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by MaryAlice Bitts-Jackson
Jennifer Gass ’83 had a solid game plan. And then a prime opportunity came knocking years sooner than she’d hoped. She wondered, should she take the leap despite the less than ideal timing or hold back and hope that her chance would come around again a few years down the road?
Gass had come to Dickinson knowing she wanted to one day become a doctor. While most premed students declare a biology major, she opted for the road less traveled—chemistry—on the advice of several upper-year students she met during Orientation, who noted that the smaller chemistry department offered a better student-faculty ratio.
“It was good advice, and it actually ended up steering my career trajectory, to an extent,” says Gass, who appreciated the way chemists focus on learning and applying scientific principles, as opposed to focusing on categorization. “And later on, I got excellent guidance from my professors.”
Gass flourished academically and got involved on campus as a chemistry teaching assistant and tour guide. After graduation, she entered her first-choice medical school, University of Maryland, and matched into a surgery residency at Temple University—again, her first choice. Her residency completed, Gass married James Fingleton, a fellow doctor. Their blended family includes three sons and two daughters, now grown.
Jennifer Gass '83 and her family.
Gass started as a trauma surgeon at Wayne State University. She then moved with her husband, a cardiac surgeon, to Rhode Island, where she served as an HMO general/breast-cancer surgeon at Harvard Pilgrim Healthcare. While at Harvard Pilgrim Healthcare, Gass also was attending physician in the Surgical Intensive Care Unit at Rhode Island Hospital.
While she planned to move to physician-educator and researcher when her children got a little older, Gass was tapped to climb the next rungs up the ladder a few years earlier than planned. “It was a huge change, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it or could do it,” she recalls, “but I decided to take the leap.”
Gass now trains post-surgery residency fellows at Women & Infants Hospital in Rhode Island. She focuses on breast cancer care through the Cancer Risk Assessment and Prevention Program, and she is the first woman to serve as full professor of surgery on the teacher/scholar track at Brown University. Through her leadership, the Breast Health Center at Women & Infants was chosen as a site for a multi-institutional cyro-assisted lumpectomy trial. Gass also serves as principal investigator on the innovative MRI guided breast cancer surgery trial through a collaboration with Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical School.
Looking back, Gass is grateful for the educational foundation that got her started along this path and for the close group of friends she met at Dickinson, with whom she’s still in touch. She's pleased by the college's sustainability efforts during the past decade—the LEED-certified Rector Science Complex has made an especially positive impression—and she gives back by speaking with families in her area who are interested in Dickinson.
“It’s been a long journey,” she says, “and my success, in part, has been because I decided that if someone asked me to do something and if I wasn’t sure that I couldn’t do it, I would say, ‘yes,’ even if it was out of my comfort zone. Every time I’ve done that it’s pushed me to learn and grow.”
Published April 7, 2020