Q: What inspired you to become a scientist?
A: I hated science all the way through middle school. But in high school, my biology teacher really inspired me. Her name was Suchita Ghildyyal, and her knowledge of the subject – and her love for it –was so amazing that I came to love biology, too, so that’s what I decided to major in when I applied to college. There was no other field I wanted to be in, and I’ve never looked back since.
Q: Did you have any other mentor or role model who was important to your decision to have a career in science?
A: Yes, besides Ms. Ghildyyal, I’ve had two. My first inspiration was my mother. She grew up in rural India. There was no access for girls to have an education past middle school – they simply stayed home after that and got married. But my mother was determined to live a different life, and she broke all the traditions in order to continue her studies. She cycled miles each way every day to go to high school, and she was the only girl in her class. Even after she got married she continued her education and eventually became a highly respected teacher. The second inspiration is my manager-cum-mentor Kim Bishop. She showed me that not having a Ph.D. would not prevent me as a woman from having a fulfilling career in science. She gave me opportunities to grow and showed me that if I stayed focused on my work, nothing was impossible.
Q: What sort of challenges or roadblocks did you face along the way in your education or in starting your career? How did you deal with them?
A: Biotechnology was in its budding stages in India when I started my masters. I was part of the first class to graduate in the subject. It was a fascinating field, but we struggled with extremely limited resources in school, and then hardly any jobs in the field in India when we got our degrees. There were only a few women in my master’s program, and there was a lot of pushback then from people who said it was the wrong career path for a woman in India. I stayed focused on learning, though, and didn’t worry too much about all that. My parents always supported me completely.
Q: As a scientist, what do you hope you can achieve – how is the work you do helping make a difference to patients, society or science in general?
A: Even though I’m just a small part of the big machine that helps bring innovative therapies to patients, being part of that makes me proud of my work. I feel that no matter what size role I play in any particular therapy, I’ve contributed something significant to the society.
Q: What’s the most exciting thing about being a scientist?
A: The fact that you can spend time solving a simple experimental issue, and then find out that your little piece of research will one day turn into a therapeutic solution for patients.
Q: What’s it like to discover something?
A: At my first job, we developed a proprietary protein complex but struggled to purify it. After months of trying and failing, I was finally able to find the perfect method. It was one of the most amazing feelings to succeed after almost giving up. It taught me to never give up.
“I do not think there is a more fulfilling career than of a scientist for a person who is truly curious, inquisitive, tenacious, patient and open minded. I hope I can inspire my daughters to love science as much as I do.”
Q: What’s the least exciting thing?
A: Sometimes, there’s a lot of paperwork that goes along with your project – that’s not nearly as exciting as research, unfortunately, but it has to be done.
Q: Knowing what you do now about a career in science, what would you say to your younger self if you could travel back and meet her when she was trying to decide on her career path?
A: I would tell her to not let anyone tell you that science is difficult or is a wrong career choice for a girl. My love of science brought me to America, which I call my home now. It was a lonely and scary transition in the beginning, as I had no family or friends to support me here. But my interest in biotech kept me going. I felt grateful that I got to do what I liked every single day. I have met and made friends with some incredibly talented and inspiring scientists along the way.
Q: What advice would you give to girls who are thinking about science as a career – or to girls who may not realize they could become scientists?
A: Science has absolutely nothing to do with gender. If you love science, being a scientist is the best thing for you. You will love coming to your lab every day and there will never be dull moment. I do not think there is a more fulfilling career than of a scientist for a person who is truly curious, inquisitive, tenacious, patient and open minded. I hope I can inspire my daughters to love science as much as I do.
Annuradha Jain, Sanofi Scientist