Women in STEM: Neha

Neha in the lab

My 18th guest is Neha, an Indian scientist based in Noway studying stem cells.

Hi @science.fanatics! First of all would you like to tell us something about you?

Hi, My name is Neha Rana, I am from India currently based in Norway for my PhD studies. I am a biochemist by my scientific background. For my PhD project I am focusing into mechanisms of regeneration in mesenchymal stem cell therapy. Basically, I am looking into the safety aspects and trying to develop some screening models which could be used for patient stratification (in future) clinically for MSC based therapies.

When did you start your Instagram account? How did you get the idea?

I started my Ig account last year in mid of 2019. It was a procrastinated start. My motto behind science communication and outreach is to make general public aware of what research is and how it is like to be a scientist working 9-22 (yes sometimes!) in a laboratory. Its also something very deeply engraved in me since I was a little child so this was also to give that child finally a platform to talk freely about her passion 🙂

Can you tell us something about how you balance work and private life? 

Well frankly, I do not try and balance. I gave up! Since both me and my partner are researchers we take leverage of the ‘easiness of understanding’ and end up spending more time at work. Our work and life is totally mixed up. Now when we both are in different phases of our respective PhDs, (which is relatively shorter in Norway) we give that a little more priority. But I hope once we proceed in our careers we will learn how to balance. However, I do a lot of weekly activities to ensure my body and mental health are on track, I take that also balancing!

During your academic studies how many women were in course? Why in your opinion?

Good question! Well, there were more fellow women both in my Bachelor’s and Master’s courses but subsequently fewer in PhD. I think it is like this almost everywhere and there could be many reasons but one of them is that research at PhD level is quite tedious job and also not at one’s own convenience (mostly). The job status post PhD is tricky! settling down in academia requires major resilience and grit. For women, undoubtedly family pressures to settle down with a stable and regular (9-17) jobs could be one of a prime reason why we see less of us at higher positions in research. There are also some ‘faults’ within the system too, eg, gender disparity for allocated funds at PI level. This discourages women to take up PhD and enter the elites of academia. A study published in 2019, found that – ¨at the top 50 NIH-funded institutions, first time female awardees received significantly smaller grant amounts ($93 916 for women vs $134 919 for men¨ (Oliveira DFM, Ma Y, Woodruff TK, Uzzi B. Comparison of National Institutes of Health Grant Amounts to First-Time Male and Female Principal Investigators. JAMA. 2019;321(9):898–900.)

Have you ever felt harassed or being kept apart as a scholar because you are a woman?

Luckily, I haven’t at any concerned level. But at subtle levels, yes! It’s common in academia. Its similar to ‘mansplaining’ or just being ignored as a naive. I think that notion takes some time to change. Again it differs how someone might define that subtle level but it is prevalent to large extent and is frustrating at times.

How did you become passionate about science? 

I was fascinated by biology since I was in 7th or 8th standard in school, but hardly occurred to me anything like a scientist till I guess in 11th standard. I wanted to be a medical doctor at first place but when it didn’t happened, I knew I had to work in sciences somehow and research is the only second best option I saw at that time . But then started the journey of realising that ‘this is it’ and then another one of ‘finding the quest’! So, it was not a well planned or a well supported idea and took me super long (nearly 5 years) post M.Sc. to take up a PhD. I was a business administrator, a tuition coach, a lab intern and a lab fellow at some point in these 5 yrs. But every role I played, led me to my ‘dream PhD’ and guess now I am super proud of making that road for myself 🙂

Would you like to talk briefly about your job?

Yes, as I discussed before, my job as a PhD candidate is to finish 3-4 research projects I am working on. It involves in-vitro work (i.e. all with lab cultured cells),  in-vivo work (work with animals-rats and pigs) and clinical work (patient samples). I am glad my PhD has this wide scope in terms of methodology. I am also working with some novel single cell techniques, which is exciting part. Apart from this, I am required to take some mandatory course , some optional courses as well as present my work in national and international conferences, in partial fulfillment of my PhD thesis . All this in fixed employment period of 3 yrs (Yup, that’s the catch!). Being in Norway, I am also learning Norwegian language, to help with my future stay in Norway.

Thank you so much for your time. Lastly, can you give any advice to girls interested in STEM?

My advice to girls in STEM will be – ¨be determined and strong to pursue a career of your choice, however hard it may seem at first.  And take your time to make these important decisions because your career is going to stay with you FOREVER! ¨ I hope to inspire all ‘little girls with big dreams’ like me who aspire a research career. Yes, it’s a great career and its highly fulfilling despite the grey areas. Good luck !

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