Powerhouse South Asian Women in STEM – In Conversations with Dr Devanshi Seth and Dr Onisha Patel

We continue our celebration of the incredible South Asian Women working in STEM and leverage this spotlight to draw attention to the tremendous efforts and immeasurable contributions made by them across Australia.

This week, we highlight Dr Devanshi Seth and Dr Onisha Patel and invite you to join us in recognising and celebrating their journeys – packed with humble beginnings, experiences surrounding challenges, explorations of cultural identity, learning and unlearning, small and big wins and the unceasing desire to grow. Let's amplify their stories and inspire the ones to come. Let's turn the 'well-known reality' into shattered fragments of glass and create our way forward, together. 

Profile - Dr Devanshi Seth

“You are as empowered as you think you are. You need to know that you have the power to change yourself and the power to change the system.”

Dr Devanshi Seth is truly multi-faceted. She is a Clinical Associate Professor at The University of Sydney and Principal Scientist at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and Centenary Institute of Cancer Medicine and Cell Biology. Passionate about advocating for inclusion, diversity and equity (IDE) in the STEMM domain, she also leads the International Diversity Committee for the Research Society on Alcoholism, is a committee member on The University of Sydney Science Australia Gender Equity-Self Assessment Team (SAGE-SAT) and is a mentor for emerging women scientists in the USA. Dr Seth has further helped develop the leadership program at Franklin Women, as part of their peer advisory team and was awarded the Team Excellence Award for her active participation and leadership as founding Chair of the Inclusion and Gender Equity Program at the Centenary Institute

A powerhouse woman, by all definitions of that term, Dr Seth’s path in STEMM has not been straightforward. “My life has taken some very convoluted paths to where I am today. [I have been] moving between countries, changing disciplines [and] changing areas within disciplines,” she recounted. 

Her journey began in botany at Delhi University, looking at plant diseases and genetics. After being awarded a prestigious Commonwealth Scholarship by the Indian Government, Dr Seth completed her postdoctoral studies in Cambridge and worked as a molecular geneticist in Norwich (UK), before being headhunted to Perth, Australia to work in the biotechnology industry. Dr Seth was made manager of the Research and Development Unit and assistant Marketing Manager. In this completely new transition from academia to the private sector, she described her time as “the most challenging and also the most rewarding for [her]”. Due to her transferable skill sets, she got a game-changer opportunity to enter an entirely new discipline in medicine (cancer). Moving to Sydney was a low point in her career. Dr Seth found herself starting again at a junior level and had to rebuild her career in this new city. 

Her path was convoluted, but it was her perseverance, determination and strong connection with her family and Indian heritage that pushed her to constantly “challenge the system” and grow. Notably, she is now globally recognised as one of the leading researchers in alcoholic liver diseases. Reflecting on her journey, Dr Seth recounts she noticed that patients were undoubtedly suffering from this preventable disease and not much was being done about it. She took it upon herself to first establish a unique Alcoholic liver Disease Research Program in Sydney and seek international funding and establish a multinational Consortium, GenomALC. GenomALC is now at the forefront of genomic alcoholic liver cirrhosis (ALC) research. Under her leadership, a team of over 30 scientists, clinicians and researchers across seven countries developed the “world’s largest database and bio-bank of thousands of chronic heavy drinkers” to help understand the genetic landscape of this debilitating disease. 

Looking at the woven influences of her South Asian heritage and culture, Dr Seth speaks on her relationship with cultural values. “One cultural thing [which is] instilled in me is being polite to everyone [and] considerate, always [thinking] of others before you think of yourself,” she says. She confessed that some people thought her to be weak or lesser than because she was “being polite or wasn’t promoting” herself. Over time, Dr Seth realised that this would be her strength - a superpower that made her a “quiet achiever” - the politeness, respect for other people and community spirit she inherited from her Indian upbringing made her a better, more altruistic and empathetic leader. This has served her well over the years as she is fondly known as a ‘zen leader’ by her international colleagues.

However, Dr Seth also experienced several challenges due to cultural expectations. Describing her family as the ones who let her fly, Dr Seth claimed that, in her career, “the challenges [were] more cultural than individual.” While her family always encouraged her to pursue her education, she disclosed that “they had often been under pressure from relatives and society [for her to] get married and have kids” or faced scrutiny for “sending [their] daughter overseas”. She, therefore, found that as a South Asian woman, she had to overcome these challenges posed by her heritage. She vocalises that these cultural expectations are where South Asian women need to “challenge the system” and choose a path that is true to them. 

Dr Seth advises all women in STEMM, particularly women of colour, “need to be courageous... fearless [and] confident.” She adds that we also need to change the system where necessary to make women of colour more visible. She also points out that while we’re at it, we also need to embrace ourselves. “Because of the colour of our skin, we are already visible, [we] just need to stand out. If you understand yourself and you know your strength, just promote yourself.” 

 

Dr Seth reflects on her journey of being respectful and polite while also being proud of her achievements and promoting herself and encourages all women to find their niche, sing their accomplishments and promote their own brands. 

You can connect with Dr Seth via LinkedIn or you can follow her work through the Centenary Institute of Cancer Medicine and Cell Biology and The University of Sydney.


Profile – Dr Onisha Patel

On bridging the sciences, arts and your passions

Dr Onisha Patel is a structural biologist at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research (WEHI). Her work uncovers, visualises and showcases the wild and wonderful shapes and functionalities of under-studied proteins, which are known to promote the growth and spread of some cancers. Her work in the field of cancer has led to Momelotinib, a drug candidate, which is currently in clinical trials at Sierra Oncology and recently granted the ‘fast track designation’ status by the U.S Food and Drug Administration for Myelofibrosis, a type of bone marrow cancer. Her work in the field of immunology led to the Eureka Prize for Scientific Research for uncovering certain immune cells that can detect vitamin metabolites made by invasive bacteria and fungi. More recently, she has also been selected in the Superstars of STEM program at Science and Technology Australia to smash stereotypes for women in STEM and be a visible role model.

So how did Dr Patel get to where she is today? It started with a love for both the arts and sciences.

“As long as I can remember, I always did arts. I started drawing things that I observed in nature and within my imagination,” she says. Embracing this artistic inclination developed Dr Patel’s abilities to observe, experiment and be patient, skills that she would apply down the track as a scientist. Her love for the arts, despite not continuing into her formal academic studies, remained constant as she moved from India to Australia, pursuing her Masters and PhD in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

“That’s when I heard about structural biology,” Dr Patel recalls, “I got fascinated by it because it's very visual. You're seeing the shape of proteins in three dimensions.”

Today, Dr Patel uses art to communicate her research and exhibits at art galleries, and by giving public talks. Her passion and drive for her work are palpable through the video call, and she encourages girls and women wanting to work in STEM to identify their own passion early.

“Find a purpose in your life. I think [having a] purpose is really important, especially for South Asian women, because you will be a mother, a wife, a sister, a daughter, a friend to someone. But your purpose is your identity, and it is often forgotten in our culture.”

 

And while she recalls some of the challenges her South Asian identity carries, she is decisive in crediting her culture for its advantages.

“My background is my number one drive for education and hard work, for paying back to the community through my work, and for helping others and being empathetic. It has helped me to see my place in a broader world”.

This awareness of self and society has allowed Dr Patel to observe how Australia’s STEM sector can pose specific challenges for women of colour. She cites stereotyping, a lack of representation on boards and within STEM leadership positions, and a lack of listening to minority groups as the key reasons why the sector fails to adequately accommodate diverse individuals.

“Listening is a powerful thing for leaders. You have to listen, draw on data and form that into an action plan to implement changes. We need a systemic change.”

And while systemic change is a long-term solution that involves many players, she also brings short term advice for South Asian women on-ground today. Here are some bite-sized pearls of wisdom by Dr Patel: 

  • Start feeling comfortable with fear, uncertainty and being different

  • Identify role models and mentors, write to them and seek opportunities, they want to help you!

  • Read up on reports about the industry to identify barriers that you may face

  • Build up a support network

These pieces of advice are those she wishes she had access to in her early years, and ones she hopes provide some certainty for young South Asian women entering STEM.

“Often, I feel young girls are unsure about what they want to do in life. They will get so anxious about it that their friends know what they want to do in life, but they don't know. But my point is that to start something at a time you're passionate about. That may change in life. As we age, our circumstances change and so our passion can change. But each experience is built upon your previous experience. So start with your passion now.”

You can see Dr Patel’s incredible science and art via LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram


Sadaf Zafir is a science and culture writer at SAARI. She has a background in biomedical science and is an application development analyst at Accenture. You can connect with her via LinkedIn.

Tanaya Joshi is a science and culture writer at SAARI. She is the Impact and Communications Officer at Earthwatch Institute, a sustainability not for profit. You can connect with her via LinkedIn.

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