Two Sisters Light a Path to Success at Illumina

In an age when women represent nearly 50 percent of the workforce, a significant disparity remains in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). In fact, only 14 percent of computer science majors are female; and the number of female engineers in the United States has not increased since the early 2000s, according to the Society of Women Engineers.

In an effort to close the gap, organizations like Athena, a San Diego-based nonprofit dedicated to engaging women in the STEM workforce, proudly support rising stars in male-dominated technology and science fields. Two examples are the Khodami sisters, Ida and Pantea, who have used their boundless ambition to advance breakthroughs in genomic research at Illumina, the world’s leader in genomic innovation.

Born in Iran to a successful doctor and a pioneering civil engineer, Ida and Pantea  learned from 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 recalls, “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 family left their home and careers to immigrate to Vancouver, Canada, in order to ensure that Ida and Pantea could get the education and opportunities that would enable them to pursue their dreams.

Knowing her girls were intellectually gifted, their mother encouraged them to follow their dreams, saying: “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,” Ida remembers.

Both sisters took their mother’s encouragement to heart. Driven by dueling passions for engineering and medicine, Ida and Pantea took on challenges while in graduate school that would propel them to careers that combined both disciplines. Ida completed a Master’s in Electrical Engineering from the University of Waterloo in Canada, while Pantea earned her Masters of Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s School of Engineering and a minor in Management from the 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, during which she received care from a nurse who had trouble finding a vein for an I.V., Ida devised a concept for new technology: a small, handheld, battery-operated device for venipuncture site location. She recruited a team of classmates to complete the ambitious project for their thesis. The team’s prototype drew interest from university researchers as well as the biotech industry at large. Today, Ida holds a patent for the device.

Pantea planned to pursue a doctorate in engineering and was awarded a prestigious MIT Presidential Fellowship. But when she discovered that most MIT Ph.D. graduates ended up working in research or academia, while master’s graduates worked in fields that aligned with her interests in engineering and medical science, she convinced department heads at MIT to apply her President’s Fellowship to a master’s program instead.

Pantea based her thesis on her technical findings discovered 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.

Ida and Pantea’s thesis work was just the beginning. The intellectual curiosity, ambitious drive and dogged determination they exhibited in their academic careers propelled their careers at Illumina, where they have spent years working among the best and the brightest in biotech. 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 the Illumina professional services team and work 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 set them apart.

Pantea relates a statistic quoted in Lean In, The Confidence Code that motivates her: “Men apply for a job when they meet only 60 percent of the qualifications, but women apply only if they meet 100 percent of them. I have decided to Lean In.”

Ambitious, accomplished and successful in a male-dominated industry, these two sisters admitted that the lack of women in their workplace does have an impact. There is plenty of evidence that having a mentor that 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.

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.