Over the past six years, 65 percent of the 164 interns in the Plant Pathways Elucidation Project (P2EP) have been female. Most would say it’s an encouraging trend, supporting minority success in the growing fields of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). Few understand the value of this trend more than Neha Mittal, a student leader in the program who was born in India where the culture of education, particularly for women, is different than that of the United States.
Mittal describes her parents as culturally progressive with regard to education. Her father is a businessman and her mother a homemaker. She grew up in a joint
family residence they shared with her uncle’s family in a small town outside New Delhi, the capital city. The Mittals valued education for Neha and her younger sisters. Mittal explains that this is a different level of commitment compared to the United States due to the expectations and pressure to excel in school. She says, “The academic rigor does not allow for extracurricular activities. If you were to fall behind, you must work harder, put in more effort; you must catch up because mediocre is not acceptable.”
Despite being a successful student, her parents expected her to get married immediately after finishing her undergraduate degree. Neha convinced them to allow her to pursue a PhD in Forest Genetics. Upon completion of that degree, she worked as an assistant professor for one year in India before entering an arranged marriage, which brought her to North Carolina in 2013.
However, marriage didn’t halt Mittal’s academic aspirations. She is currently pursuing her second PhD in genomics in the Department of Biological Sciences at UNC Charlotte. She has found more opportunity for independence and flexibility, particularly in the lab, in the United States, compared to India. For example, in India, all her lab work had to be completed during the business day. With certain research projects, this is practically impossible. But it was not allowed, due to safety concerns, for her, as a female, to return to the lab after hours. She reflects that, “This seemingly small thing—being able to return to the lab at night to wrap up an experiment—provides more work-life balance.”
Mentoring Future Scientists
Mittal is a part of the P2EP program, where each summer she works as a mentor to two to five undergraduate interns. The interns work alongside Mittal on a summer research project that contributes to her overall PhD program. This year’s interns, Dylan Harris, a senior at Appalachian State University, and Charvi Sunkara, a senior in the online program with the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, are quantifying the natural variation of induced isoflavonoid in wild soybean populations. Their results may ultimately be used to help breeders increase the levels of induced isoflavonoid in soybean which can benefit human health and support cancer treatment.
Looking back to late May, when the 2018 program began, Mittal recalls, “The first week in the lab, the interns’ hands were shaking with uncertainty, but as they learn laboratory techniques and become comfortable with specific protocols, they gain skills, and more importantly, they gain confidence.”
Gaining career-ready benchtop skills are one of the primary objectives of this 11-week undergraduate internship program; an academic-industry partnership among NC State University, UNC Charlotte, NC A&T State University, Dole Nutrition Institute, and the David H Murdock Research Institute, all located at the NC Research Campus.
Fifteen interns from colleges across the state are working with eight PhD students, like Mittal, in research laboratories discovering if research in biology or bioinformatics may be a career path that suits them. The teams are working on a variety of crops including blueberries, oats, banana and pineapple.
The summer internship program will soon be over, but Mittal will likely stay in contact with her interns. Some past interns have volunteered in her lab following the program. It’s a win-win situation where the interns have been trained in the necessary lab safety and procedures, and the undergraduates gain even more experience with another aspect of the research. Interns, having added to their professional network, also use her as a reference for their next internship or job opportunity.
Mittal admits that being a supervisor to the interns has had its challenges, from time management to dealing with frustrations early in the learning curve, but overall, they have “helped push the research forward while gaining a lot of experience in lab techniques, data analysis and presentation skills.”
Mittal plans to pursue an industry job in the field of nutrition after completing her degree next year. She says, “Now my dad is very proud of my accomplishments and encourages others to allow their daughters to pursue their educational aspirations.” Maybe a few more, like Mittal, will choose STEM fields.
The Plant Pathways Elucidation Project (P2EP) is quickly nearing the conclusion of the sixth summer internship experience at the NC Research Campus. The Summer Research Symposium will be held Wednesday, August 1, 10am-3pm at The Laureate Center in Kannapolis City Hall. This capstone event will feature presentations from each intern team as well as a poster competition. Those in attendance will hear keynote speaker, Dr. Craig Yencho from NC State University deliver an address on genomic tools used in sweet potato breeding.