Deepa Rao is currently a Ph.D. candidate in biological oceanography at MIT who studies the oceans’ microbial communities. As a woman who uses technology to conduct impactful research on how we view our marine life, Deepa has learned various lessons along the way on how to seek mentors and encourage girls around the world to pursue challenging and rewarding careers in STEM. But first, let’s learn about Deepa’s research on microbial communities, and how she simplifies them through building models.
“We (My fellow researchers and I) create models of these different microbial types and put them into a three-dimensional ocean model. Since these organisms are plankton, they drift along with ocean currents and are subject to physical mixing. By creating representative models of the phytoplankton and bacteria in the ocean ecosystem, we hope to understand what controls their communities and productivity, which has major implications for ocean food webs and climate,” described Deepa.
Her work specifically focuses on creating representations of positive interactions (production of vitamin B12) within a microbial community, compared to the more common models dealing with negative interactions (competition, predation, etc.). Vitamin B12 is only produced by bacteria and archaea. This means that eukaryotic phytoplankton relies on marine bacteria to produce this essential vitamin, hinting at an important interaction.
When asked about the challenges she’s faced in her STEM career, she admits that she has been lucky to “not have many external challenges”, but instead more mentor-oriented ones.
Deepa further explained, “I think the biggest challenge I’ve faced is seeking out good mentors. It takes many emails, meetings, and discussions to find someone who not only shares your research interests, but is also able to help you grow, and has the resources (and time) to support you as a student. I have been fortunate to find several great mentors who continue to guide me along my scientific path.”
But apart from the mentors that have helped her along the way, Deepa has found continuous inspiration in American scientist Carl Sagan.
In her words, “Not only was he a great scientist, but he was also an exemplary humanist. Now, more than ever, we need strong voices in the scientific community to stand up against ‘alternative facts’ or mistrust of scientific evidence. Carl Sagan was a great voice for science and inspired millions through his books and show Cosmos.”
Additionally, Deepa is also motivated and inspired by her advisors, colleagues, and Mother Nature.
In regards to the latter, she said, “4+ billion years of evolution has resulted in many adaptations that are an endless source of inspiration to me!”
Her advice to women who wish to pursue careers in STEM includes following your passion and engaging in interdisciplinary approaches to problem-solving.
“…Whether in lab pouring media or checking in on microbial cultures, or at the desk trying to debug code, science can be tedious. If you are passionate about the problem you are trying to solve, you will reach for the end goal instead of being bogged down by some of the more mundane tasks. … The most exciting scientific problems are often at the interface between two traditional fields. Expanding your interests allows you to form novel connections and find inspiration in other fields.”
You can read more about Deepa’s research on her website: http://deepa.mit.edu/