A day in the life of a CE: Lara Cook

By: Jamiu Busari

Lara Cooke MD, MSc (MEdEd)

Associate Professor of Neurology

Department of Clinical Neurosciences

Cumming School of Medicine

Calgary, Alberta

 What is your clinical and/or educational background?

Dr Lara Cooke hails from Toronto and moved to Calgary in 1996 to study medicine at the University of Calgary (UofC). After completing her basic medical training in 1999, she entered the Neurology residency program (1999-2005) also at the UofC and followed this up with a fellowship in headache medicine (2005-2006).  At the start of her residency program in 1999, Lara also enrolled in a masters in medical education program, which she completed at the inception of her faculty appointment.

Serendipitously appointed assistant dean of faculty development, Dr. Cooke says that she heard about the vacancy by chance, through a colleague. Without any prior leadership experience, she applied for the job based on a “healthy curiosity and interest.”  To her surprise, she was offered the job after the candidate who was initially appointed turned it down.  Looking back, Dr. Cooke reminisces, “embarking on the journey as Assistant Dean turned out to be the perfect opportunity for me to focus on faculty development and creating a safe learning environment for learners”.

Dr. Cooke is currently on sabbatical. Other positions she has held include the program director of neurology (2009-2012), and Clinician Educator at the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada (2008 – 2013). Dr. Cooke has also been recognized with awards for her work as an educator, including the national award for faculty development by the AFMC (2008) and an award from the Canadian Association of Interns and Residents in recognition of her contribution to medical education (2008).

What percentage of your time is spent for clinical practice, teaching activities, educational research and administrative work?

Before her sabbatical “on paper 30% of her time was allocated to clinical duties, 10% to teaching, another 10% allocated to research and the rest (50%) was reserved for administrative tasks i.e. educational leadership administration.” Asked about what she thinks she actually does i.e. “the real story” (laughing) Lara says she spends about 40% of her time on clinical work at the hospital in addition to running occasional inner city (outreach) clinics and attending to “at risk” populations.  She spends another 20% of her time on research, 20% on teaching and mentoring and 80% on her educational leadership and administrative tasks.  Probed a bit more about how she came up with the figures, Lara responds saying, she was working more than full time, and that she did not realize that the amount of time she spent on her clinics for example, were over and above what her contract stipulated. Not until she was handed her performance metrics to discover that she was doing about 117% instead of the expected 100%.

Lara is married and is a mother of two children. Asked how she manages to fit family time into her very tight professional schedule, she explains that time for extra academic and research work tend to gravitate to the late hours of the day, after her kids are in bed.  Early evenings she devotes time to her children and husband. This often results in her missing certain deadlines. The good thing however, is that it helps her identify those deadlines that are important and those that are not – a pragmatic approach she says.  Furthermore,  she finds that she is very fortunate that she has a very supportive husband and family. That she says, “is her secret” (smiling).

How do you enjoy the diversity in your work/career?

Lara responds saying that what she enjoys “changes over time”. In the beginning, her mission was to create an amazing learning culture in the medical school that she had been a part of for a very long time. Lara wanted to make learners feel safe and experience a nurturing environment.

A second focal point was the neurology residency program.  In her role as program director, Lara said that she learned about learning, about herself and about leadership.

Lastly in her role as assistant dean, Lara thought that she could bring her research and educational skills to the job, but found out that it was less of a role for an educator, but rather for a leader, administrator and a “builder of bridges.”

Do you have any difficulty with the diversity in your work, and if yes, how do you manage it?

Dr. Cooke says that it has really  been challenging. At first the pace was slow but over time the her workload and team have grown exponentially. She noticed that she was running from one clinic to the other and then on to meetings with residents and from there to administrative meetings. It felt like a rat race, trying to beat time and with little or none left over to attend to basic human needs. She noticed that she was often late for her meetings except for the first meeting of the day. She was constantly booked for a different meeting back to back and each of those meetings produced extra work! The enemy of productivity is too many meetings and commitments that leave you feeling like you’re just inching projects forward and don’t have time to really work things out.

Despite the challenges she faces, Dr. Cooke acknowledges the fact that she makes things work. Asked how she does this, she said “I differentiate between meetings where I think I can make a difference from those I can’t and try to commit to the former–particularly in meetings where I can help solve a problem”

Three tips for an aspiring CE

Asked which 3 tips she would like to offer junior CEs, Lara responds with the following:

  1. When you get branded as an educator, many roles and opportunities are thrown your way. It is tempting to take it all on. The danger is that you can easily get overwhelmed. – sometimes you must say NO and don’t feel badly about it.
  2. This was advice from a respected colleague, Dr. Jane Lemaire, and I pass it along often: “There are always more opportunities for people who do good work- so focus on doing good work.”
  3. People always think that they don’t have choices but you do, you just have to choose. Choose the work that is satisfying and rewarding and find constructive ways to offload work that doesn’t add value for you or for others.