BEST Spotlight: Lauren Tanabe interviews Seema Shah, PhD
By: Lauren Tanabe
Dr. Seema Shah was a participant in the BEST program this past year and did an internship at Life Magnetics, Inc., in Detroit, Michigan. She will be working for Life Magnetics as a staff scientist after she is awarded her PhD in cancer biology in December 2016. Dr. Shah lives in West Bloomfield, Michigan.
I sat down with Seema Shah to discuss her experience as a graduate student, BEST participant, and about-to-be PhD from the cancer biology program at Wayne State University.
Seema first became aware of her love of science back in India in grade school, but it was as an undergraduate at Oakland University that it burgeoned into a strong desire to practice medicine. To improve her chances of getting into medical school, she applied for and received a grant for undergraduates to gain exposure to research. Working in the lab of Dr. Virinder Moudgil and studying the effects of hormones on cancer cells, she soon found herself questioning whether she wanted to go to medical school after all. Dr. Moudgil saw a scientist in Seema. Likewise, she was captivated by the research and sold on a new career path: “I liked studying cancer and the origin of disease – how normal cells become aberrant.” She also says, “after that I only wanted to study breast cancer. I loved the research and studying a disease that affects so many women.”
In the PhD program in cancer biology at Wayne State University, she worked with Dr. Raymond Mattingly, now chair of the department of pharmacology, to elucidate pathways underlying the transition from normal breast tissue to cancer.
Seema heard about the BEST program through fliers and emails. Before starting her PhD, she knew that she did not want to remain in academia – “I always knew I wanted work/life balance. My view of academia gradually changed over the years as I saw good scientists struggling to get funding. The unspoken rule of academia is that success requires giving up who you are and pushing yourself to the point of burnout, without rewards. And I saw the difficult funding situation many faced.”
Although she explored all of the alternative career possibilities, in the end she chose the industry track – “I chose this path because it is what most resonated with me. I wanted to do something more clinically applicable, for example, trying to find biomarkers for breast cancer. Also I like discovering things. I like saying, ‘I did this.’ ”
Seema started the BEST program with enthusiasm, but she became disheartened when she couldn’t find an internship. According to Seema, “One fine day, I received an email from Carmen Gamlin [then Career Services Director in the Graduate School] asking if I was still searching for internships. Serendipitously, she had just received information about an internship opportunity with Life Magnetics in Detroit to isolate biomarkers for cancer.” Life Magnetics was so impressed by Seema’s CV that she was awarded the position without having a formal interview. About the process Seema says, “It is a very unique situation.”
Life Magnetics is a small biotech startup with three employees (including Seema). It was founded in Detroit in 2013 by Dr. Kevin Hagedorn; the company strives to develop high-throughput assays that can detect biomarkers of various diseases, including cancer.
Seema conducted experiments in the Mattingly lab with reagents that were provided by Life Magnetics, in a mostly independent manner. As she notes, “This was the best way for me to work and I preferred to do it this way. I was very proactive and motivated to get results.” And all of her effort paid off – as the internship went so well that Life Magnetics made her an offer of employment as a staff scientist upon the completion of her degree.
Seema will begin as a scientist at the company in January 2017, after graduation, continuing the research she started during her internship. When asked about her impending exit from academia, she is mostly excited about being part of research that could yield valuable tools for disease diagnosis.
When she thinks back to a little over a year ago when she was faced with uncertainty and what seemed like little opportunity, Seema says that she is happy that things worked out the way they did. She thinks her qualities are more aligned with the goals of Life Magnetics.
So, after all the years of schooling, does she regret getting the PhD? “I’ll make it work,” she says, laughing. “It’s something I always wanted to do.” To those who may be wondering if the PhD is worth it, she says, “It is not in vain. Don’t ever regret it. Never doubt your life path.”
Seema Shah, PhD
BA: Spanish, Oakland University
BS: Biology, Oakland University
MS: Biology, Oakland University
PhD: Cancer Biology, Wayne State, 2016