Women in Research at #LINO19: Salma Sohrabi-Jahromi from Iran

#LINO19 Alumna Salma Sohrabi-Jahromi from Iran is accomplishing her PhD at the University of Göttingen, Germany. Photo: Salma Sohrabi-Jahromi

This interview is part of a series of the “Women in Research” blog that features young female scientists who participated in the 69th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting to increase the visibility of women in research (find more information on Facebook and Twitter).

#LINO19 Alumna Salma Sohrabi-Jahromi from Iran is a PhD student at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen, Germany. It was recently discovered that the cells in our body have small liquid droplets inside them. These liquid sub-compartments organise cellular reactions and thus make our cells more efficient. Salma studies how the droplets form and how they attract specific molecules. Enjoy the interview with Salma and get inspired:

What inspired you to pursue a career in science?

When I was young, like every other child, I had a very curious mind. I remember sitting in front of our spice cabinet in the age of five years and mixing water with cumin, cardamom, turmeric or coriander in a glass (to my disappointment, most of the spices were not soluble). I tried all combinations to see what happens. I called this ‘experiments’.
This spirit was pushed away when I got older. I had to integrate into the competitive Iranian school system. I studied hard and mastered all my courses. This resulted in a great performance in the university entrance exam. Suddenly, I could study any subject in any university I wanted.
I had majored in math and physics at high school. This meant I was expected to study engineering at the best technical university in Iran. This made me feel empty. The two weeks in between the application round and the announcement of the results was one of the most stressful times of my life. I didn’t want to do engineering. I found it monotonous to pursue a career that to me looked like learning and applying technical knowledge. In the end, I decided to choose a route where I was bound to be at the front-end of discovery and innovation. I wanted to discover things no one had known before. To satisfy both myself and my family, I chose the biotechnology programme at University of Tehran. This offered me a chance to pursue a career in science with a broader focus on applied research.

How did you get to where you are in your career path?

I hold a bachelor’s degree in biotechnology. During this time, I got familiar with computational biology through one of our lecturers: Dr. Marashi. I asked him for an internship since theoretical subjects had always captured my interest and I was keen on steering my own research project. This was particularly challenging as I had to transition into programming, a task which I was never trained at. Holding a specific problem in mind, I found the motivation to learn it all on my own and got much more effective at solving problems along the way.
Having spent a lot of time applying mathematical models to solve biological problems, I figured out that my basic knowledge in biology was very limited. I needed to learn more about the systems I was modelling if I wanted to succeed at this task. This motivated me to move to Germany and pursue my studies in the International Max Planck Research School for Molecular Biology (IMPRS-MolBio).
Living in a foreign country was both exciting and intimidating at first. But with the support from the MolBio programme, I found the opportunity to befriend researchers across diverse cultural and scientific backgrounds. The intense learning experience also gave me a solid background in molecular biology as well as teaching me techniques which I had only read about in textbooks before.
Now, almost four years into the programme, I am mid-way through my PhD studies. During my master’s and doctorate studies, I have had the chance to work closely with four research groups; each of them have introduced me to a new vision in science. I have also learned the importance of communication for science and for career development of young scientists. There were times where I struggled with finding time outside work or finding confidence in myself. Now, I have learned how to keep a healthier work-life balance where I not only focus on my research but also spend a lot of time developing skills I will need later. I make sure that I also spend enough time taking care of myself.

Salma won the poster award at the Horizons in Molecular Biology Symposium in 2018, Photo: Salma Sohrabi-Jahromi

What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself/your work?

Last October, I presented my research in a big international conference at Heidelberg. I had a short talk along with a poster presentation. This allowed me to talk to many participants and have engaging conversations. It was flattering to know that many people were interested in my research and found my talk and poster pleasant (I got voted for the best poster award!). On this day, I regained confidence that my research answers questions that are of relevance to the scientific community.

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

So far, I have followed my passion whenever I had to make a career decision. I enjoy solving problems and I love having creativity as one of the major virtues in my job. I would be very happy if I can continue solving such puzzles that will push the borders of unknown a little bit further.

What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?

Nowadays, I spend a lot of time learning German in the evenings. This helps me communicate better with the people outside work and expands my cultural experience here in Göttingen. I have also been active in organising scientific meetings and enhancing science outreach. I am therefore happy to spend some of my free time managing these events or communicating with fellow scientists.
But science is not all my colleagues and I do in the lab. Our common hobby in the Söding lab is playing board games. We usually have a gaming night once a week, where we all get together, eat food, and play one of our favourite board games. I am delighted to keep in touch with friends and colleagues through social events like this.

What advice do you have for other women interested in science?

I believe that great things happen only when you take advantage of the opportunities that are passing by. I often see students of both genders (but much more often women) that do not feel confident enough to apply for a scholarship. Sometimes they are afraid of signing up for giving a student talk at a conference, or do not feel confident enough to nominate themselves for a prestigious science award. To often we are feeling uncomfortable with speaking up for ourselves when things go south.
If I had to give an advice, it would be to encourage women to watch out for all opportunities that turn up and make use of them with confidence. Even though we – as women – play the game on a higher difficulty level, we can still reach far by staying confident and diligent.

In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in physics?

I am very fascinated by our recent progress in human genetics and artificial intelligence (AI). The next big step seems to be combining these two for accelerated diagnosis and personalised medicine. AI will help doctors diagnose health problems faster and more accurately. And personalised medicine as well as gene editing will bring us the premise of curing disorders that are barely treated today.

The prize for the poster presentation: pipettes signed by Nobel Laureates Stefan Hell and Erwin Neher. Photo: Salma Sohrabi-Jahromi

What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and female professors?

Many things can be done to tackle this problem both in the short term and on a longer run.
On a longer term, the gender bias in our education system must be reduced. We should stop telling young girls that they are naturally worse at technical and theoretical subjects. They should flourish in an environment (both at home and at school) where nothing is withheld based on gender stereotypes.

On a shorter run, we should focus on making academia a safer and more welcoming environment for female scientists. This means we cannot tolerate abuse and discrimination against women. We should also reduce human judgement based on personal opinions in selection processes as far as we can (for example by allowing blind reviews for manuscripts, grant proposals, award selection, etc.). Moreover, we must make sure that both men and women get the support they need upon getting children to follow a career in academia. Encouraging fathers to take paternity leave is a good step forward to ensure that women can pursue their career as often as men do upon having a child. It is heartbreaking to see that progressive cultures like Switzerland still fail to provide that level of support for women.

I believe that increasing the number of female scientists at higher positions through these measures will eventually encourage even more younger women to follow this route.

About Ulrike Böhm

Ulrike Boehm is a physicist and science enthusiast. She works as a research specialist at the Advanced Imaging Center at the HHMI Janelia Research Campus in the United States. She did her PhD studies at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen in the Department of NanoBiophotonics of Nobel Laureate Stefan Hell. She loves to develop and build tools to image, probe and manipulate biological structures. Furthermore, she is passionate about science communication and open science and is a huge advocate for women in science.

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