Class of ’75 alumna is a leading figure in Maryland’s life sciences and technology industries

Being a trailblazer was never a life goal for Martha Connolly ’75. Yet her illustrious career in the biosciences as a researcher, advocate and entrepreneur is one that is characterized by a series of “firsts.”

Connolly serves as director of a bioentrepreneurship program in the Maryland Technology Enterprise Institute (Mtech) at the University of Maryland, helping to launch and create startup companies based on faculty and student research discoveries.

She has been a leader in the Maryland life sciences community for more than 25 years, and was the first person to be designated as the state’s biotechnology industry representative in 1997. It was a role that helped plant the seeds of what is now a critical economic driver for the state.

“The industry really started to explode by 2000. It was around that time when we put Maryland on the map in the international bio community as the place where the human genome was sequenced,” she said.

Connolly was honored for her outstanding contributions to scientific communities, private enterprise and economic development in 2013 when she was inducted into the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering's College of Fellows.

For Connolly, forging new ground is a role she has embraced throughout her life and career. This mother of three daughters helped break the gender barrier as a member of the first undergraduate class of women entering Stevens in 1971.

Connolly, however, was not the first in her family to attend Stevens. That distinction belongs to her uncle, Karl Schlachter ’45. Her younger sister Patricia Connolly Callahan ’77 would later add to the family’s Stevens legacy.

The high school standout from Nanuet, New York, chose Stevens over MIT, Princeton and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute after a campus tour given personally by then Dean of Admissions Robert Seavy M.S. ’48.

“As we walked around campus, I noticed that he knew every student by name, asking each one, ‘How are you doing in chemistry?’ and so forth. I was so impressed by the intimate quality of the school and the personal attention that students received at the undergraduate level. I didn’t imagine that I would get something that individualized and personal anywhere else.”

The presence of Connolly and her fellow female classmates did not go unnoticed at the historically all-male school, and Connolly admits that they felt the responsibility that came with the scrutiny.

“Oftentimes I was the first one called to the board. When you’re in a class of 30, and 29 are guys, you’re going to stand out. We definitely had some academic pressure on us to succeed.”

Connolly says it never occurred to her that her gender could pose an obstacle to career opportunity or mobility. Her parents, both teachers, raised their two daughters to believe they “could do anything they wanted to do.”

“My father was a fifth-grade teacher and my mother was a mathematician. So there was never such a thing as ‘Girls can’t do math.’ That wasn’t going to cut it in my family.”

She studied chemistry and physics, but was drawn to biomedical engineering, taking any course that contained biology.

“There is a level of complexity in biology that I found intriguing: You can do something to something today and get one response, but get a different response if you do the same input tomorrow. That’s not the way chemistry behaves, or the way physics behaves necessarily. I thought I could spend a lifetime studying about this stuff and never really figure it all out.”

Connolly balanced the rigors of academic life by indulging in her passion for music as a member of the Stevens Concert Band (clarinet) and the Women’s Glee Club. She has fond memories of Bill Ondrick, the music professor at Stevens at the time.

“He was a big influence for me and a father figure to many,” she recalled.

She continues to showcase her musical talents to this day. She sings in a local a cappella group, and performs Bach as a member of a Baltimore classical group.

After graduating from Stevens, Connolly achieved another “first” when she went on to become the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from The Johns Hopkins University. Her undergraduate education at Stevens prepared her well for the multidisciplinary five-year doctoral program, she says.

“At Hopkins we were very focused on applying rigorous engineering to the study of how things worked in the body,” she explained. “I learned the rigor of questioning assumptions and how to approach problem solving at Stevens.”

Connolly’s association with the University of Maryland has come full circle in many ways. Her career began there as a faculty member and director of a research laboratory funded by the National Institutes of Health and the American Lung Association in the area of cardiovascular systems physiology and bioengineering. She would eventually transition into the school’s technology transfer office.

Additionally, Connolly has directed business development activities at a publicly traded biopharmaceutical company, and co-founded a startup technology development and commercialization firm.

As she takes stock of her extraordinary career in industry, academia and government, Connolly herself acknowledges the rarity of achieving that trifecta. And as someone who has had to bridge those three very different cultures, she sums up their philosophical differences this way:

“Companies think of things in three-month cycles, professors think of things in three-year granting cycles, and government is often dictated by the election cycle.”

What her experiences have taught her, she says, is that a single person can make a difference.

“Initiatives happen because one person picks up a flag and says ‘Let’s all do this.”

Getting others to go along is a matter of convincing people that “you matter in the conversation,” she advises.

“You don’t say it directly, but one of the tricks I use is to say something authoritative but highly technical. That’s when the heads turn, because it dawns on them that I know what I’m talking about and that it will benefit them to pay attention.”