Women of STEM

A profile series highlighting women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math

Sabriya Stukes, PhD Assistant Director of The Master’s in Translational Medicine program at The City College of New York

Sabriya Stukes, PhD Assistant Director of The Master’s in Translational Medicine program at The City College of New York

Sabriya Stukes, PhD Assistant Director of The Master’s in Translational Medicine program at The City College of New York

Connect with Sabriya on Twitter and learn about her Translational Medicine Master’s program here.

What do you do?

I am helping to build and manage a master’s degree program that trains people with a STEM background in the process of medical innovation and commercialization. It is a joint program between The Grove School of Engineering and The CUNY School of Medicine and combines skills and concepts taken from both fields. We teach our students how to take the scientific ideas and technologies that are needed to solve unmet clinical needs and bring them to the people and patients that need them most.  We do this by having a curriculum that teaches the principles of ideation, prototyping and clinical evaluation in conjunction with a team-based BioDesign project where students are working with an external sponsor to develop a medical technology.

What does a typical day look like for you?

Every day is really so different. I am responsible for a range of tasks that includes everything from teaching to recruiting students to establishing partnerships with surrounding hospitals and scientific organizations. Some days I design digital ads and come up with creative materials to promote our program to our a wider audience and some days I am in meetings with city officials who want to make NYC a stronger place to be doing biotech. Before this, I was a microbiologist researching a variety of infectious diseases and trying to better understand host-pathogen interactions. One of the things I miss most about working in the lab is doing experiments and researching new things I didn’t know about before. Even though a good bit of my time is spent in an office, I still view a lot of what I do now as small experiments to see what will work, what won’t and work to learn more about how we can better prepare students to go into the workforce.

How did you get into STEM?

This may be an incredibly simplistic answer but it was really from just running around outside and playing in the dirt. My parents had this backyard will all types of rocks and trees and I would spend hours digging around and cataloging sticks and leaves. Then when I was in elementary and middle school and we started learning about photosynthesis and life cycles, I could see the direct relationship to what I was seeing outside to what I was learning in a classroom. Science was the subject that came very naturally to me but at the time, it was not something I understood you could have a career in. It wasn’t until my junior year of college when I worked in a plant biology lab as an undergraduate assistant that I fully comprehended what doing research meant. After reading The Hot Zone, a book about the Ebola outbreak, I knew I wanted to work with infectious diseases but until I graduated assumed I would go to medical school because “being a scientist” still didn’t seem like a real job that someone like me could have.  

Did anyone inspire you to get active in STEM or help you along the way? Please explain.

I was very fortunate that both of my parents nurtured every inkling of interest I had in anything whether it was ballet, playing the flute, basketball, softball etc when I was growing up. My dad always told me that sometimes it was better to know what you didn’t like than what you did and in order to do that – you had to try everything just once. My mom is also a physician assistant and was incredibly patient when it came to all my questions about working in a hospital or what it meant to be a person in the healthcare field. One other person that was instrumental in pushing me to become a scientist was Dr. Brenda Winkel who hired me to work in her lab during college.  I was very fortunate to be in her lab where I worked with many other women and the impact of working in a lab run by a female PI did not hit me until many years later.

What kinds of challenges did you overcome/face to get to where you are now?

The conversation around ‘diversity and inclusion’ was non-existent really when I started my journey to becoming a scientist. A lot of the behavior and activity we now recognize as micro aggressions was not at all being discussed. I never really saw anyone that “looked like me” in a role that I wanted to be in but always knew that somehow I would ground myself in science. Truly, I didn’t even know being a scientist was a real job until after college. A lot of the challenges I faced are similar to the same ones everyone encounters when they can often feel like they are the only one, the only woman, the only black person. I went to private Catholic school for most of my life and so was intimately familiar with this feeling at a very young age. It is incredibly problematic when people in power tell you that you aren’t good enough for one job or that you’ll never make it in a certain field. It’s absolutely dangerous and damaging when you are the one telling yourself these same things - which I have done many times in my life.

What advice would you give a high school student looking to go into your field?

Whether someone wants to go into academic administration or pursue graduate school, I think the advice would be the same: identify someone who is doing a thing that you think is interesting (and maybe want to pursue as a career) and ask if you can talk to them.  In general, most people are willing to spare 15-20 minutes to share their journey. Try not to get discouraged if you don’t hear back because there are so many people in the world doing similar things that one of them will be willing to speak with you. Make sure you have 2-3 focused questions but also leave room to have a candid conversation about their profession and your own interest in pursuing this particular field.

Do you have any "asks" for the reader? Things they should check out or think about?

I think everyone should read Kimberle Crenshaw’s paper, Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics and Violence Against Women of Color. It can feel like people use the notion of intersectionality very casually in their discourse without knowing the origins or work done behind it.

Lauren E. Blake, PhD candidate in Human Genetics, Department of Human Genetics, University of Chicago

Lauren E. Blake, PhD candidate in Human Genetics, Department of Human Genetics, University of Chicago

Dr Sheila Kanani, Education, Outreach and Diversity Officer at the Royal Astronomical Society

Dr Sheila Kanani, Education, Outreach and Diversity Officer at the Royal Astronomical Society