Neha SArode, Ph.D.
Decision Science lead, computational biologist
Harvard/The Girguis Lab
This biotech researcher found the sweet spot among engineering, computer science, and microbiology.
Neha told me, "When you mentioned this was for people who might not trust their ability or don't believe they have a pathway to science, well -- I was in that position." She continues, "I distinctly remember sometimes in middle school or the equivalent in India, I don't know why the message got in my head that the only thing I could do as a career was be someone's secretary." She's grateful that her father was focused on educating his daughters, to the point where the only books he allowed them to buy were textbooks or other educational books -- never novels. "He said, 'Don't think about [being a secretary], you can do whatever you want.' I was encouraged to make my choices, and [my parents] were supportive."
In high school, biology and physics were Neha's strongest subjects. "Everywhere else, I had to try much harder, and I wouldn't do great." So she chose science, even though "In India you are either an engineer or a doctor if you do science." "I chose microbiology! I love that stuff. I would read it and I would just know it."
Neha studied in India, going to Abasaheb Garware College for her bachelor's degree, and the University of Pune for her master's in bioinformatics. "Going abroad to study was an impossible dream for me," she says, but goes on to describe a fortuitous palm reading. "You will go abroad," the astrologist doing Neha's reading said. Neha thought, "Oh, I'll go on a world tour." But one day she asked her father if studying overseas was an option for her. Up until then, she'd been living with her parents, never independently. "I knew it was going to be a significant expense. It was expensive to even take the exam, as well as to physically ship out applications in envelopes to U.S. universities, and to pay the application fees. The exchange rate is enormous.
"I asked Dad, 'Hey, is this something you think you can help with?' He said, 'Yes, but I can't afford to pay your tuition fees. The only thing I can afford is your airplane ticket, and I can give you some money, but then everything else will have to be on you own.'"
Neha gave the matter some thought. "People around me were saying, 'You can do this," so I put my hat in the ring and applied to five places. I only got accepted to two. The University of Tennessee Knoxville was one of them. It had a new course called Genome Sciences and Technology -- GST. They were offering teaching assistantships (working as a teacher in exchange for tuition)." Everything fell into place. "I don't think my Dad believed it until that point. But one of the people who were encouraging me was a really great friend who is now my husband. He was applying as well."
Caste and Country
Naha recalls, "I've always been aware that I'm not of a particularly high caste (a level of India's social hierarchy). I have a group of good friends who all belong to a higher caste. If you belonged to a lower caste they would have a quota where you could come in. It was a matter of pride for me saying, 'Hey, I didn't come in through any quota, I applied and got in.' And someone turned around and said, 'Then you took a seat away from people like me.' " This confused Neha. "I thought, if I went through the quota, they would minimize my intellect and my place, thinking I just got in because of the quota. There's no way I'm winning. And these people were my good friends! Those kinds of incidents jar you, and make you say, 'Fine! I am here!'"
"Honestly, if you read the news," Neha says now, "there are places in industry in India where caste-based bias exists now. There was a big news article about someone who came from a really, really low caste. His managers were keeping opportunities away from him because of that, not treating him right."
Some of her friends at the University of Pune were studying to take the GRE. "They were saying, 'You can go outside [India], you will get better opportunities.'" Up until then, Neha felt held back by discrimination because of her caste. "I saw students from all levels of background studying for the GRE, because it was something where you really get in not because you belong to a particular group, but because of your qualifications."
To Tennessee from New Bombay was a big cultural jump. "It's one of those things where, when you put oil drops in water, the oil drops kind of find each other and form a large pool. I think that's what happened to the student community there. There was a residence area where I found Indian people from different communities, languages, and lifestyles, and people from others countries, too." Neha made friends from China, Korea, Afghanistan, even Pakistan. She explains, "Pakistan and India always have this kind of tussle going on, but here everyone was like, 'Oh, that's back home. But here we are all together, let's stick together.' It was a phenomenal experience."
"I get my presence of mind from my mom," Neha says. "She was into politics and she was whip-smart." In her interactions with people, Neha's mother projected the attitude of "Just because I'm wearing a sari doesn't mean I'm weak."
"She was also very strict with me," Neha recalls. "Sometimes I've noticed this with women in science as well. Women are like, 'I've had to struggle, you've got to know I struggled.' That's how my mom was, as wel.. She was like, 'I struggled. This is going to be hard for you. I'm just trrying to make sure you're aware of the hardships you're going to face.' My mom was like, 'Don't show anyone your weakness.' If I was crying, shed be like, 'No.'" She didn't give Neha hugs and kisses while she was growing up; Neha relied on her dad for that. And she's amazed that people now tell her she's like her mom. "I don't hold back my thoughts, even if it might be a little hard for people to hear what I tell them -- but I'll also be there to rub their back if they need me."
At Georgia Tech, Neha did her postdoctoral work in Frank Stewart's lab. "Lord! I made so many mistakes!" After being a student without access to basic machines, Neha now faced the challenge of learning to use a new DNA sequencer -- high tech, cutting edge stuff. "Every day, Frank would say, 'Did it work?' And I would say, "Sorry, it failed.' I think it failed for at least a month. I grew very depressed. I was like, oh my god."
But Frank sat with Neha and said, "Let's see. Am I disappointed it's not working? Yes. But it's not not working for your lack of trying or for your making ridiculous mistakes. It's a difficult problem you're trying to solve, so if it becomes an issue I'll let you know, but for now I just want you to keep trying. And eventually I did make it work."
It was bad enough being far from her family, but when Neha heard that her husband had been offered a position in Boston, she faced a long-distance relationship with him, too. She told Frank Stewart that she could stay for six months, but after that she'd be going to Boston, too. "When Frank suggested I try Harvard, I said, "Harvard?! Are you out of your mind?" Frank said, 'Just all to Pete Girguis once. Let him be the judge. Don't knock yourself down before you even try. Pete's at Harvard, he's not dumb! If he chooses you, then there's some reason behind it.'"
And she got in. "To go from one nurturing environment to another was a stroke of luck. I've been fortunate through my life to be surrounded with people who have faith in me. If you have enough of those people, then you can let it slip away that some people doubt you. For every four that doubt you, there are ten out there who are there to have your back."