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SARAYU'S PERSPECTIVE

Congratulations on the arrival of your baby daughter! Are you ready to return to work?

I’m going back to work with very mixed feelings. I’m excited to be going back into the real world. But now there might be something else that interests me and it might be that bench science takes a back seat. This could be a point in my life when my career switches because of this passion I am feeling. That’s kind of scary.

What is this something else that interests you?

I’m getting more and more excited about establishing a foundation to help the kids at the orphanage where my daughter is from. And based on how much funding we get, to help other orphanages in Odisha as well. Given that this was my daughter’s first home I’ve got to help out, right?

What kind of effort will that entail?

The orphanages in the big cities - in Madras, Delhi, Bombay - they get publicity and funding from sponsors, government and private. But the orphanages in tribal villages don’t even get government funding. There are so many people here in the U.S. who want to help but they want to make sure that the money is truly going to help a child out. Even in my network of friends, family and companies - if we tell them that I’m going to be involved and that my father-in-law in India is going to stay connected to make sure that it’s going in the right direction, they will be inclined to help. And of course we want to make sure that people get benefits like tax exemptions. To have a foundation makes it legit.

Sounds like you may have two true callings…

I agree. You’re not going to be successful at something unless you enjoy it. In school, I knew that genetics was what I wanted to do.

The interest and passion that I had then is what I find again so many years later. I can’t ignore it. Who knows maybe I can do both things simultaneously. But I feel like I might need to take a short break from bench research just to get the foundation started.

Science is a challenging field. How were you so sure of science?

Not having pressure from your parents to go a certain direction helped a lot. My parents were not the kind who insisted on picking my career. For me, biology was a pleasure. There wasn’t much studying to do, the class was all I needed to grasp concepts. That’s when my mom suggested medicine as an option. But just the thought of healing people using techniques that have already been discovered was not as exciting as actually figuring out what the cure for doctors to use down the road could be.

How does genetic research fit with your personality?

I’m not the kind to say, “This is what you’re supposed to do so let’s do it.” I don’t want to follow what’s been set down as the rule and the law. I want to figure out why I need to go that way and if that’s not my right way, I try to figure out a different way.

That’s what research is all about - why? You’re always asking questions and trying to figure out answers. That’s why research fits me perfectly. That’s why it’s my job right now.

How long does it take to get to answers from your research?

It depends on the kind of research. If you’re working on, say mouse genetics, you first have to create embryonic stem cells, then modify the gene, then introduce those stem cells into mouse embryos, then implant them, and then they have to create a mouse that will pass on that modified gene through generations. Based on the lifespan of the mouse and the reproductive cycle, it can take two to three years to collect the data. Then you have to validate it. You can’t just do this one time and say this is the answer. Rarely does anything work the first time. You have to be prepared to start this again and again. But I do have to also add that with the current techniques including CRISPR, the pace of research has definitely increased.

How do you keep from losing your passion with all the steps involved?

Everybody needs to have a big picture before they embark on a job or a career. For me, it sounds naive, but the big picture was discovering the cure for cancer. But then you have to go through the route of getting a PhD and then a fellowship while chipping away at smaller questions. That’s what every scientist does. You don’t really go out there trying to cure cancer. You try to figure out the smaller pieces that fit into the big picture and finally you contribute to finding the cure.

Science doesn’t seem as rational as one would think.

It is an emotional investment. It has to be. Passion is an emotion and you have to stay passionate to continue in science. It is a tough field and the chances of success are low. So you have to love what you do.

What are you most proud of in your research work?

Every publication is an accomplishment. The amount of work that goes into that is unbelievable. And it’s not just my work, it’s the work of other people in the lab, the core facility and other labs you collaborate with. Every paper is like a baby at the end of a pregnancy.

As much as I am proud of the babies that I have now, I am proud of my publications as well. That’s why it’s so hard for me to give it up - because my research projects are my babies too.

Do you meet a lot of resistance along the way?

You do but you have to be optimistic. And it’s not just about the science itself but also about where you work. When my first son was born, I was on a postdoctoral fellowship and I asked to go part-time. The university said no. According to the National Institute of Health (NIH) rules, the postdoctoral period is too intense to do part-time. Unfortunately, that postdoctoral period is when we really have to think about families. It’s a hard process giving birth to a baby and it’s even harder to come back to work full time after six weeks. Luckily, my PI (primary investigator) was supportive. So we talked to the dean and the head of the department and I called up the Cancer Research Institute which had granted me my fellowship to get permission to go part-time. My PI asked, “If it doesn’t work - will you come back full time?” I said, “No. This is going to work.” Finally in 2008, the University of Chicago officially agreed to let me go part-time. You’d think the U.S. and academia, in general, would be progressive, but they’re not. You have to stay positive when you meet resistance. You have to believe.

That’s a tough road for women in science.

We’ve seen two points where it’s a problem. One is at the middle school level where girls and boys have to make a career choice and we see that far fewer girls choose science as an option because there’s already a demarcation then - boys are perceived as better at science, coding and math.

The other stage is when you start growing your family and having babies and simultaneously managing the demands of a scientific career. There was this one famous scientist talking about work-life balance. She was running her own lab and she was raising young kids. We postdocs asked her how she managed both. She told us not to hesitate hiring a nanny or housekeeper or both. But her husband is a banker! If you look at science in general, the pay scales are pathetic. They’re so pathetic that not every post doc can afford nannies or daycare. We need role models who can do both on a budget. Sounds almost impossible, I know.

What makes you able to manage your career and your home life?

I’m one of the lucky few whose husband can afford a nanny who is like family to us now. And my husband is also very hands-on with housework when he’s home. In addition, I now work part-time to accommodate the demands of my young children. Earlier in my career I also had a group of women postdocs and we would meet to chat and vent. We were each other’s role models for the small issues that arose in life. Like when your baby is sick and you have to get an experiment done and you’re wondering what you should do. You need that support group in your career. It’s hard to find but you need to make an effort to find it.

What does success mean to you?

For the longest time, success was to run my own lab …and this is typically the idea instilled in any science graduate student in academia. But after my son was born, I decided to tackle it from another angle - what makes me happy. Do I want to run scientific experiments? Yes. Do I also want to have kids and be involved in my children’s schools and personally be present at my kids’ doctor visits? Yes. Do I want to have a physical goal and train for a marathon? Yes. Do I want to be involved in outreach work? Yes, I do. So now instead of singularly focusing on just that one career goal I try to fit it in among other goals that also satisfy me and in a way complete me. 

In fact, I might be a jack of all trades, master of none. People think of that as a bad thing but if it makes you happy, it’s not, right?

Maybe I won’t run my own lab, but as a research scientist I can still design experiments, write grants and publish papers. I can still be involved in my kids’ lives, I can still be involved in outreach and I can still teach. My personal ambition was to adopt a child. I was able to do that too. And now I have the luxury of thinking about a foundation. If I was a tenured professor at the university, with all the responsibilities that go with it, I would not be able to do all these other things that complete me.

Why bother doing so much? 

We’re not modern art with one stroke to create our big picture. We’re more like a mosaic. With all these small pictures that make up our personalities.

I look at how difficult it is for women to be involved in science. It makes me so mad that I need to do something about it. I can’t just say that it’s not my problem. That’s not my personality. I want to make a difference and so when I do get involved via outreach or teaching it does not seem like a “bother.”

Do you ever rest?

At the back of my mind, it’s always “what else can I do?” But what I do is nothing compared to what I’ve seen other women do. I get my eight hours of sleep. When I was in 12th grade, I pushed studying to the end of the year and then I’d barely sleep three or fours hours a night. I ended up with seizures. My doctor said that my brain was not getting enough rest. Ever since then my mom made a point of my sleeping eight hours. That’s now in my system. I think being jack of all trades, master of multi-tasking is wired inside me. But you’re so much more productive when you’re rested.

 
 

ABOUT SARAYU

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Sarayu Ratnam is a Research Scientist at Lurie Children’s Hospital, Chicago, in the department of Human Molecular Genetics.  She grew up in Chennai, India but moved to the USA in 1999 when she joined the University of Pittsburgh to obtain her PhD in Human Genetics. She then joined the department of Molecular Genetics and Cell Biology at the University of Chicago to pursue her postdoctoral research with a fellowship from the Cancer Research Institute, New York. She continued as a Research Scientist at the University of Chicago before joining the Lurie Children’s Hospital in 2015. In addition to research Sarayu has been involved in teaching molecular biology at the graduate level, and in outreach work. She has also been on the board for the Association for Women in Science (AWIS), Chicago.

Boston Bollywood   When I came to Boston, work took over my life. I stopped dancing and it just killed a part of me inside. I remember scrolling on Facebook and seeing an ad for the Boston Bollywood choreographer auditions. I just signed up without even thinking. Now we are beginning our third season and I've found my creative resistance in this incredible community. It essentially brought me back to life.

ABOUT EXPANDING YOUR HORIZONS
I was involved in Expanding Your Horizons where we had workshops in Chicago to introduce girls to opportunities available in science. We had workshops by STEM professionals in molecular genetics, zoo science, museum science, coding and patent law. We invited girls from the South Side and West Side of Chicago. They don’t think of science as an option because they have no role models or their environment tells them that boys are better at it. We showed them that there are so many women in science doing so much fun stuff.

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ABOUT ASSOCIATION FOR WOMEN IN SCIENCE
I was on the board of AWIS an organization that champions the interests of women in all disciplines of STEM. We organized workshops to help women with work-life balance and networking to transition to different career paths. We also judged and sponsored awards for middle school and high school students at the Chicago Public School (CPS) Science fairs.

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ABOUT MERCY HOME FOR BOYS AND GIRLS
Mercy Home is a residential home for homeless, abused and neglected children. Their programs support and provide these children with many opportunities to develop the tools they need for a better future. My husband and I ran the Chicago marathon to raise funds for the benefit of these children.

Sarayu Family

MY BLOG: BRINGING OUR LITTLE GIRL HOME
This was a blog I maintained to keep our friends and family updated during our adoption process. It also highlighted the difficulties my husband and I faced to adopt our little girl from India and bring her to the USA.

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BIG BROTHERS BIG SISTERS CHICAGO
Big Brothers Big Sisters, Chicago is a mentoring program for disadvantaged children facing adversity. Little ones are paired with role models. A one-to-one relationship is built on friendship and trust to help the children reach their full potential. My little one was a middle school girl looking for a "big sister" who could introduce her to various career options, help with school work, and provide safe and fun activities. She now wants to be a pediatrician!