Email interview: Vaishnavi Sridhar, Biologist
What made you interested in going into your field?
I grew up in India. My parents took me to nature walks and bird watching trips when I was younger. This got me interested in nature and I would spend my time reading encyclopedias, learning about birds, animals and plants. By the time I was in 12th grade, I got interested in the workings of living organisms and wanted to learn more about molecules like DNA and proteins. During undergrad, I spent my summers interning in different biology labs, getting hands-on training and learning important biological concepts. An undergrad course got me interested in cell biology. Even though cells have been known to be the fundamental unit of life for long, a lot needs to be learnt about the movement of materials inside them. Hence, I wanted to learn how materials are transported inside a cell and its impact on diseases and thus pursued a master’s thesis project in the same. By the end of the project, I wanted to discover more and hence decided to pursue a PhD in cell biology.
How do you think we should encourage more young girls into the field?
We should encourage more girls into biology by giving and ensuring an equal opportunity for girls to learn and get involved. I also think that we need more mentorship opportunities, where women mentors can guide other women and young girls to pursue science. The more young girls see women involved in different fields, the more they think that they can also achieve their dreams. Scholarships to encourage girls to pursue their dreams is another way to encourage more women into science.
What/who inspires you and why?
My family inspires me. I am who I am because of them. Right from childhood, I was given independence and was encouraged to pursue whatever I wanted. My parents worked really hard and always set an example for me. They always had my back and motivated me to keep trying till I succeeded. They are not from my field, but even today if they read something of relevance for me, they encourage me to look into that opportunity. They have encouraged me to aim for the stars and reach them. They are in true sense my role models.
University and High School
What should a prospective STEM student start doing in high school to demonstrate their interest? What did you do?
I would say start by asking questions in or after class, read latest science news and keep yourself updated. For example, in a biology lab if you do an experiment, think what could have been done differently and discuss with your peers and teacher. One could also participate in science fairs, an excellent way to apply concepts, think out of the box and learn. Many scientists and Nobel laureates started that way ! I would also say if you have an opportunity, try to do lab courses to get hands-on experience and maybe one could visit university labs to see what happens in an actual lab. When I was in high school, I would make it a point to try and read the lesson before class and discuss with the teacher. I would also go to the library and surf the internet to learn more about the subject. I also enjoyed practical courses and visited university labs to learn how a research lab looks and operates.
Which schools/programs did you consider?
I did my undergrad and master’s from India. For undergrad, I considered either applying for a Bachelor of Technology (BTech) in biotechnology or an Integrated BS-MS with majors in Biology. I went for the latter, as it was a program where I would be able to develop my concepts, starting from the basics and get exposure to working in labs. With a basic science degree, I would have scope to apply for a broad set of programs in the future. I pursued my Integrated BS-MS from the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), a premier institute focused on basic science research and was awarded a scholarship to pursue the same. For my PhD, my choices were Imperial College London and UBC. I was looking at a PhD program in Cell and Developmental Biology or in Molecular Biology. I chose UBC as I found a lab with interests similar to mine, great scope for personal and professional development, and was awarded a full scholarship to pursue the same.
What advice do you have for students interested in STEM?
Keep learning and exploring and don’t be bogged down by failure. Take every opportunity to develop new skills, connections and yourself as a person. Try to make use of all the wonderful resources around you to prepare yourself for the future.
What was your first internship/job experience like?
My first internship was in a biology research lab in my university. The lab worked on using fruit flies to study blood stem cells. The supervisor was a woman scientist and very supportive. The entire lab environment was very friendly, and I learnt a lot of techniques and concepts. It was a wonderful 1.5 months.
What did you learn in your internships/jobs that you couldn’t have learned in school?
Taking lab courses is one thing but working in a research lab is another. In my internship, I learned how research labs work and got hands on training on basic biology techniques and microscopy. I got an opportunity to work on many different topics, which I would have never gotten in school. I also learned about lab management, lab organization and time management. In lab courses barring a few things, everything would be kept ready for us. But in the internships, I learned to make things from scratch. My internships also gave me an opportunity travel to different places, helped me get wonderful experiences and make many friends.
What personality type/sort of person suits what you are involved in?
In my field, a person who is focused, dedicated, eager to learn, observe and think analytically is well-suited. The person should be ready to face failures/ see experiments fail and be ready to adapt or improvise. The person should be determined and resilient.
What are some cool projects you’ve worked on in the past?
One cool project I worked on was studying the alternative lengthening of telomeres (ALT) using microscopic worms called C. elegans. Telomeres are sequences of DNA at the end of chromosomes in our cells that get shorter every time a cell divides. Eventually, cells stop dividing, reach a stage of senescence and die. Telomeres protect genes from getting lost each time cells divide. Cancer cells use mechanisms such as ALT to prevent shortening of chromosomes, hence allowing cancer cells to divide indefinitely. There are a lot of similarities between the genes of C. elegans and humans, and the project would help uncover how ALT occurs. I learned many new techniques doing the project, one of them being Southern Blotting, which is used to detect a specific sequence of DNA in a sample. I have also worked with fruit flies, bacteria and yeast.