Susan Girdler

Susan Girdler is a psychiatry and psychology professor and director of the UNC Psychiatry Stress and Health Research Program within the UNC School of Medicine. Her research focuses on reproductive mood disorders in women. She helped create the Women in Science Deserve Opportunities and Mentoring (WISDOM) program and is president of the Association for Professional Women in Medical Sciences.

Portrait of Susan Girdler on campusPhoto by Mary Lide Parker
June 22nd, 2016

When you were a little girl, what was your response to this question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

My first occupational aspiration, at about the age of 7, was to be a garbage truck driver. I was living in Iceland at the time, and they had the coolest garbage trucks I had ever seen — robotic arms and all! It was a noble profession, and the garbage truck operators had very nice uniforms as well.

Describe your research in five words.

“Why some women become sad.”

Share the pivotal “moment” in your life that helped you choose research as a career path.

There was no one tipping point. I meandered in several directions before finding my niche. I enjoyed my undergraduate psychology classes and entered a graduate program in the experimental analysis of behavior doing animal research. After realizing it wasn’t the right fit for me, I received my M.A. in counseling psychology and worked in a private practice for two years. I had a very difficult time leaving my clients’ troubles behind at the office and, again, knew it wasn’t the right fit for me. At last, I discovered the field of behavioral medicine/health psychology and earned my PhD from UNC in 1991. I’ve been happily researching women’s mood disorders ever since.

What’s an interesting thing that happened while you were doing research?

About 15 years ago, I was prompted to ask questions about trauma history in my female research participants who suffered from the reproductive mood disorder called premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD). In interviewing these women alongside my close colleague Jane Leserman, we discovered that about 50 percent of them have had at least one traumatic childhood experience. This is an alarmingly high rate. It led me to both identify a unique physiologic “signature” of that trauma that can persist for many decades after the trauma is no longer present, and also to conduct intervention research specifically tailored to women with PMDD who have such a history.

What advice would you give to up-and-coming female researchers in your field?

You’ve got to love the research you are doing. There has to be innate enjoyment and interest in your research subject or your career won’t be sustainable. If you feel you are in the wrong field, don’t be afraid to make a change. Follow your instincts and your passion. Have a life outside of your research — that is critical to your well-being.

UNC Research is proud of every scientist on this campus, but we are especially excited to promote our female researchers in 2016. Each week this year, we will publish a short Q&A feature on one of them — whether she is an undergrad, PhD candidate, or full professor. Please click here to make a recommendation.

Check out our 2016 Women in Science Wednesday Infographic!