Interviews with Scientists: Sonia Shah
In our latest Interviews with Scientists, meet Sonia Shah! Sonia is a researcher working at the Institute for Molecular Bioscience, The University of Queensland, Australia. Her research focuses on the link between cardiovascular and neurological disease.
At the end of last year, Sonia was the recipient of one of our travel grants, helping fund her trip to the Gordon Research Conference on Angiotensin which brought together experts on the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system.
It was great to catch up with Sonia recently and speak to her more about her current research, passion for science, the biggest lessons she’s learned in her career so far, and more.
It’s great to speak to you again, Sonia! Firstly, we’d love to know more about your current research...
My PhD was in cardiovascular genetics, but I started a postdoc position at the Queensland Brain Institute where I was applying the same sort of statistical genetics and bioinformatics approaches to neurodegenerative disease. During this time, I started to come across increasing evidence of a relationship between cardiovascular disease and brain-related disorders. This led to me to submit an application for an NHMRC Early Career Fellowship titled ‘healthy heart – healthy brain’, which I was successful in securing. For the past year or so I’ve been using statistical genetics methods on genetic and genomic data to predict unknown effects of cardiovascular medication on psychiatric disorders.
Did you always want to be a scientist when you were younger?
Not at all! Growing up in Kenya I had no exposure or interaction with researchers nor any knowledge of what a scientific career would look like. If you were interested in biology or chemistry, you were advised to go for medicine, pharmacy, optometry, or dentistry. I loved science, but those professions just did not excite me. I was more interested in learning how the body works.
With no one to advise me of alternative options, I literally sat down and went through a thick book provided by universities in the UK listing all the available degrees. After reading the description, I chose to do a Biochemistry degree. I knew my job prospects in Kenya would be limited with that degree, and I could only think of working for a pharmaceutical company. It was not until I got to university that I fully grasped the idea of an academic career. After a one year placement in industry, I realised that as much as I enjoyed the science, the wet-lab was not for me, and decided to do a Masters in Bioinformatics.
I worked in a Bioinformatics consulting role within a university for four years, which gave me the opportunity to work on various different projects with lots of different researchers. I started working on a project analysing genetic data, which excited me enough to pursue a PhD. I’m where I am by serendipity, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
What's the most important lesson you have learned in your career so far?
There is constant rejection in academia, from rejection of papers and harsh reviewer comments to unsuccessful grant applications. But it is important to know this happens to EVERYONE, including the biggest and most successful researchers. Take these rejections as opportunities to grow and improve. If you have thoughts of giving up, you’re not alone. If this is your passion, don’t give up.
What’s your biggest achievement in your career to date?
Being awarded my early career fellowship, and hopefully soon to publish my first paper as a last author.
What do you think are the biggest barriers currently facing life scientists and their work?
Funding. It’s highly competitive and success rates are very low.
What does a typical day in the lab look like for you?
My work is all computational, so it wouldn’t be very exciting to shadow me. But an advantage is I have flexible working hours and can work from anywhere as long as I have a good internet connection and can connect to the university servers.
If I don’t have any meetings, I try to work from home to save on the commute time. This has meant that during the COVID19 lockdown, my productivity hasn’t been affected much (apart from the few weeks of home-schooling which are now thankfully over).
Outside of your research and any related work, what are your passions?
I love dance! I have learnt several types of dance over the years, from ballet to Indian classical, Latin, and Arabic folk dance. Now with two young children, I don’t get a chance to go for classes, although two weeks ago I managed to ‘attend’ (via Zoom) a Bollywood class that I’d been interested in but hadn’t been able to attend previously.
If you weren’t a scientist, what do you think you’d be doing?
It would have to be something related to dance or design.
What is it about your field of research that gets you most excited?
I am just in awe of how intricate the human body is. Learning more about how it works excites me every day, as does the potential for my research to contribute in some small way towards understanding human disease and improving human health.
Which fellow scientists working today do you most admire, and why?
Prof Naomi Wray, who also happens to be my mentor. It’s the fact that despite having changed fields and having a long career break after having children, she is an extremely successful research scientist (and a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science). Having a young family myself, balancing work and life has been challenging, but having someone like Naomi in a leadership role has really been inspirational.
What’s your favorite science quote?
“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”― Marie Curie
What do you think is the greatest scientific discovery of all time?
Working in genetics, I’d have to say the discovery of the DNA structure.
Thank you so much for catching up with us, Sonia!
Sonia’s current research funding comes from the National Health and Medical Research Council.
You can follow and connect with Sonia on Twitter at @soniashahpereir
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