Science is Our Passion: Learn What Inspires Sanofi Neuroscientist Lamya Shihabuddin

Q: What was your inspiration to become a scientist?

A: I didn’t know that I would become a scientist. I was just looking for a challenge, and I found the field of Neuroscience to be both challenging and fascinating. When I was 22, I imagined I would become a professor and teach. But during my post-doctoral experience at the Salk Institute in California, where I worked on the use of stem cells as therapies for neurodegenerative diseases and spinal cord injury, I decided to pursue a career as a research scientist instead.

Q: Did you have a mentor or role model who was important to your decision to have a career in science?

A: Many people provided mentorship and guidance for me at different stages of my career, including Mary Bunge and Naomi Kleitman, my grad school mentors at the University of Miami, Ellen Barrett, and Fred Gage, my Salk Institute mentor. All of these people served as role models, and two of them helped me with practical skills such as critical thinking, how to design studies to get meaningful interpretable data, and presentation and writing skills that turned out to be critical for my career. My colleague Isabelle Aubert is also a great role model. Balancing different aspects of your life is critical for women in science, and Isabelle manages that balance very well: her career and her family, as well as being a black belt and instructor in martial arts. At the same time, she is humble, kind and very sweet.

Q: What sort of challenges or roadblocks did you face along the way in your education or in starting your career? How did you deal with them?

A: I am an optimistic person, so I don’t really see challenges in front of me. However, I am originally from Lebanon, and I wanted to attend graduate school in the United States. So when I applied to graduate schools I knew I would need a full scholarship; otherwise it would have been too much of a financial burden to my family to send me abroad for my education. Fortunately, I was accepted into the Graduate program at University of Miami with a full scholarship.

Q: As a scientist, what do you hope you can achieve – how is the work you do helping make a difference to patients, society or science in general?

A: My aspiration is that the work we do will lead to a better understanding of disease biology, and with that understanding we can help identify new therapeutic targets that are potentially disease modifying. That would let us halt or delay the progression of the disease and help people suffering from neurodegenerative diseases or neurologic diseases lead a better life.

Q: How is the actual daily life of a scientist different from what you imagined?

A: I don’t think being a scientist is all that different from working in any other profession. What makes it exciting, though, is that I believe science is the basis of advancement in all aspects of life. You are always challenged to think of things differently and that keeps me motivated, intrigued and engaged. I am truly honored to feel that what I am doing will make a difference to people suffering from diseases.

Q: What’s it like to discover something?

A: While doing work for my Ph.D. I was looking for connections between transplanted stem cells and neurons within the brain of a mouse using an electron microscope. It is literally like looking for a needle in a haystack! When I found them, I remember running around and telling all my friends and colleagues about it! It meant that we could transplant stem cells into the brain of adult mice and the cells would be able to survive, mature and integrate in the brain circuitry, meaning they have the potential to be used as a source of cells for neuronal replacement. This added important evidence that advanced the field of stem cells as a therapeutic strategy for neurologic disease.

Q: Knowing what you do now about a career in science, what would you say to your younger self if you could travel back and meet her when she was trying to decide on her career path?

A: Honestly, I enjoyed my career path, and I would not do anything differently. Just to know that every encounter and experience will shape your future, so cherish them and value them and learn from your mistakes, rather than be frustrated.

Q: What advice would you give to young people who are thinking about science as a career – or to young people who may not realize they can become scientists?

A: Being a scientist is quite rewarding as long as you are self-motivated and passionate about what you do! The potential and career opportunities are limitless, something you really don’t realize when you are at school. People think they will be either locked in a lab doing experiments, or teaching a class – and that’s great if that’s what you want to do. But the reality is being a scientist will enable you to choose many career paths including healthcare, investments, pharmaceuticals, and teaching. And it is pretty cool.