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#STEMStories: Dr. Michelle, Associate Professor of Engineering, USA

#STEMStories: Dr. Michelle, Associate Professor of Engineering, USA

1. Introduce yourself, who are you what do you do?

I am Dr. Michelle Oyen, an Associate Professor of Engineering at East Carolina University. I teach engineering classes (mechanical, materials, biomedical) and do research on tissue engineering, biomaterials, and pregnancy.

2. How did you arrive at this career (or point in your life/work)? Was it always something you knew you wanted to do?

This is a “winding road” story! I decided when I was quite young (around 10 years old) that I wanted to be an engineer; like many young women who end up in STEM, this was in part due to strong parental encouragement. Although my father was not himself an engineer or scientist, he worked at a technical company on the business side and set me up with mentors from a young age.

I went to Michigan State University to study engineering, thinking that I would get my bachelor’s degree and then maybe an MBA and go into technical management. But I started to do research as an undergrad, and that led to a fellowship application for grad school. It was at that point that I decided to shift gears slightly away from materials engineering into biomedical engineering. I started graduate school but it was not a straightforward path, and I even quit for a while and worked in industry before going back to finish my PhD.

After finishing my PhD and a year as a postdoc in Virginia, from 2006-2018 I was in the equivalent position of a junior professor (their titles were “lecturer” then “reader”) at Cambridge University over in the UK. They were setting up their bioengineering program from scratch and I was one of the faculty members that helped set it up, including setting up new laboratories and teaching new classes. I really enjoyed the experience of living and working in another country, although it was at times really difficult.

I came back to the US in 2018 when Brexit meant that things were changing a lot for researchers in the UK. I have been a professor in the US at East Carolina University (Engineering Dept.) since August of 2018. I never set out to be a professor, but I ended up pursuing this option because I love research and I really love working with students, teaching and mentoring them in the classroom, in small groups, and one-on-one.

3. What about your job makes you jump out of bed in the morning, especially on those cold, dark mornings?

It is one of those clichés that have a grain of truth in them, that I love the idea of using engineering to help people. I am part of a small but growing community of researchers who have been using engineering techniques to study problems in pregnancy and childbirth, a vastly understudied subject. It’s not that I’m not interested in whiz-bang technology, I’m definitely a gadget person and I read all the tech news, but at the end of the day I love the fact that bioengineering has the very practical outcome of helping people with sometimes challenging medical problems—we approach problems in medicine with a different perspective from clinicians. Most people think of pregnancy as something that goes right most of the time, but actually it is an extremely complex process with many potential pitfalls. Some of them are obviously related to engineering, like premature birth that happens when the amniotic sac ruptures prior to full term gestation—that’s a physical fracture mechanics problem that we have been studying.

4. What is your personal cure for stress or how do you raise your spirits in times of doubt? Can you share a Story?

I have a group of friends who are also professors and who started their first jobs in this funny academic world around the same time as I started mine at Cambridge. We tend to plan to be at the same research conferences to catch up and even design research projects that we can do to collaborate together even though we’re not at the same university. It’s always best to have work-related people around you that are your real-life friends too. Living in Europe also taught me the value of vacations—it really does help to take a real break a few times a year, no smartphone, no laptop, and to read a few old-fashioned books!

5. Who is your role model? If no one, any thoughts on this?

My historical role model is Lillian Gilbreth, the first female electee to the National Academy of Engineering (https://www.nae.edu/30684/Lillian-M-Gilbreth). She is a fascinating historical character as well as a truly groundbreaking woman in STEM, and engineering in particular. More recently, I’ve admired astronaut Mae Jemison, the General Motors CEO Mary Barra, and recent Nobel laureate Frances Arnold, all of whom have an engineering background.

6. What advice would you give to yourself if you could go back in time?

Things seem like disasters sometimes when they are not really life-or-death situations, because I have that type A personality that takes everything really seriously. So I would tell my young self to check whether something really was a life-or-death situation, and if not, to chill out a little!

7. Top 3 tips for girls starting out in STEM?

  1. Speak up and don’t be shy! It’s easy to be a wallflower when you’re the only woman in the room.
  2. Do what YOU want to do with your life, not what other people tell you that you SHOULD want to do.
  3. Find a support network of peers that you can talk with honestly about both the good and the challenges of your career and your work-life balance.

8. How do you measure your success?

In STEM academia, this is relatively easy as everything we do is quantified: number of papers published, number of research students supervised, classes taught, teaching scores, etc. So for better or for worse, most of what I do gets quantified in some way. This is both gratifying and motivating—it’s fun to see progress as numbers build up over the years, but also humbling to compare yourself to the true STEM “rock stars” out there!

9. Where can we find out more about your work?

My website http://oyenlab.org is never updated as often as I’d like, but I tweet a lot at @michelleoyen about my research interests, issues to do with women in STEM, and global migration challenges for 21st century scientists, amongst other topics.

10. Are you social? Will you share your Twitter handle, or LinkedIn profile, or Facebook so that young women can connect with you?

Twitter @michelleoyen
LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/michelle-oyen-577389a/?originalSubdomain=uk
Website: http://www.oyenlab.org/