Grace O’Connell received her PhD in Bioengineering from the University of Pennsylvania in 2009 and a BS in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Maryland in 2004. She is currently the Don M. Cunningham Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering.
What is your current career stage?
My career stage is mid-career as I received tenure July 2019.
Who were/are your past scientific mentors?
High School: Mr. C – He taught a very popular engineering course at my high school. It was really hard to get into but taught students how to CAD and the basics of engineering design principles. He encouraged me to consider majoring in engineering in college. I didn’t really know much about the different types of engineering disciplines so I picked Aerospace Engineering because I was taking flying lessons (small prop plane) for my senior project.
PhD: Dawn Elliott when she was at the University of Pennsylvania. Shortly after I completed my PhD she moved to the University of Delaware to start the Biomedical Engineering Department. In her lab I learned about biomechanical testing and computational modeling to complement the experimental data. Much of the biomechanics work out of my lab today has an experimentalist with a computational collaborator — experimental data helps to improve the models and the models are used for faster development of experimental study designs.
PostDoc: Clark Hung at Columbia University. In his lab I learned tissue engineering techniques for cartilage tissue engineering. My lab applies the skills that I learned in his lab to study mechanobiology of fiber reinforced tissues — we use tissue engineering techniques to create models to study cell response and tissue development rather than focusing primarily on creating functional tissues for implantation.
Can you give us a brief overview of your research?
The general overview is that we are focused on understanding the mechanobiological properties of fiber-reinforced tissues with age and disease. In recent work, we have looked at how compositional changes in the intervertebral disc joint alter disc geometry and behavior, resulting in changes that resemble various stages of degeneration. We are also studying how these compositional changes alter stress distributions throughout the tissues and joint, leading to increased risk of failure (e.g., herniation or mechanical dysfunction).
How did you get involved in orthopaedic research?
Since I did my BS in Aerospace Engineering, my first introduction to orthopaedic research was through working in Dawn’s lab as a graduate student. The first year was a very stressful and very challenging time to get up to speed on the biological terms that all of my peers were already very familiar with by coming from Bioengineering backgrounds or having done research in an orthopaedics laboratory.
I started grad school a month or two early, which was really helpful because I was able to get familiarized with lab work before starting graduate level courses. This also helped me collect enough data for an ORS abstract that resulted in a podium presentation during my first year. I remember my talk was one of the very first sessions in the conference, providing little opportunity to see how talks went for other students/presenters.
How has the ORS supported you?
At my first ORS talk – I distinctly remember James Iatridis asking me a question. I didn’t quite understand what he was asking for while I was on the podium, but his questions always keep me thinking well after the fact. I ended up tracking him down after the talk to further discuss his question. This same scenario played out multiple times during my graduate and postdoc career (now my students make the presentations). James and many of the other folks that I engage with at ORS are always very excited to discuss science that I often come back to my lab reinvigorated to try new ideas out in the lab.
What is your favorite thing about the ORS?
I enjoy the Spine Section meeting table discussions. It provides a nice break from hearing a long series of talks during the day.
Why do you believe diversity and inclusion is important?
Diversity allows us to look at a problem with a new lens. Even in the musculoskeletal world, there are many issues that affect men and women differently. There are genetic diseases that disproportionately affect certain parts of the population, so having researchers from diverse backgrounds with different lived experiences helps bring new ideas to the table, which can help everyone better understand the complex world around us.
Inclusion can mean many things — you can let people in to make an organization more diverse or you can really let folks in and allow them to contribute to defining the future of the organization. To me, it’s important to let new ideas in and to allow that change how we used to see the world.
What are your career goals?
I am getting more interested in musculoskeletal injuries with female athletes. This is more of a personal selfish interest because I train/ rock climb 6 days a week and that certainly does a number on your soft tissues, especially as I get older.
What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced in your scientific career? (socially, professionally, culturally, scientifically, etc.)
Feeling included (not ORS related) — there have been times where it felt like I was navigating through a social minefield. I’m not sure if that’s because I’m in engineering, because I’m a woman, or because I’m a person of color. This was more of an issue as a young scientist/investigator — as I stay in the field longer, my network and connection of good friends and allies has definitely grown, allowing me to feel connected to a larger community.
Any personal interests or hobbies you would like to share?
Rock Climbing! I’m really big into bouldering, which is climbing without ropes but to heights like Alex Honnold — I only climb ~10-15 feet vertically. Unfortunately, my hobby/obsession is much like engineering – there are much fewer women at the top levels, so I had to decide between climbing with the strong boys or climbing for fun and socializing with my female friends. I learned a lot by tagging along and climbing with the men in my gym, and it helped make me one of the stronger female climbers in the Bay Area. However, it still bothered me that the female climbers around me seemed to be held back by an invisible force, so I started posting videos on YouTube to silently encourage other women to see examples of strong women climbing outside. I don’t know if or how much my videos have changed things, but I do run into women that have commented on how the videos encouraged them to try a problem or that they look to see how I did a problem before heading out to the mountains. So I guess in many ways, I’ve applied the mentorship role from work (research/teaching) to the climbing community.
I have even incorporated it into my class — I teach an intro to biomechanics course and we discuss the impacts of overweight/obesity on MSK tissues. 70% of Americans are either overweight or obese, but most of my students are healthy and likely unaware of the horizontal growth that may be instore for many of them as they move to more sedentary desk job life. I try to bring up climbing and encourage them to climb, because it is very much a problem solving activity, which lends well to engineers and scientists. The best part is that it doesn’t feel like you’re working out. It’s neat to receive emails from former students that say they started climbing because I mentioned it in class or that they’ve used my videos to help them work through a problem. Being a professor is not something that you turn off when you go home for the day.
What personal advice would you give to new investigators starting out in the field?
You will be pulled in many directions. Remember what parts of the job bring you joy and make sure you provide space for that activity. One of the things that helped me the most was scheduling meetings with myself every week — protected time to write my grants/papers etc.