Women in Stem with Dr Sara Sangha

Join us for our monthly Women in STEM series where we showcase and celebrate the achievements of inspiring women in the field. This month we interview Dr Sara Sangha, Associate Vice President of Medical Affairs and Head of US Medical Aesthetics at AbbVie. Over her almost 20 years with Allergan Aesthetics and AbbVie, Sara has actively supported over 15 product launches involving drugs and devices for aesthetics, medical dermatology, body contouring and plastic surgery and is currently responsible for developing and executing US Medical Affairs strategy for AbbVie’s facial aesthetics and body contouring therapeutic areas.

Women scientists nurses and doctors fighting against coronavirus. Feminist steminist illustration. Female Doctors, nurses and scientists together.

Can you tell us about your journey in the field of STEM and the challenges you encountered along the way?

As a female undergraduate student studying pharmaceutical sciences, one of the biggest challenges was not having enough female leaders as mentors. Even today, women make up only 34 percent of the STEM workforce, with men drastically outnumbering women in STEM college majors. So, as you can imagine, I was not surrounded by many women leaders who could provide much-needed mentorship throughout school and my early career. Since then, we have made a lot of progress in STEM fields, and it makes me happy to see more women in STEM providing critical and necessary mentorship to young girls interested in pursuing a career in STEM.

What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM, and how did you overcome any obstacles or biases you may have faced?

Early in my education, I developed an interest in understanding how chemical entities derived from natural resources could be modified and used to fight specific diseases. This interest led me to get my PhD in Pharmacology and Toxicology, where my goal was to learn how chemically and naturally derived medicines could be used to address diseases that affect humans. During my fellowship at Cleveland Clinic, the opportunity to interact with clinicians helped me see the journey of a medicinal entity from the start – through all its research stages to the end, where it had immense impact on patient lives. This interest in seeing a drug or a device move successfully through various stages of development, from the research bench to the patient bedside has always been my North Star. Since joining Allergan Aesthetics in 2001, my role in medical affairs has always focused, in one way or another, on supporting the journey of a drug/device from bench to bedside.

One of the biggest obstacles I faced early in my career was the perception that women often quit their career to achieve a work-life balance. This resulted in many research fellowship programs not providing leadership opportunities to women due to a fear that the women would eventually quit. It took a lot of hard work to convince the leaders in my research fellowship that I was not going to quit the program I had committed to pursuing. There weren’t many women in leadership roles to begin with and even fewer who I could use as role models as I navigated my early research career and personal life. However, when I came to Allergan Aesthetics, I was exposed to both male and female leaders in Medical Affairs/R&D who were extremely supportive. It was the first time I had experienced the power of having allies and mentors. Seeing these women leaders thrive in their roles, while sharing their experiences and mentoring the next generation of leaders inspired me to stay the course and pursue my passions.

Could you share an example of a specific project or research that you have worked on and the impact it has had in your field?

Working for a company that aims to empower and advance women and girls in STEM is incredibly motivating. I am proud to be involved in Allergan Aesthetics’ initiatives like our partnership with Girls Inc. We host Empowering Confidence Workshops where girls ages 13-18 get paired with women mentors, like me, and leaders in STEM. The workshops aim to build confidence, teach practical skills to identify the mentees’ passions, and allow impactful relationships to flourish. Hearing the personal stories and career paths of the mentors helps the girls navigate a path forward in STEM, and for me and other mentors, we leave feeling refreshed and hopeful that the hurdles for women in STEM are becoming easier to jump over.

We are now in the sixth year of the Girls Inc. partnership, and are most recently working on a new program, PROJECT ACCELERATE, designed to accelerate young women’s career trajectories. This program has the potential to reach 100,000 girls, and I am confident that as the impact of Girls Inc. and similar programs grow, so will the number of girls and women entering STEM fields.

How has your research in STEM contributed to advancements or improvements in your field, and what potential future applications or implications do you foresee based on your work?

Science is our foundation at Allergan Aesthetics. Every innovation is generated through a rigorous scientific discovery and development approach, which helps ensure product quality and builds customer confidence and patient trust. We research new indications for existing products as well as develop next generation biologics, devices and technologies that target the underlying causes of aging.
For example, an aspect of our research is focused on developing the next generation of hyaluronic acid-based based fillers. This research is fascinating to me, and our findings have the potential to expand the offerings of the aesthetics industry even further.

As a woman in STEM, what unique perspectives or strengths do you believe you bring to your work?

Women have vast skillsets and intellectual firepower, making them extremely capable of innovating in STEM fields. In aesthetics, women drive the consumer base and help fuel the industry from the business side in the future. Female leaders in aesthetics have a strong understanding of what female consumers are looking for, and thus are poised to drive innovation accordingly.

What advice would you give to young women who are considering a career in STEM but may be hesitant due to societal stereotypes or perceived challenges?

Some of the most significant challenges women face are their own fears of failure. My advice would be to remember that there is no such thing as failure when you are working to reach your goals. What you think of as failure is simply learning and growing. Keep facing new challenges, come up with new solutions, and forget about the perceptions of those around you, as these internal hurdles can be just as challenging as the external barriers women face.

How do you see the representation of women in STEM changing over the years, and what further progress do you believe is needed?

As STEM fields continue inching closer to gender parity, I only see the gap continuing to close. More women are entering STEM fields full of ambition, and while internal and external barriers will continue to force women to face unnecessary challenges, the number of women in STEM is growing. Growing with it is their ability to empower others to overcome these challenges and pursue what they are passionate about.

More programs like what we do with Girls Inc. are needed to offer the chance for women to encourage young girls/women and build the confidence required to completely close the gap in STEM fields. Additionally, organizations need to help ensure representation of the diverse populations they serve throughout all facets of their work. For instance, clinical trial diversity is essential to Allergan Aesthetics to ensure our clinical trials appropriately reflect the changing landscape of the aesthetics consumer. Specifically, we are committed to diversifying the pool of clinical investigators to help make sure clinical sites conducting the trials can be representative of diverse patient populations.

In your opinion, what can organisations and institutions do to create a more inclusive and supportive environment for women pursuing STEM careers?

There is still a lot of work to be done, and it goes beyond getting more women into STEM fields. It is also about inspiring women to seek leadership positions within their industry to they can become role models for other women. It’s important for women at all stages of their career to have a role model. The gap  of female leadership/role models in STEM can make this hard at times, which is why mentorship programs and other initiatives to amplify female leaders are so important.

To support women in aesthetics leadership positions, Allergan Aesthetics partnered with The American Society of Plastic Surgeons on an initiative called LIMITLESS. LIMITLESS was developed three years ago as a program to highlight women’s achievements in plastic surgery while also providing education, mentorship, and empowerment for women looking to join STEM fields and leadership positions. I hope that more companies provide mentorship opportunities like these to allow women at all stages in their career to connect, feel heard, and join each other on a collective journey to a more equitable future and a seat at the leadership table.

Looking ahead, what exciting developments or advancements do you foresee in your field of STEM, and how do you envision your own research contributing to those future innovations?

There is so much to look forward to when it comes to the advancements of aesthetics. Aesthetics has proven to be one of the fastest growing healthcare segments, with a consumer base hungry for the next best product. Allergan Aesthetics is helping pave the way for what’s next in aesthetics through the industry’s largest investment in research and development and the broadest and deepest product pipeline in aesthetics. In addition, we are also adding the voice of the patient as we continue to develop innovative patient reported outcome (PRO) measures and looking at outcome measures from the perspective of an observer. I am convinced that innovative PROs and observer reported outcomes (OROs) will be indispensable for product differentiation as the aesthetics market grows over the next 2 decades.

I got into this field because I enjoy supporting the journey of a drug/device from beginning to end, resulting in optimal patient outcomes. After supporting over 20 drug/device launches over the years, I can’t explain how great it feels to see our R&D innovation and ideas come to life to address patient needs.

About the author

bioDr Sara Sangha

Associate Vice President of Medical Affairs and Head of U.S. Medical Aesthetics at AbbVie

Over her almost 20 years with Allergan Aesthetics and AbbVie, Sara has actively supported over 15 product launches involving drugs and devices for aesthetics, medical dermatology, body contouring and plastic surgery and is currently responsible for developing and executing U.S. Medical Affairs strategy for AbbVie’s facial aesthetics and body contouring therapeutic areas. Sara also plays a major role in the EED&I initiatives at AbbVie and is heavily involved in mentoring young women and girls interested in careers in STEM and Pharma. Sara holds a bachelor’s degree in Pharmaceutical Sciences and a PhD in Pharmacology and Toxicology from the University of California, Irvine and completed her post-doctoral fellowship training in cardiovascular cell biology from the Lerner Research Institute at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *