Sue Montgomery: From family doctor to environmental health practitioner

Graduate student makes the leap to water resources management

April 30, 2014

In May, Sue Montgomery will graduate with a master’s degree in Water Resources Management (WRM). After a 20-year career practicing family medicine, she has removed her doctor’s coat to instead work to create a healthier environment.

As part of the WRM summer workshop, a culminating experience that offers students the opportunity to collectively study a contemporary water resources problem of concern to a Wisconsin community, Sue and classmates assessed potential methods for trapping transient sediment in Dorn Creek within the Six Mile Creek watershed. This Dane County watershed extends south from Waunakee before draining into Lake Mendota, and its phosphorous-heavy sediment pollutes the lake, contributing to the growth of detrimental algae and weeds.

Montgomery took a moment to reflect on what led her to the WRM program and where she’d like to go next.

What inspired you to shift course and pursue a career in water resources?

I have always had an interest in the environment and ecology. When I thought about where my values lie, they lie in the environment. Because if we don’t have a healthy environment, how can we expect to be healthy?

"I think water comes back
this century as being a
major health concern
for the entire planet.
There’s a direct connection
in terms of where my
interests were in medicine
and my interest in
water resources."

I have a particular interest in water. And if you think about water in terms of health, one of the biggest factors in improving public health in the 20th century was the institution of widespread public drinking water and sewer systems.

We know that water is considered one of the major health issues of the 21st century – certainly in terms of water security, because there are already global problems with the availability of clean, fresh water. And that’s going to get worse, particularly with climate change and population growth and for political reasons.

So I think water comes back this century as being a major health concern for the entire planet. There’s a direct connection in terms of where my interests were in medicine and my interest in water resources.

As you complete your work in the Water Resources Management program, where would you like to go from here?

Well, that’s a good question. Because there certainly isn’t a job out there that easily fits my interest and my background in this field. It’s not like you can just go out and pick a slot.

I’ve certainly considered finding a job in water resources management to gain more knowledge and experience, and to help bring more legitimacy to my work. And I’ve thought about either starting a nonprofit or potentially a for-profit consulting firm, but I think I would realistically have to – or ideally would like to – find a partner who has skills that complement mine. So I’m mulling which approach I would like to take.

As you were considering beginning this new chapter, what finally led you to make the decision? And how did you arrive at the WRM program?

I think it was a combination of years of dissatisfaction with what I was doing, and I finally got to a point where it was a culmination of frustration.

I had started to look at different options and I had been mulling in my head what I could do. The reality is, when you get out there and you have a family and financial responsibilities, it becomes very difficult to change. And it’s very difficult in particular to change from medicine, because it’s a terminal degree.

So I really had to look at what spoke to my heart. And because water has always played an important part in my life, that’s what I found really spoke to me. I see it as a direct connection to the same things that drove me to medicine.

Obviously, at my age, I don’t have the luxury of spending 10 years getting an education. The WRM program sounded like a good option for me. 

And have you enjoyed the experience?

"If you choose a career
path and you find it isn’t
speaking to who you are,
then I think you should
look at your life and do
whatever you need to
do in terms of changing
direction."

Oh, I loved it. Both my undergraduate degree and my M.D. were from UW-Madison and I have to say this was the best experience I’ve had at the university.

It’s a great program, and I think it’s unfortunate that there’s not as much funding to these types of programs. Particularly the cross-disciplinary nature of the Nelson Institute, I think the university really needs to build on that.

Overall, what I enjoyed about the program was the sense of we’re all working together for an overarching purpose, even though we may each be looking at it from our own perspectives and want to go into areas that are slightly different. There’s a sense that we can all help each other as opposed to we’re here to be competitors. It was more of a positive experience – we’re all here to help each other and to help achieve something bigger than ourselves. 

Based on your experience, what advice would you share with others? Or with those who might also be considering returning to college as an adult student but face some of the same challenges?

I just think it’s very difficult to make a decision about what you want to do for the rest of your life when you’re 20 years old. And you can even find that after you do something for 20 years, it may lose whatever particular interest it had for you in terms of being purposeful.

So I would tell people that if you choose a career path and you find it isn’t speaking to who you are, then I think you should look at your life and do whatever you need to do in terms of changing direction. Because life goes by quickly, and it’s too short to spend it doing something you’re not happy with.