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Women Scientist Profiles

Carla M. Pugh, M.D., Ph.D., FACS

Carla M. Pugh, M.D., Ph.D., FACS

Carla M. Pugh, M.D., Ph.D., is the Susan Behrens, M.D. Professor of Surgical Education at the University of Wisconsin (UW) School of Medicine and Public Health and is a member of the UW Department of Surgerys Section of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery.

Dr. Pugh earned her M.D. from Howard University College of Medicine and her Ph.D. from Stanford University School of Education. She is certified by the American Board of Surgery. In 2011, Dr. Pugh received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers.

The use of simulation technology to assess and quantitatively define hands-on clinical skills is one of Dr. Pughs major research areas. Currently, more than 100 medical and nursing schools use one of her sensor-enabled training tools for their students and trainees.

Could you give us an overview of your research?

My research involves the use of engineering technologies sensors, motion tracking, even videos and audio to measure clinical skills in the medical field. We record all kinds of data as medical practitioners perform hands-on exams or procedures, from a physical exam to a complex surgery. Our goal is to provide feedback to physicians about their hands-on techniques.

One example is a model of a baby born with a clubfoot deformity. The babies are born with varying degrees of angulation that make it impossible for them to walk normally. These babies get a series of casts placed on their legs and feet. There is an art and a skill to examining a baby with clubfoot, determining what angle the foot should be at that point in treatment, and placing the cast.

Using molds from another company, we built a silicon model that you can move. We put in firm material to simulate the bones and denser tissue, like the heel. We added sensors inside the model and attached these legs to a doll because when the surgeon comes in to put a cast on a baby, its not just an isolated babys leg dangling there on a demonstration pole. Now we have a clubfoot simulator baby.

How did you get into this field?

Ive always been visually oriented and good with my hands. As a child, I always did surgeries on my dolls, so I knew how all the most popular and the most unpopular dolls were made and the faults in their engineering that made them break. All the things that kids do to test toys when they broke, I was the doll surgeon who would fix them.

I had a transplant clinic. I had donor arms and legs. I had suture and solder and glue. I had all my operative doll instruments. Not only did I walk away from my childhood with that creativity, but I also had a high level of confidence that I could fix anything that was broken, including electrical things. If a lamp was broken, I would take it apart and look at the inside. There is some pattern recognition involved because after taking things apart, you know what unbroken looks like. I was very much a maker engineer as a child.

How has mentoring (either as a mentor or mentee) shaped your career? 

When I started, I was age 5. You never know whats in the imagination of a 5-year-old. Combine that with my mom telling me that I could be anything I wanted to be. I really believed her. And I also heard stories during family reunions: Everyone would say, Youre inquisitive like your great-grandma. Both my great-grandmother and a great aunt served their communities in the dual role of veterinarian and midwife, so I thought it was pretty common that women could be physicians. And I thought, Great, thats exactly what I want to do.

What do you enjoy about being a physician-scientist?

I enjoy the mystery and the opportunity to investigate, gather information to support your hypothesis, and find a potential solution. And then to collaborate and discuss it with people, discuss it with a patient, and then execute the solution and see good results. I love problem solving; its the same whether Im problem solving my patients gastrointestinal tract or problem solving Barbies defective rubber band mechanisms.

Are there barriers to women in science, and if so, what are they?

When you look at the roles in science and in the medical fields, the jobs were created and occupied by men for years. And so the rules of engagement, the outcomes and measures for success, are defined from the male perspective. Joanne Martin, Ph.D., a business school professor at Stanford University, wrote a book noting that a lot of the problems that women have in the workplace relate to the fact that they are adjusting to modes of inquiry that were not designed by or for women.

If you read the psychology literature, when men get angry, they tend to become aggressive. When women get angry, they cry. Both of those are valid emotions, but if you cry, in todays mainstream culture, thats a sign of weakness. Women cant cry in the workplace. But if a man shows emotion in the workplace and gets angry, hes showing leadership. Hes powerful. And if a woman gets angry, it scares people. Thats reserved for the men; you cant do that.

I dont believe that all women think one way and men think another. But I do think that there are trends in how men and women think, learn, and communicate. It may be changing a little. People are starting to be more explicit about those differences and questioning why its not okay for a woman to be a woman in the workplace and still be respected and considered intelligent. Were not fully there yet, but its exciting that the conversation is starting to happen.

How do you manage work-life integration?

You learn to triage what is really important. You find yourself triaging between five things that youd really like to do, and you can only do one. You have to find comfort in staying in your lane and that the four other things that you want to do, it would be better for you to mentor someone else who also has that interest. Im learning to do that. Its not just within my lab. It includes training the postdocs and letting them develop a concept or research question from their own perspective and direction. Its partnering with someone at a national level regarding resident feedback and realizing that I cant take on that project but that I could definitely be a mentor to that assistant professor at another university who wants to do it.

If you werent a physician-scientist, what other job would you have?

If you asked me that 20 years ago, I would have said an anatomist because I was completely consumed by the mystery, the beauty, and the amazing way that were put together as human beings. But now, I would be an ethnographer or a science curator. I would have a television show where I would go around and speak with scientists who have made discoveries or who have discovered new things.

What do you do outside of work?

I am an outdoors person. I really like nature. Its still science, right? I love hiking, scuba diving, fishing, and gardening. I grew up in Berkeley, California, and we went up to Tahoe all the time. Hiking there during the summer is just amazing, and in the winter, we would go for the weekend and ski. I spent half of my childhood at the Berkeley Marina, watching people fish and watching the seals and the pelicans. The wildlife and the whole ecosystem are just amazing. Its all science. What do I like to do in my work? Science. What do I like to do in my spare time? Science.

This page last updated: August 9, 2018

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