t need it anymore then you use it for something else. I started creating things when I was, I think a medical student, or maybe a resident. I would see a problem and I thought, well, I could fix this. I just did it, not because I wanted to have a patent or anything like that, but because it needed to be fixed. The first thing that I can remember inventing was a stent for male babies undergoing a hypospadias repair. It really bothered me that the surgeon placed a needle through the glans to secure the tube draining the bladder, I just thought that this has got to be horribly painful, and it doesn’t need to be. Babies can’t complain, and, so, I decided I could fix it. I designed a pediatric urethral stent that didn’t require suturing in place. I [didn’t do it] because I would be famous or so I could make money, but because it was a problem to solve. Anyway, that is when I began to use my creativity for the medical world. When my son got hurt and I took a leave of absence, I had to find a new way to use my brain and contribute or I’d go crazy. And that’s when I attended a conference on venous thromboembolism, which did apply to my patients as a pelvic surgeon, and I saw a problem and thought, [I can] fix this. But I wanted the solution to be simple [and] inexpensive, because if it is so expensive that nobody can afford to buy it, then I haven’t helped anybody.
Ashley: You are also a founding member of TS Medical LLC. Can you tell us a bit about your experience with starting this business, running it, and working to bring your innovations to market?
I have to give my husband most of the credit. I think it’s important to know your strengths and weaknesses. A lot of people try to do everything themselves, which can be a recipe for disaster, or certainly can result in things taking a lot longer than they would normally take. My husband has run several businesses and guided me through all of the business dealings, administrative and organizational. He knows what he knows and where to find the answer to what he doesn’t. And through his work experience and engineering background, he understands many of the technical aspects involved in designing medical devices. If you don’t know what you are doing then you need to find somebody that can help you. And, if you can’t afford to hire someone yourself, because everything gets very pricey, look for people who are willing to partner with you for a percentage of whatever you are doing, at least in this field.
Ashley: How did you decide to start your own business?
Well, because I was working on my own and responsible for doing this all myself, I had no choice. If I weren’t married to a businessman, I’d have looked for someone to team up with in the beginning and been forced to learn to use the internet far more successfully! I have maintained all my medical licenses, which has been helpful in approaching physicians and researchers, and in fact necessary to set up studies. The business has given me more credibility in dealing with a design team, engineers, business and regulatory consultants, and in approaching potential distribution partners. I have no desire to try to manufacture and distribute. I recognize that I have neither the knowledge base nor the interest in running that type of a business, but in order to do the things that I was doing and get to a certain point, I felt I had to have a business.
Ashley: And, what were the greatest challenges to making your ideas a reality, to get to this prototype stage that you are now at?
I think that the hardest thing was knowing where to start, what I needed, and who to ask. I began this whole process with [the patent protection and legal assistance from] Susie Jones, recommended by a colleague of hers, who happens to be a good friend of mine. She patiently led me through the process. And from there, when I was looking for an engineer [to assist with prototyping], she provided a contact which got the process rolling. I think that that was the biggest challenge for me, figuring out where to go [for each step of the process].
Ashley: You have already mentioned some advice, do you have any other advice that you would you give to a female inventor or entrepreneur about pursuing her ideas, navigating the patent process, and bringing her innovations to market?
Be smart about the choices that you make and who you trust. You have to be careful about the people with whom you discuss your idea, because there are those who will take your idea. And [learning] that was hard for me, because I would never do that to someone else. I trust everyone.
Be upfront with consultants that you are interviewing about the scope of your project and ask how they treat small accounts. You want to be sure they’re not planning to work on your project “when they have time”, which happened to me.
Use the resources that are available to you. When I started to do this, I used my resources. I contacted the head of urology at Georgetown and asked who I could approach there, referencing him, and he put me in contact with people. My husband had a home healthcare contact, so I arranged to meet with her. I would attend medical meetings and seek out people that I knew or had talked to in previous years. Even if it were just yearly, I would make a point of maintaining those friendships and connections so that when I needed something I had enough of a relationship with them that they would speak to me. And then people helped me. Not everybody, but most people are willing to try to help you, or to put you in contact with someone who can help or point you in the right direction. But you have to ask.
Remember that no one has the [same] passion about your idea. Don’t let someone else’s lack of enthusiasm dampen yours.
Don’t take criticism personally. Evaluate any suggestion with an open mind and then go with your gut. Don’t get stuck on an idea of how something should be done.
The thing that really helped my device move forward was when, because I was a little hesitant having had no experience in this business, I realized that I was the one that needed to get out there and make things happen rather than depending on someone else. So be your own best advocate and be passionate. That is what has taken me the furthest and my device has really started to move forward.
[i] Progress and Potential, A profile of women inventors on U.S. Patents, Office of the Chief Economist, IP Data Highlights, Number 2, February 2019, accessed via the internet at <https://www.uspto.gov/sites/default/files/documents/Progress-and-Potential.pdf>.