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Vasundhara Agrawal (She/Her/Hers)

PhD Candidate in Biomedical Engineering

Vasundhara Agrawal (She/Her/Hers)

Over the years, I have realized that experiments are like making pancakes. Regardless of how well you plan it, your first pancake is usually never the best one and nobody eats just one.”

Vasundhara Agrawal is a PhD candidate in biomedical engineering in the McCormick School of Engineering. As a doctoral student with specialization in imaging and biophotonics, she has expertise in electron microscopy and functional genomics, and her research is focused on biophysical cell reprogramming for applications in regenerative engineering. She recently became a Fellow in Leadership with Northwestern's Center for Leadership and currently serves as the vice president of administration for Advanced Degree Consulting Alliance (ADCA).

How would you describe your research and/or work to a non-academic audience?
Have you ever wondered why a cardiac (or heart) muscle cell beats, but a bone cell doesn’t, even though they carry the same DNA sequence? The difference lies in their epigenome, which is another layer of instructions (molecular and structural modifications to the DNA or histones to be more precise) that sits on top of our genome and influences the likelihood of expression of genes, thereby determining how a cell behaves. I study how the epigenome, particularly chromatin structure, can be potentially modified by different environmental cues to reprogram the fate of cells for applications in regenerative engineering, for example, in accelerating the healing process in serious bone injuries.

What is the biggest potential impact or implication of your work?
A powerful and emerging field, epigenomics re-emphasizes the notion that our fate is not solely dependent on our DNA and that it can be modified, and potentially even controlled by various factors in our environment. Such an idea to reprogram a cell and control its function could hold the key to reverse aging and reinvent cancer therapy, among other applications.

How do you unwind after a long day?
I like to take pictures on my way back from work as I am biking around the Lakefill. When I get home, I usually like to paint, watch cooking shows like MasterChef and Kitchen Nightmares, or read a book.

What books are on your bedside table?
The Book of Why by Judea Pearl, a great book that discusses the theme of correlation vs. causation with a unique perspective. Lifespan by David Sinclair, another interesting book that discusses various lifestyle modifications that potentially help in extending healthy lifespan.

What inspires you?
There are still so many questions that remain unanswered in biology. It’s like a mysterious universe all its own. The idea of designing unique experiments to answer such open questions about life by collaborating with experts in different fields keeps me motivated.

What did you originally want to be when you grew up?
My career aspirations have fluctuated a lot over the years between becoming a teacher, a scientist, and an artist. I realized that I didn’t need to choose one when I could be a little bit of everything.

Tell us about a current achievement or something you're working on that excites you.
I recently taught a course on epigenomics at the Cook County Jail through the Northwestern Prison Education Program. This was my first time teaching a course that I designed on this interesting subject for individuals from various diverse backgrounds. Also, in the coming quarter, I am excited to continue mentoring high school students at Niles West through the Mentorship Opportunities for Research Engagement (MORE) program on projects related to planarian regeneration.

Tell us about a time when things did not go as you planned, what did you learn?
Running countless experiments has served as a good learning experience. Over the years, I have realized that experiments are like making pancakes. Regardless of how well you plan it, your first pancake is usually never the best one and nobody eats just one. When my experiments fail, I always ask myself these two questions: “Did I fail in the planning or the implementation?” and “What can I do differently the next time?” When my experiments work, I ask myself, “Would this work the next time I repeat it?” To achieve mastery at a skill, I always remind myself this quote: “Don’t practice until you get it right, practice until you can’t get it wrong.” This process has taught me resilience.

Published: January 4, 2022

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