Alison Marsden: Academia was the only real career path I considered
Professor Alison Marsden credits her enduring interest in math and science to her academic father and outdoorswoman mother. Laser-focused on a career in academia, Marsden embraced graduate school and discovered a profound passion for the intersection of theory and application, initially in traditional aerospace applications, and ultimately in the pediatric cardiology field. As a result of her lab’s work, new surgical methods and modeling are making it possible for children with cardiac defects to undergo surgeries more successfully. The professor and Wall Center Scholar in the departments of Pediatrics, Bioengineering, and, by courtesy, Mechanical Engineering shares more about what shaped her as a person and a professional.
Growing up in an academic household
My father was a math professor at Berkeley, a warm and gentle man who truly loved what he did. He made little books for me – like “Alison’s First Book of Counting” – starting when I was three. These were just very simple, picture-based math problems with cute little figures and questions like, “How many pieces of toast will you eat if you eat two pieces a day for three days?”
It was a soft and friendly – but enduring – introduction to math. I never felt pressure from him but he just exuded the love of math and science. It really made a lasting impression. And my mom, an avid outdoors-woman, took us on so many camping and backpacking trips to national parks, instilling in me a big love of the natural world.
Ours was a house where academics were always gathering — strange math people came for dinner and had long conversations I did not understand in the least at the time. My dad even took me to China for a conference. In a reflection of the times, I have good memories of hanging out with the “faculty wives,” who were all intellectual in their own right, and figuring out the exchange rate with Chinese currency. These experiences helped me immensely later on — I was used to technical language and comfortable around famous academics. As a woman in engineering, I didn’t feel that intimidation around academic big shots.
I ended up in academia because of both my parents, really. In fact, it was the only real career path I considered; I honestly never thought of going into industry. Looking back, I’m a little shocked that I never imagined other options. I always assumed I would go to graduate school and just unwaveringly went down that path like my dad — luckily it worked out for me! My mom also influenced this decision. She was an elementary teacher and when my parents got divorced, I mostly lived with her. I saw firsthand that teachers weren’t always appreciated as they should be and things weren’t financially easy for my mother. We had a tight budget and struggled initially to buy a house, for example. It was clear to me that women needed to have a way to support themselves – and my dad’s career was an example of how to do that while also incorporating the teaching element, which I enjoy so much.
I really liked math and science but wouldn’t consider myself a math prodigy. I was more of a generalist who was pretty good in a lot of subjects. When it was time to apply for college, I wanted to do environmental science or engineering — and I ended up getting into Princeton, where I switched into mechanical engineering at the conclusion of my sophomore year. I really enjoyed the more fundamental ME classes and figured I would be able to specialize as I moved forward through my academic training.
The joy of an interdisciplinary approach to fluid mechanics
Fluid mechanics — the study of how fluids behave — was so interesting to me because it has applications in so many different areas, from mechanical engineering to biology and astrophysics. That’s what I came to study at Stanford for my PhD. Computational fluid dynamics was always my focus; I wasn’t great at experiments. I have vivid memories of breaking multiple pieces of glassware in a chem lab all in the same day. I worked under Prof. Parviz Moin, who really guided and encouraged my work. I liked the technical aspects, involving optimization and fluid mechanics, of what I was doing so much that I wanted to do a postdoc. But I knew I wanted to move beyond traditional aerospace applications which were mostly funded by various government entities, like the Department of Defense, which obviously has important and worthy applications but in the end were not what I wanted to do long term.
So at the end of my PhD, I went on to do a postdoc with Charlie Taylor and Jeffrey Feinstein in cardiovascular modeling. The idea was to apply modeling tools to pediatric cardiology so surgeons could more effectively plan surgeries for children born with heart defects. Specifically, we focused on surgical computer methods for single-ventricle heart defects, which require a series of fairly drastic surgeries to make that physiology survivable. I ended up building on this work in my own lab.
I really enjoy working with medical doctors; the interdisciplinary aspect and the learning is incredibly energizing. I love asking them questions about the challenges they face and what they do. For them, our lab’s work results in a meaningful tangible application of our engineering methods. We’re the connectors between the academic and clinical communities – and we act as interpreters between disciplines, bringing together theory-oriented and applied experts.
Today our lab focuses on a number of projects, including our foundational single-ventricle work that helps surgeons model these cardiovascular procedures before they’re done live. But we’re also developing methods to accurately model the cardiovascular system, including SimVascular, an open-source software suite for cardiovascular simulation which provides a complete pipeline from medical image data to 3D model construction. We’re now working on modeling both pediatric and adult cardiac disease applications, like hypertension and bypass surgery, with several clinical collaborators in each project and with a range of interdisciplinary colleagues.
The magic of teaching and mentoring
I also teach various classes in numerical methods, cardiovascular modeling, math modeling of biological systems, and more. In one of my courses, we model different disease applications from cancer to Covid-19, relying on various numerical methods and tools; it’s fun to create project-based classes where students take concepts learned in lecture and apply them in a more real-world way by developing their own codes. In cardio modeling, we use open-source software to build an anatomic model on various diseases over the quarter and run a fluid dynamics simulation on that model. The students each take a different disease area and learn from each other. It’s such a good way to intersect teaching and research, especially because I hate PowerPoint lectures.
Mentoring is also so important to me. I especially love helping graduate students and postdocs map out their careers. That’s often such a special time of life, personally and professionally. I met my husband in undergrad in our university orchestra; he played the French horn and I played clarinet. We married during graduate school and knew we wanted to start a family so we wanted the stability of a postdoc at Stanford. I remember what it was like to try to strategize about the future and I enjoy helping them think about what success would look like for them.
In my experience with many engineering students, I see many of them get hung up on technical ability — who’s the most brilliant, am I technical enough, that sort of thing. Technical skills are important but don’t discount the ability to draw from other skill sets; being a good writer, an excellent communicator, having strong social skills, and focusing on collaboration are all critical to success. Sometimes people who are technically brilliant shortchange themselves down the line by ignoring these other skills. Conversely, students who are strong in an interdisciplinary sense — I often see women in this category — tend to be very hard on themselves and think they’re not brilliant enough technically to make it. As a result, they sometimes choose different career paths, which contributes to the lack of representation and to the ultimate detriment of the field.
The reality is you need a well-rounded set of skills to deliver your best – something I’ve appreciated as a person who has drawn on both technical and soft skills many times throughout my career.