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AMBR SpotLIGHT: Sreeja Sridharan

October 10, 2019
Association of Minority Biomedical Researchers (AMBR)

The Association of Minority Biomedical Researchers will be featuring interviews with its members as a way to highlight GSBS students and life inside and outside of the lab. This feature will be posted on the group's website and Facebook page. AMBR’s sixth spotlight features an interview with GSBS second-year PhD student Sreeja Sridharan.

Fifteen years ago, after she moved to North Carolina, Sreeja, a first-generation immigrant born in Chennai, India, found her love for the environment. 

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Sreeja with her parents and younger sister.

She was volunteering with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, teaching young children about environmental sustainability, when she realized she wanted to stay in the field of natural sciences for the rest of her life. Fast forward to today, Sreeja is a student in the Genetics and Epigenetics Program in the lab of Vidya Gopalakrishnan, PhD. There, she studies the developmental pathways that contribute to pediatric brain cancers and is still committed to environmental justice..

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Sreeja volunteering with the NC Wildlife Resources Commission learning from a camp counselor about identification of tree species.

Even as a young child visiting her birthplace, Sreeja noticed urban development was synonymous with destruction of nature.

 “I was in Chennai during the tsunami in 2004 where over 16,000 people died in India alone, she said (1,2). “I was pained and horrified to understand later on that the destruction of environmental infrastructure like seawalls, which are meant to prevent natural disasters, had been torn down in Chennai to allow for construction of urban skyscrapers.” 

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Picture taken by Sreeja during her visit to Inner city Chennai, Tamil Nadu during monsoon season.

While in many parts of India, indigenous communities are trying to save their land and preserve it, but the wave of urbanization has made it hard to sustain natural reservoirs. This is analogous to what occurred in Houston during Hurricane Harvey when surrounding areas like Katy and Sugar Land, that were meant to function as water sheds to absorb heavy rainfall, were inundated with floodwater. However, ignoring warnings from engineers, these lands were turned into plots for houses and this development led to Houston’s infrastructure failing to protect its own people (3,4,5).”

These experiences were transformative to Sreeja’s career trajectory as she found her home in an undergraduate lab focused on environmental toxicology where she worked on understanding how carbon nanotubes, which are widely used in everything from radios to biotechnology, can cause mesothelioma over long-term exposure. This was a perfect blend of her passion for environmental activism and scientific research. She had the opportunity to understand the impact of capitalism and environmental exploitation from a scientific perspective. As a result, Sreeja fell in love with basic science and the pursuit of the unknown. 

Getting here & staying here 

Sreeja’s journey to the GSBS is an inspiration as she battled adversity while staying committed to science. 

Young Sreeja went from being one of the only Indians in her elementary school to being grateful to have many diverse peers during college in North Carolina State University. However, with progress comes a reminder that we have a long way to go. During an interview at another graduate institution where Sreeja was the only interviewee of color she was “advised” by a faculty member that a PhD is not a viable path for her since she is “too young” and burdened by “being a woman.” 

This ignited a fire in Sreeja to stay focused and committed as she finally found her home at the GSBS. Sreeja came to Graduate School because it was the most diverse graduate institution she saw, which was also a perfect, nurturing environment for her overall development. Here, her identity as a scientist of color was a strength, never a weakness. 

 “The GSBS empowered me to feel like I could take on the world,” said Sreeja “They offered me more resources than I imagined possible. The staff, faculty, and students have been my support system and helped me overcome any hurdle. They are there when I fall.”

Sreeja has found a resource in AMBR. “As a grad student it’s easy to feel alone and bogged down but things like AMBR helped pull me out of that,” she said. “I joined AMBR because not only was it a supportive community, but I could be super involved or just lean on them for support when I needed depending on how bogged down I was on the bench. From mock candidacy exams to just volunteering for events, AMBR has been great. As a minority, not all grad students have a space made with them in mind and that is huge.” 

Self-care in graduate school

Sreeja is an excellent reminder that being a successful graduate student is more than just churning out data, and her outlook is incredibly mature for an early stage researcher. She is quick to point out that her journey here has been built on the sacrifices of many before her and her approach to graduate school ensures she will thrive in this endeavor.

“My motivation comes from my family where I am the first to pursue a doctoral degree,” said Sreeja “My parents have crossed oceans and sacrificed a lot to be here, so I do not want to stop pursuing the highest ambitions. I try to prioritize self-care as much as possible and since burnout culture is a big part of graduate education. I find it difficult sometimes to balance feeling the burden to succeed as a child of immigrants, but I do tell myself that it is okay to stop and take a minute to take care of yourself.”

Inspired and driven for change

Sreeja is inspired by youth advocates like Greta Thunberg, who bear the burden of social justice. Greta and many other indigenous youth climate activists are truly inspiring. 

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Sreeja in Gujarat, India, at the Centre for Environment Education learning about India’s efforts in sustainable development.

India, along with other developing countries, can be more forward thinking in the way they tackle these issues. A point of pride for Sreeja, is that many Indians from low-income communities are in fact conscious of where their food comes from and focus on obtaining products from ethical sources like family-run farms, as opposed to mass produced agriculture. Contrary to many developed countries, sustainability can be more accessible for everyone, regardless of their background, in India. 

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Picture taken by Sreeja of Chennai Marina Beach during her visit to India. The area was severely impacted by the 2004 Tsunami.

Sreeja points out that it can be hard for many people  in the US to live sustainably because it is expensive. Everything from organic produce to ethically-sourced products are a lot easier to come by when you have a higher disposable income, and as a graduate student, Sreeja is constantly working on finding eco-friendly, affordable ways to care about the environment.

As Sreeja progresses through her graduate career, her passion for creating a better world, accessible to all, will most certainly push her to great things. The Graduate School is incredibly lucky to have such a driven and aware student!

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