Sally Child '73 '79MS

High praise for a researcher and mentor

Sally Child is not one to toot her own horn.

But that’s okay. Plenty of other people are more than willing to do it for her.

Drop by the annual Rochester Center for Biomedical Ultrasound (RCBU) Symposium, for example, and you will invariably hear former students, now pursuing successful careers in academia or industry, sing the praises of the senior lab associate who showed them how to do the experiments necessary for a master’s or PhD thesis.

Indeed, “if you talk to anyone around the world about biomedical ultrasound research, or the biological effects of ultrasound, they will know her name,” says Diane Dalecki, director of the RCBU and chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering.

And small wonder. Child’s name appears on nearly 70 journal articles, including first authorship of “really seminal papers that are important for understanding how sounds interacts with tissues, and the safe use of ultrasound,” Dalecki says.

That’s pretty impressive. Especially when you consider that Child began working at the University in 1965 without knowing “anything about engineering,” she says.

An early interest in science

Child was born in Lowville in Upstate New York and became interested in science at an early age. “I grew up on a small farm, so there were lots of pollywogs (tadpoles) and other animals around,” she says.

She earned an associate degree in laboratory technology from SUNY Morrisville in June 1965. That same month she was hired to work in the lab of Edwin Carstensen, a young professor of electrical engineering who became a pioneer in the bioeffects of ultrasound and the founding director of the RCBU.

“He liked me because he could train me,” Child says. “I didn’t know anything about engineering, and his technician was leaving.”

Carstensen, she adds, “was wonderful. He was kind. He cared about you. He taught you the scientific method and anything you needed to know. And he never got mad. I almost tear up thinking about him.”

Women rarely worked in an engineering lab in those days. But it made no difference to Carstensen. He fully supported Child’s decision to attend night classes at the University, where she received a BS in general science in 1973, and a master’s degree in environmental science in 1979.

“In the early years, being one of the only women in research in electrical engineering was a little intimidating.,” Child says.  “However, Dr. Carstensen supported me in many ways and I will always be grateful.”

For example, even though Child was not a PI (principal investigator), Carstensen didn’t hesitate to list her as first author of journal papers.

“Carstensen was very much of a mind that if you were doing the work, and you were the main contributor, you would be the first author,” Dalecki says.

From FORTRAN to MatLab

Child’s research partnership with Carstensen lasted for more than 30 years.  In 2000, after Carstensen’s retirement, Child became senior lab associate for Dalecki, who was Carstensen’s last PhD student.

During that 52-year span, Child engaged in a wide range of research. Her initial work with Carstensen, for example, included studying the dielectric properties of bacteria, erythrocytes and various solutions, and the effects of ultrasound on various other biological materials, such as plant roots, liver, and red blood cells.

Later, she helped Carstensen’s lab discover the effects of ultrasound and lithotripter fields (shock waves used to break up kidney stones, for example) on kidney and lung tissue.

After joining Dalecki’s lab, she contributed to a project sponsored by the Office of Naval Research to study the response of biological tissues to underwater sonar fields. More recent projects included using ultrasound to engineer microvessel networks in collagen gels, and patterning cells in 3D collagen hydrogels as part of the lab’s interest in using ultrasound for tissue engineering and regenerative medicine.

Child also experienced first-hand the remarkable improvements in laboratory equipment and computational tools. The analogue oscilloscopes she once used became digital—and much smaller. She remembers early in her career using a program called Fortran to enter experimental data on punch cards, feeding them into a University computer the size of two rooms, and sometimes waiting until the next day to get the results.

Most recently, she gathered data with Matlab and analyzed it with Excel—on a laptop.

“It hasn’t been dull; it’s been fascinating,” Child says. “I think if I had constantly been doing the same thing, I wouldn’t have lasted as long.”

‘Never one to hide in the lab’

Equally important has been Child’s role as a mentor for dozens upon dozens of students -- an increasing number of them women -- who have worked with her in the labs. “She’s a great listener,” Dalecki says. “But she really wants to teach students the rigorous scientific method and how to be a good scientist. And that’s important whether you’re 18 years old and coming into a lab for the first time, or a postdoc who needs to learn new skills that the lab can offer.”

Child officially “retired” two years ago. However, much as an emeritus professor might do, she still drives in once a week from her home near Geneseo to contribute to Dalecki’s lab meetings with collaborator Denise Hocking, professor of pharmacology and physiology, and biomedical engineering.  

 “I miss it,” she says. “All in all, these past 50 or so years were great. I couldn't have asked for better PI's or better people to work with. It’s been like a family.”

Child, as much as anyone, has helped make it so.

“She was never one to just hide in the lab,” says Dalecki. “She has been a contributor to the department in every way, going to senior design events, pitching in when we need people to help out with special events, and welcoming and interacting with people who are new to the department.”

“She’s an important part of our community.”