Sonia Shah’s extraordinary career in genetics research

‘I love learning and I want to make a difference’: Sonia Shah’s extraordinary career in genetics research

Sonia Shah

Growing up in Kenya, Dr Sonia Shah developed a love for science and later a mission to improve human health, which has since seen her develop a fascinating and game-changing career. 

A desire to make a difference is keeping her going, and it’s working: Shah’s PhD research has already contributed to changes in health guidelines in the UK.

As a human genetics researcher, she uses her knowledge and skills in biology, statistics and computing, to analyse genetic data on hundreds of thousands of individuals to better understand how the human body works and what goes wrong in disease. The goal is to determine new ways to prevent and treat heart disease.

Now at the University of Queensland, her massive contributions to science have been acknowledged through a number of awards, including the 2020 Genetic Society of Australasia Early Career Researcher award for outstanding contribution to genetic research. 

She notes some of the challenges to her career in STEM as a result of moving to part time work after having children, but has seen some silver-linings in the changes to how we work brought about by the pandemic. Notably, that she can attend so many more seminars and conferences around the world by participating online. 

Shah’s our latest women in STEM gamechanger to answer our Q&A. You can read more on this series here. 

In one sentence, how do you describe what you do?

I analyse genetic data from 1000s of individuals to better understand the causes of heart disease, with the aim to improve prevention, diagnosis and treatment of disease.

What put you on this path? 

Growing up in Kenya, I had no exposure or interaction with any scientists or academic researchers. 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 sat down with a thick book listing all the available science degrees at university and chose to do a Biochemistry degree. I didn’t know anyone who had done a biological science degree and I knew my job prospects in Kenya would be limited. So I chose to do a degree which involved a 1-year work placement. 

My placement in the drug discovery group of a cancer biotech company gave me my first experience in research. As much as I enjoyed the science, the laboratory was not for me. 

Around this time the first ever human genome was sequenced, and there was a lot of hype around the emerging field of Bioinformatics to analyse genomic information. I therefore decided to pursue 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 research projects with lots of different researchers. I started working on a project analysing genetic data related to heart disease. I really enjoyed the project and decided to pursue a PhD in the field, and that’s how my academic career started. 

What drives the hard work that you do: your passion, your desire to be an instigator of change etc?

I chose this career path because I love learning, and I want to continue on this path so that I can use what I have learned to make a difference to human health. Some of the research I conducted during my PhD led to changes in health  guidelines in the UK, and the study is cited as a landmark study on the National Health Services (NHS) England website. Wanting to make a difference is ultimately what keeps me going.

 Is there anything specific you can point to that has been pivotal in supporting your STEM career? A key mentor, sponsor, a particular course, chance encounter etc?

I would say the most significant contribution has been from my parents who have supported my education during my Bachelors and Masters degrees. Getting my first fellowship was also a major turning point as it kick-started my journey towards becoming an independent researcher and allowed me to pursue my own research interests. Support from my partner and guidance from mentors have also been key in navigating through my career journey.

What more needs to or can be done to support more women in STEM?

I’ve been lucky that I’ve never felt disadvantaged for being female, and have had very supportive mentors, both male and female. From personal experience, the hardest period was after having children. I had lost my momentum and working part-time (I’ve been part-time since 2015) meant slower progression. I felt I wasn’t able to compete with others my age as a result. Providing more support (e.g. a research assistant to continue projects) during a career break would have made a world of difference.

One of the positives that has come out of the COVID pandemic is that everything moved online. I have been able to attend more seminars, conferences and training workshops, as well as received many more speaker invitations in the last year than the previous few years together, and I really hope that such events continue to offer both in-person and virtual attendance in the future.

 Is there any key tip you can share for other women in STEM?

Build a strong, supportive network around you. I’ve been really lucky to have a mentor who has navigated through career breaks and working part-time. One of the great things about the Superstars of STEM program has been meeting so many amazing, supportive women who I can relate to, and who have been or are going through similar hurdles and setbacks.  

Finally, use what you have learnt in your career journey to help and support others who are starting theirs.

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