When Sheetal Kumar was 15 years old, her journey in science really began. After growing up in the United Arab Emirates and spending some of her early school years in India, she moved to upstate New York. There, at New Hartford High School, she discovered a love of chemistry.
“I recall being a new student in a foreign country trying to navigate my way in a new world,” Kumar says. “I had a very understanding and incredibly smart chemistry teacher who would offer after class or school hours to help if we had questions or concerns. I came from a country where you did not have teachers who helped you. My chemistry teacher’s way of teaching and kindness inspired me to want to do science.”
Now a senior associate scientist in translational biology at Amgen, Kumar spends time paying it forward. As a volunteer, she talks with Amgen Biotech Experience (ABE) teachers and high school students about her career and path in biotechnology. “I wanted my role at Amgen to make as much of an impact on the community as possible,” she says.
Kumar’s volunteering with ABE first started with a professional development workshop at Harvard University, in which she discussed her work and ways to get students engaged in science with some 20 new and veteran ABE teachers. “It was a fun and engaging way to volunteer and interact with teachers in the field of science,” she says.
At that event, she met Aaron Stone, a teacher at Boston Day and Evening Academy, a school that re-engages off-track students in their education to prepare them for high school graduation, post-secondary success, and meaningful participation in their community. Stone invited Kumar to come to his classroom and talk with the students, as well as do some lab experiments together.
“I enjoyed being with the students and, importantly, feeling like I could share my journey in science not only as a scientist but also as a woman in science and as an ethnic minority,” Kumar says. At Boston Day, she encountered several students who appeared to think biotechnology is too hard a journey for them to navigate. “I can understand it from their point of view,” Kumar says. “The biotechnology field is not hugely diverse, and there is very heavy competition to make it in the field.”
“I wanted to share my journey in hopes that they could see the good that comes from perseverance, even if it may take longer than we want,” she says. “These students have so much more going on. I have huge admiration for them and how they continue to pursue their dreams.”
For Kumar, her path to biotechnology from high school chemistry took her to undergraduate studies at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, graduate school at the State University of New York at Albany, and then to a second master’s degree at Cleveland State University. She then took on a variety of roles that helped transition her work from academia to biotech—including working as a research technician at the Cleveland Clinic, a researcher at the University of Cambridge in the UK and then at the National Institutes of Health in the USA, a scientist at Pfizer, and then eventually to Amgen in Boston.
“At Amgen, I am responsible for ensuring the safety profiling of drugs that we deliver to patients, whether it is from early discovery of the drug to the next phase, or making sure it is safe to go to market to treat patients,” she explains. “I feel I have taken several paths, definitely not a straight line, to get where I am. This has been a long journey.”
When she speaks with high school students interested in science, Kumar advises them to research various fields and meet as many people as possible to narrow their choices. “With more information comes more power to control your own destiny,” she says. “You can then take the right courses and continue to pursue your passion while always being open to trying new ideas. The field of science is always changing, and if you are adaptable, your journey will be a lot smoother.”