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Interview with Dr. Rezma Shrestha, Molecular Biologist

Rezma Shrestha is currently a postdoctoral fellow at TRI-Princeton in New Jersey. She graduated with a PhD in Molecular Biology from Princeton University in 2017, where she studied mechanisms by which dividing cells in the skin regulate polarity. As part of the biosubstrates team at TRI, her research includes understanding how skin barrier function is altered by environmental factors as well as determining how the mechanical properties of hair are influenced by follicle biology. Rezma considers herself still in the early phases of her career and in between academia and industry, and is excited to share her experiences with Sujhaab Chautari.
Rezma Shrestha LinkedIn Profile


Please tell us briefly about your current research. What do you find most exciting about it?

One of my ongoing projects right now is to study the impact of pollution on the structure and function of skin. This was the first instance for me, going from studying cell biology within the skin and transitioning into understanding and measuring how skin properties change using non-invasive techniques. Also, it is a real-world problem as pollution rises globally, and this makes me think more about its overall impact on our bodies–both internally and externally.


What are the recent advancements and breakthroughs coming up in the field of molecular biology?

The whole of molecular biology encompasses so much and is constantly building upon each other, so it’s a bit hard to narrow down singular advancements. But there are so many exciting novel research that people can venture into, enabled by new technologies for genome editing, single cell sequencing and molecular imaging, to name a few. I am hopeful this will open up the way for new questions and possibly expand the boundaries of what we traditionally think of as molecular biology.


What are the different career avenues after a Phd in molecular biology?

I think it’s great to be a PhD in biology because it serves as a stepping stone to both academic and non-academic careers. You can go on to do postdoctoral research in universities as well as biotech companies, which gives you more freedom in terms of choosing the kind of research and skills you want to develop. Depending on their interests, graduates can go into publishing, medical writing, teaching, consulting, law, and even start their own companies. Since a PhD normally spans 5-6 years, it’s a good time to train not only as a scientist but also develop skills relevant to any profession you want to pursue.


How did you first get interested into the field of molecular biology?

I majored in biotechnology during my undergrad, so the interest was already there. To further explore that, I spent most of my summers doing research at other institutes, and really enjoyed working on unsolved questions. After graduating, I ended up staying in my college professor’s lab doing research for another year. That’s when I realized I wanted to make a career out of it and started looking into PhD programs to make that happen.


Tell us about a time you made an exciting breakthrough — or any other highlight in your journey so far.

It still feels quite early in my career to say that I have had major breakthroughs–the process of learning has always been the more exciting part for me. Trying a few crazy experiment ideas and having them work was always the best feeling, and those felt more like personal accomplishments. I am learning everyday and if a PhD has taught me anything, it’s that I can never get tired of that.


Tell us about a time you had serious doubts about your own ability in the fields you chose. How did you overcome that?

The first years of grad school were definitely the toughest for me, in terms of fully having ownership of a research project and balancing everything else against it. It can get pretty overwhelming when you realize you alone are responsible for driving your research and sometimes you don’t even know if it will work the way you want it to. Initially, I definitely had moments when I questioned my level of training and preparedness to handle a multi-year PhD project. That’s when I fell upon the term “imposter syndrome” which is something every student hears about only in grad school for some reason. I realized I wasn’t alone, that this feeling was normal and common, and thus commiserating with fellow grad students eased the burden a bit. I learned to trust my instinct over self-doubt, and in the end, experiments and results either show you the way or open up some new ones. This hasn’t changed even now. Also, very important–I developed hobbies I looked forward to outside of the lab, so if I did have any failures, I wasn’t utterly devastated.


If you were in the admissions committee, what qualities would you look into a prospective graduate candidate in your field?

I think prior research experience is almost a requisite these days to get into a competitive program. But most importantly, you should have the right motivation, a desire for learning and problem-solving that will help sustain you through several years. No program wants a candidate who applies without knowing what a PhD track entails and how that fits into their immediate and future plans. This can be reflected either in your personal statements and/or the interview during your application process, so set some clear goals. Most admission committees want to know that you are prepared to commit to a PhD program, and they want to see you complete it successfully.


How can prospective graduate students prepare themselves for being a part of cutting-edge research labs in your field?

Try to get involved in research beforehand at your undergrad institution. If that’s not an option, as is the case for many smaller schools (mine was one), apply for summer internships at larger institutes that allow you to be immersed in a lab setting and be part of an ongoing research project. Realize that research isn’t always easy at first—get used to the fact that you are starting out looking for answers to questions that are probably being asked for the first time. It can be both exciting and overwhelming, so patience and persistence are key. If you are unsure about a PhD right after your undergrad, join a lab as a research technician to gain experience and skills, and get a feel for it. Research is a long haul, so prospective students should take the time they need to commit to it.


Can you recommend 3 resources for people looking to get into your field ?
And this handy book for anybody looking into a PhD or starting one-
A PhD Is Not Enough!: A Guide to Survival in Science By Peter J. Feibelman


We see more women pursuing life sciences compared to physical sciences. What is your experience and observation on this?

Our molecular biology department thankfully had a great balance of men and women in it. Lack of women in the program was never brought up as an issue in the grad, post-doc or even the professor level. Honestly, it was something I never really gave thought to till I met female grad students from engineering and physics departments, and realized how different their experiences were. This was when I learned how few women are represented at all levels in the physical sciences. This was the almost opposite scenario of what we had in biology, where seeing more, if not equal, number of women in all positions normalized that reality for me and I rarely had a doubt that I could pursue a similar career track, regardless of my gender. For the physical sciences, similar lack of representation can be discouraging for women to pursue the track further, and this is something that needs to be addressed at an institution-level. If departments can be more diverse in their hiring of faculty and staff, that can hopefully increase women’s numbers at all positions to the point women feel welcomed and represented in both the sciences, and are free to pursue either.


As a female scientist, how do you see the opportunities and challenges for undertaking leadership roles?

I don’t think of leadership as a male/female trait, but I am aware that female scientists tend to be undervalued and even overlooked for many leadership positions in various fields. As a personal stance, I try not to dwell on the statistics of it and focus on my abilities as an individual. Some opportunities come easily and some we have to fight for and prove our worth–perhaps the biggest challenge here for many women, including myself, is to ignore that self-doubt and self-imposed biases, and just go for it. Also important to me, I try to take my failures as my own only, and not for all the women; my successes however, I don’t mind attributing to all women, at least until we are free from stereotypes about how women should behave as leaders.


Tell us about the role of mentorship in your professional life.

I have been very fortunate to have very involved mentors through college as well as graduate school. A good mentor can be a very powerful motivating force in the face of self-doubt and low self-esteem, which is something easily encountered when you try to make big changes in your life. My college advisor was the person who first encouraged me to apply for a grad schools and gave me the confidence that I could get into a competitive program. My grad school advisor was one of my biggest cheerleaders–her faith in me definitely pushed me through some of the hardest times during my PhD. I believe mentors help us realize our potential better. We seek mentors who have lived through many dilemmas and failures, and it’s helpful to have them rooting for you and guiding you as you go through the same.


What is the best career advice you have ever received?

Don’t be discouraged if someone else doesn’t share your passions or dismisses them. You don’t need to justify to others why something moves or excites you–it’s good enough that it makes you wake up in the morning and do what you do.


 The career advice you wished you received in your twenties.

You are on your own timeline and doing things in time for you. Do not be rushed by everyone else’s expectations or accomplishments.


Please share your experiences on opportunities and responsibilities of being at the forefront of cutting-edge research as a Nepali national.

For me, the great part about being a Nepali researcher abroad is getting to know other Nepali scientists in the field and finding out about the amazing research they do. Our numbers might seem low at a particular institute but overall, many Nepali scientists have gone on to make significant contributions in their field and are in prestigious positions in universities and industries. Ultimately, you lead by example and I hope the growing network of Nepali scientists inspires younger generations to be uninhibited in their scientific ambition.


Your final words of advice for someone who wants to get into your field.

I can’t assume the same advice works for each person, but generally, if the possibility of it excites you, then I recommend you try it with conviction. Learn as much as you can and make sure you are growing as a person and scientist. Sometimes it sticks and sometimes you discover other passions, so don’t be afraid to choose what feels right for you.


Sujhaab Chautaari

Author: Sujhaab Chautaari

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