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Staff Spotlight: Sonya Dougal, PhD

Sonya Dougal, Senior Vice President of Scientific Programs and Awards, talks about her STEM journey.

A woman smiles for the camera.

Tell us what you do for the Academy.

When I first came to the Academy, I was a program manager on the conferences team. The very first conference that I planned from start to finish was on neural prosthetics, called Building Better Brains: Neural Prosthetics and Beyond (or something like that!), which was funded by the Aspen Brain Forum. It was awesome.

Now, more than ten years later, in my current role I provide strategic oversight for the conferences portfolio across life sciences, physical sciences and engineering and sustainability. I also oversee our awards portfolio, which includes the Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists, as well as the Takeda Innovators in Science Award and the Tata Transformation Award. I also oversee our fellowship programs for postdoctoral sciences, which include our AI and Society Program with Arizona State University, as well as the Leon Levy Scholarships in Neuroscience.

What has so far been your proudest accomplishment working for the Academy?

I have two answers. I’m really proud of some work we did to develop the Alzheimer’s disease and dementia initiative. We brought together a public-private partnership and a consortium of scientists across sectors who shared the common goal of accelerating drug development for Alzheimer’s disease. This was a few years ago, during a time when pharma was reducing their spending because we just didn’t understand the disease mechanisms.

So we brought that council together, and they came up with recommendations that were provided to the G10—the global summit on Alzheimer’s worldwide. We also launched the global Alzheimer’s platform for recruiting more subjects into clinical trials for Alzheimer’s, because that was one of the bottlenecks to accelerating research and development. So that was really nice to be able to see an idea become actionable programs that were impacting patients.

More recently, I’m really proud of the Leon Levy scholarships. When I was a postdoc in New York City in cognitive neuroscience, I would have loved to have had the opportunities that this scholarship provides. Not only is there a salary benefit, but the professional development opportunities that these scholars are receiving are going to be invaluable to them, no matter what career path they choose. If they stay in academia, it’ll help them set up their lab. If they leave academia, it’s going to help them to find a new job because they’ve been properly prepared. So it’s just been so gratifying for me to be a part of launching this new partnership.

Why, in general, are you proud to work for the Academy?

Well, for one thing, the Academy is a very old and esteemed scientific institution. But it’s an institution that’s changed and grown to meet the challenges in society and in science over the past 200 years. I love that the Academy has risen to the challenge during really important times in history. For instance, we were one of the first organizations to hold a scientific conference on HIV in the 80s when there was a lot of stigma associated with HIV.

I think that’s really important. I’m also really proud of the way that we bring scientists together across sectors and across disciplines and across stages in their careers. At one of my conferences, I had a line of postdocs and graduate students waiting to meet Jim Allison after he had won the Nobel Prize. That’s really special. There aren’t that many venues where, as a young trainee, you can meet your heroes in real life and have a chat with them about your research.

Tell us your STEM journey. How did you first become interested in science, and how did you pursue it to become who you are today?

I actually started out college thinking I was going to be a professional clarinet player. I wanted to go to a conservatory but my parents thought I needed to have a well-rounded liberal arts education, so I ended up going to a state school where I majored in music.

The thing was, I had really bad performance anxiety—I just hated going on stage. And that made me think a lot about what happens when we’re performing and how anxiety can impact skilled memory—the things that are so well practiced. So I ended up taking a psychology class, which really hooked me on thinking about the mind. Around that time, I found a research lab that was studying skilled memory. I loved that you could use the scientific method to answer questions and collect data and get some evidence for or against a hypothesis.

I loved that so much. So I switched majors, and the rest is history. I went to graduate school in Pittsburgh where I did behavioral research, and then when I came to NYU for my postdoc, I used brain imaging techniques to get to the same questions I had been studying as a graduate student.

Why do you think science is so important to society?

Because all of the major challenges in society can be addressed by science. Because science is at the heart of everything that we do, from explaining how the molecules in the matter that makes our desk fit together, to understanding how I choose the people I want to spend my time with. There’s science to explain everything in our lives.

Which scientist (or scientists) would you most like to have dinner with and why?

I would have dinner with Rudy Tanzi—he’s a neurologist at Mass General. He plays piano and he’s so much fun. Another person I think is really amazing is Richie Davidson, the cognitive neuroscientist who did the brain imaging studies of the Buddhist monks while they were meditating. He’s a personal friend of the Dalai Lama.

I’d also include Roland Griffiths—he died recently but since we can include those who have passed, I’m including him. He studied how psychedelics influence human behavior and disease can be used therapeutically. And I would also say Marie Curie because she was the only female scientist to win the Nobel Prize twice, and she’s Polish. I’m Polish too.

What hobbies or interests do you have outside of work?

Spending time with my son Thomas and my cats Cleopatra and Claude, going to the beach and gardening. And I love reading. Nabokov is my favorite author—you can’t go wrong with anything he’s written. One of the reasons I think I like his prose so much is he was trained as a scientist—he studied butterflies before he became a writer.

Another thing I still love to do is play the clarinet. I quit for a really long time, but a few years ago my son told his teacher I could play the clarinet, and she asked me to come in and play for the class. I hadn’t picked up the instrument in 20 years! And because I don’t do anything half-way, I went and found a teacher to get me ready to play for this little class of first graders! And I’ve continued to take lessons from him for the past few years.


Academy Staff
This article was written by a member of the Academy staff.

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