First-generation leaders face unique challenges and must learn to navigate the workplace while trying to make a difference. Despite the obstacles, first-gen leaders are often natural problem-solvers, and their experiences have usually made them more resilient and resourceful. Our guest for today is Dr. Sonia Maciejewski, a Senior Scientist at a biotechnology company focused on infectious diseases. Dr. Sonia has always been interested in pursuing a career in infectious diseases. She had the opportunity to join the minority biomedical research scholars’ program in college, where she could work part-time as an undergraduate researcher. As a first-gen leader, Dr. Sonia shares what inspired her to pursue life sciences, the challenges in her leadership role, and how she overcame them. With her experience in vaccine development for emerging viruses and current leadership position, Dr. Sonia hopes to continue to help move the science forward for future emerging viruses and pandemics.


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Breaking Down Barriers For First-Generation Leaders With Dr. Sonia Maciejewski

Dr. Sonia has always been interested in pursuing a career in infectious diseases from a young age. She attended San Diego State University for her undergraduate studies and initially started her studies as a Business major. It was during her General Biology class that she was inspired to switch to Life Sciences.

She had the opportunity to join the minority biomedical research scholars program at the university, where she was able to work part-time as an undergraduate researcher. During this time, she was able to explore different research fields and laboratories, allowing her to discover that her true passion was virology.

During her junior year, she switched her major to Microbiology and was doing research, studying the roles of viral infections on the central nervous system. She completed her BS in Microbiology at San Diego State in 2011. Next, she went on to graduate school in pursuit of a PhD in Virology. Her graduate thesis project was focused on characterizing viral host protein interactions for picornaviruses.

She completed her PhD in Biomedical Science from the University of California Irvine in 2016. She went on to her post-Doctoral fellowship at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, where she worked on characterizing the antibody response elicited by Zika vaccine candidates during the Zika virus pandemic in 2016.

Together, these training positions cumulatively prepared her for her role as a scientist in a leadership position that helped develop a COVID vaccine that is available internationally. She hopes that with her experience in vaccine development for emerging viruses and her leadership position, she can continue to help move the science forward for future emerging viruses and pandemics within her team. Let’s hear what Sonia has to say.

Welcome to the show, Sonia. I’m so happy to have you here.

Thank you for having me here.

Thank you so much for being here. I’m excited to hear about your story. I know you’ve accomplished so much at a young age. Can you tell us a little bit about your story, your background, and how you got to where you are?

Absolutely. I’m from San Diego, California, originally. Both my parents are immigrants. Something that they both valued included an education. It’s something they always made sure that my brothers and I were able to obtain. They worked multiple jobs so that we could attend a private school and get the best education possible. That was the foundation for the groundwork that I was going to be doing in my later career.

After that, I went to San Diego State University for my undergraduate. I, originally, had started off as a Business major. I had a general Biology class with one of my Professors, Dr. Robert Pozos, and was inspired by the subject. I went to his office one day after class and asked him how I could be involved in a career in science and what I should do. At that moment, he picked up the phone and called the director of one of the minority research programs for summer research on campus. It was led by a woman named Veronica Bejar. He let her know that there was a student that was interested in doing research. From there, the rest is history.

She was able to interview me for the summer research program, which allowed me to do summer research at the university on campus and be paid for it. That allowed me to quit my In-N-Out job, which I loved. It was a very helpful move for my academic career, at least. From there, she encouraged me to apply to the university’s Minority Biomedical Research Scholar Program or MBRS Program. That allowed me to do research year-round and be paid for it.

 Additionally, they had a lot of supportive programs that prepared me for applying for a school. They had a lot of seminars and panels and let me attend scientific conferences. That was a huge help in my career as well. All of this nurtured my passion for science. It helped me achieve those types of goals which allowed me to go to get my PhD at the University of California in Irvine in Biomedical Science.

From there, I did a post-Doctoral research fellowship at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, right outside of DC. I joined a lab where I was able to work on the Zika virus vaccine development during the Zika virus pandemic in 2016. Following from there, I joined a biotech company in the area that was working on developing vaccines for viral infections.

As soon as I joined the company, I switched on my projects to work on the COVID-19 vaccine development for the COVID-19 pandemic. That was something that was very exciting. Something that I truly enjoy is working on viral infections and being able to develop either vaccines or treatments for them that allow people to live a better lifestyle or even save lives, in the case here for the COVID-19 pandemic.

That’s all accomplished under 35 years of age. It was cool to hear professors going above and beyond, caring, and helping you go in the right direction. That’s a big left turn or right turn from a business. Taking a General Ed class and all of a sudden, was the path leading you to becoming a scientist.

Going into your professor’s office hours can change the whole trajectory of your life. I’m thankful for that.

As a professor myself, I love hearing those types of stories to hear that there are a lot of professors out there willing to help out students. Switching gears a little bit, you’ve climbed up the ranks pretty fast, and I love to hear your thoughts on Imposter syndrome. We deal with that a lot with first-time and sometimes emerging leaders. Sometimes, when we get promoted over our peers or the youngest person on our team but then we become the boss. We may feel like we have Imposter syndrome. I’ve dealt with that before. Anytime we try something new, we deal with that. What are your thoughts on Imposter syndrome, and how did you overcome it?

When I first started in science, I had Imposter syndrome. I had Imposter syndrome all throughout grad school and my fellowship. It was not until I was working in the industry that I saw what the value I brought to the company was and had the confidence in myself to feel I deserved a seat at the table. That’s important for being able to rise to a leadership position as well as to have that confidence and show that you are willing to take on these new challenges. What helped me get over my Imposter syndrome is being able to use my confidence and my knowledge to be able to accomplish these types of goals, such as developing a vaccine during a pandemic.

It’s very challenging to go that career route of becoming a scientist. I’m sure you had to deal with adversity along the way. We think we have everything figured out. We are going down business, and all of a sudden, we are going down the science path. How did you deal with adversity throughout your career? How did you overcome it?

Always explore your different interests. Try new things, explore new ideas, and be an advocate for yourself. Speak up and talk to others who may be more advanced in the field. Share on X

Some of the adversity began before I even applied to college. Both my parents immigrated here to the States in their 30s, so they had never applied for college here. A lot of the adversity I faced early on was navigating that path to be able to attend college. During undergrad, probably not having any guidance in my first two years on how to turn what I was studying into career paths felt like I was blindly taking classes early on.

It was not until my professor was able to help guide me into this trajectory. That’s some of the adversity I faced there. Also, in general, being a woman and especially a minority in science, I was very lucky to be able to be in a program that supported minorities in science. There were many women in my program as well. We are always going to face adversity. The point is to keep going and show everyone that you deserve a seat at the table.

Would you recommend being proactive by reaching out to folks in case you don’t know how to do something? For me, it was challenging. I didn’t have anyone in my family that was in business. That was the path I chose. I kept on that path. I was a Psychology major for a day, and then I changed. My grandma said, “You need to do business.” My grandma helped me. Is there anything you recommend to the people reading? Maybe they have a younger sibling that’s in high school or junior high school that wants to go into STEM. What advice would you give them?

I would say always explore your different interests. I started off as a Business major and ended up in science, which usually isn’t very similar career paths. Try new things. Explore new ideas as well as be an advocate for yourself. Speak up and talk to others that are maybe more advanced in the field. That goes along with networking. Advocate and network for yourself because you are the only person that’s going to do that best for yourself.

When you say networking, do you mean after you got the job or before, or both? What do you mean by that?

I’ve networked before getting jobs. When I was an undergrad, I would attend student research symposiums and wander around, see posters, and talk to people and professors. I didn’t end up in just one lab the entire time. I worked in an analytical chemistry lab initially, and then I did a summer research program in a hepatitis C lab at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. I then ended up in a lab where I spent about two years of my undergrad, which is a virology lab on campus. That required me to network at these symposiums, talk to other professors, and see what their students were doing in their labs. I asked professors to be honest. I would email people or ask them.

Was that out of your comfort zone a little bit when you first started?

Absolutely, especially as an undergrad. Maybe not everybody feels that way but I felt shy and uncomfortable asking people. I didn’t have parents who had connections and networks that could help me get these jobs. It was on me, and I knew that at the moment, so I put my best foot forward and asked.

That’s such good advice. I remember that in my undergrad. It can be intimidating to approach professors. Professors, in most cases, are there to help. We do it because we love helping people. What was your first leadership challenge, and how did you solve it?

My first leadership challenge was working within a group, being promoted into a leadership position, and having my peers within my group see me in a leadership position. It’s a little bit difficult to navigate that since we are within the same age group. I know that maybe it’s a little bit difficult for people to see you as a friend and be more of in a leadership position over them. A way that I was able to work through that, especially with members of my team, was to not act so much like a boss but more that we were all equals within a team and that we all had the same goal in mind.

I always made sure that no matter who was in the group, they were all aware of what we were doing on a certain project, why it was important, and what the bigger picture was. That helped everybody feel more onboard with what we were doing and forget more about the whole difference in positions and who was where and be able to work towards a goal together cohesively.

This is a very common challenge we face as first-time leaders. There’s also a competitive nature because all of a sudden, you are getting more pay. You are the one delegating tasks. In our generation, as Millennials and maybe even the Gen Zs reading, do you think that we can be friends with the people who report to us? We can listen to them. We can care about them as human beings but also we can hold them accountable as we need to. What do you think about that?

That was challenging for me to be able to hold some of my teammates accountable early on because I was like, “We are all friends.” Over time, it’s something that also happens naturally for someone that’s entering a new leadership position. You become more comfortable with holding people accountable and making sure you are very open about why you are doing certain things or taking certain actions. Thankfully, I have a great team that never put me in too much of a difficult position. It can be difficult navigating those situations but it’s something that, with practice and time, becomes easier.

Let’s say you are testing the vaccine. Unless you take care of this where you take the emotion out of it and then have clear accountability and metrics to measure that so people are treated fairly and equally and say, “I can’t finish this testing of this vaccine until you do your part,” rather than them picking on you.

Gen Z put their well-being first, which is great. It's important because if your well-being isn't right, then you're not going to feel a hundred percent at work. Share on X

That brings up another point of having clear communication with everybody and maybe having these hard metrics of what you expect from everybody. I personally would have multiple one-on-ones with everybody. We would have a list of questions about what their goals were. Everybody got the exact same questions.

I made sure that everybody had the opportunity to let me know what their career goals were, short-term or long-term. It was something that I would use to help keep everyone accountable. I’m like, “You said you wanted to do this. Why don’t we figure out a way to make sure that all of those goals get achieved within a certain amount of time?”

That’s not just during the annual performance review time.

We would do those hard goals with a minimum quarterly but we would do our one-on-ones almost weekly. That helped us keep track of those as well.

People appreciate that. It’s interesting. When I interviewed over 100 Millennial leaders for my book, I asked, “What’s the one thing you would stay at a company for the rest of your life or career?” They said, “Continuous growth and opportunity to improve and develop.” That’s a great tip for the leaders out there, if they are not doing this, to do it a little bit more because that’s helpful. My next question is, in your opinion, based on what you’ve seen, what would you say Gen Zs greatest strength is? What advice would you give to leaders who are leading them?

Something I’ve noticed with the Gen Z members of our team is that they put their well-being first. It’s important because if your well-being isn’t right, then you are not going to feel 100% at work. You want everybody always to feel that they are happy and willing to come to work and there’s nothing personal going on that’s distracting them. At least in my field, you can’t be distracted. If your head is not in the game, then it’s better to sit back or let me know if something is up so that we can rearrange things to be able to make sure the task gets completed.

I’ve noticed that a lot of the members of our team that are Gen Z will always let me know if something is going on. They don’t have to tell me what exactly but if there’s something personal going on or if they are not feeling well, I never ask questions of why or dig deep into it. I respect that and admire that about Gen Z.

That’s such great quality. They are very open about mental health and mental well-being. A lot of what we recommend to organizations that want to recruit Gen Z-ers to get great talent is they are going to have to put that in the forefront. What type of resources do they offer? Are they going to be open? Is it a culture of vulnerability?

In general, most career paths and companies are moving in that direction. That’s good.

I want to dive a little bit more into your experience of being a first gen Latinx growing up. What was that experience like? I asked you this a little bit but I want to dive in a little bit more. What advice would you give to those first gens reading? I remember in college. I didn’t have anyone who had a business background. I didn’t have a family member that could call their friend that who worked to help get me an internship. Tell us a little bit about that.

Especially nowadays, the first thing you could do is to Google to see what programs your school is offering. Your school is going to be your number one resource and help for supporting you through your academic career path. Go online and search what programs your school is offering to help support you. Also, advocate for yourself.

Don’t be afraid to speak up for yourself or ask your professors for help because that’s what they are there for. I had to rely a lot on my university to help me get to where I am. If it hadn’t been for that one meeting or that one phone call, I would not have even known any of those programs existed. I didn’t even search those types of programs, to be honest. First and foremost, look up to see what your school is offering.

Let’s say some of the folks that are reading have a kid or a younger brother or sister that’s in middle school or high school. This would be a good recruiting tactic to offer these types of programs if they want to get diverse talent or diverse students. If they are figuring out whether they want to go to college, if I’m going to choose between colleges like, “That’s going to help me here versus that one.”

For example, even the company here that I work offers internships for high school students. Those are things that I didn’t even know you could look up to as a high school student. They even offer internships for high school students at the National Institutes of Health. If you have a kid, brother, or sister that is interested in possibly doing STEM for college but they are not there yet, look up any internship or programs. They are usually at no cost to the actual student.

Don't be afraid to speak up for yourself or ask your professors for help because that's what they're there for. Share on X

I remember you said earlier that you worked in In-N- Out, which I love. It’s one of my favorites. If you are from California, most people love it. If you say you don’t love it, you are probably getting a lot of crap from your friends. I also worked in food service and retail while I was in high school and college. That’s a cool thing. The Gen Zs are not working. They are getting experience in high school. That’s when you need to start. Not. For all the folks that are reading, if you have someone younger in your family that’s in middle school or high school, start thinking about this high school internship.

I don’t think it’s necessary because I don’t want people to feel like, “I can’t apply to these things because I didn’t do an internship in high school.” It’s more of if you want to explore what your options are and figure out what you want to do for college. Those are very good resources that are available to students.

It probably looks good on a college application too. What advice would you give to young people who are trying to find a mentor? Do you go up to someone where you are like, “Will you be my mentor?” It doesn’t happen like that in real life. What are your thoughts there? What advice would you give?

It goes back to what I first started saying earlier on that you need to speak up for yourself. Going to networking events, for example, the research symposiums at your undergraduate school or conferences and talking to people, meeting them, and then organically forming a relationship with these people that you admire or look up to. I didn’t quite say, “Will you be my mentor?” If I were interested in somebody’s research, I would ask if they would give me an opportunity to be able to work with their team. Most people are excited that somebody is interested in their work and will usually say yes.

Once you start working for them, then you develop this mentorship-mentee relationship that is very important. I found some of my mentors not even by meeting them personally but by googling what type of research they were doing or what type of research I was interested in. I would look up, for example, vaccine development and then start looking at professors or people with their own labs because not everyone was a professor.

Also, emailing and asked them if they would be willing to talk to me on the phone more about their work. Most people are flattered that you want to learn about their work and usually schedule meetings with you. If they don’t, then it means they are probably too busy to take on mentees. It’s probably good if not everybody responds. People are busy. People have different types of priorities in their life. Email and contact people that you are interested in possibly working with and develop a mentor-mentee relationship with them. It will happen organically.

We are in this Great Resignation. What are your thoughts on this Great Resignation, and what advice would you give to employers and employees?

During this time of the Great Resignation, many people are learning what’s more valuable to them in their lives and determining if what they are doing at their day-to-day job is fulfilling to them. Based on the Great Resignation, it seems as if most are finding out that they can possibly do better for themselves and their career.

As an employer, it’s important to value your employees. Make sure that they feel as if what they are contributing in their day-to-day is significant. This goes further than just verbal affirmations but possibly shows that you notice these accomplishments more than saying, “Good job.” You are showing actions. I know every company is different. I know some companies offer more benefits or bonuses than others. That’s dependent on your company but just feeling valued in your workplace.

It’s being able to connect their actions with the mission or the impact that the company makes. With your work, you are trying to fight a pandemic. Creating the tools to do so must be very fulfilling intrinsically.

I always try to make sure that my team is in the loop of what we are doing and what’s the bigger picture of why their day-to-day is important. Communication is key.

I want to wrap up with one more question. What advice would you give to a first-time or emerging leader or someone who just entered the workplace? You can choose either one.

For either of them, I would say don’t be hard on yourself. It sounds cliché but do your best and try to listen to others, whether in a leadership position or not. If you are starting your first position, make sure to prioritize communication, even on a personal level. For example, if something is going on, your employer is not going to be able to guess that you have something personal going on, and it may be impacting your performance. It’s key to communicate things between you and your employer.

For a new leadership position, take the time to listen to your team. Be sure to communicate what’s going on within your group and the bigger picture. Have an open-door policy so that people feel comfortable coming to you. In that way, you can all work and get your goals accomplished together as a cohesive unit, which is important.

Take the time to listen to your team, and communicate what's happening within your group and the bigger picture. Have an open-door policy so that people feel comfortable coming to you. Share on X

It sounds like I want to work for you. It’s so nice and refreshing to see someone with an open-door policy. Some of the best bosses I had have an open-door policy. Knowing they care about our team makes a big difference.

That’s very important. You should always value your team and the employees within a company. That’s key for people to stay in their current positions.

It’s the right thing and the human thing to do. Thank you so much. I appreciate you taking the time to do this interview. I’m looking forward to seeing all the cool things you are going to develop in the future.

Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.

Thank you. Have a great rest of your day.

You too.  


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