“My journey of discovering my passion for research” – Akanksha Manghrani, Ph.D. Student, Duke University

Hi there ! I am Akanksha Manghrani and I graduated with an Integrated Master’s degree in Chemistry with a minor in Biosciences in 2018. I am currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Biochemistry at Duke University, school of medicine. 

My Flair for Chemistry

I decided to pursue chemistry mainly because while preparing for JEE I had a vague realization that I liked understanding the laws of thermodynamics and their applications in predicting the probability of occurrence of physical phenomenon better than solving differential equations or understanding magnetic fields (On a side note: Ironically, my current lab is an NMR pioneer and so I do revere magnetic fields more now than I did back then)! I would not say I was passionate about chemistry because I do not think I understood what passion meant when I had to make a decision to choose what I wanted to study in college. I am only beginning to understand that now and I would say it was pure serendipity that chemistry, particularly biochemistry did turn out to be one of the things I became passionate about and continue to be amazed by. I am currently working on nucleic acid structural dynamics with Dr. Hashim M. Al-Hashimi and really enjoy the research. 

Research life 

In the lab, we focus on understanding the structural flexibility of nucleic acids at atomic resolution and investigate its biological implications. What really drew me to the research was understanding biology in light of the motion of biomolecules rather than their static structures. We chiefly use state-of-the-art NMR techniques to investigate the presence of low abundance, short lived non-native nucleic-acid conformational states that are structurally different from the lowest energy ground state conformation and explore the biological significance of these non-native states. My current work combines NMR and another nucleic acid structure mapping method called chemical probing. Although chemical probing is not my lab’s forte (I hope it will be, by the time I graduate!!) My lab members and advisor have been very encouraging throughout. I am extremely fortunate to work with a group of curious and passionate individuals.

In pic: Charles river pier (Cambridge, Massachusetts). I went there to attend a workshop at MIT last spring.

We all learn together and look at each experimental protocol and result crucially. My labmates have not only taught me experimental techniques but also come with me to the whiteboard when I have struggled conceptually in experimental design. 

In my experience so far I have realized that the art of science lies in learning how to think and I believe my advisor Hashim does a great job at teaching it. He has helped me identify the basic principles of scientific reading, thinking and communicating. He is a passionate scientist and his enthusiasm is infectious. I have accomplished things, I never thought I could because he has believed in me and motivated me. My lab has given me the liberty to drive my own projects and develop a working style that works best for me. I have received extensive academic and emotional support from my advisor and lab members. My lab has become my family here !

Research exposure I got as an undergraduate 

I discovered very early on – when I was a sophomore at insti, that I liked studying how chemical reactions could create life. I soon became passionate about looking at biological systems through the lens of chemistry. I had the opportunity of working under Dr. Ruchi Anand  (Department of Chemistry, IIT Bombay) where I worked on multiple projects and received a good flavor of research in biochemistry. When I began working in her lab during the summer of my second year, I realized I needed more background in biology, to understand the research papers I was reading, and I decided to switch my minor from physics to biology. I took multiple courses in molecular biology, biochemistry, and biophysics and the synergy between biology and chemistry kept crystallizing in my mind. In the summer of my third year, I had the opportunity to work on UV- light-mediated DNA damage at the University of Alberta, Canada. This was my first experience as an individual researcher – I was reading papers to make hypotheses, designing experiments, troubleshooting protocols, and learning to communicate my findings. I realized then that this is what I wanted to do and in hindsight, I believe that is when I decided I would pursue a Ph.D. I think since then things have fallen into place – Dr. Anand and her lab have helped me tremendously to grow and learn. I am very grateful to her for believing in me and allowing me to be a part of one of her international collaborations, which was a great learning experience too.

In picture: Perkins library at Duke.The only one time it had snowed here in the last 2 years! 

Reflecting back on my journey so far

The journey from working with other graduate students on their thesis projects to now defending my own graduate thesis proposal has been so beyond my anticipation. The experience of studying something in such great depth that I can refer to it as my area of research, has been very rewarding. To quote my advisor Hashim “ Your ability to troubleshoot a failing experimental procedure depends on your ability to break it down into fundamental steps and optimize each of them.” As a graduate student I am in charge of first identifying and then optimizing each of those microsteps, which is so different from my undergraduate research experience where I needed to have a bird’s eye view on only a small portion of the entire problem. Now I have a bird’s eye view on each of these microsteps. It is overwhelming sometimes, because of the sense of attachment and belonging that develops as a result of devoting so much time and energy to the project. It is certainly exhausting sometimes, because the errors can arise from the least expected places. But most often research is exciting!

In picture: A pretty winter evening at Duke west campus. I like walking amidst the gothic architecture. 

Research culture in India Vs The States

I find science to be much more collaborative and interactive in the US than in India. In my personal experience so far, I have seen that each individual’s skill set is valued and people with complementary skill sets come together to do good science. People also interact a lot in seminars, journal clubs, etc. and I think sharing the scientific questions, which one is struggling with or talking about new ideas with their peers helps students get out of their own tiny universe and learn other people’s take on it. Interaction with the advisor is also much more extensive here than in India. We talk about the smallest of the problems we encounter while doing our experiments. I have realized no issue is too trivial to discuss with my advisor or other lab members. I really like how we are taught to pay attention to the finest of details and always strive to make our methods better. I also appreciate how there is a lot of emphasis on scientific communication- be it in progress reports, group meetings or seminar presentations, that I found missing oftentimes back in insti. We, at insti are not taught how to communicate our science efficiently, a skill I consider equally important as the science itself. Here, we work on holistic development and the structure is designed very systematically. We begin by learning how to read research papers, then we learn how to formulate a question, then design experiments to answer that question and then communicate effectively the answers we found.

Somewhere in the magnificient city of New York.

My other interests

I have always been an introvert and I struggled initially here in the United States where everyone seems to be so outgoing. I struggled with the small talk; I remember being amazed when the standard answer to “How was your weekend?” always “Great”! It made me think that I was missing the secret to a great life everyone else seemed to have access to. But gradually, I understood the cultural nuances and assembled a life here. I have found an amazing set of friends, bookstores, art workshops, dance classes, hiking trails, and cafes that I really love. I enjoy going to book reading events, art exhibits, and music concerts. I love art and literature. It is ironic that I have found myself engaging with my passions a lot more here in the US than I used to in insti. I have become a DIY enthusiast and I love making things.   

A Mumford and Sons concert I attended last spring.

Gratitude to Insti

Insti gave me the liberty to choose who I wanted to be. Insti gave me a great education, the opportunity to meet really wonderful people, and steered me towards a path I am happy to be on. Insti holds a very special place in my heart and I am very grateful for everything it has made possible for me.

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