Illumina Sisters

Rising Stars in STEM are Found in Athena

Two Sisters Light a Path to Success at Illumina

Despite the rapid growth of technology, there is still a significant disparity in gender representation when it comes to Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) fields. Over half of the US population ages 15 to 64 is female, yet only 14 percent of computer science majors are female. The discrepancy continues though studies, such as Harvard Business Review, show that having a woman on the team raises the group’s performance, collective intelligence and ultimate success.

 But there are many women who exemplify what it takes to become rising stars in male dominated technology and science fields within Athena, an organization dedicated to supporting women in STEM.

 Two examples of what it takes to succeed in San Diego’s biotech industry are the Khodami sisters. Two brilliant, beautiful and boundlessly ambitious sisters are advancing breakthroughs in genomic research at Illumina, the world’s leader in genomic analysis products. Ida and Pantea are two young women who have broken through barriers to success in a male dominated industry with hard work, keen intellectual curiosity and a love of engineering and science that may be built into their DNA.

 Born in Iran to a successful doctor and a pioneering civil engineer, they learned, at a young age, how to apply critical analysis to create innovative solutions. With their mother, they often discussed how scientific and technological advancements could impact health. From their father, they learned about complex problem solving and gained a love of engineering. Pantea tells us, “From the time we were little, we would sit at the kitchen table with our father to review his blueprints for Iran’s new metro system and discuss which designs were more efficient.”

 The Khodami’s made the difficult decision to leave their home and careers to immigrate to Vancouver, Canada. They wanted to ensure that each of their intellectually gifted girls would be able to get the education and opportunities that would enable them to pursue their dreams anywhere in the world. 

 

Ida says that her mother didn’t push them but did tell them, “You can pursue anything you want in life. You can be an artist or a musician, or a scientist, but you must be the best.”

 Both sisters, driven by dueling passions for engineering and the medical field, Ida and Pantea took on challenges while in graduate school that would propel them to careers that combined both disciplines. Ida has a Masters in Electrical Engineering from the University of Waterloo in Canada, while Pantea earned her Masters of Engineering from MIT Engineering School and minor in Management from Sloan School of Management.

 The eldest by five years, Ida set a high bar with her Master’s thesis project. After a brief hospital visit, and a nurse who had trouble finding a vein for an I.V., she came up with an idea for the methodology and technology for a small, handheld, battery operated device for venipuncture site location. She recruited a team of classmates to complete the ambitious project for their thesis project. The presentation of the idea and prototype drew intense interest from the biotech industry at large and researchers within the University. She now holds a patent on the device.

 Pantea planned to pursue a Ph.D. in Engineering and was awarded a prestigious MIT Presidential Fellowship, offered to the most outstanding students worldwide to pursue graduate studies at the Institute. But Pantea was having second thoughts.

 She approached the question of whether to pursue a Ph.D. or a Masters degree by culling the MIT directory for graduates with Masters and Ph.D. degrees. She reached out MIT grads and determined that MIT Ph.D. grads landed primarily academic or research positions while graduates with a Masters were in fields that were more aligned with her interests. With her research in hand she convinced the head of her department at MIT that she should switch to a Masters program and that the Presidents Fellowship should be applied.

 Like her sister, Pantea based her thesis on her passions for both engineering and medical science. She based her thesis on her technical findings while working in Professor Irvine’s group on an HIV vaccine with a biodegradable polymer core - but she took her thesis a whole new level by adding a business model for commercialization of the vaccine with research in patent viability, FDA licensure, storage, manufacturing, and future business opportunities.

The intellectual curiosity, ambitious drive and dogged determination that both Ida and Pantea exhibited in their thesis work have also propelled their careers at Illumina. Working among the best and the brightest in biotech, these two women are excelling. Ida joined Illumina as a Senior Engineer in 2008. She has gained increasing levels of technical and business development responsibility each year, crossing departmental and product lines to build and lead teams in delivering high-value applications and product solutions.

Pantea worked as an Intern at Illumina before joining the company as a Product Manager in 2011. Her work was instrumental in the successful launch of the HiSeq X Ten system – the world’s most powerful sequencer to break the $1000 genome barrier. Her technical expertise in genomics is uniquely combined with her experience in market development and a thorough understanding of client implementation. This combination of skills led her to join Illumina's professional services team to create solutions to help genomics centers scale production and achieve operational excellence – a new division that she continues to drive.

How are these two women able to succeed in the male dominated biotech field and how do we attract more qualified women to pursue careers in STEM?

Ida and Pantea benefit from both nature and nurture – inherent intelligence and a love of engineering and science inspired by their parents from an early age. But it is their drive, the ambition to take on big challenges, the grit to persevere, and the confidence that they belong at the table where decisions are made, that sets them apart.

Pantea told us about a statistic that motivates her. “Men apply for a job when they meet only 60% of the qualifications, but women apply only if they meet 100% of them. I have decided to Lean In.”

Ambitious, accomplished, and successful in a male-dominated industry, these 2 sisters admitted that the lack of women in their workplace does have an impact. There is plenty of evidence that having a mentor is a strong factor in female success in a STEM career. When they need to connect with women that can relate to their professional and personal goals, the Khodami sisters turn to Athena’s membership of successful women in STEM.

“I like that the membership is so selective,” said Ida. “You can’t just sign up and pay your dues. The process ensures that the membership is made up of accomplished women in STEM. We have even met a number of our co-workers - women we didn’t cross paths with on our large Illumina campus, who are now friends.”

The Khodami sisters illuminate why the best and brightest women in STEM are Athena members. Through Athena, they enjoy thought-provoking events, explore new and timely topics, and network with like-minded women that can share experiences, as well as personal and professional and advice.

“Athena is a priority for both of us. We rarely miss Athena events or meetings,” adds Pantea.

About Athena

Athena San Diego is a 501(c)6 professional development association serving women in science and technology. Athena is a community of dynamic women that provides inspiration, education, networking and leadership programs that empower women to realize their true potential within STEM industries. 

Athena members come from all sectors of STEM organizations, including life sciences, healthcare, defense, engineering and related industries, as well as the service providers who support them. Athena represents senior executives, entrepreneurs, educators, and emerging executives, Athena supports members at the top of their field while paving the way for those on their way up.

About Illumina

Illumina is a global leader in genomics – an industry at the intersection of biology and technology. Illumina’s innovative sequencing and array technologies are fueling groundbreaking advancements in life science research, translational and consumer genomics and molecular diagnostics. The company applies innovative technology to the analysis of genetic variation and function, making studies possible that we not even imaginable a few years ago and now routine – and are making their way into patient treatment

 

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