July 22, 2021

Next chapter on a national stage

An appreciation of GRA Eminent Scholar Susan Margulies

The impact a scientist makes sometimes transcends that scientist’s field of study. This is the case with Susan Margulies.

We learned this month that the National Science Foundation has tapped Susan, a GRA Eminent Scholar at Emory and Georgia Tech, to lead its Directorate of Engineering. Susan is an accomplished biomedical engineer, acclaimed for developing new methods to diagnose and evaluate traumatic brain injuries in children and making advances in the use of ventilators for treatment.

But in selecting Susan, NSF undoubtedly looked at her leadership as chair of the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering, the only academic department in the U.S. equally governed by a public university and a private university. And they liked what they saw.

The engineering directorate is one of seven at NSF that, collectively, play a highly influential role in defining America’s innovation agenda. In her new role, Susan will apply her strategic acumen and penchant for partner-building to set the agency’s engineering research priorities and shape the preparation of tomorrow’s engineering workforce.

“It bodes well for our country to have Susan in this position,” says GRA President Susan Shows. “As chair of Coulter BME, she’s proven to be a conscientious, action-oriented leader, someone who can see the big picture but also understands how to execute the vision.”

The evidence supports that assertion. In just under four years, Susan led the development of a new strategic plan, helped raise $41 million in philanthropic gifts and undertook several initiatives to prepare the department for the future. She is credited with increasing “shared governance” among faculty, staff and students and making career development a priority. She also deepened Coulter BME’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion and championed novel ways to strengthen classroom teaching. 

“Susan was the right person at the right time for Coulter BME,” says Steve McLaughlin, Georgia Tech’s provost who served as dean of engineering for most of Susan’s tenure. “She’s both strategic and intentional, and she did an extraordinary job getting the department to the next level on all fronts – education, research and fundraising. And we’re set up now to do even more big things in the future.”

Navigating the different rules and cultures of a public and private university can be enormously complex. Susan managed to keep her feet planted equally in both campuses – from maintaining two offices to creating a mechanism for major gifts to be shared. 

Then again, achieving such equilibrium is the hallmark of a true biomedical engineer. So much about the delivery of medicine requires a firm grasp of both human health and technical ingenuity. Susan is steeped in each area, which explains why in 2020, she had the rare distinction of being elected to both the National Academy of Medicine and the National Academy of Engineering.

As Susan shared in a 2017 interview: “I’m delighted to be able to speak two languages, engineering and biomedical science. For me, the important piece is identifying questions in medicine that benefit from engineering knowledge to improve the diagnosis and treatment of patients.”

Susan’s determination to make an impact extended to GRA as an organization. Since early 2020, she has served as the Eminent Scholar representative on the Board of Trustees; she quickly showed herself to be a thoughtful, engaged Trustee. Inside the Academy of GRA Eminent Scholars, she was instrumental in shaping a new initiative that increased participation of underrepresented minorities in university research and STEM fields. 

“She’s been both a catalyst and a leader in our efforts to create more opportunities for young people to experience research,” says Susan Shows. 

While at NSF, Susan will continue serving on the faculty of Emory and Georgia Tech. GRA is grateful for her leadership – past and future – and we can’t wait to see what she does next.