Please tell us about yourself
Sneha Gummuluri is a 4th year PhD Candidate . She studies fruit flies, known in the biology world as Drosophila, to understand how lipid carriers transport fat from intestinal cells to tissue. Sneha and I volunteer together at the Boys and Girls Club in Chicago, and we chatted over the phone about her fearless attitude when it comes to the challenges of grad school. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Why did you want to be a PhD student? How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and interesting career?
For me, the grad school route wasn’t always clear. In undergrad, I started off in the premed track, but med school wasn’t something that I wanted to pursue. After undergrad, I took a gap year to take a variety of courses across different programs to see if I wanted to pursue graduate studies in science. Once I started to take more graduate classes, I really fell in love with the MCDB (Molecular and Cellular Developmental Biology) group at UIC (University of Illinois, Urbana Champagne) and kind of put all my eggs in one basket and applied to just one program. Higher education seemed like the logical next step for opening opportunities thereafter.
If you were going to explain your research to your grandma, how would you describe it?
Everybody knows what fat is. And we all know that fat, or lipids, and water don’t mix very well. That fat that we ingest has to transfer throughout your body to go where it needs to go. To do that, it needs specialized carriers, because the majority of our body is an aqueous environment full of water. In our lab, we try to understand how these lipid carriers stick together to transfer the fat in what you eat to where it needs to go – either to be used up for energy or stored away in your body for later use.
What do you like most about being a PhD student?
I think what I really enjoy is the challenge. Not only has it been intellectually challenging, but it’s been a surprisingly pleasant challenge in testing my endurance throughout the program. Am I emotionally able to overcome failures? That’s been put to the test, and that’s one of the most exciting things to realize – I’m not afraid of failing. I’m confident in myself to have the capability to overcome any issue or to troubleshoot. I’m not saying I’m the brightest person, but I am able to use my resources to solve a problem. That’s been applicable not just in work, but in my personal life too.
What about when you’re not doing research? What kind of stuff do you like to do?
From the very beginning of grad school, yoga was something that I did every day, and I continue to do so. Also living in the city of Chicago, there are so many things to do. I’ve always been a fan of all types of music, and I love going to concerts, so what little extra cash that I may have, I pretty much always use to go to concerts. Besides that, volunteering with the Science Club at the Boys and Girls Club has been really rewarding, as you know!
Can you describe Science Club for people who might not know what that is?
Science Club is part of Northwestern University’s initiative to reach out to underprivileged kids and underserved communities in Chicago, in partnership with the Boys and Girls Club. We go to the True Value Boys and Girls Club in Pilsen, a lower income neighborhood in South Chicago, and work with 4th and 5th graders, teaching them science concepts in a hands-on approach. We try to get them to think of a research idea and how to carry out their ideas and test them with research experiments. We teach them concepts that might be difficult for a 4th and 5th grader, but because they are kids, they are so eager to learn, and they grasp these ideas so quickly. They’re bright kids. You’re also trying to create a more informal relationship with them – not as a teacher, but more of a friend. And it’s cool to see them let loose and feel free to share their ideas.
Where do you see yourself in the next five years?
I quickly realized in my first year of being a teaching assistant and being in the research world that I wasn’t going to be a great fit for academia. From then, I had to figure out “What do I really want to do after I graduate?” and “What are my options?” I started to think about the type of lifestyle that I wanted to live, and to assess what’s important for me to progress in my life. One of the first things that came to mind in a possible career is that I needed some sort of change, something I could constantly be challenged by and be progressing towards. And of course I also want to incorporate my science training and background in any way that I can. And I’ve always had an interest in business and management, stemming from what my parents do for a living and growing up around that. So I was thinking, “How could I combine these things?” And I came across consulting.
I had this really cool opportunity to do an internship over the summer at a consulting firm, working in their life sciences sector with pharmaceutical, biotech, and medical device companies. I worked on projects related to taking a certain type of a drug to a market, and how to assess its market opportunity. To be able to do that, it really helps to have an understanding of what that product does from a biological standpoint. Working on those projects, I was reading as many, if not more, scientific papers than I had been in lab. So I knew from that experience this is something that’s unique, because I’m able to integrate both science and management. I’m also very in touch with the science from the clinical side, which is so different from the “basic science’ cell bio that I’ve been working on for my graduate research. I think that is really where I see myself, at least now. But of course, I’m sure that will change at some point!
What do you think are some of your transferable skills, and how were you able to market yourself to a consulting firm?
It’s really the same question as “What do I find interesting as a PhD student?” It’s that constant challenge of always pushing yourself to troubleshoot new things when you may have very little idea of what is going on. In consulting, or any job, you require those same “not-afraid-to-fail” troubleshooting skills. It could be in a project or an interpersonal relationship with a coworker. The stepping stone of successfully passing my prelim really gave me that confidence to say “Ok, if I get flustered or don’t know how to solve something, it’s ok.” And I’m ok being in that space. Because at the end of the day I’m confident that I’m going to be able to find a way out of it. And I think the struggle of constantly failing at experiments have really taught me that! (laughs) So I think that’s really the transferable skill. To be able to be resourceful. To not be afraid to ask people for help when you need it.
Do you have any advice for other PhD students?
Again – don’t be afraid to fail. I’ve learned so much more from failing than the times that I’ve “won.” Failing for me has always been a learning experience. And because I know I’m going to grow from that, the fear of failing diminishes very quickly. And that’s really empowering.