Anjali Pandey

November 22, 2023

Abigail Arnold | Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Geeking Out With…is a new feature in which we talk to GSAS students about their passions. In case you missed the September 2023 and October 2023 Geeking Out With..., you can check them out now.

Anjali Pandey is a fifth-year PhD student in the Molecular and Cell Biology program. She is a member of the Sengupta Lab, which studies how the worm C. elegans responds to different kinds of sensory stimuli, such as chemicals and temperature. Anjali joined Geeking Out With…to talk about her passion for her research and communicating science through story-telling. Her research project looks at how the worms respond to odorants (chemicals) that are produced by the bacteria they eat. They can be attracted to an odorant in one context and repulsed by the same odorant in another context, and she investigates which molecules in the neuron are involved. “What’s really cool about C. elegans,” Anjali says, “is that, technically, it doesn’t have a brain. It just has around 300 neurons, so each neuron has to do a lot of heavy lifting.”

How did you first become interested in science?

I was interested in science, starting with physics, from a young age, based on watching lots of Nova documentaries. I also watched a more biology-focused Scientific American show with Alan Alda. He is such a good science communicator! From watching the two, I became really interested in brains and in space. As a kid, and as an adult too, whenever anyone tells you a good story, you really want to listen. The desire to communicate my science well goes along with my desire to do science–you can have more impact that way.

In sixth grade, I had a really passionate science teacher, Mrs. Campbell, and we did crazy experiments. We extracted DNA from strawberries and iron from cereal, walked on lines on the floor to mirror the path of veins and arteries, and poked a cow’s heart. Teachers doing weird things really sticks with you! In high school, I took biology and AP Biology with Mr. Wood, a teacher who was passionate and would put in a lot of effort into his lectures and experiments. It was really fun to be in that class and learn from him. Once, he had us bring pens in different colors and draw lines on paper; we then put termites on the paper and saw how, even though they are blind, they can follow the lines. We also transformed green fluorescent protein from jellyfish into bacteria.

From your overall interest in science, how did you come to your current project?

I like all kinds of biology, regardless of the topic. If you give me an interesting problem, I just want to solve it! Over my scientific career, I’ve worked on many different types of biological questions. I first worked in cell biology in industry, and I think cells are my favorite level to study. I also worked on proteins and then worked in mosquitoes as a technician for two years after finishing undergrad, on a project that used their genetics and neural systems to study their host-seeking behavior. Now, in grad school, I’m working on a different organism but in a similar field. Sensory biology was something very new to me, as it was not covered in depth in high school or college. There was a huge learning curve, but it’s really fun. Everyone can relate to or understand it–we all have senses–so it’s an easy story to tell.

What do you especially like about working with C. elegans?

Worms are the coolest kind of organism! You can freeze them for many, many years and then thaw them, and they will start to move again. You can bleach them and get rid of their bacteria–if you bleach adult worms, their entire body except for the eggs inside disintegrates, and then the eggs hatch without bacteria. C. elegans are also an excellent model because they are transparent and simple. They grow in three and a half days, which makes for quicker experiments–and I’m kind of an impatient person. Mosquitoes, which I worked with previously, don’t have as many genetic tools available to understand them; there’s more information we know about worms and more tools we can use to answer specific questions. It’s great to be able to ask all of these questions and do the experiments you want.

You’ve mentioned your interest in telling stories. Why do you think science communication is so important, and how have you worked to make yourself a compelling science communicator?

Storytelling is really about practice, both on a larger time scale throughout your career and in a shorter time scale when you’re preparing for a presentation. I think it’s really important to give good presentations because everyone shows up to listen to you, and I believe time is the most valuable resource we have. I want to respect the audience’s time and be able to communicate my passion and science to them. A lot of times, science can be very exclusionary and scientists use a lot of jargon, but the point of language and vocabulary is to communicate! It’s a nice tool we have and we should use it responsibly. You should assume everyone has the ability to understand something if you explain it concisely and simply. It’s also important to have a good hook–if you start with something the audience is familiar with and can connect to, they can follow you from there. You can lose your audience quickly in the beginning, so you need to show them why they should care (besides being forced to be there).

It can be hard to give a good presentation, but I’ve used a lot of skills I’ve learned from both the science world and the storytelling world. I was a big reader as a kid, and I also love TV shows and movies, so I partially take inspiration from those storytellers. I’ve also watched a lot of science communication YouTube videos–It’s Okay to Be Smart and SciShow–which do a great job using graphics to support their scientific ideas. When I was a technician, I also had good role models, the grad students and post-docs in my lab, who prioritized communication and I learned from them.

You communicated your research in the 2023 Brandeis Three Minute Thesis competition, in which you were a finalist. What was that experience like?

It was a lot of fun! I went to the information session for 3MT and thought the concept sounded so cool. I often think about the quotation, “I apologize for such a long letter - I didn't have time to write a short one,” which is usually attributed to Mark Twain. The more time you have to work on something, the more you can chip away at it like a sculpture. In my field, I usually give fifteen to twenty-five minute talks, which doesn’t seem like enough–but even Shakespeare didn’t write monologues that long! So three minutes is a really nice amount of time, and I liked the structure you could follow: hook, meat, and greater significance. This should be the structure for a longer talk too. I also liked that it was aimed at a general audience. I’m usually in the lab, but I have friends in all sorts of disciplines and don’t want to limit my research interests to just scientists at Brandeis. I also like to share my research with my family, with whom I don’t even always have a common science vocabulary, as some of my family speak Hindi. Animals are nice for a general audience because everyone knows what a worm is and I can show pictures. For me, the competition was being able to engage people who don’t think about science day to day and to get them excited about it on a micro-level, as my teachers did for me. I think there needs to be more general scientific knowledge, and as a society, we’ve done a very bad job with that. But as a grad student, I can do my part within this community.

You work in a collaborative field. How do you like that aspect of your work?

I really love the collaborative aspects. People think that when you’re in the lab, you’re sitting quietly at the bench doing your work, but I’m pretty chatty and I can’t contain the information I’ve learned–I have to share it immediately! I get to practice communication in a low-stakes way by sharing everything I’ve learned with whoever is around. Academia, where we have our own projects, might seem less collaborative than working on a team in industry, but I think it’s what you make of it. I can get people invested in things that matter to me, and I will get invested in things that matter to them. To have people who are experts in their fields working around you and not to use them as a resource is just silly; they help you and you help them--that’s how communities work. This happens in lab meetings but also in the moment. I’m very nosy about other people’s projects, so I’ll ask them what they’re doing. It’s a way of showing affection and care.

What resources have helped you in exploring your interests, and how do you feel you’ve changed as a scientist over time?

When I first interviewed at Brandeis, I told my mentor how it went, and he pointed out that I said the students were happy, which I didn’t say about other schools. Everyone in the community here is very motivated to help others–you’re never able to really repay your mentors and can only pass it along to the next generation. That philosophy shows up in so many ways at Brandeis with official and unofficial mentorships. Having that kind of mindset and philosophy is so critical.

When more advanced graduate students leave, it’s very scary in the beginning because they’ve been your support. Once they’re gone, your training wheels are gone–you have to be that support for other people and also stumble and figure things out for yourself. That can be the case no matter where you are in the program. It’s also really fun to be sitting in lab or lecture and realize you know more than the previous time you’ve heard about something or you understand what you didn’t last year. When you’re able to add something of value or make a suggestion to someone in lab, that’s another moment of “I understand things and can give feedback on them,” so that’s pretty fun. In graduate school, you’re working a little more obsessively than before–thinking about your work more often and delving into the science more. When you’re a technician or an undergrad, the people around you are usually more advanced than you, but in graduate school you have a lot of peers with similar abilities but expertise in different fields and can get feedback from them as well. That helps with having a different kind of community.

When you’re not in the lab or presenting your research, what do you like to do?

I love watching shows, movies, plays, and musicals; listening to podcasts; and reading books–anything I can get a good story from. I also really like being outside, walking, hiking, and biking. I like all the seasons in New England and enjoy hating them as they go along.

What advice do you have for other students exploring their passions?

Really know yourself or spend time figuring out what you like and don’t like. I’m a very decisive person, so I have strong opinions about everything. You have to be honest with yourself about what you do and don’t like and why. That will really help you figure out what your passions are. In addition, be open to being passionate about many things. Maybe a passion will fade, so be open to changing and not being stuck in what you thought you would be.

Self-advocacy is also very important in grad school. As you’re figuring out who you are, advocate for yourself and your ideas. You should take advice from all different kinds of people and experts, but the advice might be aligned with their values and priorities rather than yours. Knowing what yours are will always serve you well, so that you know if you make a mistake it was yours to make and you don’t regret not following your own opinion.