Microbiologist, Associate Professor of Biology
Washington University, St. Louis
Feeling that microbes got a bad rap as pathogens, she looked for their benefits — the first step on a path that led her from her home in India to a new life in the U.S.
As a masters student in India, work on the microbes that cause tuberculosis (a big problem in India and worldwide) led to too many unpleasant experiences working with animals. The emphasis on microbes as disease-causing pathogens created a negative feeling about the microbiology Arpita loved. So she sought out a graduate program that involved a ground-breaking study of archaea — which has turned science on its head — where she feels she can contribute more positively to the world.
School or Salary?
A Strange Email
Left in The Lurch
School or Salary?
After winning the Presidential Gold Medal for her undergraduate work in India, Arpita was offered a job in pharmaceuticals. As always, Arpita asked for advice from her parents, who invited her to live at home to save money while attending school. The pharmaceutical company pursued her even after she left for the U.S. to attend graduate school, and proved especially tempting after a bad experience with an exam.
While Arpita had loved graduate school, she wondered if this experience had racial or sexist roots, and soon observed other instances of discrimination, including some pointed out to her by other Asians.
Tired and upset, Arpita faced a tough decision. Her mentor suggested that she keep going for her Ph.D., taking it a semester at a time. Arpita ended up with a good graduate school experience, including lots of publications, and finds community in graduate school, saying some of her best friendships were established on campus, including a Filipino roommate, other Filipinos and Indians, and the man who will eventually become her husband.
Left in the Lurch
Arpita moved to Boston with her husband, and joined the a lab at MIT, which sponsored her for her changed immigration status. But when her mentor decided to leave MIT, “I was in deep soup!” Arpita recalls. Then she got a call from Peter Girguis, an oceanographer and biologist at Harvard. He asked whether she was open to a conversation about working with him. At first, Arpita was reluctant. “I knew about Pete’s research. I’d been thinking about his lab when I was applying for postdoctoral work. But he’s an oceanographer at heart. I thought he would be so disappointed in a person like me, because the last thing I’d ever want to do is oceanography — I’m too scared I’ll get seasick! I grew up in a very land-locked part of the world. It wouldn’t be a good match.” But she gave it a try… Read on!
As Arpita was growing up, she tried a great many possible choices — music, drama, medicine, architecture, and more. She often went to talk to people who were involved in those fields, getting advice from professionals on what their work required. She was always looking for “a match.” Ultimately she followed her own heart into the field she became “crazy addicted to.” She found it by looking back at an early high school experience that had thrilled her, and returning to that discipline (microbiology). Nowadays she’s involved with a program that partners Washington University with a local high school. Again, read on!
A Strange Email
Arpita had moved to St. Louis, Missouri, to start her own laboratory and teach at Washington University. “St. Louis has a few divides,” she says. She describes the drive from the city of St. Louis to East St. Louis. “It’s apocalyptic. It’s hard to imagine how anyone lives there.” In other areas she saw evidence of “white flight,” a condition of poverty and violence resulting from businesses and residents abandoning an area. When she received a one-sentence email from a teacher at Gateway Science Academy, she almost didn’t reply. “It was written in broken English. It took me a while to figure out what the person was trying to say. I thought it might be a scam.” But she answered, “I’d be happy to meet you.” She invited the teacher to visit her.
Gateway is a magnet school for science students, including some of the best in the St. Louis high school system. “He said, ‘I want my students to have an experience in an elite school like Wash. U. Many of them dream of being part of the undergraduate body here, but many of them don’t have good childhood experiences, or support at home.” Arpita gladly invited the students to come to Wash. U. to do lab work, but had a realization: “All the high schoolers that end up doing well and getting into elite schools essentially volunteer their time.” But Gateway kids worked multiple jobs to make ends meet.
So Gateway and Arpita’s lab partnered to apply for funding to pay the kids to do lab work at Wash U.
It wasn’t just money that kept some Gateway students from becoming successful. Arpita learned from other scientists how it felt to have the impostor syndrome — and observed it firsthand with one Gateway student whose immediate response to the program was that they would never fit in, that they didn’t belong. “They were plainly in the zone where they were trying to identify where they were. They came into our construct and immediately pulled the plug. I didn’t even get to talk to them. And they didn’t talk to many people in the lab.” The experience saddened her. “This student didn’t give this experience a chance, but they love science — and this is where science is done.” Her advice: give something more than just one chance. That’s a responsibility that you have to take on yourself. Maybe — like some food — it’ll taste awful to you, but at least you’ll know.”