Diya Das, PGSS 2007

Both interviewee and interviewer are alumni of PGSS ‘07

More about Diya’s work and research can be found on her website:

So, could you describe a bit about where you are now, a little over a decade post-PGSS?

I’m in my final year of grad school at UC Berkeley. I’m doing a PhD in Molecular & Cell Biology in John Ngai’s lab and I’m also a Moore/Sloan Data Science Fellow at the Berkeley Institute for Data Science.

I study the olfactory epithelium – the tissue that’s responsible for your sense of smell. The olfactory epithelium contains neurons which detect odors, but the tissue is also susceptible to damage, and the neurons are replaced regularly. My work primarily focuses on the stem cells that are activated by severe injury. We’re studying these processes at the level of single cells, so there’s a lot of data analysis! I’ve primarily analyzed single-cell RNA-sequencing data, and my experimental colleagues have done further experiments to validate predictions made from sequencing data. This whole project has been very multidisciplinary – biologists, computer scientists, and statisticians are all involved.

Interesting!  I’d love to talk just about this, but it wouldn’t as much good for alumni association.  However, I am curious — how did you get interested in this to begin with?

I actually wanted to be a physicist – I was on the chaos theory project at PGSS! It really stemmed from a desire to do some sort of applied math, but more committed to a particular domain. I didn’t realize how much math biologists did until I got to college, where I spent the first year trying to decide between math, physics and biology.

The freshman molecular biology course had a series of modules at the end of the semester that were taught by various professors in the department, and the neuroscience module I signed up for was taught by Sam Wang. He was an engaging lecturer and answered a lot of my questions, so I decided to ask if I could work for him during the summer. He was kind enough to say yes, and that’s how I spent the next three years in his lab. I had a little programming experience from high school, which I found to be helpful for my project, and I learned the rest as I was going along.

It really was a process, then.  How did, if at all, your experience at PGSS factor into this process?

Before PGSS, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to study history or science. At PGSS, I had a chance to work with very motivated and talented peers, and I enjoyed it. I decided that if science meant working on team projects to discover new things and problem sets like ours where I could both give and receive help, then it would be a fun thing to do.

True that!  But PGSS wasn’t the first summer science “event” that you had been at, right?  How did it vary from your previous experiences in giving you this “jump-off” realization?

My previous experiences were more course-based, and fairly individual approaches. They were designed to bump me up to the advanced science classes – so they focused on facts and general knowledge, but less so on the process of discovery. I think the team research projects are one of the best parts of PGSS. You learn “how to do scientific research,” which is rather different from being in a classroom.

Seems like there’s a need for that sort of an experience too — I am almost surprised it is so unique!  Would you say that that experience, specifically that takeaway, is part of what led you to ask a neuroscience professor if you could work with him?  In other words, how have you seen that experience mature and express itself over time?

Absolutely! It’s still a bit different from joining a research lab, but it was great, because we were all at the same level, and Barry Luokkala and Jared Rinehimer (our TA) gave our group a lot of freedom to explore the aspects that interested us. 

When I came to grad school, I was hoping to work on team projects and that came about rather nicely when there was room for another data analyst with a biology background in this collaboration.

So, would you say that the fact that you had acquired a very interdisciplinary skill set was, in a sense, the result of that original encouragement to go, explore, and discover, which was later encouraged and nourished by good faculty and great opportunities to exercise those skills?

Ha, you are very good at being succinct! (Yes.)

What sort of a team are you working with now?

In lab, still working with the current team! We recently celebrated two papers published and one submission, but there are still data to be analyzed.

I’m also involved with a couple groups outside of lab. I’m Co-Director of Beyond Academia, a grad student and postdoc run organization that informs our peers about career options outside the tenure track, and helps them translate their skills to acquire those jobs. I’m also a member of the Career Paths & Alternative Metrics Working Group at BIDS [Berkeley Institute for Data Science] which assesses career paths and needs for all sorts of data scientists within academia. 

BIDS is a really great place! I’d been going there for awhile, teaching as part of The Hacker Within (a peer learning group on scientific computing), but as a Fellow, I’ve had many more opportunities to interact with researchers across the university, across many disciplines. It’s been enormously helpful to have a group of colleagues whom I can ask for advice when my work ventures into areas that are new to me. 

In our working group, which is chaired by the dean of the school of public policy, we have two ethnographers, a German PhD student, and a member of Research IT, a group I’ve come to rely on to support my HPC usage. 

That’s a pretty impressive group — it’s neat to see how many disciplines have been pulled together for this.  As it should be, in a sense.

And that’s just our working group!  The full Fellows cohort is even more diverse, discipline-wise.

Beyond Academia’s also turned out to be quite amazing in that respect – we have grad students from a lot of disciplines, both humanities/social sciences and STEM fields. It’s really interesting to hear how our experiences in grad school are similar – and also different!  We also see this at our annual conference – we’ve had over 100 speakers, and for our 20 industry-specific panels, we’ve been able to represent quite an array of PhD disciplines on each (you can get to the same place in so many different ways!). 

Before all this, I used to help plan a science conference for middle school girls with women grad students in science across the university.  I should probably have mentioned that sooner, as it’s the closest thing to PGSS I’ve contributed to.  It was just a one-day event, but it was almost entirely hands-on workshops to help girls maintain their interest in science.

That’s fair.  But it does bring up a query that I’ve been wondering about.  Women in STEM fields — or rather, what stops them from going into STEM fields — has been something that I’ve been wondering “why” about.  Not that we need to nail down an answer here — as you allude to, it’s a complex question that could have varied answers — but how would something like the science conference you helped to plan or PGSS help more women find STEM fields as an acceptable or even exciting place to go into?

I think it always comes down to a question of role models! I was thinking about that today, in terms of how I ended up exactly where I am, despite struggling with impostor syndrome.  When you don’t feel qualified for the job, it’s difficult to even apply – and seeing people who look like you and have the same background as you is one step closer to breaking down that barrier.

But once people have reached those positions, it’s important that there are also efforts addressing retention. Some institutions have cultural components that are unfriendly towards women and underrepresented groups, and unless that changes, they’re going to lose a lot of very talented people.

Fair enough.  So something like PGSS has this, where I can think of people like Michelle Ntampaka, Laura Anzaldi, and the other TAs (I am forgetting several, I know, from 2007), who are all encouragements to get started — not to mention the environment of PGSS itself – and that idea needs to be carried forward.

Yes, I’d say so! I’ve worked in a lot of areas that have benefited from a diversity of perspectives, and the people I’ve worked with are immensely talented people who didn’t have to choose that particular problem or the particular group to do meaningful and impactful work. If the organizational culture hadn’t been one where they felt they could participate, we would have lost a great deal.

In fact, I’d say that PGSS was instrumental in this regard, in terms of fostering an environment where people with shared interests but from different backgrounds could work together. I learned a lot from my peers (like you!) during the program, and that’s not something that I’d appreciated would happen when I first applied. However, I’m fairly certain that many PGSS alumni have similar stories, and I hope that future Pennsylvania high school students will have the opportunity to say the same.