Meet College of Sciences Alumna Mary Beth Brown, Assistant Professor of Physical Therapy

Advice to students: Be open-minded to immense possibilities

Mary Beth Brown came to Georgia Tech to do research in Applied Physiology. She attended the School of Applied Physiology and received a Ph.D. in 2009. The school is now the School of Biological Sciences after a reorganization in July 2016.

Before Georgia Tech, Brown attended St. Petersburg High School, in St. Petersburg, Florida. She received a B.A. in Exercise Science from Lenoir-Rhyne University, in North Carolina, and an M.S. in Physical Therapy from the University of Miami, in Florida. She practiced as a physical therapist for almost 10  years prior to returning to school to pursue her Ph.D.

After completing her Ph.D., Brown took a postdoctoral fellowship at Indiana University School of Medicine, in Indianapolis, where she currently lives. Brown is now an assistant professor of physical therapy in the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences at Indiana University.

What attracted you to study in Georgia Tech?

The Applied Physiology program and the opportunity to be under the guidance of Dr. Mindy Millard-Stafford in her Exercise Physiology Lab seemed like a good fit for my interests and background. Being in downtown Atlanta was exciting.

Georgia Tech,  the Applied Physiology program, and its faculty met my expectations. Most importantly, I learned how to be a good researcher. As a Ph.D. student, that’s what I came to learn.

What is a vivid memory of your time at Georgia Tech?

Getting to deliver my Ph.D. dissertation presentation after four+ years of work on my topic was one of the biggest thrills of my life, and highly gratifying.

How did you get to your current position?

I took a postdoctoral fellowship position at Indiana University School of Medicine after completing my Ph.D. at Georgia Tech. Then a research tenure-track faculty position opened up in Indiana University, in the Physical Therapy department, where I wanted to be. It worked out perfectly.  

What roles did your Georgia Tech education and experience play in your journey to your current position?

I had tremendous education in research. Much of this was out of the classroom. But the foundation was laid in the classroom. Also, my Ph.D. program’s willingness to support and encourage the collaboration I wanted to do with Emory School of Medicine permitted me to pursue my research question with greater breadth and depth, and that took it from being good to great. More importantly, it helped me fill my investigator tool box with many more tools to which I may not have had exposure otherwise.

Which professor(s) or class(es) made a big impact on your career path?

I teach physiology now, so my physiology courses at Georgia Tech (Systems Physiology I, II, and III) made a big impact. I particularly was influenced by Dr. Tom Burkholder, who taught the first of these courses, as well as an outstanding muscle physiology course.  

Another course that was also impactful was Foundations in Molecular and Cell Biology, BIOL 7001. It was invented and directed by Dr. Nael McCarty, with contributions from many guest lecturing principal investigators from the School of Biology (now also the School of Biological Sciences). That class was one of the most challenging of my time at Georga Tech, but probably influenced my career path more than any other class, in a positive way.

What do you like most about your current job? The least?

The most: working with students in my lab. The least: faculty meetings.

What has been the greatest challenge in your professional life so far?

Learning to accept rejection is probably the greatest challenge, and it is not just a one-time event. It happens repeatedly as a researcher. Rejected grant applications, rejected manuscripts—it is hard in the beginning, and this is where more senior colleagues are helpful to provide perspective.

I have learned that it helps to take a LOT of shots at the goal. Rejections are common, even for good products. The trick is to keep submitting, keep learning from them, and keep evolving.

What has been the most gratifying experience of your professional career so far?

The most gratifying so far was my first NIH funding award, last year. It gave me the confidence to keep at it, even when things seemed to be going every way except my way in my research.

The second most gratifying was this year when I came back and gave a research talk at Georgia Tech to my former professors and current and past students of the School of Applied Physiology. It was not just an honor; it was gratifying in that I felt like it was a true, from-the-heart ‘thank you’ to them from me for the important role they played in my career path.

If you could have taken an alternative career path, what would you be doing instead?

Nothing!

Okay, maybe a professional surfer. I can’t even surf, never tried, but those women look so cool and so fearless.

What advice would you give to incoming first-year students at Georgia Tech? 

To first-year Ph.D. students at Tech, I’d say be open-minded to immense possibilities. This can happen only if you get out of your comfort zone. When constructing your research projects, do not propose to study what you already know. Make sure your proposal really stretches you.

What’s something about yourself that’s not obvious to your colleagues?

I work as hard in my recreational sports endeavors as I do with my professional endeavors, and that’s because I am competitive probably to a fault. There is no just-for-fun race. I’ve taken to long, solo, endurance events (open-water swimming, marathons, ultra-distance triathlons), probably because these activities keep me from being too hard on anyone but myself. 

If you could have dinner with any person from history, whom would you invite?

Hatshepsut, the woman who ruled Egypt as pharaoh starting around 1478 BC. She was feminism before feminism was even a thing. In this election year, when we are witnessing history with our first female presidential candidate, I am in complete disbelief that it has taken this long for this day to arrive. I’d like to ask Hatshepsut if she has any ideas about why this is so.

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