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Always Looking Forward: a conversation with Senior Scientist Martha Menard

Martha Menard is a research scientist with 15+ of experience designing and leading research and evaluation projects for businesses, nonprofits, and academic institutions, specializing in integrative and behavioral health. She has her PhD in Research, Statistics and Evaluation from the University of Virginia, as well as having run a successful private massage therapy practice for over a decade. Martha joined Embr in October of last year, and we sat down to talk about her work here, her unusual career path, and the importance of age and gender diversity in tech. 

Who are you and what do you do?

I'm the senior scientist at Embr, and I joined in the team in October of 2019. One of the things I love about working at a startup is that you get to wear a lot of different hats, so I do basically whatever needs to be done! But my primary responsibility is working on clinical research and developing studies to investigate the clinical effectiveness and potential mechanisms of action of Embr’s technology. 


So what ended up bringing you to Embr, especially in a research role?

My background is actually in clinical healthcare research, my PhD is in research methods, quantitative and qualitative. And for probably 20 years off and on, I did a lot of consulting for academia, mostly universities and nonprofits, focused on integrative healthcare, organizational change, and development.

I really enjoy healthcare research, especially clinical healthcare research. So when I saw the job posting for Embr, it was really appealing to me in a lot of ways, because I realized that opportunities in my current role at my last job were pretty limited. I was intrigued by Embr’s technology. When I came to visit, I really liked the company, and I liked the people. It was a pretty easy decision to take the job. 

Can you share a little more about your background? What brought you into healthcare research?

After high school, I went to college for one semester, and ended up dropping out because I had no clue what I wanted to do. So I basically went on with my life for about six or seven years, and when I decided to go back to school, I had decided really wanted to go into healthcare. I thought I might go into nursing, so I took my prereqs and I took a job as a nursing assistant.

I started dealing with some back pain on the job, and a friend suggested that I get a massage for my back, and it was such a compelling experience for me. Around that same time, a lot of nurses around me were leaving nursing because of the lack of pay, lack of respect, and lack of autonomy. So, I thought those were all good reasons to not become a nurse, and I decided to go into massage therapy because it was a way that I could still help people and be involved in healthcare, but have better pay and more control of my work life. 

I got my massage therapy training and began practicing, but I realized that I had a lot of gaps in my education. I went back to university and got my bachelor's degree through an adult degree program that was designed for older students who were working full time and going back to finish a degree. It was great for me. I got to design my own degree program, so I designed a program in biology, psychology and athletic training. 

I continued in my massage practice for about 10 years. During that time, I started getting referrals from psychotherapists, who began sending some of their clients to me and I realized that I wanted to go back and get an advanced degree. I thought I might become a clinical psychologist, but I realized that I wouldn't be able to be licensed as a psychologist and still do massage therapy and bodywork for people. So I decided to change programs and went into research methodology. 

I ended up getting a grant from the NIH [National Institute of Health] to do a study on massage therapy, and that became my dissertation. I graduated with my PhD, did academia for a little while, worked at a research center at UVA [University of Virginia] and helped write grants for their funding. I had kept my private practice all throughout graduate school kind of as both a part-time job but also, as a way to stay grounded in the real world because academia can feel so all-consuming. 

A lot of your work at Embr relates to women’s health, specifically older women’s health. Why is that work important to you?

Well, because it’s personal for me. There’s definitely a gender problem in tech as a whole, women are not very well represented. And older women, I would say older people in general, but older women in particular, are pretty invisible. Not just in the technology industry, but kind of in our culture generally. 

People stop noticing you past a certain age, and people also make a lot of assumptions about older women. So working in an area where I'm the demographic that's being served, that's a great fit, because I see and understand the needs of our customer base. 

I feel like that almost puts you at an advantage.

Absolutely it does. Up until pretty recently, the sort of standard in clinical research was the 150-pound white male. Women have not traditionally been represented well in research, either as subjects or as scientists. 

In organizational research, we have something called participatory action research, which is a well-known methodology. And it basically says if you're trying to design a program to benefit a group of people, then those people should be involved in designing the program or the  research. So if you're trying to design products for older adults or for women's health, then they should be involved in the creation of that. You should try to understand their experiences. You want to understand on a very deep level the problem that people are trying to solve.  

We’ve recently seen an emergence in the tech world of FemTech, which is basically technology created to help with women’s health. Where do you feel like the FemTech industry is going?

I think it’s important for women of all ages to be involved with FemTech, because it’s more than just applications that track your period or fertility. A lot of FemTech has been focused on women’s reproductive health, which is great, but that’s not all women do. If we have more age diversity [in the industry], we’ll be able to understand more about women’s health throughout their lives. 

Speaking of age diversity, you just made a career jump at a later point in life than I would think a lot of people do.

I just see it as a continuation, an evolution, of my skills. The research says that people should expect to change careers about seven times in your lifetime. I've been really fortunate that while my job titles might've been different, there's a core set of skills that I've been able to use throughout my career. And given how pervasive ageism is, especially in the technology industry, I'm thrilled to be a 60 something woman working in tech, working in a startup. 

Do you have any advice for people looking to forward their career at any stage of life?

I think people talk a lot about “do what you love and the money will follow, pursue your passion.” I think that's kind of overrated. I think more so, you should follow your curiosity, um, and do what's deeply satisfying to you. And there's nothing wrong with taking a job that pays well and pursuing your passions on the weekends, if what is satisfying and needed for you is stability. 

Lastly, the big one: you just moved from South Carolina to Boston. Do you like it up here in the cold Northeast?

It’s great. I like big cities. I used to live in Vancouver, so it's nice to be in a big urban area again. The weather could be better, but hey, you can't have everything.