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Women Scientist Profiles

Belinda Seto, Ph.D.

Belinda Seto, Ph.D.

Dr. Belinda Seto is a lifelong advocate for women in biomedicine and in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Dr. Seto joined the National Eye Institute (NEI) as its deputy director in April 2014. She came to the NEI from the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB), where she served as deputy director for 11 years.  

After earning her Ph.D. in biochemistry from Purdue University in 1974, Dr. Seto completed a postdoctoral fellowship in the renowned Stadtman Lab of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI). She researched hepatitis B and vaccine development at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and oversaw the analysis and reporting of National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants data through the Office of Extramural Research (OER). Her experience in database management and analysis led her to serve on the executive committee of the NIH Big Data to Knowledge initiative (BD2K) and its oversight body, the NIH Scientific Data Council, which are equipping researchers with better tools and training for dealing with big data.

How has mentorship shaped your career?

Mentorship has been very helpful in shaping my career and setting me on a successful career path at NIH. After earning my doctorate, I was recruited into the Stadtman Lab, a world-class biochemistry laboratory. Drs. Earl and Thressa Stadtman mentored a huge cohort of postdoctoral fellows, including two Nobel Prize winners and others who are now members of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). The “Stadtman Way,” as their mentorship approach is known, has been institutionalized at the NIH, in the form of the NIH Stadtman Tenure-Track Investigators program.

When I first walked into Thressa Stadtman’s lab, she told me that she would be a co-author on my first paper, but, after that, the papers would be all mine. She said, “You need authorship more than I do. I’m already a member of the NAS and other professional societies.” It was that sort of generosity that set the bar for me in my career; her example encouraged me to be generous with others. 

Mentoring is a two-way path—as a mentor, I benefit from my mentees. Mentoring, really, is just one way of imparting and receiving information. My mentees teach me about the science, and they provide unique insights about the scientific community and their culture. I give them opportunities to shine, progress, and advance.

Just as I had learned to be open-minded about science, I was open-minded about career options. I broke away from the research track and looked into new paths in the areas of science management and science policy. At that time, forking off of the research career path was uncommon. But having an open mind translated into risk-taking, to do things that might not be in a typical career path for a biochemistry postdoctoral fellow.

Do you have advice for young female scientists?

Be confident. Be bold. In salary negotiation, women do not value their worth correctly. They need to demand higher salaries. Be confident in yourself and your abilities.

Choose a spouse who is supportive of your scientific career. My husband and I have three daughters. We worked as a team. He also worked at the NIH. In our marriage, there was no discussion needed about division of labor. Our kids grew up thinking of their parents as a team.

Choose a workplace that is supportive of family. My career has been at the FDA and NIH. NIH is full of husband-wife teams of scientists. NIH leaders understand and accommodate family obligations. Your workplace environment should be collegial and collaborative, and your supervisors should appreciate the importance of family obligations. Also, by living close to work, my husband and I could participate in our children’s school activities. Our children knew that both of their parents cared about their education.

Who was your scientific role model?

For woman scientists in particular, my mentor Dr. Thressa Stadtman was a great role model. Successful female scientists were rare when she was launching her career. She encouraged us to be outstanding in our scientific skills, thinking, and analytical ability. She believed it was very important that we, the woman scientists in her lab, try to eliminate the stereotypes by challenging the presumption that we were not analytical or quantitative. She often advised us to not shy away from the quantitative sciences.

Thressa had spent time in Paris and adopted the French sense of style. She used to say, “Just because we are scientists doesn’t mean we have to dress in jeans and T-shirts. You can wear high heels and beautiful dresses. You can be feminine. Being stylish will not make people think less of you as a scientist.”

Thressa always said that failed experiments are learning opportunities. “Experiments that go as predicted are not informative; they don’t break new ground. Science should be filled with surprises.” Failed experiments teach you to probe and look deeper, and they allow you to be open-minded about new options that you would not otherwise have explored.

What are the barriers to women in science?

In recent years, things have eased up a bit in terms of barriers, but we still have room to improve.

When you look at the postdoctoral level, there is not much distinction between numbers of men and women. But as one advances in her career, whether in government or academia, the filters become more restrictive for women. In engineering, for example, the number of women who are full professors does not reflect the pipeline of available candidates. Each step in academia—assistant, associate, full professorships—is increasingly restrictive, which is reflected in greater attrition among women compared with men.

When you look at NIH data, we have done better over the past 10–15 years in terms of promoting women to lab chief positions, but we can do better.

With regard to career paths for women in industry, I interacted with industry quite a bit when I was with NIBIB due to the nature and mission of that Institute. Women tend to go into sales, marketing, and human resources even though they were trained as scientists. In such positions, women cannot meaningfully contribute to the scientific or business direction, which are driven by executives in R&D (research and development). But, this observation should be enriched with data.

What do you think are some of the most exciting recent scientific advances in your field?

Recent, cutting-edge developments at NEI in vision science are very relevant to the President’s remarks about precision medicine during the last State of the Union address. At the NEI, we are now well positioned to begin testing cell therapy for correcting eye disease. This approach is at the forefront in treating eye and other diseases.

NEI researchers are studying the use of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) as therapy for retinal degeneration [a common eye condition and a leading cause of vision loss among people age 50 and older]. Because of the iPSCs’ ability to replace degenerating cells in the retina, the therapeutic potential of this approach is great. The patient’s own somatic cells are reprogrammed and differentiated under controlled conditions into healthy retinal cells.

The NEI laboratories are at the cusp of carrying out human clinical trials; such trials are already under way in Japan.

What are some career goals you have yet to achieve?

I look forward to retirement because it will be an opportunity to indulge my love of storytelling and writing. I’d like to write several books—and that would be the best way to keep my intellect engaged and my mission active. I’ve already written some chapters of a memoir about my mother, now 91 years old, who was a model of boldness and risk taking throughout her life.

This page last updated: November 19, 2015

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