STEMM Profile: Dr Sonia Shah | NHMRC Early Career Fellow | Institute of Molecular Biosciences | University of Queensland | Brisbane | QLD

Dr Sonia Shah [photo: S. Shah, provided]

“Working in academic research does require you to build up resilience to failure and criticism, and having a growth mindset can help to learn from these setbacks and push on”

Dr Sonia Shah is a researcher based at the Institute of Molecular Biosciences at the University of Queensland. Dr Shah’s research uses statistical approaches on ‘big-data’ to try and understand the causes of human disease. Her interests lie in using genetic, epigenetic and genomic data to better understand the underlying architecture of complex disease traits.

Sonia obtained her PhD in cardiovascular genetics from University College London in the United Kingdom in 2014, followed by a postdoctoral fellowship at the Queensland Brain Institute at the University of Queensland. During this time, she became interested in the growing evidence of a link between cardiovascular disease and neurological disorders.

In 2018, Sonia was awarded an NHMRC Early Career Fellowship to investigate the relationship between cardiovascular and neurodegenerative disease using large-scale genetic and ‘omic’ data.

If you have had a career disruption, how did you manage to stay productive during this time – what helped you the most?

I have had two 8 month periods of maternity leave and have been working part-time since 2015. During my leave, I maintained communication with colleagues, took on journal reviews, and tried to keep up with publications in my field. As my work is computational, I am able to work from home and can be flexible with my working hours, which has been a major advantage, especially with two young kids. Working part-time means I need to prioritise which ideas/projects to pursue. Supervising Masters research projects has enabled me to get preliminary results on several project ideas, and helped me decide which projects to pursue further.

How do you cope with loss or rejection in your career?

It helps to know that this happens to EVERYONE. These rejections are not necessarily a reflection of the quality of your work. I know senior PIs whose papers were rejected by high impact journals but in the end these turned out to be some of their most highly cited papers. Working in academic research does require you to build up resilience to failure and criticism, and having a growth mindset can help to learn from these setbacks and push on.

What is one thing you would change to improve the gender balance and diversity in senior ranks of the STEMM sector?

To improve gender balance, we need to understand what the causes are. We know there is a high attrition rate of female researchers from the junior postdoc level moving upwards. This is often the time when people start a family, and since women are in most cases the primary carers, the challenge of balancing family and work in a highly competitive and fast-moving environment often drives women out, and it can be challenging to return to research after a prolonged career break. Therefore, providing personnel support, for example by providing a research assistant to progress projects during maternity leave or if working part-time, especially for early career researchers who are trying to establish themselves and build a track record as independent researchers and have limited resources. This will ensure that they maintain research momentum and output during this time, and are therefore more likely to continue their research career and be competitive in grant applications.

What are your three key pieces of advice to your younger self?

  1. Step out of your comfort zone – change happens when you’re uncomfortable.
  2. Don’t be afraid of change otherwise you may let some fantastic opportunities go by.
  3. It’s OK to fail. Figure out why and do things differently next time.

Do you strategically plan your productivity and outputs? e.g. papers, publications, clients, deals.

Having a goal to work towards helps me to stay motivated and increase productivity. Since in academia, research output and therefore potential for securing grants is measured by publications, how many papers you want to have submitted for publication in the next year or two is a good goal to set. You can then then prioritise which ideas/projects will form the basis of these papers.

ResearchGate: Sonia Shah 

Twitter: @soniashahpereir

LinkedIn: Sonia Shah