Teresa Gunn dreamed of becoming a doctor but fell in love with research. Katrina Stark, Susan Luparell and Susan Wolff never planned to earn advanced degrees in education. Yet, when the opportunity presented itself, all four women took to the challenge. It opened doors for them. It changed their lives.Four Great Falls women share their experiences and advice on earning doctorate degrees. STORY BY ERIN MADISON
The road to research
Teresa Gunn, a scientist at McLaughlin Research Institute, developed an interest in genetics when she was in high school. “It actually goes back to a science class I took in 10th grade,” she said. In that applied science class, Gunn decaffeinated coffee, turned ground beef into soap and took a survey on genetic traits. Somewhere between looking to see if her earlobes were attached or detached and testing her own blood type, Gunn found a career path. In college, she studied biology with a human genetics option at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec. “When I went to college, I thought I wanted to be a medical doctor,” she said. But instead she fell in love with the field of genetics. She saw DNA as a puzzle of what makes humans who they are. “I love puzzles,” she said. Gunn liked doing research, being able to ask questions and find the answers to them. After finishing her undergraduate degree, Gunn went into a master’s program and then a Ph.D. program in genetics, knowing that she would need a doctorate to continue in research.
“I wanted to be able to answer questions that I came up with and nobody else knows the answer to,” she said. After Gunn graduated with a Ph.D. in genetics from the University of British Columbia in 1996, she went to work as a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University. Later, she landed a job as an assistant professor at Cornell University. As a graduate student and postdoc, Gunn had many female colleagues, but as a professor, most of her colleagues were men. That led to her being asked to serve on a lot of committees and task forces. Gunn started at McLaughlin Research Institute in 2009. “One of the things I love about being here is that I get to do experiments,” she said. As a professor at Cornell, she oversaw research but did little of the hands-on work herself. For other women looking to pursue a doctorate degree, Gunn’s advice is to find a mentor who can help explain the process and shed light on potential career options. “When I finished my bachelor’s degree, I was really, really naive,” she said. Gunn didn’t know much about the process of going from freshly graduated with a bachelor’s degree to becoming a research scientist. “It wasn’t like I had it all laid out when I started,” she said. But Gunn found her way and also found a job that she loves. “I’ve always loved what I do,” she said. “I enjoy thinking about things and trying to come up with ways to answer new questions.”
A changed person
When Susan Luparell graduated with a nursing degree, she never had any intention of pursuing advanced degrees. She wasn’t a fantastic student as an undergraduate and was very shy. “If you would have asked me when I was getting out of college, I never would have thought I would sit here holding a doctorate,” Luparell said. However, when she was working as a nurse at Benefis, she had a mentor who did staff development for other nurses.
That nurse had her master’s degree, and that inspired Luparell to pursue hers. “Life is full of these serendipitous opportunities,” she said. “It’s really just copycatting people.” After Luparell earned her master’s degree, she began doing staff development just like her mentor, and eventually applied for and got a job as a nursing professor at Montana State University College of Nursing’s Great Falls campus. She once again found an influential mentor who happened to have her doctorate. Luparell also realized that with her nursing background, she wasn’t trained in how to teach. She wanted to pursue a doctorate so she could better meet the needs of her students. In 2003, at the age of 39, Luparell graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a Ph.D. in administration, curriculum and instruction with a focus on higher education. Luparell earned her doctorate through an online distance program. “That has changed the landscape for people who want to continue on with education,” she said. It allowed her to earn a degree without having to move her family. Her son was in middle school and high school while she was working on her Ph.D.. After dinner, her son and husband would usually watch TV while Luparell read. “It was rigorous,” she said. “My most productive time was 9 o’clock to midnight.” Luparell got more out of her doctorate education than she expected. “At the graduate level, you really contemplate ideas,” she said. “It changes who you are … It changes the way you see the world.” Her Ph.D. doesn’t make her a better or worse nurse than she was before and it doesn’t make her smarter, but it does change the way she looks at things, she said. “You’ll come out of doctorate education as a changed person,” Luparell said. Luparell has been amazed by the doors that have opened for her since she earned her doctorate. She’s now a nationally known speaker thanks to her dissertation on incivility in the classroom and clinical setting. “What’s been profound for me in terms of graduate education … is the opportunities it opens up for you,” she said. Earning a doctorate is no small task, but it’s not insurmountable. “Too often people talk themselves out of it,” Luparell said. “They think it’s an unattainable goal.” Be ready to work hard but don’t dismiss a doctorate as being out of reach.
Never too late
Katrina Stark was working as an executive director for a nonprofit when she decided to take a course on human resources. In her role as executive director, she managed employees and wanted to learn additional skills for being an effective manager. However, after taking one class, it became obvious to her that she had a lot to learn. “I realized I needed to go further,” she said. So Stark, who already had a bachelor’s degree in fine art, enrolled in a master’s of organizational management program at Troy State. After graduating with her master’s, Stark, who now works as a business professor at the University of Great Falls, decided to keep going with her education. “(My husband) Joe and I were talking, and he said, ‘Why are you stopping?’” she said. Stark decided to pursue a doctorate of management from the University of Phoenix. When Stark started her master’s degree, she was 44 years old, and two of her three children were still in high school. Juggling work, school and her family wasn’t easy. “I think you have to be goal driven,” she said. Getting her education was made easier by being able to do it through online programs, even though that was a huge change from the typewriters she used as an undergraduate. Her family was very supportive through all of her eduction. Her high school daughters even helped teach her how to cite websites in research papers. Stark knows the sacrifices made for her to earn a doctorate were felt by everyone in her family. “I robbed my family of six years I can’t get back,” she said.
But those sacrifices were worthwhile. Holding a doctorate degree has opened many doors for Stark. “It allowed me to teach at the University of Great Falls,” she said. “I don’t work. I teach, and I love it.” It also set an example for the rest of her family. Stark’s two daughters hold master’s degrees and one will graduate with a doctorate degree in December. Even her husband was inspired. He recently earned a master’s degree from UGF. Before starting her doctorate degree, Stark calculated that she would be 50 on the day she graduated. Telling a friend how that made her nervous, her friend said, “How old will you be on that day if you don’t graduate?” That comment convinced her to go for it, and Stark encourages others to do the same. “It’s never too late,” she said.
Susan Wolff had her bachelor’s degree when she was working at a community college in Oregon as the interim director of extended learning. She hoped her interim position would lead to a permanent one. “When they opened the job, and I applied for the position, I was not hired,” she said. Instead, the person who was hired had applied for a graduate program. “The lesson learned was I had to go to grad school,” said Wolff, who is now CEO/dean of Great Falls College Montana State University. Wolff grew up on a ranch near Philipsburg in a family that placed a high value on education. Her grandmother was a teacher and her greatgrandmother was one of the first teachers in the state. There was never any question that Wolff would go to college. However, she didn’t plan to pursue her education any further. “I was going to be a rancher,” Wolff said. “I wasn’t going to be a rancher’s wife; I was going to be a rancher.” As things worked out, she instead moved to Oregon after she earned her bachelor’s in home economics education from MSU in Bozeman. After she was passed up for the job at Linn-Benton Community College, she took a job at Oregon State University and started working on her master’s. She graduated from OSU in 1988 with a master’s in adult education and adult learning. After she earned her master’s, Wolff’s father started asking her when she was going to go back for her doctorate. She told him she would do it when she found a subject she felt passionate enough about to devote four years of her life to. She found that topic in 1998 and started a Doctorate of Education program at OSU. Wolff’s dissertation focused on learning spaces and how they affect students. Studying learning spaces gave her the opportunity to travel across the country and internationally. After graduating, she opened her own company, Wolff Designs, where she worked with educators and architects to design learning spaces. Eventually she found her way to Columbia Gorge Community College in The Dalles, Ore. Then, a couple of years ago, a woman she worked with at Columbia Gorge who had since moved to Montana called her.
“She said, ‘There’s a job in Montana I think you should apply for,’” Wolff said. The job was the CEO/dean position at Great Falls College MSU. Wolff was hired and has been there almost two years. Wolff loves her job and credits her doctorate degree for getting her where she is. “The opportunities I’ve had with this degree have been so inspirational,” she said. “Every day, I know we’re making a difference in someone’s life … To be leading an institution where that happens, it really can’t get any better.” Wolff was 50, and her advice to other women is that it’s never too late to get a doctorate or any other degree. “You’re never too old to pursue your education goals,” she said.