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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 in Detroit as a staff scientist after she is awarded her Ph.D. in cancer biology in December 2016. Dr. Shah lives in West Bloomfield, Michigan.

This past week, I sat down with Seema Shah to discuss her experience as a graduate student, BEST participant, and about-to-be Ph.D. from the cancer biology program at Wayne State University.

Tell us about your background?

Seema distinctly remembers being enthralled by the muscular system in her 6th grade biology class in India: “There was no particular event that made me want to go into biology; I had a natural aptitude for it.” However, she is fairly certain that she would not have been able to study science if her family had remained in India, where the vast majority of students get bachelor’s degrees in commerce. In order to study medicine or do research, one must score very high on the National Board Exam and the majority don’t make the cut-off, regardless of interest level. Seema’s family left for the US one month before the National Board Exam was held. She said, “That was serendipitous. I would not be where I am today if our family did not leave when we did. I would not have had the opportunity to major in Biology. I would have been forced to get a BA in commerce, which is a useless degree. It’s the default college degree.”

Where did you study? How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

As an undergraduate at Oakland University, Seema’s interest in science burgeoned into a strong desire to practice medicine. She applied for and received a Howard Hughes Medical Fellowship in biological communications. She told me she did this primarily to enhance her CV and improve her chances of getting into medical school. However, working in the lab of Dr. Virinder K. Moudgil and studying the effects of hormones on p53 and cancer cells, she soon found herself questioning whether she wanted to go to medical school after all. Dr. Moudgil who was then chairman of the department of biology, now president of Lawrence Technological University, was an inspiring and supportive mentor who 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. That was when I first became aware of the interplay between oncogenes and tumor suppressors.” She also realized that “after that I only wanted to study breast cancer. I loved the research and studying a disease that affects so many women.”

Seema pursued a master’s degree  (Endocrinology) in the same lab continuing her breast cancer research. However, the decision to obtain a Ph.D. came several years later, since “I was told the Ph.D. wasn’t worth it.”

What did you do after your Master’s?

She went on to be a research assistant in the lab of Dr. Gabriela Dontu at the University of Michigan (UM) where she worked on generating a database of breast tissue stem cell markers from samples collected from a wide range of women. The goal was “to see if there were any differences in the breast stem cell population from women who had delivered a child versus those who hadn’t.” Seema was working in this lab when she was “inspired to study more and get a Ph.D..” She insists, however, that while she enjoyed the work at UM, “all the credit goes to Dr. Moudgil.” Her first mentor was the one who truly altered the trajectory of her life.

After working at Karmanos for two years, she entered the Ph.D. program in cancer biology at Wayne State University. Here she worked with her mentor, Dr. Raymond Mattingly, now chair of the department of pharmacology, to elucidate pathways underlying the transition from ductal carcinoma in situ to cancer. Seema notes that “we were interested in the role of RAP1GAP (RAP1 GTPase Activating Protein) in invasive ductal carcinoma. I showed that when this protein is lost, ductal carcinoma in situ progresses to invasive breast cancer.”

How did you end up in the industry?

Seema first heard about the BEST program through fliers and emails. Before starting her Ph.D., 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.”

She suspected that industry was where she wanted to be, but she decided to remain open-minded and attended all of the panels for the Phase I module. When it came to Phase II, she narrowed it down to patent law, communications, industry, and government. As she told me about this, Seema emphasized how important it was for her to understand all available opportunities – “I really wanted to keep all of my options open.”

When I asked her why she decided to pursue industry in the end, she replied, “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.’”

Dr. Mattingly was incredibly supportive of her decision to participate in the BEST internship. “I had this entire spiel ready for him about why I should do it and I didn’t even need it! He understood the plight of students and he was totally open to it. Dr. Mattingly was awesome. I couldn’t have asked for anyone better.”

How did you end up at Life Magnetics?

Seema started the BEST program with lots of enthusiasm. However, she admits that as the months went by, she became a bit disheartened. She learned about available internships through the BEST Program, but she didn’t get much response from those she applied for. She did have “one interview, but the company just wasn’t a good fit for me.”

But she was about to stumble upon her next big opportunity.

“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. Although I was losing hope, I decided to meet and talk with her.” Seema is incredibly happy that she continued to persist despite her initial discouragement: “Serendipitously, Carmen had just received information about an internship opportunity with Life Magnetics in Detroit to isolate biomarkers for cancer.” Carmen spoke with Dr. Hagedorn on Seema’s behalf and then arranged for them to meet. Life Magnetics was so impressed by Seema’s CV that she was awarded the position without having a formal interview. “It is a very unique situation. I did end up meeting with Kevin Hagedorn and Saravana Murthy in person and we discussed my role and the goals of the internship.”

What do you do?

Life Magnetics, Inc., is a small biotech startup with three employees (including Seema). It was founded by Dr. Kevin Hagedorn in Detroit in 2013 and develops products for the magnetic separation of biological targets. Samples, such as cells or blood, are lysed and processed using magnetic bead technology. Magnetic beads, in general, have the potential to bind to and separate out molecules of interest. Life Magnetics, however, holds patents on a new kind of graphene coated bead. The particular bead, which has a magnetic susceptibility 100X higher than that of traditional oxide/polymer beads, can potentially be used for isolation and quantification of specific miRNA sequences that have been implicated in cancer or other diseases. Life Magnetics strives to develop fast, high throughput assays that can detect these biomarkers of disease.

Although most of the BEST internships occur during the summer, Life Magnetics wanted her to begin work the following winter, which worked perfectly for Seema because she was able to focus on her own research and prepare accordingly.

“In July 2015, I was awarded the National Science Foundation Small Business Internship Award through Life Magnetics. But I didn’t start working for them until January 2016. This was perfect timing for me, simply because I had time to do all of my own experiments and then when things started to calm down, I was able to start my internship project and work at my own pace.”

Seema was given the option to do the experiments in the Mattingly lab with reagents that were provided by Life Magnetics. From January through July, Seema worked on the Life Magnetics project while at Wayne State, in a mostly independent manner. As Seema notes, “Kevin and I would exchange emails as I worked through the optimization. I figured everything out by myself with little help. This was the best way for me to work and I preferred to do it this way.” The flexibility of the project and its close alignment with her interest in cancer made for a nearly perfect fit. She flourished at her work: “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 plans to begin as a scientist at the company this coming January 2017, after graduation. She will be paid from a two-year grant from the National Science Foundation. From October through January, she will be working for Life Magnetics as a technician and paid from the Small Company Innovation Program grant sponsored by the Michigan Corporate Relations Network, in collaboration with Wayne State University and the Mattingly lab. Seema will be continuing the research she started during her internship. When I asked her about how she feels about her impending exit from academia, she admits that although a bit nervous, she is mostly excited about being part of an industry that could potentially yield valuable tools with important implications for disease diagnosis. She foresees her future day-to-day as being fairly similar to the way she currently spends her time at the bench, and she is confident that she will be successful: “I’m going to try my best to work in a manner that is optimal for me so I that can maximize my own potential and help the company progress.”

Seema hopes that the next few years will bring upward mobility and achievement within the company and ultimately make a difference for patients. And she is hoping that further on down the line, she’ll be able to use this experience for writing. She says that “I want to write a book about science. I feel the need to express myself authentically.” At the moment, she doesn’t have any plans for future education, but she’s open to the idea should the need for further expertise arise.

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 she wouldn’t have fit in properly at the other places she was interested in. She also thinks her qualities are more aligned with the goals of Life Magnetics. In short, it all worked out the best way possible.

So, after all the years of schooling, does she regret getting the Ph.D.? “I’ll make it work,” she says, laughing. “It’s something I always wanted to do.” What’s more, she doesn’t think she could have achieved the same with a master’s, because “you learn better how to analyze data. More is expected of you and more doors are opened for you, as well.” She believes she would have hit a glass ceiling pretty fast if she had stopped after a master’s. She also believes that people are treated differently without a Ph.D., having witnessed this a few times. Ph.D.s seem to get treated with more respect.

To those who may be wondering if the Ph.D. is worth it, she says, “It is not in vain. Don’t ever regret it. Never doubt your life path.”