If you are a student, faculty or postdoc in NYC you’ve probably noticed her coordinating microbiology courses, participating in seminars, lectures and career development workshops. She is someone who is always willing to help, especially trainees like postdocs, and it won't surprise you that she won the Best Faculty Mentor to Postdoctoral Fellows award by Mount Sinai’s Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences. If you need more clues: she always dons gorgeous jewelry that elegantly matches her outfit, and she is an associate professor in the microbiology department. She graduated from the University of Salamanca in Biological Sciences and then she obtained her PhD here at ISMMS. She has published in top journals, earned prestigious grants and established successful collaborations in her pursuit to study the mechanisms of host immune system evasion by dengue, HIV and influenza viruses.
Have you figured it out? We’re talking about Dr. Ana Fernandez-Sesma, and recently, we had the privilege of speaking with her and getting her take on science, success, life, and how to balance it all.
Why did you decide to be a scientist?
I always wanted to work in something related to medicine or science. I debated between medical school and biology, and in the end, I decided to go into biology during my university studies back in Salamanca (Spain). I do not regret it!
Tell us about the pathway that you took towards becoming an assistant professor.
I was very lucky, since I was given great opportunities during my early career, and I was able to see them and go with them. My career path was very serendipitous, though. After I finished my University studies, I came to the USA with my husband, who got a position as a post-doc in Mount Sinai. I wanted to pursue a Masters or PhD in biomedical sciences and I was very fortunate to land in the Microbiology department at Mt Sinai. I worked a couple of years as a research coordinator and got accepted into the PhD program. I was able to also continue in the Micro department to do my post-doc. At the end of my post-doc I applied for a pilot project as part of a big multi-investigator grant on a different subject from my PI’s main interest. I was able to generate enough data to apply for an R01 NIH grant. My R01 was funded and after interviewing outside of Mt. Sinai for a faculty position and getting a couple of job offers, I was offered a position, also in Mount Sinai, and I decided to stay.
What characteristics make a good mentor?
A good mentor is someone that CARES about the student/post-doc, tries to teach that person everything she/he know[s] and guides them to choose their best career path (to the best of her/his abilities). It is also important to care about the person at a personal level and to be able to talk openly with that person. A good mentor should set a good example for his/her trainees and teach them honesty and respect for their colleagues.
Can you give some advice for those women in science who are hesitant about the future?
Your career may happen at a slower pace than for men, and you may have to keep proving that you deserve what you accomplished. Try not to let those things bother you too much, and do not let anyone take you for granted. The rewards in a scientific career are great, since we put so much of ourselves in what we do. You need to believe in yourself and believe in what you do. Also, surround yourself with a good network of people (including women, of course). I find that women need that kind of moral support and listening buddies to keep going.
As a mother and a full time researcher, how do you handle the life/work balance?
It is hard, you have to have your priorities straight and keep looking at your real goal. I do believe that your goal should be to be happy and proud of your work (both at home and at work). Do not set up unrealistic goals for yourself, but DO set up goals! Take every success as a privilege and …always celebrate with your team the accomplishments of the lab (the same way goes for your home/kids…). Just enjoy your life and try to set a good example for your kids (and for your students/postdocs). Don’t let your career goals overwhelm you and interfere with your life too much.