Sonal Das, PhD, 2005
In 2009, Sonal Das took a job that requires a particular skill that suits her perfectly: networking. As an Associate Director on the 16-person Research Programs team at The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research in New York, she helps direct the Foundation’s funding and research programs. Then, she stays in close contact with academic and industry scientists who carry out the research, which seeks to speed progress toward better treatments for Parkinson’s disease (PD). Das helps awardees troubleshoot projects that have hit a snag or brainstorm new directions around unexpected findings. She also helps foster key collaborations and schedules workshops among researchers, whether they’re new to PD research or experts in the field. “The Foundation has a birds-eye’s view of the field, so one of our major roles is to strategically link up related efforts.”
After completing her graduate work with Gary Banker in 2005, Das suspected that her career might not be in research at the bench. “I really enjoyed the bench, and my interactions with my advisor and fellow lab members helped me develop my critical thinking skills. But I wasn’t sure it was the right place for me.” A three-year post-doctoral position at the University of Washington confirmed her intuition. But she reports that the postdoc experience was key not only in building on her scientific training and networking skills, but also in helping her come to terms with exploring an “alternative” career path.
During her postdoc, she sat down and re-evaluated her skill set. Regardless of when you do it, she advises, “everyone should take a step back at some point and say, ‘Where am I now? Where do I want to go?’” Shortly before taking the position at the Foundation, an OHSU advisor asked her, what do you want to do—write? Read? Talk? “That was a great question; it gets to the nuts and bolts of your day,” she says. Ultimately, Das feels that her decision to work outside the lab freed her to “think about the problem I’m working on,” rather than worrying about things like the pH of a buffer. “This position is a better fit for me, because it allows me to apply my scientific background and think about the big picture without having to angst about the details of a particular experiment.”
An East Coast native, Das is happy back in the hustle and bustle of New York, but admits she misses the slower pace of the Northwest a little bit. “I miss the greenery,” she says, remembering the “gorgeous” drive to campus each day along Terwilliger Boulevard. She also shared a special camaraderie with her classmates in the NGP. “We would work late together,” she recalls, which might include a trip down to Higgins for a bite at the bar during a long incubation period. “Everyone would push each other, in a good way.” Das and her classmates pursued research projects in diverse areas of neuroscience, from biophysical modeling to control of postural orientation. But they still made time to meet and consult with one another throughout graduate school. That diversity of research, she notes, was one of the great strengths of the NGP. “There were so many faculty members, in every imaginable area from molecular neurobiology to physiology.” Members of the entering class of 1997 remain in close contact today.
In January, 2014 after 4.5 years at The Michael J. Fox Foundation, Sonal joined the MRC Protein Phosphorylation and Ubiquitylation Unit (MRC-PPU) in Dundee, Scotland. The MRC-PPU's expertise is focused on understanding two of the most significant post-translational modifications and their impact in health and disease. As Research Manager of the Unit Sonal plays a significant role in helping to further develop the MRC-PPU locally as well as on an international level in the broader research community. Her remit includes coordinating major MRC-PPU projects/collaborations, helping to develop and improve MRC-PPU scientific services, assisting the unit's investigators with grant funding applications, working with a team to develop 4 websites focused on the Unit's services and reagents and organizing public engagement in science activities in the Dundee community.