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Pennicooke reflects on his second year as a faculty member

Assistant Professor Brenton Pennicooke, MD

Brenton Pennicooke, MD, joined the Washington University Department of Neurosurgery in 2020. In that time, he has become a newly appointed affiliate faculty member for the department of Biomedical Engineering and serves as the director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for the neurosurgery department. We caught up with Dr. Pennicooke as he reflected on the past two years at WashU, his hopes for the future and shared with us the intricate way he proposed to his wife, Michela.

When you were growing up, did you automatically gravitate to the sciences, or did you have any role models who steered you in that direction?

For sure. Growing up, as punishment, my dad made me read the Encyclopedia Britannica and write a report for him on what I had read. Eventually, I actually started to enjoy reading it and read through all the volumes on my own volition. After that, it was no longer really an effective disciplinary tool for my dad.

I gravitated towards math and biology, mainly because I enjoyed the linearity of the subjects.

I wouldn’t say that I had any particular role models that have steered me towards science and math. However, I did have several people who invested in me and were very encouraging. For example, Mr. Konigsberg was my 6th-grade math teacher who petitioned my middle school to put me into the gifted math program because I kept getting 100% on all his exams, and he felt I was not being “challenged.” Another example is Mr. Miller, my high school science teacher, who helped me with my college application after school. I think these gentlemen and other caring people that I’ve encountered throughout my life were the forces that steered me towards a career in medicine and science.

How did you arrive at the decision to become a neurosurgeon? 

I knew that I wanted to be a surgeon from a very early age, probably 7 or 8. However, I was a bit all over the place, and several factors went into the decision. I considered going into computer engineering, management consulting and investment banking at one point. When I did decide to become a doctor, I considered going into cardiac surgery, orthopedic surgery and transplant surgery. Eventually, I was attracted to neurosurgery because it was a rapidly advancing field, allowed for direct service of others with defined outcome metrics and had significant physical and intellectual demands.

You’re coming up on your second anniversary as a faculty member at WashU. What advice would you give to residents/fellows, as they transition to their first faculty position?

It is hard for me to give advice because I think I’m still figuring it out. But, I would tell them to be resilient, “roll with the punches,” and set attainable goals.

In 2021 you were named the Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for the Department of Neurosurgery. What have been some of the challenges and successes that you’ve witnessed in the past year? 

I was excited to be named the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for our department. It has only been one year, so although I think there are several challenges, they are mainly perception-based. Ultimately, recruiting and retaining members from all underrepresented groups is the primary goal of any DEI effort. And optimizing that effort requires a culture of inclusiveness with opportunities for professional growth that are open to everyone.

For our department, the first step towards accomplishing our primary DEI goal is to identify that there is a problem and engage in open dialogue about how to address the issue. Thus far, I believe we’ve had some early successes here. For example, I think our DEI Speaker Series has allowed us to become more informed and forced us to reflect on the ways to improve our recruitment and retention efforts.

The second step is to implement programmatic changes that effectively and continually recruit and retain people from underrepresented backgrounds. And the third step, especially in St. Louis, is dedicated community engagement that allows our DEI efforts to benefit patients. We are actively working towards getting to steps 2 and 3. However, I believe that once we’ve done all 3 steps, perceived challenges will become apparent successes.

Final and most important question: how many of your colleagues know that you planned an elaborate proposal for your wife, Michela, when you asked her to marry you?

The only people who knew were my co-chief resident and I, mainly because I needed help with service coverage 1 time for a conference call with the collaborator. I put a lot of effort into keeping it secret, and I think it paid off. Michela was very, very surprised!