The following post is part of a year-long online campaign highlighting #WomenofPenn. The campaign, developed by FOCUS on Women’s Health and Leadership and Penn Medicine Communications promotes the work being done by women at Penn Medicine and aims to inspire early-career women in academic medicine through the examples of successful women role models.
When Amita Sehgal, PhD, says that time flies, she really means it. Her work, which centers on the 24-hour rhythms that drive animal behavior, is mainly done in the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, and aims to provide a better understanding of how and why we sleep. Sehgal, a professor of Neuroscience and an Investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, recently met with Shaon Sengupta, MBBS, MPH, an assistant professor of Pediatrics at Penn and an attending neonatologist at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, to share her career journey, advice for other female investigators, how far the circadian field has advanced, and how to effectively create more opportunities for women in medicine. Sengupta shares much in common with Sehgal – she is also interested in how chronobiology affects human health and began her science education in India.
SENGUPTA: Over your career, you’ve seen the circadian field advance considerably. What’s your take on how the field has grown, and how does the current body of knowledge compare to when you were starting out?
SEHGAL: When I was starting out, the circadian field was almost nothing. There were very few labs when I was completing my postdoctoral work that did molecular biology of circadian rhythms. When we had journal club, there weren’t enough circadian papers to present. The field has come a long way. For me, going to Stockholm and participating in the celebration [for postdoctoral mentor Michael Young, who was one of the Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology winners in 2017] was quite a highlight. Now the field has opened up from clock mechanisms to physiology. The circadian projects in my lab are much more translational – for example, we now look at how the disruption of circadian rhythms contributes to cancer and retinal disorders. Those are major projects. The sleep field is now where the circadian field was 20 years ago. There is more focus on hard science, but we have a lot more to do. With our sleep work, we’re getting a handle on what happens when we sleep and why we sleep.
SENGUPTA: What were the biggest challenges for you along the way – during your years of training, as a junior faculty member, to when you became an established investigator in your field?
SEHGAL: The biggest challenge was just getting started in science in graduate school. I came to the United States as a tourist, visiting my sister who lived in New York at the time. I then applied to graduate school at Cornell – specifically their genetics program – but wasn’t even sure I wanted to do this. I always wanted to study law, but somehow always ended up on the science track. At Cornell, I initially had no financial support from the university. I supported myself working in a lab, but never thought I’d have enough money to complete the program. And then later, during the first year in my postdoc at Rockefeller University the environment was very intense and competitive. One had to be very independent, there was essentially no scientific interaction and people were not helpful or supportive, which I now realize came from a general sense of insecurity.
Coming to Penn as a junior faculty member was also challenging. My husband and I had a three-year-old and a one-month old at home and moved from an apartment in New York City to a house in the suburbs. Penn took a chance on me before I published my postdoctoral work, and so my startup funding for the lab was also very limited, which meant that I refrained from buying equipment I needed and was limited in terms of the people I could hire.
SENGUPTA: Looking back, does it feel like the opportunities these challenges presented, or the facets of your personality you were forced to develop, were a blessing?
SEHGAL: Yes, I think so. You feel better about yourself having weathered those storms. Let’s not underestimate the role that fortunes and good Samaritans play. I’ll forever be grateful to the guy who gave me my lab job in grad school.
SENGUPTA: You’ve been through many challenging scenarios. What has inspired or motivated you to keep going?
SEHGAL: I guess I don’t like to quit! Aside from that, my graduate thesis advisor is somebody who played a big role in shaping my approach to science. He trained in globin gene expression and when he set up his lab at Cornell, he decided he was going to clone the receptor [part of a cell membrane that responds to a specific substance] for a molecule called Nerve Growth Factor. At that point, no neuronal growth factor receptors had been cloned. He said he was going to use the same approach he had used to study globin gene expression. My idea to do things in a new and out-of-the-box way came from him.
SENGUPTA: Not all scientists are also good mentors, but you are. Has the balance between these roles ever felt like walking a fine line?
SEHGAL: In the end, my job is to see mentees along. The fact that they move on and do well is very rewarding and it is the priority. It is true that sometimes your own interests can conflict with those of the mentee. For instance, you have to allow postdoctoral fellows to take projects out of your laboratory when they set up their own independent research programs; also, while in your lab, they may want to focus on a project they see as their future rather than on something important to you. However, helping people develop their own projects when they’re in my lab is generally beneficial to me too.
SENGUPTA: Are there challenges you face as a woman in medicine?
SEHGAL: I sometimes still encounter this sense that I’m not taken seriously enough, but some men might experience that as well. I serve on a lot of national and international panels in which men often pontificate and pat each other on the back. Most of the time when I open my mouth, I feel like I don’t want to take up so much time, as time is always limited, so I quickly say what I must. Then I see someone else say the same thing without acknowledging me.
SENGUPTA: You’ve seen the progress of women in science, but has it matched the progress of institutions to mitigate subconscious bias and foster fairness in inclusion and diversity?
SEHGAL: There has been an effort to do that. However, sometimes administrators and senior faculty will say that we need to hire a woman for a job because they’re a woman. No woman wants to hear that. You should hire a woman because she’s the most qualified person for the job. You’re not helping the cause of women by just putting a woman in a position, because if she’s not qualified, she won’t do a good job, and that hurts the cause. More representation for women on hiring and promotion committees is important. Some places now give extra time on the tenure clock after you have a baby. This is a step in the right direction. Many institutions provide the same benefit to men, which I don’t think is always justified. With respect to maternity leave, principal investigators, in this case as employers, would be much more supportive of women taking leave if the institution gave them resources to keep their projects going. This has not happened yet.
SENGUPTA: What are things that investigators can do to make sure they are tailoring their mentoring style to men and women?
SEHGAL: Mentoring is individualized, so it really depends on the person you’re mentoring. It’s not the same from one person to another. Everyone has different circumstances that should be taken into account, along with their aspirations, in terms of helping them find the career path that’s best for them. For instance, many trainees these days choose to pursue careers outside academia such as in biotech/pharma, consulting, medical communications, and science policy.