Community//

“Be kinder and gentler.” With Penny Bauder & Dr. Esra Roan

First, we decided to switch the news off. The hourly updates, the cycle of news of progress and lack of progress created a sense of helplessness so turning the news off and consuming news in small doses when necessary. We also switched to channels that are less visible to kids and this helped improve the […]

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First, we decided to switch the news off. The hourly updates, the cycle of news of progress and lack of progress created a sense of helplessness so turning the news off and consuming news in small doses when necessary. We also switched to channels that are less visible to kids and this helped improve the mood. We also try to create moments of isolation for each of the family members and encourage everyone to get physical activity when possible. And, we regularly explicitly ask from all in the family to be kinder and gentler and remind each of us regularly that these are unusual times.


Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Many of us now have new challenges that come with working from home, homeschooling, and sheltering in place.

As a part of my series about how women leaders in tech and STEM are addressing these new needs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Esra Roan of SOMAVAC Medical Solutions, Inc.

Esra is the co-founder of SOMAVAC® Medical Solutions. Prior to her role with SOMAVAC®, she was an Associate Professor in Biomedical Engineering at the University of Memphis. Esra’s more than 15 years of experience in product development and biomedical research gives her the tools to enhance the lives of patients with products that make a difference. Her education is in Mechanical Engineering (TTU and U of Cincinnati).


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

Asa child, and all the way up in to my 40s, I wanted safety and stability. I also loved science, specifically space and planets. Altogether, all of these passions made me choose engineering and then academia as a career path over the course of 20+ years of searching. I earned three degrees in Mechanical Engineering (BS/MS/PhD) and became an Associate Professor in Biomedical Engineering with tenure at the University of Memphis in 2015. My area of research focused on understanding how lungs were injured with mechanical ventilation, which is a weird coincidence. While I loved being with students, science, engineering, and my colleagues, I realized that something was missing in the academic career. At that time, an opportunity to apply to the nationally ranked Zeroto510 Medical Device Accelerator (Memphis, TN) presented to solve a problem that impacts so many people, especially women who undergo various types of breast surgery. I co-founded SOMAVAC Medical Solutions, Inc. with Josh Herwig and became a medtech business owner over the course of a couple of months. It is during this time, about 4 years ago, that I realized I love risk and challenges more than stability and safety. I also love science and helping others, so as a tech entrepreneur, I get to do all of these at the same time.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started at your company?

The most interesting story for me has been, for the first time in my career, that a product/solution I worked on is directly helping patients and healthcare providers. In one occasion, we made a positive impact when one of our patients traveled from Memphis to her home for a birthday party. In other occasions, we minimized the worries of loved ones who were prepared to provide their love and support but had significant reservations of the unsanitary work ahead of them.

It is known that women leave careers in STEM at much higher rates than say other professional occupations. While so many factors can be attributed to this exit, one recurring theme is the way in which women approach work by placing much more value on work that contributes to the society. For the first time in my career, since 1998, I feel what I do directly impacts the well-being of so many people and acknowledgement of this has been the single most interesting thing since we started SOMAVAC.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Yes, I am the co-founder and CEO of SOMAVAC Medical and we are working on innovative solutions that will result in medical devices. Our mission is to help people and improve healthcare. Our flagship technology SOMAVAC 100 Sustained Vacuum System includes a wearable, discreet, easy-to-use surgical drain pump and its accessories. It will replace the cumbersome JP bulbs (manual suction devices), which have seen less advancement than an elbow brace in the last 50 years. These manual pumps are used to suction fluid out of a surgical site after procedures like mastectomies, hernia repairs, some more complicated orthopedic joint replacements, and a variety of other surgical procedures. They were designed with hospital use in mind and really have not made the transition into the home where patients experience most of their post-op recovery. Our technology improves the patient experience as it eliminates the interaction with bodily fluid (no more pouring!!) and simplifies the steps taken in drain maintenance. We are utilized in one of the most innovative and caring hospitals in the US, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, TN. Ultimately, delivery of robust suction at the end of a drain has been shown to reduce time with drains and painful complications. Our goal is to confirm these clinical improvements with a portable, easy-to-use technology.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I am so very grateful to so many people in my life — my tennis coach as a teenager, my best friend from childhood, my mentor as an academician, my husband, and my co-founder at SOMAVAC have all been so much part of the most amazing support group on which helped me to get to this point in my life. Moreover, we have an amazing startup ecosystem in Memphis, TN and people with tremendous grit and underlying character geared to get things done. I am indebted to all who opened a door for me. One person above all my husband Steve has been there for so long and he is my rock. We met in college as we were both students in the Mechanical Engineering department at Tennessee Technological University. We married in 1998 and since then we had to make choices as to whose carrier we prioritized. It is extremely challenging to find two “best” jobs in one town also fit to raise a family. As such, we first followed him to Cincinnati, OH for his job. When I finished my PhD in MECH, we decided to follow my job this time as I interviewed for faculty positions. He followed me to Memphis, TN and left a job that he liked, and then he supported without judgement and understood me in leaving my academic job for which I worked so hard. At the end, I really owe so much to the emotional stability and the strength he brings into our relationship and to me. This allows me to change course or take more risks. He at times, sees the potential in me before I build courage. I appreciate this so very much!

The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Can you articulate to our readers what are the biggest work and family related challenges you are facing as a woman in STEM during this pandemic?

First and foremost, I want to say that I have been fortunate to be able to continue to work from home and not be in the front lines as so many people are. My family and I are thankful for the hard work of those who are in the front lines of the Covid-19 fight and I want to acknowledge the sacrifices they are making for us. For me as a mother and a professional with extensive responsibilities, the current environment created unique challenges. I believe it takes a village to raise children and I relied on my community extensively due to late hours in the office or travel. This expanded to teachers, school staff, and other parents. Now then most of the support system is unavailable, like many others, it has made it challenging for us to jump in and fill all of the roles in our children’s lives. For example, the big question amongst ourselves and many other parents is whether or not we should educate our children during this time. Should we take a break from educational activities and let them catch up in the Fall or become ad hoc teachers? There are so many mixed messages on this that either makes us feel like we are doing the wrong thing.

Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?

In order to address these, we decided to take a different approach and focus on making sure our children have a schedule rather than focusing on specific educational activities. This comes from the recognition that, even though I taught for many years in higher ed, I recognize 100% the hard work teachers undertake each day. My husband and I are not experts! This is why focus more on setting a schedule on weekdays go-to-bed and wake up time. Then, we asked them to do 3 hours of “work” per day on reading, school related, or on a topic they pick. Both my kids asked to learn Turkish during this time which is my native language. So, we signed up with online language courses as well as with those sent by our local school district. Also, we are now focusing on things we care as parents like cooking, cleaning, yardwork, woodwork, etc. Because we are home more, we are able to work with them a little more proactively and see that these types of responsibilities are completed and done well.

Can you share your advice about how to best work from home, while balancing the needs of homeschooling or the needs of a family?

While we initially wanted to all be together in the same room to do work, we quickly realized this was not feasible for 4 of us to be in the same room and get much accomplished. So, we created, as best as we can spaces that are allocated for specific uses. We discuss in the mornings with my husband and determine who has more important/confidential meetings for that day. This allows us to decide on who gets the room with the closed door. We also plan ahead to see which one of us is going to take the lead on that day of maintaining children’s schedule and addressing their needs. We also began to assign chores to our children to keep them active and engaged.

Can you share your strategies about how to stay sane and serene while sheltering in place for long periods with your family?

First, we decided to switch the news off. The hourly updates, the cycle of news of progress and lack of progress created a sense of helplessness so turning the news off and consuming news in small doses when necessary. We also switched to channels that are less visible to kids and this helped improve the mood. We also try to create moments of isolation for each of the family members and encourage everyone to get physical activity when possible. And, we regularly explicitly ask from all in the family to be kinder and gentler and remind each of us regularly that these are unusual times.

Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your perspective can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your “5 Reasons To Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.

I am enthusiastic the acute phase of hard times will soon end and we will begin healing:

  1. While we are extremely saddened by the challenges experienced here in the US and elsewhere in the world, in our community, the healthcare impact of Covid-19 has not reached the worst expectations. As such, our community in Memphis, TN is beginning to open up with restrictions and clear direction. Elective surgeries are beginning to take place hopefully bringing relief to those who are suffering.
  2. In the midst of all of the challenging news, I see kindness flourishing in so many ways. Families reaching out to the elderly in their community, community coming together to help small businesses, and in so many other ways.
  3. I am also very encouraged by the way we are all recognizing the role healthcare providers play in our society. The work that nurses, physicians, and all healthcare providers undertake on a given day goes unnoticed. However, this is a moment in which we all recognize the significance of their contributions and I am hopeful that this will lead to long-lasting change in our healthcare system.
  4. As a scientist, I am also reading a lot of the news relating to advances being made fighting either the spread of the virus or the devastation the infection causes. The research, scientific, and clinical community is coming together and working in unison and advancing our capabilities and knowledge in innovative ways. This is a very hardworking, resilient, and stubborn community. I believe in the ingenuity of this community and I believe they will rise to the challenge and give us the tools we need to protect our communities.

From your experience, what are a few ideas that we can use to effectively offer support to your family and loved ones who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?

I think the best remedies are telling the truth and kindness. My kids appreciate knowing the truth and being treated with dignity in these types of moments. I like to explain the how and the why so they understand and evaluate. We also increased the amount of calls and Facetime with our extended families. I realized that we are exchanging more messages with our loved ones and sharing information about our day-to-day status. This helps everyone to find comfort in knowing everyone is doing well.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone” by Neale Donald Walsch is a quote that speaks to me. Looking back, I realize that my life and professional career is defined by this quote. I like and thrive when things are uncomfortable and many times, I am the one who is responsible in creating the discomfort and challenging myself and those around me. Without a doubt this creates friction; however, when asking someone to become uncomfortable is combined with trust and good intentions, it works reasonably well.

How can our readers follow you online?

I am easily found on LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/in/esraroan) and SOMAVAC’s website.

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