Susan Morgello is a full-tenured professor in pathology and neuroscience at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City where she is a diagnostic neuropathologist and director of a large research program focused on HIV and its effects on the nervous system.
What has your career been?
I was trained as a physician. Like my mother before me, I am a diagnostic neuropathologist who specializes in disorders of the nervous system: brain, spinal cord, muscle, and nerve. At this stage in my life, having been a practitioner since 1982, a lot of my focus is not on the basic practice of my craft but is now in directing a large research program that focuses on HIV in the nervous system how it cross sections with New York City individuals with AIDS. I am here at Mt. Sinai, and a full tenured professor in pathology and neuroscience.
There’s a lot of need all over the world, certainly in regards to HIV care in sub-Saharan African and southeast Africa. I see a lot of young people who go out to the Peace Corps for a few years, and after a brief tour throughout Africa, see the needs, become smitten by what one individual can do, then return after their term ends because they feel that people need them.
And then you have the other individual who wants to help, but cannot travel. For example, I have a child, and that limits my ability to travel extensively, so I’ve found my niche by serving the large underserved populations here. I used to travel a bit when I was young—there were no barriers to traveling to meetings, presenting myself and becoming part of the dialogue internationally. I can’t do that anymore.
Fortunately, there are many others who are here with me at Mt. Sinai—so many young physicians here who are committed to addressing the HIV issue from this front. It’s commendable.
You had your daughter by yourself; how did you manage balancing that with your career?
I decided that at a certain point in time that I wanted a child. I found a lovely man who agreed that the time was right for me. So I had a child. It’s as easy as that. What I’ve learned since is that I’m very fortunate. And the reason I’m fortunate is that having a child at an older age allowed me the resources to have a child. Into my life came a succession of lovely, gentle women—babysitters, nannies. I could go to work and have the peace of mind that there was someone at home who kept my child safe and clean, cooked my meals.
It was all because I had achieved a certain level of financial security. I also have wonderful friends who have been very supportive. And one of the pluses I’ve encountered as a single parent is that I really control my household. The decision-making is mine.
What sorts of difficulties did you encounter as a single parent?
It was not emotionally always the easiest. We live in a very couple-oriented society. You feel this otherness sometimes, and that initially is very hard to deal with. What’s wrong with me? Why don’t I fit into this group? But at some point, you just have to say screw it, I don’t care if I don’t conform to a certain path.
My mother got married, as was expected of her. My parents divorced when I was in medical school. It wasn’t that they weren’t both wonderful people. It just wasn’t the model for them. My mom didn’t get remarried, but my dad did. He was very happy.
I have no problems being alone in the world. I believe that you are alone in the world, even if you are madly in love, and I think that love has nothing to do with marriage. What the bonds of marriage do is solidify caretaking relationships.
What was your mother’s experience like in the workforce back then?
My mother was a refugee from WWII, so when she came to the US, she didn’t have it easy. She had to learn English, went to CCNY, started out with night courses. Her father said, “What do you want to do? I can buy you a car, or I’ll pay for your education.” She felt she’d always been good at math and science, so she chose the latter and decided to become a doctor. She applied, got rejected. Then applied again and got in.
She married a man who had grown up in a poor neighborhood in the Bronx and had been wounded in WWII. He’d gone to journalism school. He was the journalist and she was the physician. She was making more money than he was.
How did she balance work and family?
Young women think that women can have it all, and you can’t. My mother had two young children, and in her practice, she didn’t have the time she needed to climb that same academic ladder. She worked part-time with two children at home. She contented herself with the diagnostic side, and never generated the powerful stature she could have had. She was limited by having the exigencies of taking care of children, but she wasn’t regretful of it at all.
What she was unhappy with was that she was a very bright woman and opportunities were not made for her despite the fact she had already shown her intellectual credentials. She was given a back seat when men less capable were being exalted and given opportunities. She was resentful of that.
You wonder and worry, how do you balance everything. You can’t have everything. You have to decide in your life what is important, what gives you great happiness. At the end of days, when you look back at your life, what is it that you want to accomplish. I consider myself to be extraordinarily lucky. I have the blessing of having a child. My daughter is the number one reason why I exist. There’s nothing else like it; it’s a fantastic experience. And I have a successful career to boot, so that I can now do something that I really enjoy, and something that I feel happy about.
So how did you get into medicine?
I stumbled into it, just going where life took me. Through high school was the Vietnam War, the protests. You have to decide where to go to college. A little voice said, Go to MIT. I said, Sounds good. There was something that clicked.
I wandered to MIT and thought that I should start out as a chemical engineering major, but I was so ill-suited for it; I had just finished at a performing arts school in New York, so I was more interested in starting a Shakespeare group and getting involved in theater. So there I was at MIT, pursuing a bachelor in science and literature and theater. But at the end of 3 years, I said to myself, I can never be a theater actress. That’s when I started pre-med and found myself graduating with a food and nutrition major.
After that, I entered the med program at Duke, was there for a year, then dropped out. I returned to New York and auditioned for the Gilbert and Sullivan theaters. After a year doing theater in New York, I realized my initial instinct that I wasn’t going to be in the arts was spot on, so I returned to Duke.
How would you compare your experience with the educational system back then to what you would have experienced now?
The system was so much easier back then. I was going back and forth like a yo-yo. Art, science, art, science. The system embraced me with open arms. I could go to a Manhattan school of theater, then go to MIT. I could do the Gilbert and Sullivan theater, and then go back to Duke. You can’t do that now. You’re on this conveyor belt with other kids who are discovering the cure for cancer. You have to distinguish yourself.
I see this as I interview prospective students now. I don’t know how these kids handle it, the trajectory to grad school. I got into the top 10 med schools in America with a B average at MIT. You can’t do that today. The system is much more rigid. The trajectory towards a career like mine is much more arduous, doesn’t tolerate the creative wandering.
We’ve forgotten that experience counts in the 21st century. These kids are being given career advice that says: Go network, go show yourself. And it becomes obsessive. But it’s a balance. I realize that to be successful, you have to have traveled, but I also had to spend a lot of time honing my proficiency.
It’s something that I think about a lot now that my daughter is at that point in her life. On one hand, I know my she needs a good GPA. But on the other hand, I want to tell her, “Go wild!” She’s young and has so many opportunities to do so many different things, so I don’t want her to ever feel limited by societal expectations.
What advice do you have for young women?
Get a good breakfast and a good night’s sleep (laughs). And pay attention to your instincts. If something is lying heavy on your soul, don’t do it. But on the other hand, be realistic. Realize that it’s very hard. You have to constantly be checking in with reality in order to grow, on a personal and professional level.
We always say to people, “Set goals!” But in my experience, your goals are always changing. I wanted to be a doctor, I wanted to be an artist, I wanted to be an actress. Who knows what your goals are? Just do things that make you happy. I’m not talking about smiling happy. Just content, because you have to come home at the end of the day. You have to say, my day was cruddy, but all in all, my life is not that bad.