Shalini Iyer is a PhD student in Dr. Mark Cembrowski‘s lab. Ahead of International Women’s Day on March 8, we caught up with Shalini to learn more about her research, interests and the importance of women in science.

How did you become interested in neuroscience?

During my last year of undergrad, I took neuroscience and developmental biology – which sparked my interest in developmental neuroscience. I vividly remember learning that a series of events have to occur correctly in a timely manner for successful neurodevelopment to occur, which I found astounding. In one lecture, we learned that exposure to various environmental factors during pregnancy, ranging from retinoic acid found in creams to pollution can disrupt critical developmental timepoints contributing to disorder. This sparked my interest in how environmental insults can lead to neurodevelopmental disorders.


What is your current research focus?

Currently, in the Cembrowski lab I hope to further my understanding of how perturbations in neurodevelopment can contribute to disorder such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Specifically, I hope to identify genetic targets and test pharmacological interventions in a mouse model of autism spectrum disorder (ASD).


What is your favourite fact about the brain?

Did you know 97% of the neurons in an elephant brain is found in the cerebellum!?


Was there someone who inspired you to pursue science?

Growing up, some of my fondest memories was sitting with my dad and watching science documentaries on the Discovery channel. I was always a curious child who would pester my dad with a million questions about why things occur and I remember he would somehow always know the answer to my questions. Although my dad never had the opportunity to pursue a career in science, he had a genuine passion for science and would always be immersed in a science book or article. His curiosity, passion, drive and thirst for knowledge truly inspired me to pursue a career in science.


Why is it important for women to be represented in STEM fields?

A greater representation of women in STEM can benefit the scientific community, as a representative community will lead to scientific problems being tackled from different perspectives. Many scientific innovations related to disease and drug development have mainly focused on men. As such, by providing an equitable and inclusive environment for women in STEM, it can lead to greater innovation and scientific success, which can significantly benefit the public. Additionally, female representation can help break down barriers and systemic biases associated with pursuing a career in STEM, which can ultimately lead to more young women choosing STEM careers.


What advice do you have for someone looking to do grad school or get involved in research?

My biggest piece of advice would be to choose an institution and/or lab with a supportive supervisor and community. Research is one of those fields where you will often face more failures (or as I like to call them “learning experiences”), than successes and it’s crucial to be surrounded by a community that you can lean on. I’ve been able to overcome most of the hardships I have faced during my research career thanks to my amazing mentors, friends and family.


What hobbies and extracurricular activities do you enjoy and are involved in outside of the lab?

To relax and destress, I love doing yoga, swimming, spending time in nature, baking, food and café hopping! Other than research, one of my biggest passions is STEM outreach and helping break down barriers associated with pursuing STEM careers for EDI populations, which I do through my involvement with several STEM education organizations such as Let’s Talk Science and EDI committees.