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Home Membership Member Spotlight
Member Spotlight

Q&A with Michelle Putnam, MGS, PhD from Simmons College School of Social Work, Boston, MA

GSA Member Spotlight: Michelle Putnam

"It took minimal convincing from my U of M mentors that gerontology was a field where I could fit all of my interdisciplinary interests in women's studies, public policy, history, disability and research."
Meet Michelle.

Q: How long have you been a member and how does GSA assist with your professional development?
I joined GSA as a student member in 1991, the last year of my undergraduate program. Why? I was studying at the University of Michigan. That year my adviser was Andy Achenbaum, my research supervisor was Lois Verbrugge, and two of my professors were Regula Herzog and Rose Gibson. All prominent gerontologists, all GSA members. Joining GSA was almost a default thing to do for a budding academic. Since that time, GSA has been an important part of building a mentoring network - more recently through the John A. Hartford Faculty Scholars program. And now at GSA meetings, I see my own doctoral students engaging in the network building activities I did not so long ago.

Q: How did you get interested in the field of aging?
Ah. See the answer to question number 1 above!  It took minimal convincing from my U of M mentors that gerontology was a field where I could fit all of my interdisciplinary interests in women's studies, public policy, history, disability and research. I was also experiencing a bit of disability of my own as an undergraduate - initial onset of rheumatoid arthritis gave me a bit of insight into issues of chronic disease and some pause for considering aging with impairment. I'm currently not experiencing disability related to RA, but I have had other episodes of disability that remind me why I'm interesting in aging and disability.

Q: What are your key responsibilities at your job?
I'm an Associate Professor at Simmons College School of Social Work. I'm also currently serving as Co-Director of a new applied research center at the School. I teach an overview public policy course to MSW students and a course on integrating public policy outcomes into research design to our SW doctoral students. Other responsibilities include mentoring doctoral students, and of course, furthering my own scholarship and research agenda. All of this occurs in delicate balance as I keep pace with my one-year old toddler. Simmons values work-life balance, so keeping the boat afloat (so to speak) is readily possible here.

Q: What has been your most memorable experience in gerontology and aging research?
One of my most memorable experiences was presenting a research summary to the President's Committee on Persons with Intellectual Disabilities during the G.W. Bush administration. I was one of the very few researchers at a meeting on aging with ID and asset development. One of the main policy topics was how to afford this new aging population - could they become economically self-sufficient? employed? Could we afford the additional years of SSI payments given recent life expectancy jumps of 30 years? I like to think I have a policy wonk hat, a policy advocacy hat, and a researcher hat. As an invited university researcher to this meeting, I kept my researcher hat on  - and the others mostly in the closet for that day - as there were plenty of other policy professionals in the room with differing opinions on this issue. It was a lived lesson in the fine lines scholars walk in terms of engaging in objective research and participating in policy discourse. My job that day was to present and interpret scholarly research, so I stuck to it.

Q: How do you feel GSA serves the field of gerontology and aging research? 
I think GSA plays a vital role in organizing the voice of gerontology scholarship in the U.S. and bringing together the best science in its Annual Scientific Meetings. Scholars and researchers should join GSA and stay members because the Society has proven itself to be the most prominent and most important cross-disciplinary professional scientific organization in the field.

Q: Do you have any tips for emerging gerontologists?
Develop a pat answer for everyone who says in response to the question of what you study, "Oh, gerontology is such a growing field" - you hear it a lot.

Q: Tell us a little about your most recent activities/accomplishments?
A good colleague of mine, Eli Cohen, always says "If it's not fun, don't do it" - in regards to work. I've been taking his advice and working with my colleague and Nancy Morrow-Howell at Washington University in St. Louis on a project related to developing composite activity measures for older adults. It looks like we just missed the payline at NIA for our R21 on this topic. However, we've had a lot of fun working on it together - so I score us well on Quality of Life measures. I think we all should take Eli's advice as we engage in our work.

Q: Have you had an important mentor in your career? If so, how did it make a difference?
I've been fortunate enough to have a lot of significant mentors. I'm not sure how this happened, but it has. And I'm really grateful for it. Two I haven't mentioned are Rosalie Kane and Margaret Campbell - each who have worked on issues of aging and disability with me. And I still work with Lois Verbrugge after all of these years. I can't tell you how important the feedback and wisdom of my mentors has been in helping me to develop as a professional and a scholar. Invaluable, really.