Niba Nirmal (@notesbyniba)
Graduating from Duke Graduate School
Pursuing SciComm full time!
What was your journey in STEM? How did you first get interested in STEM? Why did you want to pursue it?
From the time I was really young, I was always really interested in exploring and learning new things. I think that's something that sometimes the academic system takes away, but I was really lucky that I had some pretty sweet schools and some really awesome teachers. I actually switched schools every single year when I was growing up and then high school, so I wasn’t completely interested in STEM until I started getting experiences in the STEM fields that I was interested in. That was what really helped me understand, which part of STEM I would be interested in originally. I wanted to be a doctor and then the summer after high school, I did an internship at a local hospital, and working there, I had just so much respect for all the doctors, but I very quickly realized it was just not the type of job for me.
I enjoy making my own hours having control over when and where I do things. I also volunteered at a cat shelter, an animal rehabilitation center, and a farm, helping with Monarch Butterfly migration. This was all before I even started college because I just didn't like school. It wasn't anything terrible, but I just really liked having these like hands on experiences. Once I got to college (UC Davis), I continued this, so within my very first month I joined a research lab that was studying the effects of increased carbon dioxide on plants. I was really interested in understanding climate change and where humanity would go with that and how we would respond. I actually ended up working in that lab all four years of college, which is not something I had intended to do, but I found that I just really loved the people and I really loved the research.
In that environment, I was able to ask questions and get information without any judgment; it was just really invaluable. Then, I started, applying for fellowships and awards because I wanted to get paid for the amount of work that I was doing. At UC Davis, I won the Beckman Scholarship, the Provost Fellowship, and a number of UC Davis undergraduate awards.
My senior year, the UCs had a research showcase, which I was chosen for. I wanted to continue this, so I decided to continue on and get my PhD. I started my PhD at Duke university and I ended up working in the lab of someone who was related to the previous lab and the Brady Lab that I was when. So, um, I was working in Philippine fee's lab and I was studying the ways that, um, roots kind of form like their architecture.
Unfortunately, due to some life circumstances this year, I decided to leave my PhD with a Master's.
Right now, I'm working at Stanford at SLAC, which is the linear accelerator laboratory. I'm working in the like x-ray division, basically switching into just doing science communication.
My specialty is creating a social media and video, so I have my own YouTube channel. After I finished here, I'm going to be working at the Ecological Society of America, helping them with social media.
Did you have any particular role models growing up and if so, who were they and how did they influence you?
This might tie into some major setbacks, but I grew up as an Indian immigrant in Silicon Valley and so people look at me and assume that I have rich Silicon Valley parents. But the reality is that I had like one struggling single mother and that's part of the reason that I switched schools every single year growing up, which made it quite difficult to make friends, connect to teachers, etc.
When I was an undergrad, I actually took on a diversity studies minor as well. And I met this professor there who opened my eyes to all these things that I had been dealing with and contextualizing them in the broader scale of colonialism, so Professor Sunaina Maira was one of my first role models.
Also, the Brady Lab was run by Dr. Siobhan Brady who was absolutely incredible for taking me on as a 17-year-old when I joined her lab. There, I worked very closely with Dr. Sharon Gray and ___ a postdoc at the lab, who would also look over my applications. These mentors were always so willing to listen and understand, so they were huge role models for me.
When I went to grad school, I worked in the lab of dr. Phil Ben fi who Siobhan had worked with before. Phillip had a very scientific way of approaching the world, which I think was quite incredible, and I realized that you can approach everything via the scientific method, whether that's training your cats or you working out.
Did you ever think of doing something else, other than STEM?
For a while, I thought I wanted to be a writer and that was like a big dream of mine to publish a novel. I've actually been journaling for, almost seven years now, so I've thought about maybe making like a memoir or some sort.
Do you have a favorite science joke? If so, what is it?
To be honest, I am on a lot of science meme websites, and I really enjoy those! I'm in like every single one of those meme Facebook groups because they're just absolutely fabulous.
What’s your message for young teens wanting to go into STEM or science communication?
I would say that it would be the same as my message for just young teens interested in having a career - try and get experience in whatever it is you want to do. Regardless of whether it's STEM or if it's painting or owning a business, try to get experience in it. There are so many STEM careers and communication careers, and just careers in general that you never really knew existed.
I went from modeling to being a scientist to being in science communication.
In order to get some scientific experience in college, I think I emailed 40 places, and most of them didn't even respond, and only one offered me a lab position. There are so many failures hidden behind the scenes, but the fact is, everyone goes through them, which is something I wish school taught. I also wished that school placed more emphasis on improvement as opposed to getting something right.
What can be done to make STEM more diverse?
I think there's a lot that can be done. My pronouns are she/her/hers. I'm a queer woman of color, first generation immigrants, low-income. I think first of all, visibility is key, not just in terms of racial, ethnic diversity, but also in invisible minorities and people who are sexual gender minorities and people who are low income who are marginalized. There’s this tendency of thinking of diversity as like just how dark the color of the person's skin is or whether they're female, but that doesn't encapsulate the full experience.
It’s not quite the same way in industry because in industry, the people who excel are not really guaranteed a spot the way that tenure works in academia, so there are a lot of movements that are trying to like make STEM more diverse at the like student level. But that inherently comes with like a lot of challenges, because students don’t have as much power as professors. Also, some students are scared to speak up because they might then be limited in terms of STEM opportunities.
I joined this organization called MUSE Mentorship a couple months ago, and it was a network of people in STEM who have been historically marginalized by STEM. Talking to them about their experiences was incredibly valuable and helpful for me.
A huge thank you to Niba for joining us today! Be sure to subscribe to receive more STEM-related content coming to your inbox.