Women in Medicine: Farida Sohrabji
At Texas A&M, we celebrate the American Medical Association’s Women in Medicine Month this September by highlighting a few of our extraordinary female researchers, scientists, physicians and students who are making meaningful contributions to medicine every day on our campuses and across the globe.
Farida Sohrabji, PhD, is one of these remarkable women. A trailblazing medical researcher who studies sex-based health differences, she is also a Presidential Impact Fellow and professor in the Department of Neuroscience and Experimental Therapeutics at the College of Medicine. To help mark Women in Medicine Month, she answers some questions about the profession and her life.
Q: Why did you chose to become a medical researcher?
A: I think research is an extension of my passion for solving puzzles and mystery novels. I want to know more about the world around me.
Q: What’s the greatest aspect of being a researcher?
A: The excitement that comes from discovering something new, of fitting information together, and the hope that, one day, what I find will improve someone’s health. I enjoy the fact that I spend my work day with brilliant people and that no two days will be the same.
Q: What do you enjoy about working at Texas A&M?
A: There are several reasons that I enjoy being at here at Texas A&M: the resources available, the quality of students, the commitment to service and education—but the number one thing I enjoy is the collegiality! I have wonderful colleagues, many of them are friends. Coming to work is never a chore!
Q: What accomplishment do you consider to be the most significant of your career to date?
A: The students I’ve trained.
Q: What impact does your research have on women’s health issues?
A: Women’s health is the focus of my research, and within that very large umbrella, I’m trying to understand the health risks that occur after menopause, especially the increased risk of stroke. Women are living longer after menopause than ever before, and their health concerns and physiology are not very well understood. Preclinical research from my lab shows that the aging brain does not respond to stroke in the same way as the younger brain and that drug treatments that work in younger females do not work as well in older females. In fact, we’re finding that treatments that are effective in females may not work in males. It underscores the importance of ‘personalized’ medicine and that ‘one size will not fit all.’
Q: Are there any women in medicine, past or present, who inspired or influenced you to pursue a career in the field?
A: There are so many inspiring women scientists and physicians. One that stands out for me is Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini, who conducted research under such adverse conditions, and yet made groundbreaking discoveries for neuroscience. As a young girl, Dr. Levi-Montalcini pleaded with her parents to be allowed to study and eventually obtained a degree in medicine and surgery and developed an interest in research. When the political climate changed in Italy and people of Jewish ancestry were not allowed to work at universities, she set up a lab in her bedroom! The stories of her courage and persistence are inspiring. She worked on chick embryos and was said to bike to various farms to collect eggs; she once carried a couple of tumor-bearing mice in her handbag to start a collaboration in South America! Dr. Levi-Montalcini continued her work in the United States, and co-discovered nerve growth factor, for which she was awarded a Nobel Prize.
Q: What obstacles have you faced as a woman in medicine?
A: I’ve been very fortunate. My parents encouraged me to pursue higher education, and I’m married to an incredibly supportive fellow neuroscientist. My graduate and postdoctoral mentors were strong and capable women who set a great example, and throughout my career, I’ve met colleagues—male and female—who’ve treated me fairly. I realize that this is not everyone’s experience, so one of my major service goals is mentoring female junior faculty members, postdoctoral fellows and graduate students.
Q: What hurdles do we need to overcome for women in medicine?
A: In biomedical research, we have an interesting conundrum. Roughly equal numbers of men and women enter graduate school and earn graduate degrees, and yet the proportion of women assistant professors is low, and it gets worse as you climb the academic ladder. There are a lot of theories about why that happens and few solutions. Certainly, one of the solutions is mentorship, and at Texas A&M, the ADVANCE Center is committed to helping women faculty navigate the process of tenure and promotion.
Q: Based on your own experiences, what advice would you give young girls who want to pursue a career in medicine or biomedical research?
A: Find something you are passionate about, read voraciously, find role models, read some more, don’t be afraid to ask for help, read even more, find a group of like-minded friends and keep reading.
Q: What is your personal motto?
A: All setbacks are temporary—the best is yet to come!