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Supriya Dinesh Mehta – Success from failure

A pathway to find your true passion

Author: Rita Moreira

Adjunct Professor of Epidemiology & Biostatistics at the University of Illinois Chicago  Supriya Dinesh Mehta leads and collaborates on clinical and community-based research that improves reproductive health. Today, we speak about challenges for women in science and discuss Supriya’s career path and her advice to young aspiring scientists.

Photo credit: Gloss Photography Studio

How have you established yourself as a woman scientist in your field?
‘I’m an infectious disease epidemiologist by training, and my research looks at the intersection between biological and behavioral factors, so trying to find what’s modifiable and to what extent that affects the biological outcomes, specifically in relation to sexual and reproductive health. I don’t know if I specifically established myself as a woman scientist. Still, I think that my focus on sexual and reproductive health, as well as ensuring the inclusion of women in that research, are the two major ways I would say that my status as a woman is contributing to that.’ 

What challenges have you faced in your career, and how have you overcome them?
‘Some of them are going to be pretty standard across the board for anyone in the sciences. The usual bumpy road of funding and resources, collaboration and colleagues, leadership, and how those things come together. The approaches to overcome those challenges have varied and have changed throughout time. At the beginning, when you are a student, a lot of it – the resources, the logistics, feasibility – is your own work. You’re often doing all of it and facing all of the challenges. Whereas now, as I’ve progressed through different levels of academia, it becomes more strategic, it becomes less burdensome. There are more collaborations and partnerships.

‘Also, I think having friends and mentors, who are more successful and who are better resourced, has been a crucial part of that improvement in strategizing on and responding to barriers and challenges. If you are too much in your own head with your expectations and your standards, you lose that outside perspective.’

Did you have a role model who influenced you to work in science?
‘Not really. Success from failure! [laughs]

‘I had done public health research during my undergraduate studies, but at the time I wanted to go to medical school. I was wait-listed and didn’t get in and did a Master’s in Epidemiology as my ‘backup’. It turned out I really loved the process of asking questions and finding ways to answer them in ways that contribute to better health.’

When we talk about biases in the workplace, it often comes to childcare. How was your experience navigating that?
‘The US in particular, compared to many other countries, has many gaps in the system of childcare, that fall on women specifically. When my daughter was younger, I simply did less work. I relieved myself of that extra burden, and I try to tell my friends it’s ok to do the same.

‘I made a commitment to breastfeeding. My daughter was in day-care from 14 weeks, because it’s America and maternity leave is inhumane. I left every day at 3.30 pm. I left work at 3.30 for the first 6 months, and then she started eating, so I would leave at 4.00 and then 4.30… Not everyone has that luxury, they don’t have the choice to be ‘less productive’ or don’t want to be less productive. But for me, I chose to cut my day an hour short and then go from there.Also,I have a very supportive husband. We don’t have family nearby, but my husband is there.’

What would your words of wisdom be for a young girl planning on working on a male-dominated science subject?
‘Hopefully, if she is a young girl now, it is not as male-dominated by the time she enters her chosen field. I think that there is certainly more of a shift in academic recruitment in terms of colleges and universities, so hopefully, she’ll be part of that change. It can be daunting, but it is also invigorating and inspiring to realize you are part of that change, to set that example, and to help others.

‘I would say to start getting involved in things now. I know that kids now have so many responsibilities, but if that’s what you really want, I would advise trying to get better at it through meeting others with similar interests, reading upon it, and building confidence.’

Would you agree that there’s a lot of pressure to figure out what to do for the rest of your life when you’re young?
‘Totally! I think everything has got hyper-competitive academically. What kids go through in high school to get into the best schools – it’s not only good grades and good scores – you also have to be the best at every single thing. You have to do something in the arts, volunteer somewhere, be in school sports teams, etc. I mean, the pressure placed on kids to have everything figured out is outrageous. I think that process should extend well through college in figuring out what you want to do.’ 

If you could speak to your 16-year-old self, what advice would you give her?
‘Get better grades in the first year of college, and pay more attention. [laughs]

‘In terms of science and career, and I say this to my students, it’s ok to try a lot of things to understand what you don’t like. And the important part of doing things you don’t like is doing them long enough to understand what you really don’t like about them. I have students who after three months in a job say they want to do something new as they ‘don’t like’ it any longer. Well, what don’t you like about it? So you don’t face same questions and choices later again. That is what high school and college are about – figuring out what you don’t like and what you do like.

In your opinion, what changes are needed in science to be more attractive to women?
‘Definitely better recognition of childcare duties and more reasonable parental leave, although some places are better than others. Give all junior – and not only women – faculty members the resources they need in order to succeed. On top of salary, benefits, and funding to launch their research, give them protected time and administrative support.’

Frontiers is a signatory of the United Nations Publishers COMPACT. This interview has been published in support of United Nations Sustainable Goal 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls

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