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Pratima Saini: Seeing Hard Work Pay Off

June 24, 2024

Dr. Pratima Saini, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral researcher in the lab of Dr. Mohamed Abdel-Mohsen. She talked about her journey to becoming a scientist.

“When I saw so many women around me doing amazing research, I had faith that I could do it too.”

Did you always know that you wanted to become a scientist?

I would say yes. In high school I already had interest in biology and thought I would pursue it as a profession. For some reason I knew that I didn’t want to be a doctor or an engineer. As I learned more, I realized that I would like to be a researcher, because it would always give me the opportunity to answer unsolved questions. I knew that would drive me. Every day is exciting, and that’s why I love it.

What sparked your interest in biology?

When I was studying the bodily processes, I learned how a calcium molecule can initiate signaling, and I was like, “Oh, wow.” I had never thought about calcium this way. At that moment, I realized that even a small molecule can be involved in this very important process, and that’s it’s very tightly regulated. That’s when I realized that I want to learn more about this field.

Did you have any mentors as a young scientist?

When I was doing my master’s degree, my home was very far from my lab. I had to take a bus around two hours each way, so it was four hours commuting every day. My PI (at that time), when he found out how far I was traveling he told me, “Probably you won’t see it now, but this will pay off somewhere in your life. Remember my words: this commute, although you don’t see a direct impact yet, your hard work will be worth it.” So when I came to the U.S., and I got this position at Wistar, at that moment I realized, ah, it’s because of the hard work I put in when I went to that college.

What attracted you to Wistar?

I’m very much interested in glycobiology. I’m always interested in how glycans play a role in the immune response, but they are rarely studied. So when I came across Mohamed Abdel-Mohsen’s lab, I thought, “Oh, this research is good.” His lab studies how each individual’s glycans are different, and how our glycans cause our bodies to respond differently to invading pathogens. For example, my glycans are different from your glycans, and my body would respond differently to an invading pathogen than your body would. When I came to the lab, he gave me a project about COVID, and we found out that, indeed, the kind of glycans I have would govern how severe my COVID would be.

What is it like working at Wistar?

When I came to Wistar, I thought that because the researchers and scientists were so prominent, they wouldn’t have time for you. Everyone would be so busy. But I found that everyone is so approachable. If you go to someone with your problem, they give you the time, sit with you, and help you. They don’t judge you by how many publications you have, they just perceive you as a person with ideas.

What is a typical day like for you?

My lab has a very good work-life balance culture, so I usually come in around 9:30 and then get to work. Mostly I work on human samples, so I would usually check how the immune response is going in those samples against viral pathogens or maybe against cancer because currently I’m working on a cancer project. After that, I often attend one of the talks that happen at Wistar and the University of Pennsylvania. Then around 6 p.m. I like to leave, have some tea, and then go do some exercise.

What do you find most rewarding about what you do?

We have this hypothesis, and when things are not working, I think, “No, there’s some way it should work. I’m missing some detail.” You read what other people are doing, you go back to the bench, you try something different, and then, the next day, or the next week, it works! When you solve a problem like that, it feels like the biggest achievement in the short term. Long term, sometimes I see a big problem, and I think, my God, I am never going to solve this one. But Mohamed always says, break it into small pieces, so that at every step you feel that accomplishment. In that way, you go from a small excitement to a bigger one.

What does diversity, equity, and inclusion mean to you, and why do you think it’s important in science?

I’m from India. Even though my parents supported my journey, sometimes people would ask me, oh, you’re a woman? Will you be able to pursue a long path to be a scientist? When I came here to Wistar, the culture was so inclusive. Everyone feels heard. When I saw so many women around me doing amazing research, I had faith that I could do it too. It was very inspiring to see that people from all races and genders are here doing equally well. I also think diversity is very important in science because people from different backgrounds have different experiences and perspectives. When these points of view come together, then we can solve problems much better.

Do you have any hobbies or passions outside of your work?

Because I came to the U.S., I want to see as much of it as I can while I am here. So on the weekends, I enjoy going out and doing any kind of outdoor activity. I like camping, hiking, and seeing all kinds of different places.