Miracle Worker, New York City


I am rather partial towards this human. I don't know many others who consistently dive head first to offer a helping hand quite like this lady. Sabrina has been there for me, at my lowest, and I know that she is there for countless other friends, those dreamy baby blues focused intently, all in. She is the only one I know who brings suitcases full of baby clothes and supplies on every business trip to Uganda. There is a child in Africa (at least one that I know of) named after her. I'm sure I can't quite do her justice, so one of her old friends (and coincidentally another WOW Woman nominated by Sabrina) can complete my thought: "I've never known someone so ready to help another out, no matter what else she might have on her plate. She's always been there when I needed her and always knows what to say. I feel like no one knows me better. She never lets me get away with anything, and it's helped me break some bad habits. She always looks for the positive angle and works on solutions that benefit everyone. She's fair, understanding, and beyond capable. She's the sweetest, most loving, and beautiful woman. I couldn't imagine my life without her."

1. Name

Sabrina Welsh

2. Where is your hometown?

New Rochelle, New York

3. What is your profession/career/title/self-label/designation?

Senior Clinical Program Manager at the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative.

4. What was the journey like to get where you are (career wise)? When was the mental shift to start the journey?

This will be my longest answer because I think it’s important to highlight how much unexpected change in your life can lead to amazing things. Getting to my current career required a few detours…. Initially I pictured myself running a lab or working at the CDC. I tried my best as an undergrad in a few different research labs, but I really struggled with the inherent nature of bench work. There was so much trial and error, repeating of experiments and troubleshooting with no guaranteed positive result. For a person with a slightly perfectionist personality (my Mom will laugh at this part,) the lab environment was a real challenge for me. I was also isolated a lot of the time and I was lonely, and I realized how my E. coli clones made terrible company…

At the end of college I was burned out, and I had to pause when my doctor discovered I had two broken ankles (we thought it was growing pains, not so much!) The break made me to slow down and gave me time to think about what I wanted to do with my life, which I look back on now gratefully because I think it allowed me to explore some things I never would have tried if I hadn’t been forced to take a pause. When I was back on my feet (so to speak) I decided to work in live music, something I had always loved. I got a job working on festival tours thanks to my undergrad’s concert production board (thank you Cornell Concert Commission and Mike, our booking agent!) My main job was to connect fans with their favorite bands and basically throw fun barbeques and take photos of people living their dreams. It was a great time and I’m SO glad I got to live in that world for awhile.

After a few years I missed science and started looking for a job in a lab with some public health aspect to it, which is when I came across International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI). I was really drawn to IAVI’s mission, which was to ensure the development of safe, effective, accessible, preventive HIV vaccines for use throughout the world. The mission statement grabbed me because it was a combination of the science I was interested in and a goal of helping people. I interviewed to be a research associate in IAVI’s lab in Brooklyn, but the whole time I was interviewing I kept thinking about the work that the Medical Affairs team was doing. They worked with clinical teams based all over the world, running vaccine trials and epidemiology studies to understand HIV in the communities who are most affected by the virus. I told the hiring manager that while my previous experience was mostly in labs I was really interested in the clinical programs and hoped to find a job that would allow me to work more with people. I ultimately turned down the lab position and continued my job search. About a month after my interview, on probably the luckiest day of my life, IAVI called to tell me that a position had opened on the clinical team. That hiring manager remembered my enthusiasm about the clinical work and she thought I might be “better suited” for this position, given my interests. Lesson learned guys – always be honest about what you like and where you want to be, because it be the way you get your dream job. It truly was a shift for me and a huge leap of faith from IAVI (thanks to Jennifer Lehrman and Emmy Negrin!) I was hired as the Clinical Program Coordinator and my job was to support all aspects of the clinical programs.

I tried to learn everything I could and did a wide variety of functions. I made slides for people, I compiled tables of data, and I filed documents (LOTS of documents,) I gradually worked my way up as a clinical monitor and eventually manager of my own trials. I get to work with amazing people from all over the world and I feel like l contribute to the mission with my own talents and skills. I don’t have all the answers or the key to success, but I do know that I’m lucky to love my work and the people I work alongside with, and for that I am truly thankful for my career path.

5. What did you study in school?

Biology and genetics. I also studied how to work a concert all night and still make it to chem lecture on time the next morning :)

6. How is your life different from what you pictured at 20?

Oh only in every way, shape, and form! When I was 20 I pictured myself going to grad school immediately after college, getting married at 25, having a baby by 27, and running my own lab by the time I was 30. And my friends call me a “planner,” can you imagine? I haven’t done everything I pictured or found everything I’m seeking yet, but my life is so much bigger than I had imagined. I’ve made amazing friends who I never would have met, I’ve traveled to countries I never thought I’d get to see, and I think I’ve been able to do some good work and help some people along the way.

7. Biggest accomplishment since making the (physical/mental) move?

I’m proud of the work I’ve done at IAVI and the projects I’ve been a part of, but I’m also proud of some of the things I’ve been able to contribute to outside of the office. One that comes to mind involves a little girl, a team of doctors, and a group of kind people. We helped save a life of a 10 year old girl named Desire. She is the daughter of a security guard that works at one of the clinics that IAVI partners with in Uganda. She needed surgery to fix a heart defect that would have been treated at birth if she had been born in a country with more access to health care. Her parents were told it was impossible to get the procedure done in Uganda and they were out of options. I reached out to my network and one of my grad school friends connected us to an amazing organization (Save a Child’s Heart, .) Together with my super-hero colleague, Leslie, and a large group of generous people we raised the needed funds and went through the SACH process, who approved her with lightning speed. Desire and her mother traveled to Israel to get the heart surgery, and now she’s able to live her life without the shortness of breath, fainting, and tiredness she felt throughout the first 10 years of her young life. She’s back in school and growing up with her sisters and parents, which is her rightful place. I was so inspired by everyone involved in the effort to help Desire, and I look back on the experience with pride in myself and everyone involved.

8. What was biggest disappointment and plan to overcome it?

I’ve always wanted a partner and children, and I assumed it would all just come together before I turned 30! As an optimist and romantic (here’s looking at you, Pisces,) it’s been disappointing that I haven’t made this happen yet. Reading some of the other Wow Woman pieces, I see that this is a common theme among many women my age, so I know I’m not alone in feeling this as a challenge. I’d still like to have a family, but I’ve opened up my mind and my way of thinking so that I don’t view a current lack of one as a “disappointment” but just what it is: life. Plan to overcome: live life, be useful, and be open to all possibilities and ways of being happy.
Close second biggest disappointment: The host of The Apprentice is our president. Seriously guys?

9. Advice for other women?

Don’t let the bastards grind you down.

10. Knowing what we know now in current political climate, can women be "all that we can be" in today's world? What is the way forward, as you see it for "feminist values"?

Knowing what we know now…oy vey. Women can be absolutely anything they want, but it comes with a struggle that is disproportionate to men. We all need to work together to close this gap and aim for equity. I think that’s where it goes wrong: some people think that feminism means fighting for privileges or breaks for women that are above what men get, when really feminism is about getting equality for basic norms. Like it would be cool if all people could walk home late at night, wearing whatever they want, on whatever street they live on, and not have to be constantly vigilant about someone who might try to hurt them. For that matter, it would be great if everybody could go to work and feel that way, or be at home with their boyfriend/girlfriend/roommate and feel that way. It would also be great if while at those jobs, women were paid the same amount as men for completing the same tasks (that would be greaaaaat, thanks.) The way forward as I see it is to work on equality in all spaces and forms. Bring your children up, no matter what their gender, to feel empowered and strong and compassionate. Don’t let an encounter slide when you feel devalued or when you see someone else being disenfranchised, because that’s the opportunity to change the culture and environment of misogyny. I’m describing “how we should be” because I was asked this question, but I generally try and shut up and listen to others instead of preaching about what I think others should or shouldn’t do. That’s a big part of creating equality too – listening to understand someone’s context first, then supporting them to take action.

11. Where in the world do you feel “tallest” (i.e. where is your happy place)?

I feel tallest with my various families. My primary family first, my friend circle, work circle, music fam, etc.

12. What extra-curricular activities/hobbies are you most proud of? Why?

I like getting involved in health projects and volunteer initiatives outside of work (often work-related or discovered through my work…) I don’t know if I’m “proud” of it but I love supporting my friends in their various ventures. I have friends who write and play music, and I feel good being part of their audience and supporting them to do what they love. I also really love kids and I’ve had the chance to speak with a few school groups about topics like HIV and safe sex, and more recently talk about other infectious diseases and how science research works. It’s always interesting (and often entertaining) hearing what questions kids ask, and I like encouraging them to learn about science and health. I’d like to do more of that in the future, and maybe organize some Wow Women to give talks on other topics in schools and community settings! (Hey Olga, let’s do this?)

13. What do you want to be when you grow up? Future goals/challenges?

I want to still be an optimist when I grow up (ha!) and I’d love to contribute to getting an HIV vaccine on the shelves. I’d also like to be a Mom, and be as good at it as my Mom is. (Hi Mom!)

14. What fears are you still hoping to overcome?

I think it’s human nature to feel lonely sometimes and fear being alone, especially women because we’re often told we have failed if we “end up alone.” I’m also afraid of failure and being found out that I’m a big faker or fraud. I’ve recently realized that many incredible women feel this fear of being imposters, or imposter syndrome, (see Michelle Obama, Oprah, Kate Winslet!) so it’s something I can work on and overcome. (Note: I am not comparing myself to Michelle Obama, Oprah, or Kate Winslet.)

15. Anything you'd do differently (if you had another go at life)?

Ooh boy. I wish I would have recognized earlier in life that you can’t change people and you can’t control everything (most things) in life. I would have spent less time trying to change the things I have no control over, and spend more time on things/people/experiences that make me happy. I think I lived my life for a long time trying to be someone else’s ideal or measure up to other people’s expectations, which really keeps you from discovering what you like and what makes you happy. I would also try and be a smarter consumer and buy less/waste less. I could have done better (and spent less money) if I had been less impulsive and more aware of how much waste there is in the world.

16. What inspires you?

I get inspired by different things, I think it changes depending on what I need in my life at the time. I get inspired when I see people being kind toward others and kind to themselves. It makes me want to be better, do more, love more. I also get inspired by people working hard and achieving their goals, or seeing someone realize a dream for the first time. THAT is a powerful moment.

17. What are you hopeful about?

Ultimately, I have hope in people. I’m hopeful that between science and humanity we can overcome a lot of the terrible things happening in the world right now. I’m hopeful that we can become better allies and improve the circumstances for others who don’t have access to everything they should (good health care, education, opportunities.) I’m also hopeful that everyone survives the Trump rage and we rebound soon, because there’s a lot to do and we are spending so much time and energy on this nightmare dumpster fire presidency.

18. What are some ingredients to a good life?

Ingredients to a good life by my definition (not necessarily all people?): Having family and friends you love and who love you, having good health (I realize how important this actually is as I get older,) doing work that is meaningful to you (not necessarily your job but doing something that means something to you,) getting enough sleep, continuing to learn new things, broadening your view of the world, dancing it out when you need to, having the luxury of time to do things you like and see your favorite people/places.

19. What are you reading now? (what books do you gift most and what are your favourite reads?)

I’m reading a few things at the moment: Bill Hayes: The Anatomist, Aziz Ansari: Modern Romance, and Neil Degrasse Tyson: Astrophysics for People in a Hurry. I’m also rereading East of Eden when I’m feeling particularly lazy or procrastinating, because it’s my favorite and I’ve already read it three times…it’s familiar but I also feel like I find something new every time I read it. (Also trying to start Taking Charge of your Adult ADD because I can’t seem to finish a book without starting another one! This is not actually a joke. LOL.)

20. Who is a “WOW Woman” in your life who inspires you (and why)?

I’m lucky to have quite a few WOW Women in my life that I could write about forever. The original, OG WOW Woman though is my Mom, Susan Joan (Abravanel) Welsh. Since I could remember, my Mom has always wanted to help others wherever she can, treat people with decency, and make people feel valued. I’ve seen her do this in small and large ways: helping someone find work or a better doctor, offering support when a friend or relative could use a friendly ear, or contributing to initiatives that are important to her, me, others (i.e. giving money for fundraisers, getting donated shovels and seeds for a farming project overseas, participating in political phone banks and local organizing efforts, etc.) She pitches in when she’s asked for help, and she’ll step up when she’s not asked but help is needed. It’s just who she is, it’s who she automatically and inherently is. This way about her left an impression on me at a very early age, because I saw how people responded to basic kindnesses and it made me want to be the same way.

My Mom is someone who wants everyone to be comfortable and have a good time; it’s just fun to watch her host people for Thanksgiving or a birthday, because it is truly her element. When she’s feeding people or making people feel comfortable and loved, she’s definitely at her best and happiest. I’ve also seen the gratification she feels when she does a good job preparing one of her students for an exam, or when a parent tells her that she’s made a difference in how the kid feels about themselves in school. She happens to be the best math tutor in town (not an exaggeration, just a fact) and while I admire her reputation I’m more proud of how she takes pride in her work and her students. She has a great ability to recognize the strengths and weaknesses in her students and teach them as individuals, without trying to force them to do everything the same way or achieve the same goals. Although her primary job is to help students get ready for college entrance exams, I think her teaching approach is more holistic and takes more than just math skills. She is compassionate and gets to know them so that she adjusts her methods to meet their needs and learning style, which I think makes her a uniquely gifted teacher. I could write a lot more but I think you get the point: my Mom is awesome :)

21. Where can others find you/your work (links to websites, blogs, etc.)?
www.iavi.org