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Home » Discover Rackham » Student Spotlight: Ishita Das

“All the grad students seemed normal, like they enjoyed being in grad school.”

That was Ishita’s first impression when she interviewed at U-M with PIBS (the Program in Biomedical Sciences). She explains, “The Michigan environment was so welcoming. It stood out a lot compared to my other interviews. In the Cellular and Molecular Biology Program, we study very diverse science topics, so you get feedback from a lot of different perspectives on your research.”

Ishita works in Dr. JoAnn Sekiguchi’s lab where the focus is on researching how the DNA in our cells is protected and maintained. She explains, “Your DNA is damaged every day, and cells work to repair it every day. The sun, pollution and even your own metabolism can damage your DNA. If the DNA damage repair networks don’t work properly, it can lead to lot of different diseases like cancer. Using human cell cultures grown in a dish, we have a clear method to study different DNA repair networks in our bodies.”

Chemotherapy drugs that target cancer cells were developed because we study how our bodies repair damaged DNA. ome chemotherapeutics actually damages the DNA, and if you damage it significantly enough, your body will get rid of the cancer cells. A better understanding of DNA repair networks can lead to the development of more targeted disease therapies.

Ishita easily explains in layman’s terms what is in reality very complicated research. This is a skill she’s honing in RELATE, a ten week program she participated in this summer designed to teach graduate students how to communicate science to lay audiences. She says, “Scientists get bogged down in the specifics of what we do, but what we do is important to everyone and we need to be able to share it with different audiences in a way that they can understand.”

It was a policy class at the Ford School of Public Policy that helped Ishita find the career path she hopes to pursue. “I took this class at Ford, and it was one of the best decisions I made. It was lecture based, and we had different experts every week – anything from patenting genes to fracking to aerospace policies to academic policies. I knew then that I wanted to pursue a career in science policy, using scientific knowledge to guide policies about anything relevant to scientific fields, like climate change, GMOs, vaccine policies and more. I want to help the public understand the science behind these very relevant topics.” Now in the last year of her doctoral program, Ishita is applying for science policy fellowships in Washington DC for Ph.D. scientists who want to transition into policy careers.

Her passion for policy led her to co-found a science policy group within PIBS called Leading Informed Policy with Science (LIPS). She jokes, “Coming up with the name was the hardest part. Thankfully, there are websites now that help with that. We meet once a month and discuss different science policy issues like vaccination policy, antibiotic resistance, and personalized medicine.”

Much of Ishita’s free time is spent helping foster a diverse environment for graduate students in the sciences. She has been president and vice president of the Association of Multicultural Scientists (AMS), providing a forum for members to talk about issues and receive academic and social support throughout their graduate school years. She also has led the recruitment of underrepresented minorities in her department, even recruiting undergraduate students at conferences.

It is these efforts that led her mentor to nominate Ishita for membership in the Bouchet Honor Society. Honoring the legacy of Edward Bouchet, the first African-American to be awarded a Ph.D. in the United States, the society “seeks to develop a network of preeminent scholars who exemplify academic and personal excellence, foster environments of support and serve as examples of scholarship, leadership, character, service and advocacy for students who have been traditionally underrepresented in the academy.”

“Two previous grad students were inducted from my lab so I knew about the society, and they said amazing things about it. I’m passionate about making science inclusive to everyone. I’m honored to be inducted into the society,” she says. Ishita considers the induction conference at Yale to be one of the best experiences of her graduate school career: “There were students from all over the country from all different disciplines, and everyone had a different journey to get to where they are. It was a great and humbling experience.”

Southern born and educated until she moved to Ann Arbor, she’s gotten used to Michigan. It wasn’t that easy, though. She says, “It stays cold for so long. Winter lasts like 8 months here. But in general Michigan is a beautiful state. My friends and I take a trip to a different spot on Lake Michigan every summer. We’ve covered much of the west coast of Michigan by now.”

Rackham funding has had a big impact on Ishita during her tenure at U-M as well. From travel conference grants to summer support to the Susan Lipshutz Award, Ishita has been supported in a wide variety of ways. Susan Lipshutz, a former Rackham associate dean who served as a role model to many, had an endowed fellowship created in her memory by her family. Ishita reflects, “I got to meet Susan Lipshutz’ family. We had lunch together and they are wonderful. It’s an honor to be recognized in her name.”

And female role models are very important to Ishita. She states, “I’ve been lucky that I’ve had good female role models. My older cousin is a scientist, and she has been my role model my whole life. I’m lucky I had her. It is so important for women to do that for anyone that they can. I’m lucky to have a female faculty mentor – that can be especially tough for women in science.” She’s spent much of her graduate career trying to be a mentor to others as well.

It’s not all work for this busy graduate student, however. For fun you might find Ishita running, possibly to a brewery. “Michigan is a great place for beer. I enjoy the restaurants here and hanging out with friends.”