Creating Biomedical Technologies to Improve Health


Nicole Morgan, Ph.D.

Nicole Morgan
Staff Scientist




With a dwindling number of American students aiming for degrees in science and math, America is seeking ways to bolster early academic rigor in these subject areas and inspire up-and-coming generations to embrace the many challenges of science and engineering professions. General statistics show the number of doctorates awarded by U.S. institutions has increased steadily since 1977; however, the Survey of Earned Doctorates Fact Sheet [1] published by the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center for the National Science Foundation and five other federal agencies, reports that "non-U.S. citizen doctorate recipients" account for that increase. Furthermore, American students are now more than twice as likely as their foreign-born counterparts to receive doctorates in non-science and engineering fields. Other statistics point out marked gender differences in science occupations, including a report issued by the American Institute of Physics in February 2005, which states that women's participation in physics careers remains among the lowest of any scientific field. [2]

With that in mind, one could suggest that Nicole Morgan, Staff Scientist on NIBIB's Biomedical Instrumentation and Multiscale Imaging (BIMI) research team, is among our nation's rarest specimens--specifically, American women with doctorate-level physics degrees working in their chosen field. Despite the odds, Morgan now finds herself firmly ensconced in a career few women consider, and perhaps investigating her life's path will yield clues that could help America reverse the statistical trends.

From her earliest days, her parents forged a strong academic heritage and provided a living blueprint for the dual-career household Morgan would later see as essential for any woman dedicated to both work and family. Her mother, native to Hong Kong, and her American-born father, both attended graduate school in economics and subsequently shared a full-time instructor position at Dickenson College in Pennsylvania. Later, Morgan's father made a career change to computer programming and the family of six moved to the D.C. area during her fifth grade year.

Her parents provided a unique primordial pool for learning that encouraged curiosity and exploration in a wide range of interests, and they placed no gendered expectations on their children's academic or professional evolution. Morgan reflects on her childhood home environment, "My parents certainly expected me to go to college, but they didn't push me in any particular direction. For instance, they didn't expect me to go into math or science, but there was no expectation that I wouldn't go into those fields either. They wanted us to think more deeply and in different ways about everyday things, so they bought us interesting toys, like the crazy book we had about the chemistry behind cooking. They took us to museums quite often and encouraged my participation on the math and debate teams as much as they did in theatre and dance.

During her high school years, Morgan recalls hearing discussions about how few women were involved in science, but like her home environment, there was a sense of equal opportunity, and her mentors promoted the idea that any academic path was fair game for anyone. She recalls, "I had science teachers who were women, and they were very encouraging. They never conveyed any expectation about my academic or professional path, so even though girls were somewhat underrepresented in math and physics, there were always other girls in my classes--until I went to college, that is.

Statistics from the 2007 American Astronomical Society/American Association of Physics Teachers Joint Meeting [3] reflect Morgan's observation, stating that almost half of American high school physics students are female, yet the percent of bachelor's degrees in physics earned by women has never been more than 23%. Moreover, the same report showed women earned only 16% of doctorate degrees awarded in physics in the U.S.

In 1989, Morgan began her undergraduate studies at the University of Chicago. She felt it was a good strategy to explore a variety of subjects through the required core classes, which included a melange of studies in civilization, humanities, physical science, natural science, foreign language, and math. She comments, "Even though I had always liked math and science, I wasn't sure what I wanted to major in. When I was choosing a college, I wanted to go to a school that didn't require me to choose a major right away, and that's one thing I really liked about my university. I also appreciated that there wasn't a big divide between people who were majoring in science and those in the humanities."

In the winter of her sophmore year, she was ready to commit to a major in physics. Although some might find such skewed gender statistics intimidating, Morgan's perceptions were reminiscent of the famous cygnet raised among ducklings. "There were fairly high numbers of women in undergraduate math and science classes, but most moved toward secondary education and teaching careers. I didn't notice that I was the lone female until my junior year when someone pointed out that all the other physics majors in my class were men. By then, I guess I was just used to being the only woman in a sea of male students."

Morgan was insightful about her choice of an academic major and knew what it meant in the larger sense for her professional contentment, as well as how it would impact some key personal goals. It meant she was in for the long haul and had several years of graduate school ahead. She also knew that although there were shorter academic paths that might lead to a career with a specific company, in the broader professional scope, there were very few jobs for someone with only a Bachelor's or Master's degree in physics.

Equally significant in her choice was the realization that she wanted the sense of forward momentum that physics offered. She says, "I really like physics and its empirical approach to fundamental questions about how things work. In natural science, even though there might not be a concrete answer at the end of each experiment, there is at least a measurement, and from there, you can formulate more questions and refine your model."

Just prior to her graduation from the University of Chicago, a Churchill Scholarship interjected the possibility of a one-year study at Cambridge University in England. Already notified of her acceptance into a doctoral program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Morgan saw the scholarship as her last chance to study abroad before jumping into a Ph.D. program.

So in the fall of 1993, deferring her studies at MIT for one year, she packed her thinking cap and traveled to England where her studies focused on conducting polymer structures. When asked to speak about the highlights of her experience there, she says, "That's where I met my husband." She adds, "...and it was a great opportunity to experience the research culture in a different country, which I felt was a very worthwhile goal."

By the end of her undergraduate experience, Morgan had already narrowed her focus to two primary interests: experimental research and condensed matter. She says, "I enjoyed experimental research, but I wanted to work on systems that you can put on a table, or in a small room; something that I or just a few people could have complete control of."

Finding research that matched her interests was important, but so was choosing a research advisor. Long before she was accepted for admission at MIT, she met prospective advisors and spent time with their graduate students and lab members. She advises, "You need to get a true sense of what it will be like to work with your advisor and the general atmosphere in the lab, particularly whether you'll fit well with the research team and what they do. Students spend a lot of time with their advisors, and advisors have a lot of control over their students' future careers, so students need to find someone whose mangement style matches well with their personality and work style."

Morgan also recommends careful soul searching all along the science career pathway. "Up until my junior year of college, I hated the course-based labs, mostly because there was a right answer for everything; we knew exactly what the outcomes were supposed to be before we did the experiments. We were studying things like classical mechanics, for which the physical intuition you develop early in life is a pretty good guide. But when I took the solid state physics class, the lab experiments were much more interesting because the results were unexpected. We were studying systems described by quantum mechanics, which in the classroom seems like a beautiful mathematical framework that produces results that seem completely at odds with what you experience every day. At first, you think that this model can't possibly describe the real world, but then you measure, and even the uncertainty in your results matches up with the prediction. That's when the light bulb came on, and I suddenly understood why people wanted to do this work."

"Scientific research isn't for everyone, though. Few achieve fame or wealth in this business, and the reward cycle can be long. A lot of laboratory work is routine, so one of the biggest challenges is to stay engaged enough so as not to let yourself be lulled into that routine so much that you fail to notice new things that you should be trying. That being said, it's almost like you get to play with new toys all the time. It's hard work, but there's a lot of freedom to chart your own course from day to day, to dream about possible solutions, and tinker in the lab. You need to ask yourself if that is the kind of life you want to live, and for me, the answer is definitely yes. I love a lot of aspects of the work I do, and a researcher will always enjoy some projects more than others, but the flexibility really makes the job enjoyable."

Persistent societal factors that may seem formidable to many women have not kept Morgan from achieving her highest goals, both personally and professionally, but it hasn't been easy. She had her first child, a daughter, in 2006. Highlighting the importance of partnership and teamwork in her life's endeavors, Morgan says, "The problem is, if only women take advantage of family-friendly policies, then women are viewed as less committed to professional endeavors. You really have to have a partner who's willing to take paternity leave and be in a work environment where these things are expected and supported. My husband teaches high school chemistry and robotics, and his schedule allows him to be a full partner in parenting." She points out that equally critical in her equation for success has been the help of close neighbors, and especially her parents, who reside nearby and were able to provide daytime child care for over a year.

Morgan is approaching her seventh anniversary in her lab at NIH, and she now feels right at home and enjoys many aspects of her work and the NIBIB environment. "I like the variety of applications and being able to bring more quantitative rigor to what we are working on. The competitive advantage we have is our proximity to so many top-level researchers and the ability to have ongoing discussions. Even casual conversations with people you run into on the way to the Metro can be really fruitful."

Working in the booming new enterprise of nanotechnology and imaging device development, she sees the world of research morphing quickly. Identifying competition as a primary force behind today's world of science, Morgan says there is, at the same time, a sense of humility inherent to the framework of increasingly interdisciplinary research. She says, "One person can't possibly know everything, and the complexity of biological systems necessitates collaboration across fields for most new technologies. Even the most brilliant researchers have to be brave enough to ask what might seem like silly questions about other disciplines, as well as be willing to answer rather elementary questions when working with someone outside their specialty. We're pushing to smaller and smaller scales and contemplating the marriage between molecular models and bigger physical properties. When it all boils down, operationally speaking, the speed with which we move forward will depend largely on whether we are able to play well with others."

-written by Jude Gustafson


1) Survey of Earned Doctorates Fact Sheet

2) Rachel Ivie and Kim Nies Ray. Women in physics and astronomy, 2005. American Institute of Physics publication R430.02, Feb. 2005.

3) Ivie, Rachel. (2007) AAS/AAPT Joint Meeting, American Astronomical Society Meeting 209, #117.02; Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society, Vol. 38, p 1006.

Research Interests

  • Development and fabrication of microfluidic devices, especially for controlling cellular environments to improve in vitro models.

  • Development and optimization of sensitive optical detection techniques, particularly LIF, for multiplexed small-sample and microfluidic analysis

  • In the past, the study of the physical and chemical properties of semiconductor nanocrystals and experiments using them as biological probes in whole-animal measures

Selected Publications