BY: Mikaela Dunkin
EDUCATION: B.Tech in Genetic Engineering from SRM University, Chennai, India. M.Sc. in Molecular Biology and Human Genetics from Manipal University, Manipal, India. Currently pursuing a Ph.D. at the Cold Spring Harbor Genome Center.
RESEARCH INTERESTS: Complex disease genetics, specifically in understanding the genetic and epigenetic basis of complex human conditions such as psychiatric disorders and cancer. Currently, I work to develop experimental approaches that leverage long-read sequencing technologies to help increase the resolution with which we can look at the cancer genome. This will help humans understand large-scale genetic variations associated with cancer and may aid in the identification of regions of diagnostic and therapeutic interest.
FUTURE GOALS: I would love to pursue a career in research and establish my own research lab/team that focuses on the genetics of human diseases.
Why did you want to be a part of GWiSE?
Growing up in India, I constantly found myself having to stumble through my education while trying to navigate my career path. I found myself wishing I had someone with similar experiences and goals that I could speak with. The mentorship opportunity through GWISE is what prompted me to be a part of this wonderful group. As a WISE guides’ mentor, I was able to give mentees the guidance and support that I lacked as an undergraduate. As the mentorship coordinator for this year, I’m able to give back and be a part of the incomparable experience of joining a community that promotes the growth of women in STEM.
What got you interested in your field?
When I was in school, I was better in Biology than the other sciences and believed I’d go to med school to be a doctor or a surgeon. I’ve always wanted to help people and I believed medicine was a field that would offer such an opportunity. In high school, we had our first of two modules on genetics and it changed my whole perspective on human health and disease. Being introduced to the molecular underpinnings of life and the ways it played a role in growth, development, and disease prompted me to pursue a career in genetics. The drive to try and understand the genetic basis of susceptibility, onset, development, and progression of human disorders motivated me to earn a bachelors and then a masters in the field. As a part of my undergraduate and graduate studies, I also engaged in relevant research through internships in India and the United States. My experiences in these research groups cemented my interest in further pursuing a Ph.D. in human genetics with the goal of one day directing my own research group.
What is your most treasured memory?
I absolutely love traveling and have a lot of good memories associated with vacations with friends and family. However, my most treasured memory is my first ever solo trip. I spent a week in Vancouver, Canada and explored the beautiful city on my own and on my terms. The freedom of planning and doing whatever I wanted to do to make the trip worthwhile was exhilarating. The defining moment of that trip was my scenic drive from Vancouver to Whistler on the Sea-to-Sky highway with some enthralling pitstops on the way. The extremely warm, welcoming, and helpful people I met on this trip were just the cherry on top!
What is one thing you started in the last year that you are glad you did?
Late 2017 I stumbled upon this idea of maintaining a Mason-jar-of-happiness, which involved a simple goal of trying to find one thing that made me happy each day. While it may seem simple, I soon learned that circumstances don’t always allow for a ‘good day’. Pushing myself to find something on such days opened my eyes to the things I had often overlooked or taken for granted. It helped me appreciate the people, things, and experiences that are a part of my life even more. I looked for and found reasons to be grateful.
I successfully managed to put in 365 bits of paper to fill up my Mason-jar-of-happiness. At the end of 2018 it was so much fun to randomly pick up a memory and smile because of it. It’s a new year – time for a new jar and new lovely memories!
What bends your mind every time you think about it?
The fact that we have a finite existence and everything we are, everyone we love, and everything we own could disappear tomorrow. It really brings into perspective the decisions we make and it guides the way I approach situations and adversities.
What do you think needs to happen for there to be more women in science and engineering?
Of the many aspects I can dive into, I believe encouragement and support are the two most important facets at both the personal and professional level. Instead of confining children to gender stereotypes, it should be perfectly acceptable for a girl to dream about a Pulitzer or Nobel prize instead of a dream wedding. Such acceptance has to begin at home by shaping young minds to be who they can and want to be and not who they should or should not be. Over the past decades, a lot of positive effort has been directed towards bringing women on same footing as men – providing them with the same opportunities and roles. While this is an important step, one mustn’t forget to extend that effort towards helping men support women better. This ranges from changing tables in men’s restrooms to paid paternity leave to de-stigmatizing stay-at-home dads. It includes not limiting parental roles to maternal responsibilities that often result in professional setbacks for women after childbirth. Women have broken several stereotypes to break into a ‘man’s world’, however that progress will always be stymied if social, economic, professional, and personal efforts aren’t also directed towards ensuring the reciprocal transition of men into a ‘woman’s world’ to facilitate equality in the true sense of word.