Flaura Winston, MD, PhD, is a physician scientist on a mission. As scientific director and founder of the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and professor of Pediatrics at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Winston oversees a diverse research portfolio aimed at preventing and addressing harm to children’s health. This work spans areas including child and adolescent health, engineering, injury, and behavioral science. Dr. Winston is also co-founder of a new company, Diagnostic Driving, that recently spun out from CHOP as an independent entrepreneurial company offering tools to improve driver safety in corporate fleets.
How does she do it all? Dr. Winston recently discussed her career and perspectives on a wide range of topics in an interview in a DocTalk YouTube video conducted by Divyansh Agarwal, an MD/PhD student at the Perelman School of Medicine.
Watch the whole interview, or read on for some highlights to bring you up to speed on Dr. Winston’s perspectives on six key issues
Why Pursue Traffic Injury Prevention as a Doctor
“At the core of what I’m interested in is to reduce suffering and to help children grow up to reach their full potential. It doesn’t really matter which way things go awry to interrupt their development… Very early on, I discovered that one of the least recognized causes of disruption are injuries, and particularly traffic injuries. I think people might be surprised to know, for example, for adolescents, the number one cause of death is motor vehicle crashes, and it accounts for one third of deaths for 14- to 17-year-olds. It’s not cancer. It’s not flu. It’s motor vehicle crashes. When I really looked at this, and I really could have studied anything, I said, you know what, this is not studied well. It deserves the science that it needs. Children… need the rigor that we put into all other clinical problems in order to find solutions.”
Learning to Think Like a Researcher and Build a Major Research Agenda
“For my PhD, I didn’t learn a skill. I learned how to think. I had a terrific advisor who really challenged the norms. That was just what he did. So, while my PhD was very basic science — I invented a system to stretch cells in culture — I was exposed to a way of thinking that really got at the core of ‘what is the problem.’ And when you really define a problem of a massive scale, then you start coming up with a research agenda that may take you out of your initial discipline. It might be that I’m doing engineering, and I did plenty of engineering, and it might be that I’m doing behavior. It might be that I’m doing economics. Because really you want to have the right method and the right tool to solve the right problem, and you want to ask a very good question. And that’s research. Research is about asking a good question, and then scholarly research is to systematically answer that.”
Challenges of Being a Woman and Mother in Academic Medicine
“My number one job was being a mother. So I asked for what I needed so that I could balance my life. And in fact I did a part-time residency at CHOP. To this day, Dick Johnston, who at the time was physician-in-chief at CHOP, said that it was one of his best accomplishments…. We worked it out. We just did. I think it’s about being clear on what you’re doing, being incredibly organized, and not being afraid to ask. You’re not hurting anybody to ask something. I’m grateful to many, many people and I try to pay it forward. For example, I have a National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates program because I was so fortunate to do research as an undergrad, I want other people to. It’s just that kind of thing. I also am very, very flexible with working mothers and also working fathers, and I do everything I can so they can be with their children.”
Having an Impact through Commercialization
“One of the ways you improve lives is actually commercialization and getting things into the hands of the people who can affect change. I always had that as a dissemination path. My work is supposed to help new programs, new policies, new clinical practice, new devices, new regulation. All those paths are open to how you can improve lives. With that said, you can’t be closed to this one path just because it’s commercialization. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as you are sure you are still remaining rigorous.”
Differences between Scholarly Publication and Impact
“Just because you’ve published something in JAMA does not mean it will make any difference in the world. I learned that very early on because I’ve been lucky enough to have several papers in top-tier journals. Just because you’ve published it — what’s the difference? So you get promoted. I see that as the beginning of dissemination. It’s a wonderful way to actually start to galvanize, ‘What are we going to do with this finding?’ In all these sectors, we have wonderful people who are out there making differences every day, who look to our research to guide their efforts, whatever they might be. We have automobile manufacturers, clinicians, policymakers, regulators in the federal government. That’s what I call action-oriented research.”
Putting the Pieces Together
“If I know in my heart that my mission is right and that I’m doing rigorous work and that I’m bringing together the right people and that, most importantly, I’m affecting change, I can say that in my life I’ve been really fortunate that not only did I discover things, that I’ve not only set up surveillance systems, but I’ve actually changed things and saved lives. What more could you want to do?”