Success in STEM

Dr. Mahadeo Sukhai

Photo of Dr. Mahadeo Sukhai

Dr. Mahadeo Sukhai is an accomplished scientist working in Toronto. He is also a member of the NEADS executive. The following is a transcript of an interview we conducted with him for this guide.

Q: Tell us a little bit about yourself? What schooling have you taken? What do you currently do? Where and how have you tried to find a job?
A: I am visually impaired; I was born with congenital cataracts. I started my post-secondary studies at the University of Toronto in 1994, and obtained my Honours B.Sc. in genetics in 1998, my M.Sc. in pharmaceutical sciences in 2001, and my Ph.D. in medical biophysics in 2007. I currently am working as a postdoctoral Fellow in translational leukemia research at Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto. Although this is still technically part of my research training, it is a full-time research job. Over the years, I’ve held jobs in teaching and research – either at the University of Toronto or in private tutoring. Most jobs that I have applied for have been associated in one way or another with my training and qualifications as a scientist and educator.

Q: When you realized that you wanted to pursue a career in science and technology, did you begin to alter your course load to improve your chances of future employment? How exactly?
A: I first realized that I wanted to be a scientist when I was very young. I think the inspiration struck me when I was about six years old. I originally wanted to be an astronomer, but ended up in human genetics and molecular biology during my undergraduate degree. I never considered chances of future employment while I was pursuing my education – and so, this question does not apply to me.

Q: Did you receive any encouragement or discouragement from friends, family, community members, or school officials about your course choices?
A: I was always encouraged by my parents to pursue my dreams – there was not one word, in this context, at least, of how unfeasible or unrealistic they might have been. I think if I had heard that at home, my path would have been much more difficult that it already was. In many respects, I was blessed with family and friends who encouraged and supported my objectives; I encountered resistance from some educators at various levels, but, while I found it to be unusual, I was not overly concerned by it. As long as they didn’t actively interfere with my learning, I was unconcerned as to whether they thought I belonged there or not.

I recall one particular incident, which on the face of it certainly could have been classified as discouraging: My very first genetics lab, in my very first class, I disclosed to the course coordinator – this was in my third year of undergraduate studies – that I was visually impaired and born blind. Her comment, “Wow, you’re the first blind geneticist I’ve ever heard of,” actually served as inspiration and encouragement in the long run. I’m sure she didn’t intend it in any way other than a statement of her knowledge – no discouragement was intended, and probably not any encouragement either. But, often, it’s not what people think about what they say that matters – it’s how we choose to interpret it. This comment, I took positively, and let it carry me to the end of my first degree, and beyond.

Q: Were there any physical or social barriers to obtaining the education necessary to pursue a career in science and technology? If so, how did you overcome them?
A: Social barriers, sure – I mentioned educator perceptions already. Sight is the most important of all senses to any human being; most cannot understand or stand to imagine what life without sight is like. And people rely on sight for so much. So, the perception of “You can’t see, therefore, you won’t make a good scientist” was a very strong thing in the minds of some of my teachers and professors. Some articulated it. Most – fortunately – did not. I had enough good experiences as a student to drive out any negativity in that regard.

Things got more complicated in graduate school – here, it was very important to ensure that my supervisors especially understood what I could do and what I was capable of. Again, fortunately, I was blessed with the chance to work with great people who understood that lack of sight did not equate to lack of ability or intelligence, and who, as a consequence, gave me the chance to excel and show my true potential.

Physical, financial and technological barriers, if anything, played a greater role in my education – these issues centered around finding the appropriate technological and visual aids for me, particularly in graduate school, and then ensuring that they could be paid for. Fortunately, again, and in particular for my graduate degrees, the University of Toronto was both very understanding and very accommodating – and, more to the point, very creative in helping me achieve the set of accommodations I required for my education. I learned that flexibility, communication and partnership were critical to my then and future success.

Q: What’s your current position?
A: I am a Post-Doctoral Fellow in translational leukemia research at Princess Margaret Hospital. My career trajectory leads me toward an academic appointment in a few years’ time. More philosophically, the “soft” skills (personal management, team management, teaching, oral and written communication, time management, organizational, project management, leadership, etc.) that I developed directly and indirectly through my undergraduate and graduate education will give me the ability to do anything I could possibly want to do in the future, even if it is not directly related to science or technology. I am already applying those skills in the not-for-profit sector and in governance, as part of my volunteer activities outside of work.

Q: What advice would you give students with disabilities wishing to pursue a degree or career in science or technology?
A: Lots of people will tell you lots of things about what you can and cannot do. You might even believe some of them. However, If you believe you will like a career in science and technology, if you believe that this will bring you fulfillment and will support you financially, let no one and nothing get in your way. There will be obstacles – people, technology, finances, resources, beliefs, attitudes. And there are days when you will want to quit. But, for us as people with disabilities, this is a particular kind of glass ceiling. Ultimately, we are the best judges of our own abilities – I don’t guarantee an easy road, but I can guarantee the fulfillment that comes from knowing that you’re doing something you really and truly want to do.

Q: How would you describe your experience in getting to where you are today?
A: Incredibly rewarding. Very hard. And those are two sides of the same coin. This profile doesn’t let me get into the detail that I would ordinarily get into about the benefits of volunteerism, and how best to learn about your skill set and abilities and interests – but, I will say this: Despite everything, despite all the days when I wanted to chuck the whole concept of a career in science, no matter how hard the road seemed, no matter how many obstacles got in the way, I would not trade my experience in getting where I am today for anything. I really quite enjoy all that I do, and I wouldn’t have gotten here without the challenges I faced or the encouragement I received. And I wouldn’t give any of that up, or exchange it, for anything.

Q: How did you advocate in order to get where you are today in the field of science and technology (or did you have to advocate)?
A: Of course I had to advocate. I had to advocate on two fronts – first, to convince people that I had the raw ability and talent to do what it was I wanted to do; and second, to gain the technology and resources I needed in order to do it. The first, unfortunately, is something we can never really escape from. These days, I let my CV do the talking, but even so, there will always be those who don’t understand, or those who will question, or those who will make assumptions about the way things are supposed to be, and if you don’t fit that mould, they won’t lift a finger to provide you encouragement or assistance. With these people, one either ignores them and goes around, or one goes straight through and lets one’s actions do the advocacy. As the saying goes, “Actions speak louder than words.” Or, as one colleague of mine neatly put it, “You don’t need your eyes in order to think.”

The second kind of advocacy is much more in line with what people are accustomed to – but, interestingly, I always approached it as a negotiation. I found that bringing legal obligations into things tended to hurt my chances of getting something. People usually knew what the right thing to do was, it was just a matter of negotiating how best to get it. This approach, I found, got me further in life than any other.

Q: Did any mentors/key players assist you throughout your science or technology degree or the start of your career?
A: Yes. I owe the greatest debt in this regard to my PhD supervisor, but my current post-doctoral mentor and several colleagues and collaborators over the years have been incredible role models and wonderful people, and great mentors over the past decade. I couldn’t have done this without their insight and contribution.

I was also blessed to have several very good friends who shared my educational background, and who served as peer mentors for me. I found this kind of mentorship invaluable in my development as well.

Q: How did you find the job search experience? Were the employers encouraging and accommodating? Did you find your first science and technology job through the newspaper, internet, job search forum, networking, or other?
A: Extremely complicated. Some of that is actually due to the vagaries of the field I’m in, and what is currently accepted as “standard” in that field – that is, that a Post-Doctoral Fellow should go out and “see the world” to gain other kinds of research experience than that which he or she is accustomed to. This usually means uprooting oneself to go live in another city, another country, even another continent. Given the logistical difficulties associated with my accommodation set, this is rather more challenging than moving house. Sadly, I’ve discovered that not everyone understands these particular issues.

Scientists, for all their vaunted idealism, are often very closed-minded and unsure what to do with things outside their expertise. I’ve seen this several times in my job searches – I had one person who I wanted to teach for say to me “How can you see to teach?” Good question – I told him to hire me and find out.

I have never used a job search forum or the newspaper or the internet to find a job in my field – that’s simply not how it’s done. Informal networking is more the norm, and that’s what it’s time to start doing in earnest.