Dr. Audrey Bowden is an Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering and Electrical and Computer Engineering at Vanderbilt University, where she is also the Dorothy J. Wingfield Phillips Chancellor’s Faculty Fellow. She received her Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering from Duke University in 2007, where she specialized in optical coherence tomography. She went on to complete her postdoctoral training in Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Harvard University before joining the faculty at Stanford, and later Vanderbilt. Her research interests include biomedical optics, cancer therapy, and point-of-care diagnostics.
Tell us a bit about yourself and what attracted you to science.
I'm currently an Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Vanderbilt and my field of expertise is biophotonics, which involves the use of light-based tools to study medically relevant biological phenomena. Specifically, I am interested in using light to help us detect, diagnose, and treat health problems earlier. What attracted me to science was the quantitative nature of the field: I was drawn to the idea that you could have a problem and actually solve it by breaking the problem down into concrete steps. This was something I had appreciated ever since I was in high school; I went to a magnet high school for science and math, which led me to decide to pursue engineering in college. While in college I studied electrical engineering, and within the discipline of electrical engineering I fell in love with optics, the study of light. I had always wanted to do something related to healthcare, and by that time I was searching for a way to merge my interest in optics with my interest in healthcare, which eventually led me to biophotonics. So that's how I came to do what I do, and I really enjoy it!
What career plans did you have as a graduate student?
I actually had no idea what my career trajectory was going to be, and as a student, that’s okay! While at Duke I had the opportunity to learn all about the different options a Ph.D. could afford me, but by no means did the career path I had in my head ultimately turn out to be what I ended up pursuing. I was free to explore, and I'm really thankful to my advisor for the freedom to do that, and also thankful for the rigor of the program that prepared me to do what I ultimately chose as a career. I was still able to have fun and pursue being an academic. I think when students come in they have blinders on, but you have to be flexible and know things can change for you.
What made you decide to stay in academia?
What helped me decide to stay in academia was the realization that it was fear holding me back: fear of not being successful, of not having what it takes—which is just the reality of graduate school. I sometimes say graduate school was the best of times and worst of times, because you can have these great moments interspersed with moments that can leave you in tears. For example, my field is very competitive, so every time I went to conferences or I saw a paper come out from another group it provoked a lot of anxiety. I was constantly worried about measuring up. Confronting that fear head-on is what ultimately allowed me to pursue my academic career. It was my defining moment: I'm not going to let fear stand in the way of me doing what I feel is my life’s calling.
Now that you’ve worked through that anxiety and become successful in your field, what advice would you give to students about overcoming imposter syndrome?
I feel like imposter syndrome can often stem from not getting enough validation from the people around you. This feeling is magnified in graduate school, because your mentors and your committee have to judge the quality of your research and the quality of your impact, and they ultimately determine whether you are worthy of graduating and of the degree. The reality is that you could be doing really great, but you simply aren’t hearing it from others. Surround yourself with people who can provide you with that validation. Build a supportive network, and recognize the pitfall of putting too much stock in this idea that you are what you do. Remember that you are an individual person, and you have value outside of your research or your impact on your field.
What have you found to be your favorite thing about being a faculty member, and what have you found to be the most challenging?
My favorite thing about being a faculty member right now is that I get to share my life with my students. People often talk about work-life balance, but I don't know that I've ever achieved it in one sense or another: there’s only one me, so I can’t switch from work mode to home mode. I love going to personal milestone events with my students, like weddings or baby showers! I love that my closest colleagues are my students, and I get to have an effect on their future career and teach them something. I know that the relationships we have as advisor and mentee are going to stick with them for the rest of their life. This is also the most challenging aspect of my job as a faculty member; I am responsible for supporting these students and procuring funding. They are literally depending on me for their welfare, so I feel an immense amount of responsibility towards them. But seeing them succeed and participating in their achievements, both professional and personal, makes it all worthwhile!
Do you have any favorite memories from graduate school?
I remember first visiting Duke when I was trying to decide between different graduate schools, and the moment I walked on campus I could feel the energy and the passion of the students. It was so clearly different from the other places that I visited and solidified in my mind that Duke was the place for me to go! I would say some of my best memories were from the year that I was president of GPSC [Graduate and Professional Student Council, the precursor to GPSG]. During my tenure I instituted “Dean’s Day,” a program where students from the different schools that GPSC represented could invite their Dean to a Duke basketball game. I got the chance to meet and interact with the students and deans from different graduate schools, all while enjoying Duke basketball!
Ph.D. candidate, Biomedical Engineering
Morgan Burt is a third-year Ph.D. candidate and NSF GRFP fellow in the Musah Lab at Duke University. Prior to pursuing her Ph.D., she worked as research associate at the Harvard Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. Her research focus is developing novel therapeutic strategies to treat kidney disease by leveraging advances in stem cell biology, regenerative medicine, and synthetic biology.
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