Recently, Kelsey Collins and I chatted (via web-conference) with former ISB President, Julie Steele, as part of an initiative to promote women in biomechanics and to highlight related history within the ISB. Despite being at different stages of our careers, our discussion illuminated a shared understanding of a number topics, three of which I would like to reflect on here from my perspective as an early/mid-career researcher.
“That’s what girls aspired to…”
Hearing Julie’s story of overcoming such stereotypes to become not only the first member of her family to attend university (and in a male-dominated field at that), but also the first to even finish high school was very inspiring. Having completed my own degrees in engineering, a faculty with rather dismal gender ratios in Canada, I understand the importance of role models and how easily influenced girls — all of us, in fact — are from a very early age with regards to what we “should” or “shouldn’t” do professionally.
How did Julie overcome these barriers to achieve such success in her career, including full professorship, President of an international organisation, and numerous awards such as the New South Wales Telstra Business Woman of the Year? She created her own “luck” and tuned into encouragement and advice from trusted sources when it was most needed.
“Mentorship from someone who’s been there, done that is just so invaluable.”
Julie referred to her early career mentors before we even had a chance to ask. The mentorship she received from people like Professor Bruce Elliott, her Honours Advisor at the University of Western Australia, and Helen Parker a younger faculty member at the same university, was clearly valued and a source of inspiration for Julie when she launched her own career at the University of Wollongong over 30 years ago. These and other mentors acted as her career champions, nominating her for professional roles or offering the all-important advice of when to say “no” and to instead look for better learning opportunities.
She later learned that these mentors viewed her achievements as their own and understood the personal value of giving back, to which she referred again when discussing her own students and her time on ISB Council.
At the current stage of my career I find myself still seeking mentorship, but at the same time having advice to offer those who may be grappling with conflicts that I experienced during my transition from student to “professional.” In other words, I find myself in the roles of both mentee and mentor. Julie’s observations on this subject very much substantiated my own recent insights into the importance of continuously receiving - and providing - mentorship as our careers progress, especially with women in non-traditional fields.
Diversifying your career path: having the courage to step into the unknown
“As females in biomechanics there is a whole world of opportunities that haven’t been done very well. Either they’ve been irrelevant to men or it’s just not appropriate for men to be doing that kind of research.”
Julie’s research spans a variety of topics. Earlier in her career, she focussed on lower limb biomechanics, investigating ACL rupture in netball athletes to obesity in children, and later began studying breast health and intelligent textiles with biomechanical applications. The connecting theme is injury prevention; however, an additional theme is that she ceaselessly delves into truly unique research areas.
While many may not consider this a feat - after all, research is supposed to be “novel” - I myself have been told that my own research questions are “too far outside [one’s] research scope.” So I understand the challenges around garnering support from potential collaborators outside your own discipline and also from within your own professional community.
Julie gave several examples of narrow-minded reactions that she’d received from within the biomechanics community when she and her students began researching breast biomechanics. She was told the work was not relevant, that “breast” could not be included in the title of a conference presentation. (It was considered “rude.”) Yet, at that same conference work was presented on the biomechanics of penile erection. Similarly, she compared the quantification of breasts in bras to feet in shoes in order to point out the contradictory judgements about her research in the biomechanics domain.
Despite this, the importance of her work was vindicated through the overwhelming public endorsement she received from her early publications. By describing the medical implications of the research, such as nerve damage that can arise from bra straps compressing the brachial plexus, she was furthermore able to prove its legitimacy to her peers in biomechanics.
To me, this juxtaposition around “innovative research” can be misleading: sometimes it seems as though we are encouraged to be creative… as long as our ideas fit inside the box that is familiar to our peers. What inspired me about Julie’s approach was her courage to seek out those collaborators who recognized the value of her vision while simultaneously creating awareness amongst those who may have at first doubted her.
Our future within the ISB community: challenges and opportunities
“In hindsight, I owe so much of my career to ISB.”
Julie’s initial grounds for zeroing in on the ISB congresses were quite practical: given the financial cost of attending such events from Australia, she was advised to choose an organization with a broad enough scope for her to present all or most of her work, and where she could cultivate a global network of collaborators. She soon recognized the “personal feel” that is fostered within this community, that those of us who’ve had the privilege of attending a congress can surely appreciate.
In looking back at her time involved with the ISB, including her 16 years on Council, Julie noted that one of the strengths of the ISB is how well organized it is, especially in comparison to other similar organizations. She noted that the underpinning structure and institutional knowledge have set the stage for facilitated learning and network-building initiatives, such as student programming and Economically Developing Countries (EDC) support. These, in turn, amplify the family feel that welcomes new members to the organisation.
“The thing that makes a lab really strong is the people and the ideas.”
“Don’t let limited [resources] stop you from doing something quite profound!”
Although we were discussing Julie’s Biomechanics Research Lab at the University of Wollongong when she stated the above, I feel that our discussion could equally have been applied to the ISB as a kind of “Living Lab.” Julie’s emphasis with her students and collaborators on thinking through ideas in order to use the limited equipment and facilities as effectively as possible is something that I believe is - and will be to a greater degree in future - emphasized within the ISB community. She noted that increasingly, there are high expectations and demands set on Council members who are volunteering their time to the organization. By shifting the emphasis to our involvement as a wider community and connecting with other organizations who do not have the benefits of our infrastructure (e.g. World Council of Biomechanics) we can generate more meaningful action and greater impact in our work.
So what was Julie’s take home message? Believe in yourself and never stop learning.
This gives rise to one more question for you, Julie: What’s next for you?
I look forward to your answer at the Inaugural Women in Science lunch at the ISB2015 Congress.
Andrea Hemmerich, PhD
ISB-EDC Project Officer