Interview with Dr. Megan Palmer
Dr. Megan J. Palmer is the Executive Director of Bio Policy & Leadership Initiatives at Stanford University (Bio-polis). In this role, Dr. Palmer leads integrated research, teaching and engagement programs to explore how biological science and engineering is shaping our societies, and to guide innovation to serve public interests. Based in the Department of Bioengineering, she works closely both with groups across the university and with stakeholders in academia, government, industry and civil society around the world.
What inspired you to choose a STEM degree?
In high school I wasn’t certain that I was going to pursue a degree in STEM. I loved my science and math classes but I also enjoyed my classes in English, social studies and the arts. I was fortunate to also have an inspirational experience in engineering when I participated in the FIRST robotics competition. A team of students came together and convinced our physics teacher to be our mentor for the competition. It was a fun experience to build something together that required both rigor and creativity - in our case a hockey-playing robot - even though we placed second to last.
When I went to university I still took classes in English and music alongside science classes. Of the sciences I was especially inspired by the biosciences. Honestly, how can you not be inspired by biology? It’s beautifully complex and created us and everyone we love. However, most of my classmates in the biosciences were focused on becoming medical doctors, and I found I was curious about areas beyond health as well as in understanding the underlying processes of biology.
I ended up switching to an engineering science degree because I was intrigued by the combination of learning about foundational science as well as its applications. It also found my engineering science classmates and professors to be especially fun and curious people. At the time, bioengineering wasn't even offered as an option, so I focused on chemistry and systems engineering. This focus ended up being a great foundation when I later pursued graduate work in bioengineering.
What does your current role at Stanford entail?
I have a few different roles at the university and spend a lot of time engaging different communities outside the university. My main role is leading a new university initiative called Bio Policy and Leadership in Society, Bio.Polis. We conduct interdisciplinary research, build leadership programs and work with a variety of stakeholders across industry, government and civil society. We have a large and growing portfolio of work, but it's all connected with asking a central question: “how do we guide the future of biotechnology so that it benefits all people and the planet?”. This effort is supported jointly by the Department of Bioengineering, where I am also an adjunct professor, and the Institute for International Studies, where I am affiliated researcher. We also work with Stanford’s university-wide ethics society and technology hub.
Among other efforts, I also direct a research group called the Bio Policy and Practices Lab, which includes people with different disciplinary backgrounds including bioengineering, anthropology, psychology, and economics. We do projects in several different areas including understanding what motivates and enables individuals and organizations to connect their work with societal challenges, and we look at topics related to biosafety, biosecurity and the bioeconomy.
What were some of the key points that helped you get to the place you are today?
I think there are probably a few key moments.
I had an engineering professor in university who knew I was interested in biology and who connected me to the summer research experience working on stem cell bioengineering lab in my hometown of Calgary, Alberta. That summer I spent many hours at a microscope looking at cells growing and turning into other cells and I thought it was the most beautiful and inspiring thing. I wanted to use my science and engineering skills to understand these complex systems and applied to bioengineering graduate programs. I eventually ended up going to the US and joining the bioengineering PhD program at MIT.
Then, in my early days at MIT I attended a seminar on stem cells and politics convened by a group called the technology and culture forum. I was invited to join the forum’s steering committee as a student representative, where I worked with students, faculty and community members to run seminars on many interdisciplinary topics. That catalyzed a number of different connections that led to leading different types of programs focused on science in society alongside my studies and research. Among those efforts I co-lead a series of meetings on synthetic biology and society with Drew Endy. At the end of my PhD, I remained very interested in scientific research, but I was also really interested in policy, ethics and public engagement.
At the end of my PhD I applied to postdoctoral programs in bioengineering but tried to identify faculty who were also interested and engaged in policy discussions. I was very fortunate that during my last postdoc interview at Stanford, I met up for coffee with Drew Endy, who had since moved to the university and had been asked to lead the “human practices” component of a big multi-university synthetic biology engineering research center. He invited me to be his deputy to help advance and integrate work between natural science and engineering and the social science and humanities. I was thrilled – and daunted. As part of that work I spend a lot of time experimenting and learning through my work with iGEM, and eventually took on a role as the director of human practices. Through these experiences I had to foster a lot of different collaborations because this is work you can’t do alone – it requires many skills sets and perspectives.
How have you worked to inspire more women and diverse individuals into STEM?
I believe in mentorship and cultivating leadership in everything that we do. Everything starts and ends with people – and we have a responsibility to each other and to the future to bring out the best in everyone. Of course, it's not just women, we need all types of people to help advance the best ideas that actually enable and reflect the wishes of all people. But personally, many of the most thoughtful, brave and inspiring people I've encountered are women. I also think that women often bring a different approach and perspective that is often underrepresented and underappreciated. When we celebrate and empower those approaches, amazing things happen, especially more collaborative approaches.
In practice, I try to advance leadership in a few ways, but I am always looking to learn and do more. Of course, I have the fortune of teaching and mentoring many young people through my work with the university and with efforts like iGEM. Many times my mentees are really mentoring me. And I have also helped to design focused leadership development programs. But I think informal peer mentoring and networking can be some of the most powerful approaches. I am very fortunate to have colleagues – who in many cases have grown to be great friends – who inspire me every day. People like Christina Agapakis, Genya Dana, Jaime Yassif – there are so many more, I could go on and on.
Have mentors been vital in your career as well, and if so, what advice regarding mentorship do you have to offer young women?
It’s important to cultivate people in your life you turn to for guidance and support – and that includes people who are a bit more advanced in their career and have the wisdom of experience to help you see the bigger picture. Don’t be scared to be vulnerable and ask for help – it’s hard, but that’s how some of the best relationships form.
One of the most inspiring and important mentors in my personal and career development over the last decade has been Paula Olsiewski. Paula took a chance on me and gave me my first real grant when I finished my PhD and was working on programs in synthetic biology in society. I proposed to develop what became the Synthetic Biology Leadership Excellence Accelerator Program (LEAP). She not only supported me with the grant aimed at helping others, but continued to provide guidance even as things didn’t go as planned – and that helped me and the program evolve in a better direction. Seeing how she has changed the world by empowering so many others continues to be a source of inspiration.
Another woman who is an absolute force of nature, who’s an amazing and inspiring and generous person is Natalie Kuldell who created the Biobuilder foundation among many other efforts. We collaborated on public engagement initiatives during my PhD and she was the one who suggested I meet up with Drew Endy during my postdoc interview at Stanford. So sometimes it's just a little nudge that your mentors give you, which in turn gives you the extra boost of confidence that can make all the difference. Also my research assistants have been great mentors. For example, Amy Wiessenbach was an English major who then decided she wanted to go into biology and bioengineering. We taught me so much and how to think about this field and also to boldly pursue what inspires you. So when we think about mentorship it can go all ways.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced through your journey in STEM?
I have gone through many challenges along the way. At many points of my career, I've chosen to cross disciplinary boundaries or start new initiatives or programs where there wasn’t a clear path or template.
Doing something for the first time and going off the beaten track requires having faith and confidence in yourself while also recognizing when you need to ask for help, all which comes from your community. I have been very fortunate to have mentors and friends with whom I can check in with. Sometimes you need a friend to point out your blind spots and help you course correct. Sometimes all you need is a pep talk. I’ve had quite a few low points where stuff didn't work out and during those moments you just need somebody to build you up. For example, at the end of my PhD, I wasn’t really wasn’t sure what I was going to do. But I reached out to many people and one of those connections helped me discover a position I could never have imagined. There are also instances where it really wasn’t certain a strategy I was pursuing was helpful or harmful. I’ve had friends point out the problems but then stay to help solve them. But you have to pay that back. I think if you invest in your community, it will invest back in you.
What final message would you like to give to aspiring girls and women who want to establish themselves in STEM?
I mentioned this mentor and good friend of mine Paula Olsiewski. She also gives the best advice – when I recently was asking about a big life decision, she cut through all of my overthinking and she just said: “You know, at the end of the day, you will have to figure out what makes your heart sing.'' So I will pass on that advice. You have this one sweet life and you really just have to ask yourself what makes your heart sing - what inspires you, what are you curious about, and what do you care about? Let that be your guide.