What led you to choose science as a career, particularly in the medical field?
When I was a kid, my mom taught nursing and authored a textbook about “Dosage Calculations,” which outlined the math and decisions needed in order to give medicines. It was essentially a math textbook. I answered the math problems at the end of each chapter sitting at the kitchen table. I enjoyed the application to real-life problems like choosing how much insulin to give and measuring it out. Over time this morphed into a fascination with applied medical science such as harnessing the immune system to treat cancer. The scientific problems that I am addressing have shifted over my career, but they are always some combination of data, computation, and scientific enquiry to take better care of people with hard-to-treat illness.
What has been your most rewarding moment/accomplishment in the medical field?
My most rewarding moments have always been in the day-to-day care of cancer patients. When I was in clinical practice, I took care of people with metastatic melanoma — a terrifying type of skin cancer. It is an honor to be even a small part of their healing. No award, published paper, or honorific job title is as humbling and rewarding as a simple thank you from a patient or her family.
What advice would you give to other women looking to work in biomedical engineering and science?
I have had several careers — clinician, full academic professor, executive in a health tech company, and now a leadership role at the U.S. FDA. Leadership often includes taking unexpected paths, and that’s especially true for women. Stay alert and prepared for new opportunities that show up when you least expect them. Be ready to take risks, by doing something that you wouldn’t have imagined for yourself. But also de-risk the opportunities so that you are not jeopardizing your career or your life outside of work. In 1998, my husband was offered an amazing new job — in Australia. I was Chief Resident in Internal Medicine at Duke (Durham, NC), also completing an oncology fellowship. I convened a personal “board of advisors” and asked these mentors for possible solutions. They helped me craft a role in Australia where I completed my fellowship and transitioned to faculty while also keeping my role at Duke. This unexpected opportunity led to my PhD, a new area of research focus, and exposure to international thinking. It was the best of both worlds and wouldn’t have been possible without the creativity of the “board” or my willingness to figure it out from there.
Are there other insights you would like to share?
1. Know yourself. I did the Myers-Briggs and the DiSC and, believe it or not, I am an introvert. But I am very intentional about goals, getting my message across, and building networks and relationships. It’s important to know yourself and how you show up with others. Making the effort to learn about myself helped me optimize my approach at work, and pretty much in every context. 2. Have an actionable and strategic mentoring plan. First, figure out what personal skill sets you want to strengthen or build — what do you want to learn? Second, identify who can help you learn. Third, identify who knows who can help you learn. Fourth, be clear with what you offer and make the ask.
More Interviews from our “Leading Women in Engineering & Science” Series:
- Jennifer Kehlet Barton, Thomas R. Brown Distinguished Professor, Biomedical Engineering; Director, BIO5 Institute, University of Arizona
- Diane Bryant, CEO & Chairman, NovaSignal
- Janice Chen, Co-founder & CTO, Mammoth Biosciences
- Sarah Levy-Schreier, CTO, Sight Diagnostics
- Carrie Mulherin, Chief Marketing Officer, LightDeck Diagnostics
- Sheena Oliver, Chief Marketing Officer, Wholesale USA, WS Audiology
- Jennifer Ponti, Director of Medical Business Development, Web Industries, Inc.
- Evelyn Rueda, Research and Development Engineer, Avery Dennison Medical
- Jennifer Zhao, Executive Vice President and General Manager, ams Advanced Optical Sensors Division
More Profiles from Our “Leading Women in Engineering & Science” Series: