Voices for change: AO women in STEMM

My journey: Sibylle Grad

Just as she relishes the opportunity to contribute to the AO’s mission of promoting excellence in patient care and outcomes in trauma and musculoskeletal disorders, AO Research Institute Davos (ARI) scientist Sibylle Grad, PhD, sees opportunities for underrepresented groups to help advance that overarching goal.

Grad, a principal scientist in ARI’s Regenerative Orthopaedics Program, began her career as a pharmacist; then, intrigued by the prospect of working in research and development (R&D), earned a PhD from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH Zurich). It was during her PhD work that her interest in research was piqued.

“It is the curiosity to develop a question, come up with a hypothesis, then to test it, and further investigate—to be a small part of the global discovery of—in my case—new therapies for back and joint pain. It may only be a small discovery, but every contribution from my side is important to me,” she explains. “Also, what I started to realize is that the more you know, all that you do not know becomes more apparent. But then you likely develop ideas or potential solutions to answer these new questions through further investigation. Of course, ultimately, it’s all about helping the patient. That’s still always in my mind, even if I’m just looking at one cell under the microscope: All the time, the final goal is advancing patient care.”

In addition to curiosity and advancing patient care, Grad is motivated by working with a great team and interacting with other scientists, clinicians, universities, and even the public.

“This collaborative, interdisciplinary approach brings a lot of diversity into the daily working environment,” she says. “There’s always something new to learn and to participate in, and in our case—in ARI’s Regenerative Orthopaedics Program—it’s always a contribution to a larger project.”

At the same time, Grad—who is also an adjunct professor of biomedical engineering at the ETH Zurich Health Sciences and Technology Department—values the opportunity to supervise and mentor early-career scientists.

“The interaction with these young people brings new aspects every day—challenges and successes are often close together or even linked,” Grad adds. “Small successes build on one another and keep you happy.”

Grad characterizes ARI as unique in its specific focus on orthopedics research while, on the other hand, having all of the required research facilities under one roof: biomedical materials, development, cell therapies and analysis, medical imaging, cell and organ cultures, and preclinical animal models.

“Also, all of us in ARI know each other. If I have a question in terms of biomechanics, I can go to the biomedical development team—the leader of the biomedical materials area is my office mate,” she notes. “There’s a lot of expertise at the ARI—experts for every orthopedic research question. That’s unusual.”

At the same time, when Grad looks at her field objectively, she sees underrepresentation—and ways that a more diverse community of health care professionals—including researchers—could contribute.

“I would say that groups underrepresented are ethnic groups in research in general; most probably this is because they don’t have the possibility—or privilege—especially in less developed areas of the world—to go study, to go to university, and go into research,” she observes. “There’s a barrier to access if you’re born in an area where it’s very difficult to access education or supporting mentors. And there are other reasons, too, such as lack of financial resources or other obligations and priorities in life.”

it’s still true, Grad says—that women are underrepresented in leadership roles—boards, commissions, and as chairpersons.

“It’s mainly males of a certain stage in their careers who are commission members or chairpersons,” she says. “This is something really obvious both in general and at the AO. You hardly see any female heads of departments. Age also seems to play role. Females, different age groups, or different educational backgrounds could make very valuable contributions to these roles. It’s important to see people who look like you in leadership roles; this sends a message that achievement is possible. It’s the different life experiences that strengthen a team.”

Grad is convinced that mentorship, elimination of financial barriers to entry and achievement, and greater inclusiveness could contribute to a more level playing field and, in turn, advance patient care.

“We should also include people from different educational backgrounds—even more researchers, people with backgrounds in ethics, patient organizations should be included in the overall goal of patient care,” she says. “This would give us input from different perspectives. Ultimately, it’s all about improving patient care and that includes bringing together a variety of experiences and perspectives.”

Grad’s advice to students and professionals facing barriers to their goals is simple.

“Don’t give up. If you fail somehow—if you’re not successful—just keep going. Be confident in what you’re doing and stay positive,” she advises. “Try to build a network of your own. Ask for support. Sometimes you have to keep asking. Be persistent. Don’t just step back. The AO Access Mentorship Program is a great place to start, whether you’re a mentor or a mentee.”