Hello people! Before I begin with today’s blog interview, I have to share something with you all. This is my last blog interview in this series ‘BEYOND LAB BENCH’ for now, umm.. let’s call this an end to season 1? (Haha!) Jokes apart, that does mean that I’ll be back with more fun STEM stories after some time. Till then, have fun reading this one ! 🙂
My guest today is a PhD student at the International Agency of Research on Cancer (IARC), World Health Organization (WHO) in Lyon, France. Her research focuses on the role of chromatin remodelling and DNA repair in Cancer. I know her since my bachelors in the University of Delhi, she was my senior in the Department of Microbiology. A woman who loves plants as much as she love her work, I fondly call her ‘plantswoman’. Always wanting to be a scientist since childhood, she moved from India to Europe to pursue research. Here, we talk about her life in cancer research, her favorite science communicator (Carl Sagan, Of course!), her love for plants and Dexter’s laboratory (In case, you’re wondering why? Keep reading!).
So, let me introduce to you my last guest on this interview blog series: Beyond Lab Bench, Shefali Thakur.
Hey Shefali! I am so excited, thanks for taking out time for this interview. 😀
First of all, you must tell me about your plants? I follow you on Instagram, and I cannot help but notice you have so many beautiful plants. I love them all!
Shefali: Haha, thank you, that’s sweet! Actually it’s a hobby I developed last summers (so rather new). It started with me finding out that a beautiful plant I fancied (Euphorbia millis), which one of my colleagues had for some years was propagated as a small stem cutting. During my masters diploma we propagated tobacco plants in vitro and it was quite fun. The most fun part for me is propagating and I spent an entire summer trying to see which plants I could propagate, some were easy, some were challenging but overall quite rewarding as an experience. This summer I’m growing a lot of basil, mint, coriander and some cucumbers in addition to the ornamental plants.
Presently, where are you working? What is your research work about?
Shefali: I’m currently in Lyon, France working for International Agency of Research on Cancer, World Health Organization as a part of my PhD. My focus is on Chromatin remodelling, DNA repair and Cancer. My research focuses on role of chromatin remodelling and DNA repair in Cancer. I work with mouse embryonic cell lines that are conditional knockouts for essential chromatin remodelling genes and then interrogate changes in chromatin landscape, mutation rates and epigenetic changes, in turn linking them to a cell’s fate – i.e transformation/ immortalization vs senescence. This lets me directly weigh the contribution of chromatin remodelling to carcinogenesis.
That’s interesting. Tell me about your background, What is your STEM story? Did you always wanted to be in research?
Shefali: Ah, I always get a little happy when I’m asked this question; it’s an unassuming reminiscent of my childhood dreams. As far as I can go down my memory lane I recall always wanting to be a scientist. I grew up watching Dexter’s Laboratory and wanted to have a lab like Dexter. Well I don’t have a colossal secret lab concealed behind my bookshelf (or do I? Haha), but who doesn’t make compromises, right!? Jokes aside, my story is quite straightforward, I realized very early on that I really enjoy biology and have continually pursued the field since.
I did my bachelors and a post-graduate diploma from University of Delhi and then moved to Sweden to do my masters in Molecular genetics from Lunds Universitat. I did my master thesis of ‘Karyotype evolution of sex chromosomes of spiders with holokinetic chromosomes’ at Faculty of Science, Charles University in Prague. And finally, I am in Lyon working towards my PhD.
You have an impeccable fashion sense 😀 How do you manage to look so glam and stylish, even when working in lab? (Spill the secret!)
Shefali: Haha, you’re a sweet little flatterer, aren’t you! There’s no secret really, there’s a number of small things that can make one happy –aesthetics being one. Some days I like to draw the aesthetic pleasure from garments; on other days from others.
Looking back at your research journey, from India to Europe. What are some advice or tips you would give to someone starting out fresh?
Shefali: Coming from India, I’d say it’s important to find a balance between competition and self-growth, the two are often muddled, especially in societies like ours. You lose on meaningful relationships among peers owing to the unwarranted and constant competition. Looking back at all of my friends from school and university, it is evident that none of us had the same journey or even same goals, I guess doing the same thing at one point can create this illusion. We have all carved our own unique paths. It’s also important to take your time to reach the goals you’ve set for yourself and most importantly there’s nothing wrong with changing shoes, if the current ones don’t fit your feet anymore.
What do you think of science communication? Have you been involved in any scicomm activities?
Shefali: I concur with Mark Walport in that ‘Science isn’t finished until it’s communicated’. One of my biggest inspirations in science (and probably the best science communicator to date) is Carl Sagan, who revolutionized the field by acquainting laypeople with the scientific method and encouraging scientific scepticism. I happened to be involved in scicomm a little as well, back when I was in India. I participated twice as a lead mentor in ‘INSPIRE’ science camps, wherein high school students are encouraged to pursue natural sciences as a career option and it was extremely rewarding. I also routinely participate in open days, Pint of Science and the like.
Okay, what if I ask you to describe your research in one fun and simple sentence. Would you like to give it a try?
Shefali: Sure, that sounds fun. I study immortality in cells (cancer) to find out how it leads to mortality in humans (inspired by the line ‘The ultimate irony is that cancer is about a cell’s attempt to become immortal’ from the book ‘The Miracle Strain’ by Michael Cordy.) Or you can say that, I give cancer to cells, so that hopefully one day humans don’t have to have it.
Do you ever feel like an imposter in research academia?
Shefali: So far, not really. Possibly because I always thought this is what I’m meant to do (even if very badly!). I do, however, feel utterly incompetent at times, which is an ambivalent feeling in an ever-evolving field like ours. It’s a good feeling because that means there’s a scope for improvement and learning.
How this pandemic has affected you? How are you spending your time in lockdown?
Shefali: I probably shouldn’t say this, but personally this pandemic has affected me positively. I’ve had a lot of time to do things I enjoy. I’ve been experimenting and cooking a lot of new things. I’ve also been brushing up on my Molecular Biology and Genetics basics all over again. I do wish we have a vaccine soon enough and I can visit my family in India.
Oh, I agree. Personally, this pandemic has given me a different perspective to look at things. Anyway, last question. If you could be a lab instrument. What it would be and why?
Shefali: That’s a very fun question, I’ll have to think about that one. Hmmm… I’d say I would like to be a vortex, because it feels that the vortex is the life of the party just like a working day in the lab is!
That’s a wrap guys! I thank each one of you who read the interviews on this blog series and supported me to keep going. It’s been more than two months and I interviewed nine researchers who agreed to share their STEM stories with me, what a fun experience this has been. 😀
Hope you’re safe and doing well. Hang in there, till I see you next! 🙂