MCW INTERVIEW WITH
CATHERINE SORBARA is our Modern Career Warrior for February 2020. This article is part of a series of mid-career retrospective interviews featuring inspiring and innovative professionals at AnneMarieSegal.com.
Image: © 2018 Oli Samson. All rights reserved.
My interview with Catherine spans her early move from Canada to Germany to pursue a Ph.D., work for the Royal Society of Chemistry in Cambridge, move to industry as she became Chief Operating Officer of Cheeky Scientist and 80-women leadership journey to Antarctica with Homeward Bound. She then relates how that monumental trip transformed her view of our collective (human) place in the world, strengthened her commitment to working in service of the environment and illuminated the next steps of her career trajectory.
AMS: When we met, you were Chief Operations Officer of an organization that helps people with Ph.D.’s build out their career options. Shortly after that, I heard about your participation in a women-led trip to Antarctica.
CS: Yes, I was at Cheeky Scientist, which helps scientists and others trained for a career in academia build their careers in industry, when I heard I was chosen for the Homeward Bound outreach.
AMS: I am tempted to jump in and ask you about Antarctica, but let’s lay the groundwork first.
CS: Starting with my Ph.D. program?
AMS: Well, it seems like that may have been the first of many big changes in your life, at least from a career perspective. You went from living in Canada and finishing an M.S. in Neuroscience at the University of Ottawa to studying Medical Life Science and Technology at the Technische Universität München. What prompted you to move to Germany?
CS: Since I was a teenager, I have always wanted to live in Europe. I grew up near Niagara Falls, and the furthest place we went on vacation was Toronto, only 90 minutes away! I never had the chance to travel internationally, despite having family roots in Italy. So when I was accepted into the Ph.D. program, I was more than ready to make the move. My last hurrah was the Boston Marathon, and off to Germany I went!
AMS: Studying in Germany satisfied your travel bug while advancing your career goals.
CS: Yes! That’s one great thing about being a scientist. It gives you the opportunity to travel and meet interesting people. The position in Germany also drew me because I could do innovative, advanced research on neurodegenerative diseases, looking at things at a cellular level.
AMS: Is that what you did in the master’s degree program as well?
CS: Before that, I was focused on Alzheimers, another neurodegenerative disease. In my Ph.D., I shifted my focus to multiple sclerosis (MS).
AMS: I saw your list of publications on LinkedIn, which is a bit intimidating for your average reader. Your titles range, for example, include “Pervasive axonal transport deficits in multiple sclerosis models” to “A reversible form of axon damage in experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis and multiple sclerosis.” Can you translate this for non-scientists who want to understand what you were working on?
CS: Sure. We were looking at MS from the perspective of how cells communicate with one another. We wanted to know if there was a break in communication from one cell to another that led to or exasperated the disease.
AMS: It certainly sounds easier when you explain it that way. How did you do that?
CS: We did live cell imaging of the spinal cord in animals. We could fluorescently label cells and organelles and watch the movement before and during the disease, including the breakdown of the immune system.
AMS: Did your hypothesis bear out? Was there a breakdown in communication?
CS: Yes. There is indeed a miscommunication between cells before any symptoms of MS actually appear.
AMS: Miscommunication between cells and organelles? Or are the organelles communicating information from cell to cell?
CS: It’s cell-to-cell communication through the organelles. Here’s an easier way to think about it. Imagine train tracks. The tracks are located in the arms of each neuron cell and help pass information from one neuron cell to another. Organelles, such as mitochondria, are moved along these tracks to aid in the distribution of this information.
AMS: So MS blocks the movement of the organelles?
CS: Yes. Early in the disease, these organelles become stuck on the track and can’t bring the communication from one cell to another.
AMS: That’s scary as well as fascinating.
CS: It is! Of course, one of the next steps, of course, is to try to fix the train tracks – which are actually neural pathways – to prevent the disease.
AMS: Is this what you might be doing now if you had stayed in academia?
CS: It definitely could have been.
AMS: What changed?
Cathy Sorbara giving a presentation to other women leaders in Antarctica.
CS: I interviewed for a postdoc [postdoctoral fellowship] at University of Cambridge. I came in, gave a presentation and met everyone in the lab. Everyone seemed to like me, and I was feeling really good about my chances of landing it. Then I got a phone call from the professor the following day.
AMS: Not what you wanted to hear?
CS: Well, the call went a little like this: “You could do this project with your hands tied behind your back. There’s no way I can hire you. You’ll just get bored and want to leave.”
AMS: Wow. So not that you weren’t qualified. Rather, he thought you were overqualified.
CS: I was flabbergasted. I always had that thought in the back of my head that I could get a post-doc. That call was really hard for me, but at the same time it felt like the universe was saying, “Do what you want to be doing, not just what you have trained to do.”
AMS: What did that mean for you at the time?
CS: Basically, that I could take some risks to find out what I was called to do.
AMS: But you still needed to find a job, right?
CS: Yes, and I discovered Cheeky Scientist just at the right time. At first, I wasn’t sure if they could really help me, but I dug into it more, saw the value it could bring and became one of the early members. I quickly built a good working relationship with Isaiah [Hankel, the founder], who helped me get an editing job in Cambridge.
AMS: Your role as a publishing editor for the Royal Society of Chemistry?
CS: Yes. I was an editor on the sustainability team for the journals Energy & Environmental Science and Green Chemistry. I was following the track of communication and science, publishing academic papers and still keeping a foot in academia.
AMS: And then?
CS: Isaiah recruited me to work for him, which quickly snowballed into me joining Cheeky Scientist full time and later becoming their first Chief Operating Officer.
AMS: What was that like?
CS: It was amazing to make the transition and an experience I couldn’t have achieved anywhere else at that point in my life. I had to learn all facets of the company, take on the role of an executive, build a team, think about how to scale…. It was very special, and I stayed for about four years.
AMS: What else did you do as COO?
CS: I managed everyone on the team as well as the general operations, program management and marketing. We were a true start-up when I joined, and when I left we were still small but had grown to 10 people.
AMS: How did you prepare yourself for the pivot from an academic-focused role to being COO?
CS: It was scary, because it was nothing I had ever done before. At the same time, it was fascinating to learn that at a company, sometimes people make mistakes and just move on.
AMS: What do you mean?
CS: I could actually learn on the job, and it was OK. That wasn’t true in my Ph.D. program, where one experiment was built up over a period of five months and then took eight to 10 hours to execute. If you made a mistake in the last hour of the experiment, you had to start again with another five months of work. If anything, the Ph.D. taught me how to handle intense pressure.
AMS: I was enrolled in a Ph.D. program at one time but finished with a master’s degree before moving to law school, because I saw the intensity and uncertainty before me if I had stayed. Mine was in the arts, and even that felt like too much. I can’t imagine how intense it must have been in your Ph.D. program.
CS: Honestly, it almost broke me. Here I was, with a wonderful experience of living in Munich, but at the same time pushing myself to a place that I never want to be again.
AMS: That’s a problem for a quite a lot of Ph.D. students, isn’t it?
CS: Even if you have a super interesting project, great location, chance to publish, prominent supervisor and meaningful work – all of which I had – you can easily forget to take care of yourself as you follow your passion for research and drive to make the world a better place.
AMS: Was the pressure more external or internal?
CS: Clearly both. I had to start to ask myself who I was doing it for. Was it for me? For my Ph.D. supervisor? I also realized that I need a wider support system and more balance in my life.
AMS: Who was your support at that time?
CS: My partner, Ryan, was definitely my main source of support. He is not a scientist, he’s an engineer who works for a large American corporation. He has a very different perspective and was able to tell me what life is like outside the lab. He wasn’t in the same “feeding frenzy” that all of the professors and students experienced. Essentially, he taught me how to pause from time to time to catch a breath. And he was my biggest cheerleader too.
AMS: As I assume you are for him?
CS: Yes, of course. He’s leaned on me to take him outside of his engineering mindset as well. We bounce ideas off each other all the time.
AMS: Speaking of ideas, what gave you the idea to go to Antarctica?
CS: I heard Deborah Pardo speak about the Homeward Bound program and was completely blown away. Homeward Bound is essentially for women in STEMM. They teach leadership skills, but a special form of inclusive, legacy-minded leadership. The aspects of leadership that are very needed in this world at this moment.
AMS: How is it structured?
CS: It takes place over the span of a year and culminates at the end with a three-week voyage to Antarctica, where we continue with our leadership program while being immersed in the Antarctic landscape. We learned a tremendous amount about climate change, since in Antarctica the effects of humans on the environment are so dramatically visible.
AMS: Can you give us an example?
CS: Well, one obvious example is that the scientists we met told us that at one point they could look out the window and wouldn’t be able to count on one hand how many seals they saw. Now they can. And for a hard statistic, compared to 50 years ago, the number of chinstrap penguins has dropped 56%.
AMS: And what did else you see while you were there?
CS: What’s amazing about Antarctica is that you get a very visceral feeling of being a small human being in a looming landscape. There are icebergs the size of skyscrapers and animals you never imagined you would see. I never felt a connection with nature so intensely as I did there.
AMS: And it set you on yet another new path.
CS: It definitely did. I felt so strongly on that trip that I needed to change what I was doing to be a part of it.
AMS: And that was the point of the trip? To inspire change?
CS: Yes, clearly environmental change but also social change. In 1959, 12 countries worldwide signed The Antarctic Treaty declaring it a place of peace, but women weren’t even allowed to go there (as part of the British Antarctic Survey) until 1983. So that was part of why this trip, in February and March 2018, was so monumental. It was the largest all-women led trip and included 80 women scientists of 35 different nationalities.
AMS: How were the participants chosen?
CS: We were from various occupations and career levels, and we all had to demonstrate the potential to make an impact on the state of the planet.
AMS: How was the voyage to Antarctica? Uneventful, I hope!
CS: Well, at one point we were “trapped” in sea ice for nearly 24 hours, with extremely limited maneuverability over about five nautical miles, at the Lemaire Channel. That was pretty momentous, and there was a chance we would have to wait for an icebreaker ship to rescue us. But then we broke through the ice and had the most epic views.
AMS: I am interviewing you from my home in Stamford, Connecticut, in the U.S., while you are in Utrecht in the Netherlands, a feat of modern technology that is quite impressive but has nonetheless come to feel “normal” to many of us. Yet it is hard to believe that you have set foot on Antarctica. It is like you have visited another world!
CS: It’s true. Antarctica is completely and utterly another world, yet such an integral part of our planet at the same time.
AMS: Tell me about the images you chose to send me. How tall was this iceberg, for example? It’s impossible to get a sense of scale in the reproduction.
CS: I don’t know exactly, but it was at least twice the height of our ship.
AMS: So you were trapped among imposing icebergs, not sure how long you would be stuck there. That had to be nerve-racking. How was the mood on the ship? How did they get out of it?
CS: The crew and our guide kept us quite at ease. As our ship was not an icebreaker, the captain had to gently nudge us through the sheets of ice. Some were malleable like butter and easily moved away, while others were stronger. In the end, we reversed to look for an alternate route. My bed was in the bottom of the ship, so the sound of ice scraping the ship was pretty menacing.
AMS: But deceptively calm at the same time.
CS: Yes, the water is quite calm. The Lemaire Channel is a photographer’s dream, in fact.
AMS: And already, I assume, it felt like you were in Antarctica.
CS: You were starting to get a sense of how remote we were and how vast of a place we were about to visit. To get another sense of scale, one of the largest icebergs in the history of Antarctica broke off in 2017, and it was about the size of the state of Delaware.
AMS: Wow. How did the location affect you personally?
CS: Well, for one thing, we unplugged completely. No emails. No phone calls. It was an intense moment of reflection. Something fundamentally changed inside of me.
AMS: And others as well, I expect.
CS: We were all so moved and formed an incredible bond. We were inspired to ask ourselves what types of leaders we wanted to be, against the backdrop of the harsh climate and supportive inner circle of participants. Many of us call each other sister to this day.
AMS: I can understand why you are now moved to tackle climate change head on.
CS: Yes, the trip essentially prompted me to rewrite the story of my life.
AMS: And what are you doing now?
CS: I left my work in Cambridge behind when Ryan and I moved to Utrecht, and I am getting integrated into the local community here. I had to reach out cold and build my network to get to know people, but it has paid off. I am currently running programs at two non-profits.
AMS: Are these long-term roles?
CS: These are currently volunteer positions while I look for a permanent role addressing climate change. It feels very vulnerable, which I understand from my work at Cheeky Scientist is a hard place for anyone to be. There’s a sense of shame in not having a full-time job.
AMS: Wait, you feel ashamed about that? So what hope is there for the rest of us, given all you have accomplished? Not to mention that you have moved to an entirely new country and are entering a new field and learning Dutch, yet you have expectations of immediate success?
CS: You are right, of course, and I know that speaking up about it can help others who are in the same situation. I still sometimes find myself inside the bubble of very highly accomplished women doing ridiculously amazing things and forget to look at the big picture. I am sure you have heard that quote, “comparison is the thief of joy.” I need to remember that. I chose to work with these organizations because I truly believe in the work they are doing.
AMS: Tell me about the programs you are running.
CS: One is Project Fearless, an afterschool program for girls 9-14 years of age. It’s all about building a community in Amsterdam, having fun, building confidence and not worrying about failing. (How ironic, I realize, given what I just said a few moments ago!)
I am co-leading a STEMM course called Climate Science Meets Art. The idea is to bring art and science, two fields that are normally siloed, together so we can learn from one another. We are also empowering the younger generation to expand their circle of influence, brainstorm and express climate change solutions. I am collaborating with a Polish artist who lives in Amsterdam.
AMS: And the other one?
CS: The other program is Net Impact Amsterdam, a professional organization, where I am a program manager and manage other volunteers. It’s comprised of members who want to use business for good and drive environmental and social change, and I’m helping them build business models to work with their individual members.
AMS: So both of these organizations are involved in climate change.
CS: Yes, they are.
AMS: Is one potential next step a full-time role for a non-profit organization?
CS: I would love to do that. There are so many non-profits working on climate solutions, from agricultural practices to gender issues.
AMS: Tell me more about the gender aspects of climate change.
CS: Empowering women is one of the most important means of change, because that raises communities and makes them more resilient, creating comprehensive solutions to complex problems. Research shows that countries with high representation of women in parliament are more likely to ratify international environment treaties. In addition, women tend to be more inclusive and legacy-minded in their decision-making.
At the same time, women face higher risks and greater burdens from the impacts of climate change in situations of poverty and due to existing roles, responsibilities and cultural norms. By tackling climate change through a gender lens, women’s rights are also addressed rather than exacerbating existing gender equalities.
AMS: What other ways can we make climate solutions more comprehensive?
CS: Take waste management, for example, especially in developing countries. The truth is that many people make money by picking through trash, so you can’t simply “cure” the waste management problem by reducing the amount of trash produced. You also need to provide a living wage so you can support the economic ecosystem. At the same time, you can’t come in with a solution that sounds good in theory but doesn’t work in the individual community. For example, you can invent an app [application], but if people don’t have mobile phones or don’t have access to WiFi to download the app on a device, you haven’t really solved anything.
AMS: Looking at science and economics simultaneously.
CS: That’s right.
AMS: What about industry, given your former role as a COO? Are you also targeting a role at a company or focused on non-profits?
CS: I would definitely be interested in a role at a company that has made a commitment to sustainable practices. There are the GRI and other reporting initiatives that allow companies to evaluate where they are and determine where they need to do next.
Within businesses, transparency is key. Even people within the company may not know where their supply chain and waste streams are coming from. Many companies still have a fight club mentality and are not motivated to change, so working within sustainability is one of the most challenging roles you can take.
AMS: It sounds again like you are again advocating for systemic change rather than “feel good” fixes that don’t get at the root of the problem.
AMS: And individuals? What is the most important thing we can do to help the environment?
CS: I should start by saying there’s a lot of guilt and eco-grief in the world. Saving the planet is much more than bringing a reusable cup.
AMS: Very refreshing insight.
CS: We can and should cut down on plastic that ends up in the oceans, of course, but we also need to focus on the bigger picture.
AMS: What about buying “green” products? Like bamboo flatware instead of plastic, if you do have a need for something disposable?
CS: The truth is that consumers don’t have enough information to decide whether certain companies or practices are more sustainable than most others, because we don’t see the whole system. We also don’t have laws in place that require the transparency to drill down to that level.
AMS: So what can we do?
CS: We can make our views heard and influence change, from voting to championing corporate responsibility across all companies, not just the ones that usually get a bad rap. We can insist on more transparency to help us make better decisions.
AMS: And from your own perspective, what else do you want to do in this field?
CS: Well, my big audacious goal would be to sit at the table of the COP [UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties], helping negotiations move toward a more climate positive future.
AMS: In November? You still have some time to make that happen!
CS: Hey, if not this year, another year would be great too! As much as we would like to solve climate change as quickly as possible, there will always be more to do. In the meantime, we should try to enjoy our planet as much as we can.
AMS: On that note, you mentioned that being in Antarctica brought you closer to nature than you have ever been. What are the best places to connect to nature where you live now?
CS: It’s certainly more difficult in the Netherlands, since there are not a lot of green spaces given the tightness of everyone who lives here. But there are parks scattered throughout the city and beautiful running paths as well. We live near Wilhemina Park, which has a lake and a botanical garden, for example. There’s also Amsterdam Bos, which is just a 20-minute drive.
AMS: Any plans to run another marathon soon? Maybe in New York?
CS: None at the moment, but I’ll let you know if that changes!
Technology, the “gig economy” and globalization have irrevocably altered the modern career. Launched in January 2020, Modern Career Warriors is a series on AnneMarieSegal.com that explores the lives of professionals leading robust, resilient and multi-dimensional careers.
DEPTH, COURAGE AND INTENSITY radiate from these Modern Career Warriors, who defy the odds and define their own paths. While they may, like the rest of us, feel side-lined or even defeated at times, their inner drive keeps driving them to their own personal best and inspires others to do the same.
For a downloadable PDF version of this interview with Catherine Sorbara, please click here.
The full article is also available at AnneMarieSegal.com/mcw-catherine-sorbara.
Feel free to post a question or “like” this post below. Thanks!
Anne Marie Segal, founder of Segal Coaching LLC, is an executive coach, resume writer and author of two well-received books on interviewing and career development. She served as a corporate attorney for 15 years, including roles at White & Case LLP and a prominent hedge and private equity fund manager, before launching her coaching practice.
Based in Connecticut not far from New York City, Anne Marie partners with clients internationally on executive presence, impactful communications, graceful transitions and other aspects of professional and personal development.
Article © 2020 Anne Marie Segal. All rights reserved.
Article images: © 2018-2019 Catherine Sorbara unless otherwise noted. All rights reserved.
Image of Anne Marie Segal: © 2019 Alejandro Barragan IV. All rights reserved.
No portion of this article may be reproduced without prior written permission from Anne Marie Segal (or the copyright holder of any image above), other than limited quotes that reference this article.