Shauna's path toward a career in the sciences began in 7th grade, when she went to a Women in Science Day in her school district, where she made non-Newtonian fluids (anyone remember ooblek?) and used a bunsen burner for the first time. “I remember thinking, 'Wow this is the coolest thing.' So I went into high school knowing I was interested in science.” As a high school senior, she shadowed her sophomore level science teacher and helped in her classes, particularly with answering other students' questions. “I think this is where my teaching interest developed.”
In college, Shauna studied biochemistry at the University of Maryland and knew early on that she was interested in pursuing a PhD. She credits this aspiration partially to her father, who was the first in the family to earn a PhD (also in engineering). She recounts that as a child she would watch her dad work on projects for his job in their basement early in the morning.
Although Shauna has always been interested in bioengineering applications and problems, she told us that when she was applying to undergraduate programs, she realized that the bioengineering programs were still in development. “I think doing a bioengineering undergrad is still kind of challenging. And it's hard for me to say that when I am thinking of going into bioengineering education. Recognizing the fact that it is a relatively new discipline and still being established, there's no set curriculum between different schools. And then companies come in and don't know what background these students have. There aren't really standard classes that they have all taken. It definitely could be a disadvantage [for the students].”
However, when looking into research programs and labs for her PhD, Shauna was drawn to the field of bioengineering. When Shauna applied to PhD programs, she was offered a spot in Dr. Burdick's lab and the opportunity to take medical school classes and train in medical imaging through the HHMI-NIBIB Interfaces Program during her first two years at Penn.
What doing a PhD taught her
This has been particularly important for Shauna's PhD project because it is extremely collaborative. She works with people in different labs, cities, and, now, countries. Although the medical school classes prepared her in some ways, actually managing the collaborations was difficult at first. “One of the biggest challenges I've faced is learning to adjust myself to manage collaborations. Because our lab is not focused on imaging, I've had to go outside of it to find imaging specialists. Every aspect of my project involves people from different schools, different countries,” she says laughing. “It took me a while to figure out how to effectively manage it and organize everything and take responsibility and say, 'I'm going to basically be in charge of everything and then I can better assess what needs to be done.' Earlier in my grad school career I wasn't as effective at managing collaborations. Things just didn't get done as quickly back then.”
As with any job where you have multiple bosses, it can be challenging to both please everyone involved and actually accomplish anything. “I'll go to three meetings in a day and every person will tell me something different about the exact same project. And so I go back afterwards, take it all with a grain of salt, and decide what I want to do. And that's what we are going to do. There are so many ideas out there and everyone wants something slightly different. It took me a very long time to figure out this [decision making process]. You really can't please everybody.”
However, Shauna has found her advisor to be an essential part of this puzzle. “Jason [Burdick] has been phenomenal in directing everything and realizing the challenges I have come across. We have so many people involved, it has definitely slowed things down a little bit. But he's very very good at keeping everything focused.”
“It's challenging to know which parts of a project are worth pursuing and which ones need to be dropped. We essentially cut a third [of my project], one of the aims of my thesis, which I was really passionate about. But I had worked on it for a year and a half and it wasn't going anywhere. One of the grants we put in didn't go through and so he made the decision to cut [that portion of the project]. [Initially] I was hurt. I was like, 'Why is he doing this?' But it's not personal. And in reality, it wasn't very novel anymore. Because [Dr. Burdick] has a higher view [on the project], he can see the bigger picture.”
Writing that thesis is not all flowers and sunshine
“The fun thing for me in lab is the wet-lab stuff. I love doing experiments. Doing the actual experiments is like cooking for me. So those are the things that are fun and you want to go into lab and do those things! Science writing [on the other hand] is not so exciting. It's very dry.”
In addition to having an advisor she can count on, Shauna tells us that the post-docs in the Burdick Lab have been an important part of her PhD experience. When she hits a roadblock or is just feeling down, she can count on them for support. Recently, as she is coming to the end of her PhD, she feels like she hasn't accomplished everything she set out to do.
The post-docs in her lab reassured her that everyone feels like that when they are nearing the end. The told her that, “Everyone thinks that [when they're done]. 100%.” You set out a very ambitious research plan in the beginning and, “...not everything is supposed to work out. [But,] there are some really great things coming out of it.” (Check out some cool projects she has been involved with here, here, and here.)
We are also interested in knowing if Shauna felt like she changed at all over the course of her PhD, particularly in terms of intellectual maturity. “I feel like I've changed so much. [At the beginning] I was too much of a perfectionist. I've learned that it's okay to admit your faults and in doing so, you can find people who can fill in the gaps for you. Recognize your weaknesses, and by working with other people, build off each others' strengths. Hopefully that means I am becoming more intellectually mature!” she says laughing.
A passion for teaching
This spring, Shauna is teaching two classes at Penn: BE 310 (a junior-level bioengineering course comprised of lab and lecture sections) and BE 553 (an upper level undergraduate/graduate student tissue engineering course). She will be co-teaching BE 310 with professor (and BE Department Chair) Dr. David Meaney. “I think it will be phenomenal to try teaching in an environment where it is going to be very collaborative. I am looking forward to getting a lot of constructive feedback from [students and Prof. Meaney].”
In teaching, Shauna says there are a lot of opportunities to use the skill set she developed during her PhD. “We're taught to think of problems critically during our PhDs. [I will be] switching from scientific topics to teaching topics. How can you more effectively teach material to a student?”
“There are all kinds of cool teaching techniques that don't have to be stagnant. I think there is a difference between someone who is more research-focused and just teaches on the side to someone who is more teaching-focused and revamps the course every semester. I think it should always be changing.”
Shauna is particularly interested in a technique called 'active learning', which she first learned about while in a teaching certificate program at Penn. Basically, it is the idea that some subjects are learned more effectively if you engage in the curriculum by yourself at home, such as watching lectures or reading articles. And then you work out problems together in class. The BE Department at Penn recently received a grant to pilot a digital lecture format and leave in-class time for problem solving sessions and interactive learning.
Shauna says she is fortunate to have this opportunity to experiment with teaching in an environment she already knows well and in which she is comfortable. “If I didn't pursue teaching, at least for this one semester, I would always regret it. If it ends up not being what I'm as passionate about, I'll have this time to look for other jobs. So I'm very lucky.”
“She was describing how you can incorporate different aspects of teaching even into an industry position. She has to tie everything together and work at this interface. It makes me think that there are all these positions out there that involve some sort of teaching and mentoring component that I'm just not aware of yet.”
In addition to preparing for this teaching experience, Shauna has also thought about where else she might fit in. “What I have been trying to work on in the past year is trying to identify my translatable skills. Some people see a PhD as not quite as valuable because you are so specialized on a specific topic. So it's not always the most ideal thing to have a PhD, but you have to figure out the best way to use it for yourself. Most people who have a PhD can articulate their own research, but what can you do beyond this that's going to make you useful?”
Mentoring is something that Shauna always comes back to— she listed it first when we asked her about her translatable skills sets. It seems as though it is something she is truly passionate about. During her PhD, Shauna has mentored high school, undergraduate, and Masters students in and out of the lab. “One of the coolest things is getting a student to a point where they start thinking independently for themselves. Helping them get to that point in their scientific career, where they start to generate their own ideas and troubleshoot problems themselves. Seeing that has been really rewarding.”
If any Penn BE undergrads are reading, get excited to meet Dr. Dorsey in the spring! She is clearly excited to meet you and pass on even more knowledge than we could fit in this article ;)