Get to Know: Sonia Lee, Ph.D.

How did you become interested in science and research?

Sonia Lee, Ph.D. Acting Branch Chief, Maternal and Pediatric Infectious Disease BranchWhen I was growing up, my father’s daily uniform included scrubs, a stethoscope, and a pager. My father was an anesthesiologist and would often bring me to the hospital to meet the doctors, nurses, and staff with whom he worked. I would “make the rounds” with him and was intrigued by the surroundings, the smells, the sounds, the equipment, and the people. I knew from a young age that I wanted to be a part of science and make an impact with science, like my father.

What brought you to NICHD?

Prior to coming to NICHD in 2006, I spent a few years at the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., working as part of a multidisciplinary research team with children and families living with HIV. One of my colleagues left to become a program officer at the National Institute of Mental Health, and I soon followed at NICHD. We are both still fortunate to focus on children living with HIV at our respective institutes, and we continue to collaborate on research efforts! The opportunity to bridge my clinical skills as a psychologist with research efforts on prevention, treatment, and overall health of pediatric populations greatly influenced my decision to join NICHD.

What types of training, experiences, or traits are essential for success in your position?

I think that one of the most important traits to be successful in my position is to listen—listen to ideas, listen to others’ opinions regardless of position, listen to alternative ways to achieve progress—and then ask questions to promote discovery and foster collaboration. A can-do attitude and a willingness to work hard go a long way as well.

What do you find most valuable about working at NICHD?

The most valuable part about working at NICHD, for me, are my colleagues. We are truly inspired to work collaboratively with each other to accomplish our goals and achieve a collective mission. Our trust and respect for one another motivates me to work hard and advocate for the best science. I am fortunate to be able to call my colleagues my friends.

Can you explain your job to people who are not familiar with scientific positions outside of a laboratory or clinical setting?

My job is to facilitate opportunities for researchers, communities, and populations affected by infectious disease to advance science and improve lives. I get to work with and learn from people from around the world who share the same goal! I am a steward of federal funds that support state-of-the-art research—how amazing is that?

If you have advanced along your career within the institute, can you summarize your career steps and how you successfully navigated these changes?

I began my NICHD career as a program officer in 2006 within the Pediatric, Adolescent, and Maternal AIDS Branch (now the Maternal and Pediatric Infectious Disease Branch, or MPIDB). The responsibilities of this position continue to be rewarding, challenging, and fulfilling. Over time, I forged new collaborations and established relationships with colleagues in other NIH institutes to further the mission of NICHD. It always helps to know who to call when you’re stuck! A few weeks before the pandemic upended our lives in March 2020, I became the acting branch chief of MPIDB. Working remotely with new responsibilities brought forth new challenges and new programs—NICHD has been supportive throughout!

What advice can you offer to people who are at an earlier stage of their career?

My best advice is to say “yes” to opportunities, even if they are out of your comfort zone. You won’t always know what you are capable of, and what motivates you, until you try! And seek out mentors and colleagues who will bolster you along the way. Never turn down an opportunity to learn.

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