Muse Profiles: Dr. Nina Sherwood

Madison Catrett and Sophia Li

Dr. Nina Sherwood is a professor of Biology and a faculty member of Duke Institute of Brain Sciences. Dr. Sherwood attended the University of California at San Diego for her undergraduate career and obtained her doctorate at Duke University in 1998. Her current research uses fruit flies to understand the development and function of the nervous system.


After discussing my first semester of college, Dr. Sherwood reminisced on some of her own favorite memories of her undergraduate career: “[I loved] the feeling of freedom that came with being an adult. I realized that going away to college was a great opportunity to be whatever persona I wanted. I didn’t change all that much, but it was fun to know I could if I wanted to! Meeting all kinds of different people from all walks of life, working in the lab, being surrounded by smart and interesting people motivated by curiosity, having life be all about learning and figuring out how we wanted our future to look.”

However, Dr. Sherwood’s experiences have not come without obstacles. She grew up in a small Hawaiian town as a child of Chinese immigrants, who raised her to be high-achieving, but also respectful of elders, unquestioning of authority, humble, and self-sacrificing. “While these [scruples] worked reasonably well in school, I found many of these traits were not particularly valued in the working world. It took me a long time to figure this out, and because I still believe in many of the values I was raised with, I continue to wrestle with this problem.”

After discussing her own undergraduate career, Dr. Sherwood shared some advice for current undergraduate students: “You still have relatively few responsibilities, so do as much as you can – explore, try different things, travel! If something interests you and feels like a good idea, don’t be stopped by timidity or others saying you shouldn’t or can’t. [Also, remember that] life is not linear, and sometimes is not even under your control. Be adaptable, trust your instincts, and remember that things will likely work out.”

Finally, I asked Dr. Sherwood if she considered herself a feminist, and if so, how she would define what a feminist is, and why she considers herself one. She eloquently replied, “I think feminism means believing that women and men are equals. Not the same (and vive la difference), but equals. So, they should have equal time, equal opportunities; they should be equally heard. Societal norms of success, particularly in the workplace, frequently favor traits like assertiveness, aggressiveness, self-promotion, and competitiveness.  The way that women communicate and interact can be quite different, and for some puzzling reason (given that most of us were raised by women), there doesn’t seem to be much appreciation for it in the professional world. For these as well as other reasons, I’ve seen too many incredibly smart and accomplished women struggle, and often fail, to have gratifying careers that make use of their training and talents. The subsequent loss of women’s contributions is to the detriment of us all.  So, what’s to be done about it?  I think it’s a combination of women learning to be more assertive and realizing that they deserve that space, that oxygen in the room, and men learning to be more giving of that space and oxygen. I definitely feel like we as a society are moving in that direction, but we are still far from parity.”