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Professional Profile: Sumegha Shah

Lab Manager speaks to Sumegha Shah, senior vice president and subject matter expert in health sciences and medical education with CannonDesign

MaryBeth DiDonna

Sumegha Shah, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, is senior vice president and subject matter expert in health sciences and medical education with CannonDesign, based in their Washington, D.C. office and residing in Atlanta, GA. Lab Manager recently spoke with Sumegha about her career, experience, and personal interests.

Q: How did you get started in your career? Did you major in your field in college, get an internship, switch careers mid-stream, etc.?

A: When I was in my early teens, my parents undertook a massive home renovation. I was instantly fascinated by the design process. I loved everything from the client interview process to watching ideas be translated to drawings and then reality. I would follow the contractors around, watching our vision come to life.

I subsequently went to school to study architecture and, during my undergrad, gained a new respect for our profession. Architects need a foundation of understanding in nearly all the sciences and engineering that go into creating a building. My first job out of school was with one of the few female-led firms in Chennai, India, which was inspiring on many levels. Once I completed my master’s degree at University of Cincinnati, I moved to Atlanta and began my career designing schools and then quickly moved to higher education projects with a focus on health science education facilities. I’m grateful for the path my career has taken and have always enjoyed being at the intersection of science and learning.

Q: What is a typical day at work like for you?

A: A typical day doesn’t exist! Prior to the pandemic, I used to travel a fair amount for work. Now, mid-pandemic, a lot of meetings/conferences have moved online and the days are a blend of project work and business development.

That said, I try to begin my day early, before meetings begin. I do my best creative and focused work in the mornings (the hardest part is not allowing emails and messages to distract you). Task-wise, while project work and client calls are a focus, I try to consistently establish touchpoints with team members. An equal focus of my role is business development—planning, strategy, pipeline development, trends, and focus areas or opportunities.

My one consistent daily ritual is an afternoon coffee to rejuvenate and refresh. This is partly cultural. Where I’m from in India, an afternoon coffee or tea break was the norm. I try to end my day with a walk or workout before I switch to family mode.

Q: Tell us about a great book, movie, song, or TV show you’ve enjoyed recently.

A: Two fantastic books I recently read are Invisible Women and Four Thousand Weeks.

Q: If you weren’t in this profession, what job would you like to have instead?

A: I’ve always been part creative and part analytical, with a variety of creative interests (writing, graphics, and dance), as well as an interest in history. When I was younger, I was an active yogi and classical Indian dancer and at one time considered staying in those fields. I also considered archeology—to sate my hunger for travel and history. I hope to retire by the ocean, scuba diving and snorkeling.

Q: What is your favorite building, lab-related or not?

A: The Salk Institute is an exemplar architectural and functional icon. Louis Khan worked closely with Jonas Salk to not only design unobstructed, flexible, and functional lab spaces, but also create a clear design parti in harmony with nature, contextually sensitive, with solar panels for renewable energy and equal attention placed to the collaborative spaces in between the functional labs—which is so key, as we know “most scientific breakthroughs happen in social settings.”

Q: What lab projects are you working on at the moment?

A: I recently wrapped up planning and programming for two large health science education projects in Vancouver and Oakland, respectively. They were both similar in their mix of programming but each unique to meet the mission, vision and aspirations of each institution.  

Q: What is one important skill you think that all lab design experts should have? 

A: The most critical skill, to me, is to be able to interpret client needs before they really have identified them. A lot of this comes from careful and active listening, reading a room, and translating future concepts into current framework. Equally important is guiding the client through the process that concludes in a framework they may not be familiar or comfortable with. You really need to be able to synthesize their ideas, thoughts, and hopes, and then lead them where they want to go.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish in the next few years in this new position?

A: I would like to grow our team. CannonDesign is deeply respected for innovation and my mission is to amplify our Health Science and Medical Education work by harnessing and growing our thought leadership, critical thinking, and innovation in design solutions.

Q: If you won a multi-million-dollar lottery tomorrow, what would you do with your winnings?

A: I would first take a sabbatical for a year or two. Most likely, I would come back and split my time doing what I am doing now (with more intention, flexibility, and freedom and with a fresh perspective) and dedicate time/funds towards promoting education and small women-owned business in rural areas of the world.