Dr. Susan Margulies is a powerhouse of a woman -- she leads the Injury Biomechanics Lab at the University of Pennsylvania where her team investigates traumatic brain injury and ventilator-induced lung injury. She's published over 120 peer-reviewed papers and has trained 25 post docs and 26 graduate students. She's also served in a ton of important leadership roles including Chair of the Faculty Senate (where she represented more than 4,000 faculty members) and Chair of the Penn Forum for Women Faculty.
At the beginning of the interview, following introductions and hellos, Susan gives us a quick tour of her beach house -- the place she's decided to work from for the day. She tells us it’s a great place for her to work productively without any distractions and of course the bonus of a beautiful view. Although it doesn't come out until much later in our discussion, Susan tells us something that I had never heard before, but that will stick with me for a long time. I needed to hear it because it gets right at the heart of something that's been giving me a lot of trepidation for the future. Ok, enough build up:
"Academia is the most flexible job. I can't be more explicit about it. It is the most flexible job. I really don't have a boss. I get to work on what I want to do, when I want to do it. If I want to go to my child's parade at 2pm on a Friday, and if I don't have class at 2pm on Friday, I can be there. There just aren't jobs that you can work on anything you want when you want. So I think that getting the word out to more women about how this is a career path that allows you to integrate personal and professional lives is really important." She cites research she has done with other female bioengineering faculty members across the country: "We identified that the real leak in our pipeline of getting women faculty in bioengineering actually happens at the graduation from your PhD. Do you choose to go into industry, or do you choose to go into academia? That's where the watershed moment is. And I really truly believe that for flexibility in having a family and taking a very active role in the upbringing of my daughters that the academia career path is one that is unparalleled. I want to be the one making the decisions of what I work on and when. I love that".
I love that, too. I was beginning to fear the opposite was true; hearing that from her may have been a watershed moment for me.
Susan's first watershed moment in her scientific pathway was as a college student. She had been following the premed pathway as a mechanical engineering major, which was a difficult path because all of her biology courses counted as 'electives'… poor girl never got to take art history. While doing summer research at MIT, someone asked her if she had to pick between being an engineering researcher in biomechanics and being a physician, what would she pick? She realized she was more and more drawn to engineering and that she loved using the engineering toolbox to understand how the body worked. For her, that solidified that a PhD was important to her and would be part of her path.
As a director of her own research program, Susan interacts with clinicians on a daily basis. She tells us that one of the questions people often ask is whether or not a PhD in bioengineering will give you the skill set and background you need to be a principal investigator in such a medically oriented field, or whether you always need to collaborate with a physician who has an extensive medical background to understand how your research integrates with medicine and can be applied to improving healthcare. "I can say with confidence, looking back, that my career path as a PhD [allowed me to] be an independent investigator in bioengineering research without having an MD as part of my education. That said, I think that collaboration is becoming more and more the path to go, where if your goal is to do research on applications that are either understanding diseases or modifying diseases, whatever it is, that you really need to understand the medical piece, then having collaborators who are physicians as an important member of your team. But you don't have to have a subservient role." She met her husband in her freshman year of college at Princeton and after undergrad they both moved to Penn, where she worked toward her PhD and he attended medical school. " I can tell you that during his 4 medical school years, there was never a moment when I felt that I had taken the wrong path. The path that I elected, where from the very first semester of my PhD I was pursuing research, was really what I wanted."
The research that she loved so much as a graduate student at Penn was working to disprove the model of brain injury at the time: that a pressure wave moving through the brain caused damage at the junctions between white matter and grey matter. She tested material properties of brain tissue samples and worked to develop a mathematical model to show that local distortions in the brain tissue were related to the injury that occurred. She worked crazy hard during her fourth year to finish her PhD the same time her husband graduated from medical school. Because they had come to Penn for graduate work because it was the best fit for Susan, she and her husband decided that he would get to pick the next stop. He picked the Mayo Clinic in Rochester Minnesota. At the time, it was uncommon for bioengineering PhDs to do post-docs -- they typically went straight into faculty positions. Because the Mayo Clinic didn't have a research program in traumatic brain injury, Susan arranged for a post-doc in a pulmonary lab, which was a whole new world for her. She tells us that up to that point, she had only spent a few weeks thinking about the lungs in a physiology course in grad school; she would spend the next seven years studying the mechanics of lung injury.
Although it wasn't originally part of the plan, it was the time she spent at the Mayo Clinic broadening the scope of her research to include the lungs that allowed her to return to Penn as a faculty member and conduct research that was distinct from her former advisor's. "Whatever your dissertation topic is, you should view it as a launching point. It doesn't restrict you. I hope that people can see by example that they can change what they're doing at any time and that the most important piece is that they are excited about what they're studying."
Susan told us so many more insightful and inspiring things during our interview that I could go on for days. (Maybe I'll do a part two!) For now, I'll leave you with something that Susan said as our discussion was winding down because I agree with what she said whole-heartedly and feel that it needs to be said over and over again:
"I really do believe that the face of the faculty should reflect America, and I want to create opportunities for faculty of both sexes as well as all races and socioeconomic backgrounds as well as sexual preferences to feel comfortable on this campus. I completely believe that a diverse working group comes out with a better product than a narrowly defined working group, and only by working positively to diversify that working group, which is our faculty, are you going to create that diversity. There is a rich literature on unconscious bias and stereotype threat, which limit opportunity and human potential. This literature really opened my eyes to create a welcoming environment for people of all backgrounds to join the faculty, feel comfortable on the faculty, and feel like they have a voice."