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Sarah Heilshorn: Discovering how resilient and adaptable you can be

Heilshorn’s experience of navigating the unfamiliar and intimidating inspires her to encourage underserved students and create a more inclusive work environment in her lab.

Sarah Heilshorn: Discovering how resilient and adaptable you can be

October 6, 2020
Professor Sarah Heilshorn in a lab

Sarah Heilshorn: “An important part of my job is to help members of my research team grow into scientific leaders.”  | Photo by Joel Simon

Sarah Heilshorn is a professor of materials science and engineering and, by courtesy, of bioengineering and of chemical engineering at Stanford.

Heilshorn, who was born and raised in rural Ohio, earned her PhD in chemical engineering from Caltech and joined Stanford in 2006. Her focus has been on developing novel biomaterials and on engineering proteins for regenerative medicine and stem-cell therapy.

Heilshorn says her initial passions in high school were for the performing arts, but that she realized she also had talent in math and science. She became fascinated by the “magic” of mimicking nature to engineer proteins for medicine. As the first person in her family to graduate from college, Heilshorn credits her parents with instilling her with a strong work ethic and a confidence to pursue ambitious goals.

Below, she describes her journey and reflects on the need to think more broadly about what kinds of people can become great scientists.

Growing up in Defiance

I grew up in Defiance, Ohio — yes, that’s the real name. It’s named after a fort built just after the American Revolution. Today the town is on the edge of the Rust Belt, in a rural area of farms and cornfields. My parents hadn’t graduated college, but they instilled a very strong work ethic in my sister and me, and told us that we could accomplish whatever we wanted. My school had fewer than 100 kids in each grade, and no Advanced Placement classes. But I wasn’t pigeonholed as the smart kid; I could also be on the cross-country team and in the band, and I took lots of dance classes. I taught dance lessons, ballet, tap, jazz, modern, and loved it all. What changed everything is that when I was a junior in high school, I won a scholarship to spend a year as an exchange student in Germany. My parents were freaked out at first, but they were supportive and let me go. We wrote letters and occasionally scheduled a phone call. To save money, we’d write in the letter the exact day and time we would call. That year made me realize how much my parents trusted me, as well as how resilient and adaptable I was.

New Ideas in “Old Europe”

I was placed in a wonderful host family because they had two daughters who went to a creative arts school in addition to their high school. One played the cello, and the other girl took ballet, and that was great because I could go to class with her and understand the teacher because the language of ballet is global, and we all learned the moves in French. So, I also felt very comfortable in ballet class.

The family lived in a town between Bonn and Cologne called Rheinbach. Germany had reunified barely a year earlier, and that was eye-opening. As part of the scholarship program, we visited Berlin and experienced some of the historic changes. We could see how different it felt when you crossed over into the former East Berlin.

I took all my classes in German, which was daunting. I’m of German ancestry and had taken two years of high school German, but I was by no means fluent. That was partially why I gravitated to math and chemistry, because those have a universal language, right? We write the reactions and the equations the same way, regardless of the language we speak.

I did really well. They had started me in the low-level classes, but soon moved me up to the highest level, because they saw that I could do the work. My German teachers made me realize something about my own potential. Before then, I had self-doubt. Now I knew that I could do this.

I also began to see that you can use chemistry and physics in creative and fulfilling ways. I had a German science teacher who talked about how physics could allow us to predict weather patterns.

I realized that science could fulfill my need for a creative outlet, which I had previously thought could only come from the performing arts.

Patenting a shampoo — in college 

I’d be lying if I said that excitement was the main reason I chose engineering. I chose it because, as a first-generation college student, I knew an engineer could get a good job. Coming from a family that always talked about budgets, the financial perspective initially played a bigger role than my personal passions in choosing a major.

I went to Georgia Tech in Atlanta, in part because we could afford it. I had gotten a fellowship, and they had — and still have — a very strong co-op program that also helped pay for my undergraduate degree. I alternated between taking classes at school and working at companies with huge chemical engineering programs, like Procter & Gamble, Exxon and Texaco. For the first time, I met people with graduate degrees who weren’t dentists, doctors or lawyers.

I saw that chemical engineering allowed for all kinds of creativity. At P&G, they gave me incredibly open-ended assignments. One project was to make a shampoo that would smell one way at first and change its scent later. It was super-fun and I succeeded and got several patents. But while it was intellectually stimulating, making a better shampoo didn’t strike me as fulfilling.

Haunted by imposter syndrome

I began applying for jobs during my senior year at Georgia Tech because I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be accepted into graduate school. But I did apply to a few schools and was shocked to be accepted by several, including Caltech. I hadn’t even intended to apply to Caltech, but one of my professors said I’d be a good candidate and mentioned that they didn’t charge an application fee. I already had an application essay, so I took his advice.

But even at Caltech I was still polishing my resume, convinced that I didn’t belong and that they were going to kick me out. It was classic imposter syndrome. But until they did, I decided, I’d just keep moving along. It was intimidating. I never talked to the professors or went to their office hours, because they seemed to me like amazing superheroes. I kept thinking, how could I even have a conversation with them?

The mentor who changed everything

Then along came David Tirrell, a professor of polymer chemistry who became my thesis adviser at Caltech and is now the provost. David was really interested in how proteins are made in nature and how chemists could recreate that process to engineer proteins for medicine and biology.

I had been planning to study something entirely different — atmospheric chemistry and issues tied to global warming. But when I heard David describe his research, I was captivated by the idea of learning from nature and trying to mimic it. It seemed almost magical, and I wanted to join his group.

But I hadn’t taken a single biology class since my freshman year in high school. I hadn’t taken it in Germany because the language of biology is not universal, and I hadn’t taken it at Georgia Tech. I knew I would have to do remedial work, taking undergrad courses in biochemistry. But David took a risk by allowing me into his group even though I didn’t have the right background. I think he saw in me a genuine enthusiasm for his style of creative, scientific research. And through our conversations, I must have convinced him that I would be doggedly persistent in filling in the gaps in my background knowledge.

Even as I was completing my PhD, though, I didn’t see myself becoming a professor. I was planning to look for jobs in industry, but David encouraged me to apply for faculty positions. I told him I didn’t think I’d fit in, but he nudged me some more. All I’d have to decide, he told me, was whether I’d like to be a professor. If I thought I would, I could put an application together and see what happened. It was the hiring committee’s job to decide if they wanted to give me a chance. That made it less scary to apply.

As it happened, Stanford hired me. I took a two-year postdoctoral fellowship at Berkeley first, but arrived here in 2006. I was the first tenure-track woman in the materials science department.

Mentoring the next generation

Because I’d had to navigate so much that was unfamiliar and intimidating, I felt that I could and should help younger students find their way. At Stanford, I’ve participated for years now in SURF, the Stanford Undergraduate Research Fellowship, which offers a fully paid summer research fellowship to a select group of college students from around the country. I had one Stanford undergraduate student who had been a resident advisor in the dorms and served as a role model for undergraduates, putting together programs that would form a community among the freshmen.

But when I asked what he wanted to do next, he sounded just like I had at that age: “Oh, I want to go to graduate school,” he told me, “but my application just isn’t strong enough yet.” Now it was my turn to offer some external validation. I told him, “I’m the graduate admissions chair for my department, and your application would absolutely stand out here.”

A lot of our students come from groups that have been underserved and undervalued within the STEM community. Some won’t even apply here because they think of us as a place that wouldn’t welcome them. But I believe these students make Stanford a better place. Stanford is not as diverse as it should be. As a result, these students teach me and my research team how to be more inclusive in our practices. They prompt us to think in a very conscious way about how we do our training. Who do we encourage to go to conferences? Do we have our own unconscious biases? This opens up space for me to have sometimes uncomfortable conversations with my own research team, but in a way that doesn’t feel forced.

An important part of my job is to help members of my research team grow into scientific leaders. These people are going to lead their own teams someday, whether they go into industry or become faculty members. And to be a good scientific leader, you have to create an equitable and inclusive work environment. I want to prepare them to be able to do that in the best way possible.