An Interview with the 2019 SNACC Annual Meeting Keynote Speaker, Dr. Amy Wagner

Tasha L. Welch, MD
SNACC Newsletter Assistant Editor

Dr. Sharma
Amy Wagner, MD
Tasha L. Welch, MD
Tasha L. Welch, MD

The 2019 SNACC Annual Meeting attendees will have the distinct pleasure of listening to Amy Wagner, MD, a national leader and scientist in Rehabilomics, talk about optimizing function after acquired brain injury. Dr. Wagner, Professor of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, holds many esteemed positions at the University of Pittsburgh in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. She currently serves as the Vice Chair for Faculty Development, the Director of Translational Research, and as the Director of the Brain Injury Medicine Fellowship. Dr. Wagner has numerous accomplishments and accolades. She is a federally funded researcher with funds from the National Institute of Health, the Center for Disease Control, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Education, having received approximately $16 million in funding. She has published more than 150 peer-reviewed manuscripts on original research and invited review topics. Her focus remains on the use of biomarkers developing prognostic models and clinical decision algorithms, as well as the optimization of individual treatment outcomes in an effort to personalize rehabilitation medicine.  

You serve as a mentor to dozens in several capacities. How have mentors played a role in your career? Why do you feel mentoring is an important thing to continue in your career?
Someone once told me that “research does not happen in a vacuum,” and I have found that to be a profoundly simple truth. I have had several professional and research mentors throughout my training and particularly during my early academic career. I believe that the environment created through these relationships and the commitment of many to supporting research trainees and junior faculty during my time of training at PITT, is a big reason for my own success. Every day, I work to pay this investment forward to my students and trainees at every level of development. In addition, I continue to look to my colleagues for peer support and guidance as I have progressed through my “mid-career” and as I transition into the later stages of my professional life.

I view my translational research program not as a career builder, but rather as a mission to impact lives by using research to advance care. This is a central tenet that must be acknowledged and cultivated in my own mentoring relationships. In doing so, I take great pride and joy in shaping the lives of many young people who adopt a mission-minded biomedical research trajectory as their own professional life goal. I have mentored many young trainees who are far more talented and prepared and wise than I was at that same time of life, and I love watching their research experience unfold. I am grateful for the opportunity to plant the necessary seeds of confidence, perseverance and faith needed for them to figure out just how far their learning and talents can take them, and in the process, for them to realize that they have found their passion.

Mentorship is a long-term investment for me.  I take in freshman and sophomore students to my group, and several have remained a part of their lives as trainees for periods up to 8-10 years as they progress through undergraduate, medical/graduate school and residency.  Some have gone on to successful careers in physical medicine and rehabilitation; others have taken their skills into the broader brain injury research and neuroscience communities.  And I am proud to have been a part of each of their lives.

SNACC’s Women in Neuroanesthesiology and Neuroscience Education and Research (WINNER) program focuses on highlighting the accomplishments of women in the fields of neuroanesthesiology and neuroscience. How have other women helped shape your path of becoming a successful woman in medicine and science? Why do you feel it is important to foster the development of women in medicine?
For better or for worse, the majority of mentors in my professional life have been men. In part, I think this was due to the fact that still not many women were in positions of leadership to provide that support. However, many women colleagues have been tremendous supports and confidants for me over the years, and this ‘peer mentorship’ is another important form of mentorship that can be very valuable. I will say that my first research mentor was a very special woman role model who, during a very formative time in my life in residency, genuinely, steadfastly believed in me. I keep that gift close to me always, but particularly during times of stress and struggle with maintaining a competitive and funded research program while keeping up with family and friends and health.

I think no mentor is perfect or can provide everything you need to be successful. Sometimes valuable lessons and growth can come by learning from people that may think differently than you or have different strengths and weaknesses, or even have ‘let you down’ or upset you at times. Identifying what it is in each mentor that helps you be better and allows you to stay grounded in life is a great gift, and I have received many. Over time, I like to think these gifts become wisdom, and I try to ‘re-gift’ that wisdom where and when I can. 

PITT is an interesting place for training and mentorship. The culture created and cultivated by generational mentorship icons like Peter Safar is special in many ways. Being a part of that culture through our own contributions to mentorship and training is something that many of us ‘lifers’ at PITT try to honor and pay forward. While I think that I attend to mentorship needs for everyone passing through my professional sphere, I do think that professional women in science and medicine have some shared experiences and unique perceptive gifts that resonate with other women in training. I also very much value my mentorship role with the many young men in my group and I appreciate the opportunity to work with them for many reasons. One important reason is to provide this group of young men a positive professional and academic experience with a female leader that they can carry forward into their own careers and draw upon when building their own mentoring relationships.

What advice would you give your younger self?
Hopefully I am still young, and maybe I am still young actually because I believe that I am still learning and struggling and growing and figuring things out like younger people do. One thing that I have come to realize is that substantial contributions to research and medicine necessarily consume a major chunk of a lifetime to achieve.  I often find myself ‘in a state of timeless animation,’ wherein the years seem to fly by, but I cannot always tell you where and how that time went. My spouse is my rock and I am eternally grateful to have him and my boys around me laughing, loving and keeping me grounded. Yet I am learning, as my boys are now teenagers already, that their time in the house is limited; time not spent with them is something I cannot have back to ‘redo,’ and that smarts some days.

I think my advice to my younger self is the same as the advice I need to remember every single day. That is, to take care of yourself, to appreciate what your family means to you and does for you and to stay true to yourself and your mission. I would also say to remember academic medicine is a long journey that goes by quickly, so don’t forget to pack a lunch, crack some jokes when things seem ludicrous and keep trying to change the world.

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