Grand Challenges Scholar

Muskaan Vasandani ‘22: ‘I’ve learned so much here’

March 13, 2022

Muskaan Vasandani, working in the wetlab as part of the University of Rochester iGEM team.
Muskaan Vasandani, working in the wetlab as part of the University of Rochester iGEM team.

Bergstralh lab, iGEM pivotal in preparing her for research at Harvard

Class year: 2022
Major: Biological Sciences
Challenge: Advancing Health Informatics

A misunderstanding led Muskaan Vasandani ’22 to the University of Rochester. A co-worker of her mother in India recommended that Vasandani consider attending a US college “in Rochester.” Though the co-worker had a different institution in mind, Vasandani found the University of Rochester when she searched online.

Muskaan Vasandani portraitThe biological sciences major say she is “very happy it worked out that way. I’ve learned so much here.”

Vasandani enrolled at the University because it included a renowned medical center—just a five-minute walk away from the River Campus where she takes classes. This increased the opportunities for her to learn more about her main field of interest: genetics.

She also liked the University’s emphasis on undergraduate research opportunities. And indeed, Vasandani began working in the lab of Daniel Bergstralh, assistant professor of biology, the summer after her first year--“much earlier than I would expect at any other university,” she says.

Vasandani also joined the University’s award-winning iGEM undergraduate team. She helped the team design and prototype a novel device to noninvasively detect sepsis from human sweat as part of a global competition last year.

“If I had to name the two defining experiences in my undergraduate career here, they would be the Bergstralh lab and iGEM,” says Vasandani.

As an added bonus, her iGEM experience qualified Vasandani as a Grand Challenges Scholar. The University program invites undergraduates to address one of 14 grand challenges of the 21st century as defined by the National Academy of Engineering. The students must demonstrate competencies in research, interdisciplinary study, entrepreneurship, global experience, and service.
Vasandani qualified for the challenge of advancing health informatics.

“I like to think of research as a very global initiative, as opposed to a national or university-centered endeavor, because whatever is done in a scientific field is impactful to the entire world,” Vasandani says.  

“What I like about GCS is that it helps share something that's done at a single university in one corner of the world with everyone else.”

A broad range of activities at Rochester

Vasandani was born and raised in Pune, India, a major center for software companies and banks. She enjoyed reading, traveling, painting –“just a huge mix of things”—as a child.

She was fortunate to attend one of the best K-12 institutions in western India—the Delhi Public School Pune—for 12 years. “I had a lot of great mentors there,” Vasandani says, including a biology teacher who “was a huge influence in interesting me in biology.”

Her parents were also an influence. Her father works in IT with IBM and her mother is an eye surgeon. “This wasn’t planned, but what I’m doing now—biological science and computational analysis-- is sort of an amalgamation of what the two of them do,” she says.

In the Bergstralh lab, Vasandani studies the physics and mechanisms of cell division, specifically how neighboring cells affect dividing cells in epithelial layers. “It's a lot of basic scientific research, but it involves cell culture, looking at images of these cells, and then coding to analyze the images,” she says. Bergstralh, she adds, “is a great mentor. I’ve learned more from him than I’ve learned at any time before in my life.”

Vasandani first heard about the iGEM program as a high school student, during a field trip to a university in Pune that also participated in the program. When she learned about the team at Rochester, she applied and served as software manager and member of the wetlab subteam.

“Because it was a student-led project, we got to do everything from fundraising, to making our website. We had mentors, but we had to decide on a project on our own, and figure out where to get the material from, and how to raise funds,” Vasandani says.

The best part was cooperation the students received from multiple engineering and science departments at the University, she says. “We could go to anyone and say we needed to use their equipment, and they would show us how to best use it for our project. Everyone was very helpful. I learned more new skills that I thought I would. So, it was a great learning experience.”

When not working in the lab, Vasandani enjoys participating in other campus activities. She is a writer and columnist for the student-operated Campus Times newspaper, continuing an interest that began when she wrote for her high school newspaper. She also served as an EcoRep her first year at Rochester and attends cultural events sponsored by groups such as the Hindu Students’ Association.

 Especially memorable was the opportunity to be a founding member of UR StrongArt, Vasandani says. Student volunteers paint figures of action heroes and popular characters on the masks children must wear while undergoing radiation therapy at the University’s Wilmot Cancer Institute. “The idea is to make the process a little bit easier for the children and for their parents,” Vasandani says. “We could never meet the children, but they would take pictures of the kids with their masks on and send them to us, which was really sweet.”

‘I want to do research that is impactful’

After graduation, Vasandani will work as a research associate in the lab of Sichen (Susan) Shao in the Department of Cell Biology at Harvard Medical School. The lab studies the molecular mechanisms that determine nascent protein fates.

“I want to work there for a year or two, then apply to a PhD program,” Vasandani says.

She is not sure what path she’ll follow after getting her PhD. “I could be in academia in the next 10 years, or I could be working in a biotech start-up,” Vasandani says.

“What I do know is that I need to find a field that piques my interest, that makes me want to think more about it, and find answers to questions. I want to do research that is impactful.

“I want to do something that helps the world.”