Wendy Thomas

Photo: Wendy Thomas
Associate Professor
College of Engineering

Why bioengineering?

As an undergraduate student, I was trying to pick between computer science, molecular biology, and math. This was back in the 80’s when I had never heard of bioengineering and ended up picking molecular biology. I worked for ten years as a research technician and then decided to go to graduate school. I hadn’t really seized on bioengineering but I looked at a number of different fields and that seemed to be the one that incorporated everything that I wanted to do. It incorporated the quantitative aspects of the biological and medical work I’ve been doing and really liked. It felt like there was a lot of room for different directions of my career.

What were the perspectives of women scientists when you were growing up?

I had a different vision of a woman scientist because my mom was actually a PhD biochemist and a physicist as an undergrad. I grew up thinking women were scientists so I don’t know if I had a good view of what society’s vision was. I know that I struggled with gender identity in college. I felt a lot of need to somehow be doing good in the world and I think that came from some gender identity. I didn’t just want to go out and make a living; I wanted what I was doing to make a difference in the world. At the time it was very difficult for me to reconcile that with doing science. The way science was portrayed, it didn’t talk about science making a difference in the world.

What is your current research focus and what sparked your interest in that area?

What I am working on now is mechanical regulation of proteins that are involved in disease. I also study thrombosis (blood clotting) which also utilizes sheer stress, one of the mechanism by which blood clots is a high fluid flow. Basically, everything I study has to do with mechanically activated adhesion.

How I got interested was that as a graduate student, I was looking for something that allowed me to both use quantitative modeling and use the biochemistry background I had. I wanted to be protein and cell related, but still use the modeling and physics aspects. So this area of the biophysics of mechanical regulations and how it can give us insight to treatment seemed to really fit that. I really did it because it fascinated me.

What is your proudest accomplishment?

There are two things that I’m proud of: The first would be using the efforts I’ve made in biophysics and applying to solving problems. The other thing I’m proud of is the work I’ve done to help the community understand how these things work. That’s the body of work that I’m best known for and I’m proud of that.

What does being a woman scientist mean to you?

I think one of the things that I realized when I decided to go back for a PhD was that even in this day and age, there’s a still a small number of women in leadership positions in science. Even if I didn’t manage to make my research solve some disease, just being a woman in the field was important. Just by doing what I love, I know I’m still making a difference. That realization gave me permission to follow my dreams and do what I loved.

I also noticed that there are different leadership styles for the people in the scientific field. I’ve watched the field change since I was an undergraduate student and worked with a number of different mentors where the leadership styles were very traditional and “male”. They were more hierarchical and not very emotional. When talking to your boss, you would talk about the work itself rather than your feelings about your work. To me, that model never fit and I couldn’t imagine me being a leader with that model. It really made a difference for me when I had a female mentor who had a leadership style that I could imagine myself doing. From what I saw, her style was very effective. She left a lot of room for people to have different conversations about their feelings and research as they were developing into scientists. This style makes much more sense to me.

Do you have any advice for female students pursing the scientific field?

Women are not questioning whether they are good enough, but they are questioning whether it’s the life they want. There are two things that I’ve learned. The first thing is: know that you will change. As you mature, what you want out of life will change and don’t try to guess what you want in the future. You will grow into jobs so don’t close doors. The second thing is that the environment will also change. I tell women that even if it looks like something you wouldn’t want to do now, in ten years it will be a different landscape. One of the things that will make it a different landscape is you being involved.

What are you doing to inspire the next generation of women scientists?

I think the most important thing is to follow my heart and show joy for what I do. I share my excitement with the young women who I mentor. I also make an effort to meet with them and talk with them to talk about their concerns and issues. I help them not solve problems on their own. So, I try to do a lot of one-on-one mentoring. I am also on the board of directors and diversity committee in the biomedical engineering society. We hold workshops for women and try to increase diversity in bioengineering.