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Raina Talwar Bhatia

Student

Hill Spring International

And - Incoming Freshman at Stanford University

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The scientific community of women has only gotten this far because a woman looked up, saw the disparity and took action to address it.

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WHAT DO YOU DO?

I will be pursuing a double major in bioengineering and political science at Stanford University as a part of the Class of 2025. I hope to research cancer therapies and/or tissue engineering at the Shri Ram Institute at Stanford. I also plan to study political science to address the growing gap between policy undertaken by legislators on healthcare and the needs of those in the healthcare industry.

WHY DID YOU CHOOSE THIS FIELD?

When I was 10, my mother taught me how to do a breast self-exam. Almost every woman in my family has had a showdown with breast or ovarian cancer. Growing up, I watched my gentle great-aunt struggle with ovarian cancer. Just when she believed she had won, it delivered her a knockout blow.

What makes our own cells turn against us? Why does it seem to be inevitable in my family? Even as a 12-year-old, I wanted to stop it from ripping apart the best people's lives. But, with no knowledge of biochemistry, I didn't know how. That all changed quickly.

In the 8th grade, my biology teacher rambled about how scientists used recombinant DNA to produce insulin. I was hooked. Since then, I devour material on how scientists are using genetics against cancer: from genetic tests for BRCA mutations to arming genetically modified bacteria with therapeutic proteins for targeted cancer therapy. I am convinced that genetics will be a cornerstone for a cancer cure. There's something so strangely fitting about how the thing that can destroy a person is likely to be their only salvation.

My dream is to find a cure, but I feel the weight of the ethical implications that will arise; the weight of the questions about accessibility and affordability. I intend to continue my research and writing in political science, economics and a host of other disciplines that will influence and enable me to achieve this breakthrough for all of humanity.

HOW DO/DID YOU TACKLE OBSTACLES?

I did encounter a lot of prejudice and disdain as I would announce my plans to become a bioengineer to large gatherings of people as there are many in my community who still do not think that girls need to be involved in STEM. STEM is still seen as something for men in India. I have found that there is no need to try and change the minds of such individuals through logical reasoning and choose instead to work harder and prove them wrong later on. Mindsets are only obstacles if you let them be obstacles.

WHAT DO YOU LOOK AT & THINK, "I WISH YOUNGER ME WOULD HAVE KNOWN THIS WAS POSSIBLE?"

I wish younger me would have known that 2 women would win the Noble Prize in Chemistry in 2020 for their groundbreaking research in genetic editing tools. This kind of visibility showcasing the success of two women who are legendary in their own right has the potential to inspire millions of young girls in the future. Not only have they revolutionised the field of genetic engineering for decades to come, but have also impacted so many in the bargain. It is genuinely unbelievable at times.

WHY DO YOU LOVE WORKING IN STEM?

One of the first things I do, after I wake up, is check the science and technology news from various outlets. Every single day, there is something exciting and revolutionary that is being worked upon by scientists across the world. STEM is a rapidly-evolving and transforming field and one of the greatest joys is keeping up with its transformation and having the ability to plan out a place for yourself in such a dynamic and frankly, just exciting environment and community.

BEST ADVICE FOR NEXT GENERATION?

Never let the lack of women in your field scare you. The scientific community of women has only gotten this far because a woman looked up, saw the disparity and took action to address it. There are millions of us out there who can revolutionise the world. We have to take action and put ourselves out there, one step at a time and maybe someday, we can look back and smile at how far the world can come.

INSPIRATION

An inspiration to me is Tal Danino, a professor at Columbia University whose research focusses on programming bacteria to detect and even treat cancer by targeting specific locations within tissues in the body. His work ensures the efficient and focussed treatment of cancer without putting undue stress on the body. Even though I heard about his work at a workshop 4 years ago, his work was what inspired me .to look into bioengineering as a potential career path and I have never looked back since.