The Gender Factor
Women Taking the Sciences by Storm
Dawn Mueller, M.D. ’68
When she entered medical school in 1968, Dawn Grigg Mueller’s class of 127 students included just eight women. This was nothing new to Mueller who at Susquehanna had been the only woman in her class of six chemistry majors.
“I suspect that spending countless hours in labs and working on projects together with the men helped prepare me for my interactions in medical school,” recalls Mueller, 65, who served as associate professor of pediatrics at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Medicine in Richmond, Va., and attending physician for the university health system’s neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) for 20 years before retiring in 1998.
Mueller’s scientific journey began in high school, when she knew she wanted to become a doctor. During her years at Susquehanna, she remained focused on that goal and, once in medical school, she settled on pediatrics.
“I had no interest in bench research,” she says. “Probably because of all the lovely afternoons I had already spent in labs at Susquehanna with enticing come-hither breezes wafting through the windows as I sweated over yet another puzzling question.”
Mueller, vice chair of Susquehanna’s Board of Trustees, says she was attracted to neonatology because in the mid-1970s it was a relatively new specialty with “exciting, ever-changing and improving treatments to impact the care of critically ill newborns.” Her clinical work, combined with teaching, proved very satisfying for the Philadelphia-area native, who noted it was a love of biology that motivated her to be a doctor, but she learned empathy as a NICU physician.
“Families of hospitalized newborn infants are overwhelmed with apprehension and feelings of helplessness. Seeking out visiting parents each day to listen to their concerns, answer their questions, and offer support was just as important to me as managing their children’s medical problems. There truly is an art and a science to the practice of medicine.”
The road to a successful medical career wasn’t always easy. Mueller noted that she was challenged during her years at Susquehanna. “In a story already familiar to many on the SU campus, my faculty adviser, Dr. Tom McGrath, told me that he didn’t think that I would make a good doctor,” recalls Mueller. “He intended it as a challenge and I took it as such. Needless to say, he caught my attention, and I have always wondered what would have happened had that conversation with him never occurred.”
Reflecting back on her career, Mueller says the advances made in neonatal care over the last several decades have been nothing short of amazing. But even more amazing was seeing the onetime infants she had cared for later return for reunions. “I’ll never forget the time that one mother brought her 16-year-old son back on the day of his birthday to meet me and to see the NICU where he was hospitalized.”
Lara Primak, M.D. ’90
Five years ago, Lara Primak made one of the most difficult choices of her life when she decided to leave clinical medicine to pursue a career as a medical writer, which ultimately led to her current position at ETHOS Health Communications in Newtown, Pa. It was 2006 and Primak had been practicing medicine since 1994.
“I just felt like I took my work home with me too much,” says Primak, 44. “I began to feel like I was overthinking everything—spinning my wheels a lot of the time. Ultimately, I felt like this inability to trust myself could potentially have an adverse impact on the care I was delivering to my patients. That’s when I knew I had to move on.”
And move on she did. As a medical writer, Primak is responsible for developing copy for various medical communications, including journal articles, on behalf of pharmaceutical clients. What makes her work most rewarding is the opportunity to reach out to various audiences, considering what they might find most germane and understanding how to package that information into an article that resonates and has impact.
“When I contribute to the development of an article that informs and educates, with the ultimate goal of improving patient care, that’s exciting,” she says.
It’s been a unique journey for Primak, and she says the experience has taught her the value of trusting her instincts when it comes to personal happiness and professional fulfillment.
“I struggled with leaving clinical medicine. I had invested so much, was good at what I did, and I believed that what I was doing was too noble to walk away from,” says Primak. “But the bottom line was that I was unhappy and overwhelmed. I felt emotionally and spiritually spent. When you get to that point, you can’t be of much benefit to anyone, much less yourself.”
In many ways Primak attributes this realization to her years at Susquehanna, where she says she was never “pigeonholed as a chemistry major or someone who wanted to be a doctor.” Her undergraduate experience was varied, dimensional and holistic.
“I believe the range of my educational and other experiences at SU was instrumental in shaping me into the person I am today,” she says.