In 2019, for the first time ever, the majority of medical school students in the U.S. were women, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). Despite this progress, in some areas of medicine, like orthopaedics, the gender gap is still quite significant. 

This gap widens even further in areas of translational research and patient care when you consider that clinical trial research across most medical disciplines routinely barred women from participating in studies. That was until a 1993 law required researchers to include female participants in clinical research trials

Caitlin Conley, PhD, is an assistant professor and director of research in the department of orthopaedic surgery and sports medicine. Not only is she breaking down barriers in a typically underrepresented field, but is also championing the efforts of other women across the institution. 

Dr. Conley has been an active member of Women in Medicine and Science (WIMS), an organization dedicated to facilitating opportunities for advancement through engagement, collaboration, mentorship, and development. She has served as co-chair for its Awards and Honors Committee since 2021. 


Q: What inspired you to pursue a research career?
A: I went to college to become a certified athletic trainer due to my interest in athletics and desire to help people. During my education and after becoming certified, I was particularly drawn to the surgical procedures my athletes underwent and how to either prevent the initial injury or optimize their postoperative recovery. This drive led to me reading a lot of the literature and soon taking a shot at designing my own studies to answer specific questions. At the time, I hadn’t considered a research career. Rather, I considered research a step to complete my education requirements. However, I was extremely fortunate to have multiple brilliant mentors who made research fun and illustrated different ways research could be used to help people. These mentors were instrumental in my decision to pursue a career in research and my choice to focus on clinical trial research specifically. Ultimately, in the end, my goal to help people stayed the same; I just changed how I did it.

Q: What are some of your current research projects?
A: My research focuses on ways to optimize outcomes after knee surgery, with a concentration on post-traumatic osteoarthritis, and the implementation of orthopedic treatment with a focus on patient perceptions. I am specifically interested in patients’ perceptions of barriers and facilitators to the different treatments we are investigating. It is exciting when we find a treatment to be effective, but it is equally important to ensure that patients will adopt it. Otherwise, we are kind of back to square one.

Q: How long have you been involved in WIMS? How has it helped you and your career?
A: I’ve been involved in WIMS for roughly four years now. I started as an at-large member and was nominated for an open co-chair position on the awards and honors committee in 2021. WIMS has been influential in my career, for it creates an environment to network and collaborate with individuals from departments and centers across the college who otherwise I may have never encountered. I’ve developed multiple relationships, both professionally and socially, through WIMS. Many of these relationships are with individuals whom I can call or have coffee with to brainstorm ideas and problems or celebrate successes. 

Q: What are some of your past accomplishments that you are most proud of
A: Seeing the impact that I have been able to have on students I have worked with and how that impact will continue in their careers has been extremely rewarding. I commonly co-mentor students with a provider in our department. This allows us to provide the student with a realistic experience of the clinical research continuum and highlight how clinical research is commonly done in teams. Over the years, I have found that initially, students do great at focusing on producing abstracts and manuscripts. However, what I am most proud of is the unexpected appreciation they commonly have at the end of the mentorship time for various, previously unknown, aspects of clinical research required for it to be executed. They will highlight various things impactful to them and how they will implement such aspects when they are in their own practice. 
I was also asked to serve as the director of research in the department of orthopaedic surgery in Fall 2022. This role allows me the opportunity to interact with a larger number of people doing research in the department. To me, the best accomplishment is contributing to someone’s development so that they can build on that foundation further. 

Q: What advice do you have for someone interested in pursuing a research career?
A: If you are interested in it, I recommend pursuing it! Clinical research is extremely rewarding and versatile. It provides an avenue for you to solve problems that influence aspects of clinical care and make a meaningful impact on people. Additionally, there are a multitude of ways to be involved in clinical research, allowing you to find what facet fits your goals best. It is a career that takes a level of resiliency due to the various aspects of rejection embedded in it, such as manuscript and grant submission. 
However, all careers have positives and negatives; nothing is problem-free. So, it is important to remember the grass is greener where you water it. Focus on your internal “why” and work the problem when challenges arise. Lastly, take time to celebrate your wins when they occur.

Q: What are some of your hobbies and interests outside of work?
A: I love cooking! Food fosters community among people and is a great way to connect. I have always gravitated to creative activities. When I was younger, it was painting. As I got older, I channeled that creativity into cooking and sharing it with others. One of my favorite things to do is to create a meal based on ingredients I need to use up in the house, which can sometimes lead to uncommon pairings that complement one another. My family is a great sport about it! 
I also enjoy physical activity, the outdoors, and dogs. Our German Shepherd is always up for an adventure and learning new things. So, you can frequently catch her and me out.

All faculty, students, and trainees in the College of Medicine can join WIMS. Email to be added to the listserv!