In honor of Black History Month, John Odhiambo sent a questionnaire to Dr Sarah K. England, Professor of Medicine and Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Washington University to discuss her career and experience as a black woman in science specifically in reproductive biology. Dr. England has a beautiful story to tell and I thought I would share it with you. Let’s dig deeper into it:
1. What is your current position, and what does it entail?
I am the Alan A. and Edith L. Wolff Professor of Medicine in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. I also serve as Vice-Chair for Research in the Department of Ob/Gyn and currently as Interim Director of the Center for Reproductive Health Sciences. My lab has three lines of study: 1) determining how ion channels in the myometrium modulate uterine excitability and contractility during pregnancy, 2) investigating the role and regulation of the oxytocin receptor in controlling uterine excitability, and 3) studying how disruptions in endogenous circadian rhythms affect pregnancy outcomes. In my administrative roles, I am working to build a research infrastructure so faculty can focus on their science and have the tools for them to succeed.
2. Can you talk a little bit about yourself, where are you from? What first attracted you to the world of science? And how did you get to be in your current position?
I am from St. Paul, Minnesota. My father was a physician (internist) and her mother worked in real estate they made sure that education was a priority in the family. I always loved math and science and decided to pursue a career in academia instead of medicine. I pursued my undergraduate degree at Carleton College where I majored in biology and conducted research under the mentorship of John W. Osborn at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul studying the sympathetic nervous system response after barodenervation. I then pursued my graduate training in physiology at the Medical College of Wisconsin under the mentorship of Nancy J. Rusch exploring the role of potassium channels in hypertension. I completed my post-doctoral training at Vanderbilt University in the Department of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics with Mike Tamkun, studying the molecular composition of cardiac ion channels. In 1997, I moved to the University of Iowa as an Assistant Professor and began studying the molecular mechanisms underlying uterine function during pregnancy. I joined the faculty at Washington University School of Medicine in July 2011 and have a secondary appointment in the Department of Cell Biology and Physiology where I continue this work.
3. What impact has the pandemic had on your daily activities and your research?
We had to be creative as it impacted everyone a bit differently. For example, people with kids had to do more work at home and were able to get their papers drafted, so it was not lost time. I think the most significant impact was on the graduate students, and we had to navigate what projects could be completed in a shorter timeframe so they could graduate on time.
4. Have you gained any valuable lessons from life during the pandemic?
Yes, many people are at the breaking point and need someone to reach out to check in on them. This time has made me be a better listener and more aware of how isolation is affecting some people. This has been a hard time and it is easy to think about all the bad things that are happening around us. However, there have been many good things that have happened. I think simple acts of kindness are needed at this time.
5. What are you most excited to do over this year?
Travel and see my friends and family more!
6. What words of inspiration would you like to share with the future generation of scientists?
In this field you have to be a weeble; weebles wobble but they get back up. This field takes resilience.
7. Are there ways in which you think your heritage has affected your perspective or career trajectory?
It has made me more understanding of others. I find it more difficult to explain to others what it is like to be a black woman in science. I am constantly navigating situations in both my work and personal life that others do not have to think about and trying to do this for other trainees of color. I am encouraged as I do sense that there is a heightened awareness that we are not dealing with a level playing field. My heritage has made me resilient, and to rely and trust others who are supportive of the mission to make science and research more inclusive.