Kalki Kukreja is a PHD student in the Systems Biology Department at Harvard University. She intends to contribute to the understanding of embryonic growth and development. Kalki tells us that the cutting-edge research programs and multiple renowned scientists and institutions in the U.S., made her choose U.S. as her higher study destination.
We recently caught up with Kalki to learn more about her STEM journey – her field of study and work, challenges she faced during her academic journey and her learnings from those, impact she intends to make and her advice for women wanting to pursue STEM studies. Read about her experiences and inspirational journey in the post below..
What are you currently doing?
I am a PhD student in the Systems Biology Department at Harvard University. I am studying how embryos develop into organisms and how embryonic cells diversify into different types of cells to form functional tissues and organs such as brain, heart, blood, skin, etc.
What made you take up your field of study in the U.S.?
The U.S. is home to unparalleled cutting-edge research and multiple renowned scientists and institutions. The graduate programs here not only train you in your area of interest but also focus on overall scientific development such as scientific communication, critical analysis of primary literature, scientific writing and required fundamental coursework. Many programs especially in life sciences required me to explore multiple different areas of research or multiple labs before joining a thesis lab which really attracted me.
What were the challenges you faced during your academic journey to your University and how did you overcome them?
Moving to a western country with no family or friends was a major transition for me and required adapting to a new value system and learning the unspoken rules of navigating daily life in that system. The lack of clear guidelines or expectations from grad school coupled with an impostor syndrome when I felt that I didn’t fit in added to the challenges.
However, I am fortunate to have now found a great group of colleagues and friends, especially women scientists who have been my support system and my source of inspiration. As a woman, I have often found myself alienated by the boys’ clubs that still exist in many pockets of scientific institutions. Participating in conferences, reading inspiring stories of women scientists, and consuming literature and books about the social milieu of STEM – its inequalities and privileges have all been very empowering.
What is the impact you intend to make with your chosen field of study/work?
I intend to contribute to the understanding of embryonic growth and development. When embryonic cells develop into a full organism, they must achieve two goals: they must divide to generate all cells of the body, and they must also become specialized into different cell types. These two processes need to be tightly coordinated to make the right numbers of cells of the right kind and at the right location in the body. I am trying to understand how these two processes work together to build an organism using new experimental tools and big data analysis. It is a fundamental question in biology with practical implications in developmental diseases, cancer, and regeneration.
One tip or advice for women who intend to make a mark in STEM fields…
Believe in yourself, you are better than you think. Find mentors and don’t shy away from reaching out for help or advice. Pursue your dreams!