Undergraduate Academic Affairs

October 15, 2019

Drawing my own path one lab at a time

Undergraduate Academic Affairs

Meet Irika Sinha, an Interdisciplinary Honors student double majoring in biochemistry and biology. Sinha is one of two UW students who received the Goldwater Scholarship for the 2019-20 school year. This award honors sophomores and juniors who show exceptional promise and are dedicated to pursuing research careers in math, engineering or natural sciences. We spoke with her to learn more about her and how she’s making the most of her #HuskyExperience.

Congratulations on receiving the Goldwater! Do you have suggestions for others interested in applying for it?
Thanks! If you are planning to apply, find a mentor or principal investigator whose work you are interested in collaborating with. Know what your goal is; understand what you’re doing and legitimately be working towards a Ph.D. Look over your essay carefully. Make sure it’s clear and that the research essay is specific, yet also something that a generalist can understand. I had several people look it over, before showing it to my mentors, Dr. Ginger, Dr. Kaeberlein and Robin Chang, director of the Office of Merit Scholarships, Fellowships and Awards.

What prompted you to get involved in research?
I was always interested in STEM. In high school, I originally was looking around for an internship, and I found an opportunity at InBios International. We were working on diagnostic assays for infectious disease. The project I worked on researched affordable tests to see if people were carrying the parasite Babesia microti, which is linked to a rare disease called babeiosis.

What were your take-aways from that experience?
When I was little, I wanted to understand what made humans work: why we saw colors, why people thought certain ways and why we all move just a little bit differently. The elders in my life pointed me towards medicine as the best path for my goals. I spent the next 10 years thinking the only way to understand people was to become a medical doctor. A research career was never mentioned. InBios was the first time I understood that you could do research as a career and help groups of people (rather than individuals).


Drawing of two students that accompanied the Daily article.

In her free time, Irika Sinha illustrates for the Daily. This piece originally appeared in the article “Psychology graduate student challenges the one-size-fits-all approach to language education”.


You are about to join your fourth lab. What has been surprising about moving from lab to lab?
How different labs can be. Going from one lab to another is interesting, and you can explore labs a lot more in undergrad than you would ever do in grad school (unless you do lab rotations at the beginning.) This is helpful to do as an undergrad because you can see what you prefer to do in the future while simultaneously learning useful lab techniques. The Kaeberlein Lab introduced me to academic research, and I learned to balance research and school. In the Ginger Lab I read literature, learned a variety of techniques and was more involved. Now, in the McGuire Lab, I am working on cancer treatments, which is more biological in nature than my work in the Ginger Lab while still being fairly involved. I’m slowly working my way towards my final goal and am gaining a more well-rounded background in research as a result.


What recommendations do you have for someone interested in getting involved in research?
Check out the projects the lab is currently working on. When I’m researching a lab, I will look over some more recent papers. Even if I don’t fully understand it, it’s generally enough to help me get a sense of what the lab does. Also, apply to labs which have projects you are genuinely interested in. Since we don’t start out with a lot of research experience as undergraduates, enthusiasm counts for a lot.

Read the latest papers from Dr. Ginger, Dr. McGuireDr. Kaeberlein and Sarthak Jariwala, Irika’s graduate student mentor. In addition, Irika has one paper with her name on it.

How would you describe your experience as an undergraduate researcher? 
My experience has been pretty good. All the principal investigators, post-docs and grad students have been really welcoming. Everyone is supportive and has been very nice. If I have a question, they’ll help answer it if they can. That’s not something I expected as a freshman. I went in thinking they’d just think I was the strange undergrad who came to join them and that it would be super awkward. This has never been the case, and I’m glad.

In addition to your lab work, you work in the libraries and tutor chemistry for CLUE. How do you balance a very full schedule?
Google calendar is my best friend. I put everything on it. I even schedule lunch and dinner, because if I didn’t see it, I’d end up programming myself back-to-back classes without meal breaks. This was an especially big problem freshman year because I’d get hungry long after the dining halls had closed. I also add in all of my time spent with friends so I am still able to hang out with people without over-scheduling myself.

Drawing of an eagle.

Eagle. Medium: instant coffee. Part of Sinha’s personal collection.

In honor of the start of the school year, do you have any suggestions to help students settle in to campus?
Find a reason to stay on campus. I think it’s especially tempting for students from Western Washington to go home a lot first quarter. I know I did. I wasn’t homesick, I just didn’t know what to do on campus.  I’d spend most of my time on campus either in the lab or in the library and then would go home for weekends. I made friends with a lot of people in my lab first quarter, but we didn’t grow closer until winter quarter, when I started staying on campus to spend more time with them. I also started rock climbing, which gave me something more to do. And, I eventually found things to do with others that weren’t on campus, like going downtown on weekends.

Sinha received the Varanasi Endowed Scholarship from the chemistry department in 2019. She explains, “Meeting Drs. Usha and Rao Varanasi (pictured above) gave me role models to look up to. For people of my background, it is still uncommon to find others who have been successful for many decades in the biochemistry or chemistry fields and have held faculty positions in the United States .”

How did working with the UW Office of Merit Scholarships, Fellowships and Awards help you?
Robin is very supportive and gave me very clear directions on how to clean-up my essay and application. In addition to the essay, she helps me find opportunities that may be relevant to me.

You are currently a junior. What ideas do you have about what you’ll do after college?
I plan to spend a year working before applying to Ph.D. programs. During that year, I’d also like to complete the UW’s certificate in natural science illustration. (Right now, I illustrate for The Daily and Gray Matters in my free time.) For my Ph.D. research, I’m currently planning to focus on neurodegenerative diseases related to aging. My grandma has Alzheimer’s, and I’ve watched many of my older relatives suffer from dementia. Seeing their experiences and the devastating results has steered my interest in this direction. This research could include investigating causes, prevention and treatment for diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Image of vaccines

One of Irika Sinha’s favorite illustrations for the Daily. This one appeared with the article “The epidemic of myth: How false information about vaccines spread.”

About the Goldwater Foundation
The Goldwater Foundation’s scholarship program honors Senator Barry Goldwater and encourages outstanding students to pursue careers in the fields of mathematics, natural sciences and engineering. The Goldwater Scholarship is the preeminent undergraduate award of its type in these fields.

Learn more about scholarship opportunities at UW
The Goldwater Scholarship application process is supported by the Office of Merit Scholarships, Fellowships and Awards (OMSFA), a UAA program. OMSFA works with faculty, staff and students to identify and support promising students in developing the skills and personal insights necessary to become strong candidates for this and other prestigious awards. Visit their website to learn more about how OMSFA can support your scholarship search.