An international trauma psychologist and public health advisor, Susan M. Sutton Clawson (95), Ph.D., M.P.H., has a passion for serving and protecting people. Currently, she works as a Federal Field Officer for the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) at the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Dr. Sutton Clawson serves as the direct link to the states of Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia as well as to Washington D.C., where she is headquartered. There are only 11 people in her role nationally, each with their own region.
“When you work for the federal government, you raise your right hand and take an oath as an official, a public servant, to honorably and faithfully defend and act in accordance for the greater good,” she said. “At ASPR, our mission is to save lives and protect Americans from 21st-century health security threats.”
To that end, Sutton Clawson works directly with her six states on hospital emergency and disaster preparedness and response and manages $150 million in federal funding. It’s a high-profile role that comes with great responsibility. With the magnitude of her job, which has been especially significant during COVID-19, Sutton Clawson is able to maintain her passion and stamina for her work by focusing on ASPR’s aims to: “SHIELD the vulnerable, SHELTER the susceptible, SAVE the sick and SUSTAIN supplies.”
Sutton Clawson has been well-equipped for her current role both by her education and her previous professional capacities. Still, she calls her path to serving the federal government “circuitous.”
Her journey began in Point Loma, where she went to junior high and high school. Sutton Clawson knew she wanted to stay in the neighborhood and attend PLNU. She also knew she wanted to study psychology. While at PLNU, she was given the fun sobriquet of “Sunshine,” which she says “has stuck ever since.”
“I wanted to be the next Freud,” she said with a laugh and even disclosed that when she was a sophomore, she refurbished an authentic Victorian era “fainting couch” that she found at a San Diego antique store. Each of the original legs has brass bands printed with the patent date of February 1893.
During her program, however, Sutton Clawson realized she didn’t want to do psychoanalysis for her career. Instead, she was drawn to medical psychology and incorporated pre-med courses with her psychology major. She considered medical school with a public health emphasis but ultimately chose to complete a post-baccalaureate program in Trauma Recovery Services at SDSU. Later, she went on to earn her Master of Public Health (M.P.H.) in Health Promotion and Behavioral Science from SDSU and her Doctorate in International Trauma Psychology from The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. She completed a post-doctoral program in Global Mental Health–Trauma Recovery at Harvard University in 2016.
Her academic career led her on a number of international travel ventures to Peru studying generational trauma from insurgent terrorism, continuous trauma of post-Apartheid aggression in South Africa and learning humanitarian efforts during mass violence and forced migration from Italian Ministry of Health Officials in Rome. Her personal travel has led her to Bengal tiger photography safaris in India, sneaking in a private sunrise tour of Stonehenge, and of course paying homage to Sigmund Freud at his home in London.
Sutton Clawson developed a wide array of skills from her work in various roles. Through the Cancer Research Training Award, she spent time as a public health communications fellow at the National Institutes of Health’s National Cancer Institute, a role she especially appreciated because she was diagnosed with and overcame cancer herself when she was just 28.
Later, she served in public relations capacities for the Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson and Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn.
In 2009, Sutton Clawson became the program director for the Trauma Survivors Network at Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s Division of Trauma. She held the position until 2013. At Vanderbilt, in addition to serving patients and families directly, Sutton Clawson independently built, managed, and evaluated the Trauma Survivors Network program which provided psychological aid to patients and families experiencing catastrophic injury. In 2011, Sutton Clawson helped break the Guinness Book of World Record as a “Flulapalooza” participant in a mass vaccination drill orchestrated by Vanderbilt’s Office of Emergency Preparedness.
In 2014, during her postdoctoral behavioral science research fellowship earned through the Oak Ridge Institute for Science, Sutton Clawson served the Department of Health and Human Services and Centers for Disease Control as a member of the Morbidity and Behavioral Surveillance Team in support of the School Associated Violent Death Surveillance System.
Her job included research collaboration and contributing to the retrospective reconstruction of behavioral patterns through psychological autopsies on hundreds of violent cases across the U.S. The Columbine High School shooting and the West Nickel Mines shooting (sometimes referred to as the “Amish school shooting”) come to mind. It was an extremely difficult task that forced her to confront, as she explained, “a layer of evilness and depravity that you don’t want to know exists; you wouldn’t interface with it unless you are doing it as part of research or investigation.”
Though the work often left her shaken, Sutton Clawson focused on the reason she was asked to do it.
“I looked at the research as the more I can identify through risk or victimization trends, the more I can help to prevent this,” she explained. “Doing difficult things for the greater good has been a common theme throughout my career.”
To the same end, Sutton Clawson also served on the HHS Human Trafficking Task Force – Policy Operations Group – Victim Services Subcommittee. She also served as an international trauma psychologist and public health consultant for the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) Office for Victims of Crime and as a science advisor for the DOJ’s Office of Justice Programs.
In 2016, she accepted her current position as federal field officer for HHS.
“Working in the federal government, it’s a bigger reach of serving the public, which I enjoy,” she said. “I’m still around emergency physicians and nurses, critical care staff, and pediatric specialists.”
She enjoys working with the states in her region.
“Each one is totally different,” she said. “My states are very old (having four of the original colonized states) and astute in disaster planning and response. It’s quite a cerebral group that includes our nation’s capital.”
“Doing difficult things for the greater good has been a common theme throughout my career.”
Sutton Clawson and her team plan around scenarios involving natural disasters and disease outbreaks as well as protests, civil unrest, inaugurations, and marches. Not long before the COVID-19 pandemic, Sutton Clawson had been working through a flu epidemic scenario with her states. As she has supported her states throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Sutton Clawson is proud of her team and all those working on behalf of the American public.
“Everybody is trying to do the right thing,” she said. “Sometimes people get angry at the federal government, but we attend your church, we are your neighbors, we are working for the collective good. [COVID-19] has been a sobering reminder of the impact that an infectious disease can have on humanity. Sad, very sad.”
Though this has been a difficult season for Sutton Clawson – busy professionally, disconcerting as a trauma psychologist witnessing the effects of the pandemic, loss, and resulting isolation, and personally with the recent passing of her mother – she still wants to encourage others.
“Our American healthcare system is an incredibly sound structure; it’s the best in the world,” she said. “We can be assured that we will overcome COVID-19. Some of the most intelligent people in the world are working on this. I’m humbled by my colleagues. Hope is at the helm, working on the American’s behalf.”
Sutton Clawson finds her strength from her belief in the value of her work – and also in her faith.
“My brick [on the campus mall] at Point Loma says Proverbs 3:5-6 [Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him and He shall direct your path.] That gives me the fuel to keep going … God gives you the gift of life, and what you do with that life is your gift back to God.
Susan Sutton Clawson has also been honored with a 2021 PLNU Homecoming Alumni Award. To learn more, visit the PLNU Homecoming website.