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July 2019 Lead

Monday, July 22, 2019   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Needa Virani
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July 2019
GWIS LEAD is a GWIS periodical profiling women leaders in science.  Subscribe
GWIS Honorary Membership Candidate, Shruti Naik
Dr. Shruti Naik is an Assistant Professor at the New York University School of Medicine. She received her PhD from the University of Pennsylvania-National Institutes of Health Graduate Partnership Program and then pursued her postdoctoral studies as a Damon Runyon Cancer Research Fellow at the Rockefeller University. Dr. Naik studies the dynamic interactions between immune cells, epithelial stem cells, and microbes. She is a strong advocate for increasing diversity in science and promoting the advancement of underrepresented and marginalized groups. For her research and advocacy, she has received numerous awards including the Regeneron Award for Creative Innovation, the L’Oréal For Women in Science Award, the Damon Runyon Dale F. Frey Award for Breakthrough Scientist, the Sartorius and Science Prize Finalist for Regenerative Medicine and Cell Therapy, the Tri- Institution Breakout Award, the Blavatnik Award for Young Scientists, and the Takeda Innovators in Science Award. She is also a nominee for the GWIS Honorary Membership award for Early Career Accomplishments.
 
Would you like to tell us a little bit about your research? How did you get in the STEM field and why did you choose your current field of study?
 
The epithelial tissues lining our body—such as the skin, lungs, and gut—serve as vital interfaces with the external environment. My group studies how the immune system functions in these tissues, and in particular, we aim to understand how environmental stimuli collaborate with genetic factors to influence health and drive disease. I chose to focus on this area because I find the dynamic interplay between nature (our genes) and nature (our environment) fascinating.

What would you do if you were not a scientist? If so, how does the alternative career interest facilitate your research career?
 
Growing up I wanted to be a stand-up comic but got derailed from that path when I saw a prominent scientist, Dr. Bonnie Bassler, speak about glow-in-the-dark bacteria. I’ve been hooked on science ever since. I still throw in a joke or two into my scientific talks to keep the audience engaged and keep a little piece of that dream alive.
 

Among your achievements so far, what are you most proud of? Which strength of yours contributes the most to it?
 
I am most proud of the discoveries made at the bench. No award, paper or other accolade can substitute for uncovering new biology.
 
As an early career scientist, what has been your biggest challenge and how did you overcome it? Was there anything you wish you had learned before starting your current position?
 
As scientists, we are trained to ask questions and perform experiments to address those questions. When you start a lab, as I recently did, there are two important factors that determine your success (and which I found particularly challenging): 1) getting sufficient funding to establish a solid foundation for the research program and 2) learning to build and manage teams while still ensuring that every individual within the team succeeds—neither of which I received explicit training for. If I could go back, I would try to spend some time during my postdoctoral training honing these skills.
 
What would you suggest younger researchers to do in order to get more training of those skills?
 
I would recommend taking writing classes, writing more grants and fellowships, and trying to communicate your science with anyone who is willing to listen. If you can clearly explain your research to your grandmother, neighbor, or friend in simple language, then you are communicating it well.
The 2018 Blavatnik Regional Awards for Young Scientists honorees. From left to right: Lu Wei, Samuel Bakham, Shruti Naik, Priyanka Sharma, Peter Schauss, and Lingyuan Shi.
Photo from www.nyas.org
Is there any extra challenge as a female scientist? If so, what would you suggest we do as a community to improve the environment?
 
Scientifically, I have found that the data are what matters and focusing on those in a large part determines your success. However, science is not entirely a meritocracy. What I do find challenging is breaching the “old boys club” culture that still lingers in among the decision makers of science (deans of medicine, department chairs, award selection committees). I make it my mission to show up and stay in the room or be a part of every conversation relating to any such institutionalized decision making, so the next woman who arrives doesn’t feel she’s alone in the room. I believe institutions have a huge responsibility to increase diversity among the decision makers who shape science from the top down. 
 
What are the things you think institutions can do to help increase diversity?
 
Here I am using “institution” as a broad term encompassing research and medical centers, funding agencies, peer reviewed journals, and even individual research labs. These entities have to acknowledge and tackle challenges specifically faced by female trainees. For instance, providing childcare support in the form of day care subsidies and technical assistance for primary childcare givers can help offset the demands of family life. Unconscious bias training and gender-balanced hiring committees will enable equal career advancement of female trainees. Travel and career development awards for women to promote networking, gain exposure, and cultivate advocates. As scientists, both men and women, it is incumbent upon us to hold our organizations accountable and encourage them to systematically combat gender bias by instituting programs and policies that stop female trainees from falling through the cracks.
 
How important is a female supporting system within the STEM fields for graduate students, young professionals, and female scientists?
 
Having a support system—mentors and colleagues—both female and male, has been instrumental to my career. I think it is extremely important that women start cultivating these relationships early in their career (first year of graduate school or even during undergrad). Science has a unique culture of mentorship and support; it’s built into the way the scientific enterprise works, but I often find that women do not take advantage of this culture. Building your network is not just great in terms of scientific guidance or collaboration; it has a huge impact on your career advancement.
 
Was there a mentor or role model that played an important role in your career development? What was the best advice you got from them?
 
My postdoctoral mentor, Dr. Elaine Fuchs, often says that, to be successful at science, you have to “be comfortable with being uncomfortable.” I believe this is the best advice I have ever received. Inherent to the research enterprise is failure, and Elaine taught me to confront, not run away from, failure as a means of moving forward.
 
As a supervisor and mentor yourself, what advice would you give younger researchers in graduate school?
 
There is no free lunch in science; you have to put in the work. You have to read and do experiments and it is my job to support you 100% in this endeavor. But, I cannot support you unless you show up for yourself.
Contributed by Shu Li and copy edited by Rozzy Finn.

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Founded in 1921, Graduate Women in Science is an inter-disciplinary society of scientists who collectively seek to advance the participation and recognition of women in science and to foster research through grants, awards and fellowships. We comprise over 20 active chapters of more than 800 women who are "United in Friendship through Science" to support and inspire member professional goals and mutual appreciation of science. Learn more at www.gwis.org.

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