Shubhangi Karmakar
Shubhangi is one of many from the LGBTQ+ community working in STEM. She is an Intercalated MSc. Molecular Medicine candidate in the Trinity Translational Medicine Institute between her undergraduate Medicine programme in Trinity. She researches how various gene sequencing technologies can help diagnose autism and disorders of brain development. (Photo: Elena Rossini)
Job title
Intercalated MSc. Molecular Medicine candidate
Company
Trinity College Dublin

I’m Shubhangi Karmakar, an Intercalated MSc. Molecular Medicine candidate in the Trinity Translational Medicine Institute between my undergraduate Medicine programme in Trinity.

I research how various gene sequencing technologies can help diagnose autism and disorders of brain development.

I’m  a visiting researcher in a London hospital, studying how hospital to community care is provided for Rett Syndrome patients, and I provide education for groups such as the KIF1A community in America, giving families high-level understanding of genetic reports of brain disorders.

In my spare time, I’m a science and fashion journalist and communicator, an advocate and startup founder for visible diversity in STEM and society, an artist and a silversmith!

 

Do you believe that there is enough being done to encourage girls and minorities to study STEM and pursue STEM careers?

I feel we’re approaching not necessarily the end of recruitment programmes, but it’s getting less useful to use recruitment as a ‘be all and end all’ metric for diversity in STEM.

I discuss some of these issues as a public advocate for ethnic minority, disability and LGBTQ+ diversity in academia, but I find that we have to go beyond recruitment, to figuring out how to retain the best talent once we get them in, to the degrees and careers. Most importantly, we also need to make sure we can raise their profiles, salaries and prospects to match anyone else’s learning and earning potential in STEM, so that we don’t see the issues of disadvantaged groups falling off the career ladder despite making up a significant portion of those entering a STEM degree, leaving very diverse labs but always with a very homogeous set of professors at the top. The works of Dr. Jess Wade in creating Wikis for women in science, and Angela Saini looking at race in science and ‘race science’ have been great in demystifying the field and really celebrating diversity in the fore, to be and set many great role models.

Athena SWAN in universities has been instrumental to changing this imbalance on a university level, and I’ve been glad to see that SFI Engage were keen to interact with these points and discuss how to work on them outside of education at a career level.

 

What do you love about your current role?

I adore the community I have in my team. The whole MSc. programme in itself was super engaging, and I definitely got what I wanted out of it in terms of picking a very varied course that touches on several ‘bench to bedside’ specialties to build a holistic understanding of human molecular biology. The Neuropsychiatric Genetics team and especially the Autism TCD team I’m in is absolutely wonderful – It’s led by exemplary women like my supervisor Lorna Lopez all the way down, it’s an especially welcoming environment for our visiting researchers from undergrad to postdocs to blend in seamlessly, and everyone is super supportive through solving big data errors that can feel isolating and scary, to bringing in homemade scones and cake over poster presentations, to personal highs and lows even come 4:55 on a Friday!

 

What has been your most exciting career moment to date?

I think the most exciting moment has been equally the most daunting one, when one day I realised that 50% of my data for my current project wasn’t in the format needed for analysis, and a few weeks out of submitting I was pretty much back to half of square one!

Because my work is super niche and requires a lot of working out concepts from scratch that don’t already exist, it was a solid 5 days including working through a weekend, of trying to cobble together pieces of advice from my whole department, as well as from labs and tools created around the world – which I never believed I’d be able to do, having done a sum total of zero bioinformatics coding in my life before this project since May.

It was all absolutely worth it though, for when bleary eyed on the Monday I not only finally found a workable solution, but in doing so improved the quality of gathering all my data in the process. The high fives and cheers in the corridors felt super, but it was particularly proof of my supervisor’s saying “Strong winds make skilful sailors”, as it really did push me to think about a significant obstacle to find not just a generic workaround but one from many lateral approaches that was perfect for my needs – which is what research is all about!

Besides the day to day work, my most exciting moments of academia have been when I’ve done public engagement about various aspects of research, science and the arts. From delivering a public lecture on the importance of sensitivity to global diversity in population genetics for SFI’s Science Week in TOG Hackerspace, to a pub lecture on the science of psychedelics in psychiatry with Headstuff, I adore trying to put my motto, ‘making science communication comprehensive, and comprehensible to everyone’, in action as often as I can.

Working with the Douglas Hyde Gallery and Science Gallery, be that on projects about entry into higher education and STEM or arts-oriented topics such as how science and technology has influenced the perception of perfection in the modern day, or speaking with universities, students’ unions and national and international print media and broadcasters like RTE and Silicon Republic on facilitating ethnic minority, disability and LGBTQ+ diversity and sensitivity in STEM, is something I’m most passionate about.

 

Do you get to work with any new technologies?

I’m incredibly fortunate – my work is based on assessing how useful the clinical mainstay technologies for genetics of brain disorders really are, and then studying whether and how new cutting-edge technologies compare, both in terms of how much more information they give us about the brain and disease development, as well as whether the investment trade-offs of both money and human labour are effective, to add to the pipeline of clinical diagnosis of brain disorders, particularly in young people. It’s fascinating but also a little daunting as a lot of my work is first in the field so there’s not always a roadmap to look to! Outside of my projects, my MSc. programme exposed us to a bit of everything, and especially the practice of writing clinical trial applications exposed me to everything from the latest advances in nanotechnology to the latest potential drug developments for Rheumatoid Arthritis!

 

What kind of other experts do you work with on a day to day basis?

Bioinformatics attracts people from various different disciplines, so I think we have people from all avenues of STEM, and interestingly especially Mathematics, working together to make our sequencing hopes a reality, even if they come in with no biological grounding especially for our brain disorders! Our IT team managing our High Performance computing and keeping all our data and processes ticking over, are probably as vital to our day to day queries and running as our child and adolescent psychiatrist Louise Gallagher is instrumental at our Patient and Public Involvement (PPI Ignite TCD) events, to share our latest breakthroughs in the research field with patients and families, and at the end of the day to provide evidence-based care. I feel lucky to have come into genetics after seeing patients with rare developmental disorders in a clinical setting doing research on care provision, so I really get a chance to appreciate the work each of our team members do from ‘bench to bedside’.

 

Is your current job, and the work of the wider team, making a difference in the world?

Being at the intersection of technology, science and medicine means my team actively makes a difference, and I think that’s particularly because our ‘bench to bedside’ approach is often led by the priorities of the clinical bedside. Through our Public and Patient Involvement work, everything from events to even our lab’s Twitter, we get exposed to not just cutting edge breakthroughs that can improve our science, but the persisting and newly developing medical and care challenges that are actually faced by the patient population we study, be that Autism or other brain disorders. This is of the highest importance, because it means while there is theoretically an ‘intrinsic value’ to ‘science for science’s sake’, as a publicly resourced body we always make sure our science has ‘extrinsic value’ to actually address the questions that patients, and their families would ask of their doctors or of us directly.

 

What do you hope to achieve in the next year in your current position?

While I’ll be returning after this Masters to complete my medical degree, I’m hoping to take some of my research forward from the literature I’ve reviewed and the project I’m writing up currently, to publish my results and use my research to impact both clinical and academic research directions in brain disorders. Further, if I have the opportunity to carry out some more research in the year, I’d love to perhaps travel and do some research on genome sequencing outside of coding regions in human DNA, and look at certain ‘transposable elements’ in the genome and how they influence brain disorders.

 

Do you feel that you fit the stereotypical description of a person in your role?

I suppose not a ‘stereotypical’ role as it is sold to the public – I probably look very different to what comes to mind if someone said ‘programmer’ to you, or even a scientist. The world is made up of clip art and images of the Bill Nye ‘ideal’ of the ‘Science Guy’, and I suppose I definitely don’t look like that!

On the other hand though, I can think of few – if any – people in my lab who look like ‘the stereotypical scientist’; we’re any and all ethnicities, genders, disability, orientation-inclusive, and I’ve honestly never given that any thought until now! I think that’s why I find it so empowering to help other scientists diversify their spaces in a similar fashion, because I adore my team and it’s a great example of how different insights and perspectives create far better functioning teams than everyone trying to conform behind an arbitrary stereotype of ‘scientists’, which isn’t even set by scientists!

 

What do you want to see change in the industry in the next 10 years? 

So for me there are two important things, which is exactly why I got into my research at a point in my education and career when I can shape my own understanding of academia as well as clinical work.

Firstly, in terms of the technologies I study, I hope that there will be advances not only in the technologies but in making them more accessible to public healthcare bodies and less exclusively the remit of private organisations. Genome sequencing may prove to be a significant diagnostic boon, especially since it can look at the 98% of the genome that no other genetic technology can even touch, but we need to make sure that what we learn form it doesn’t just go into the market like ‘home gene testing’ for consumers without appropriate information and utility, but that public sector organisations can actually make use of that technology and understand how to interpret that data to improve patient care.

And the flipside of that, which I’m also passionate about, is making sure there is greater collaboration and translation of study between core researchers and core clinicians. To have the best evidence-based care for your patients, we need to advocate for the best evidence-based technologies being used for the greatest good of cohorts, rather than dismissing processes as ‘too expensive’ or ‘too intensive’ without actually appreciating what they mean. Similarly, it also means educating researchers about how to present their research in both a comprehensive and comprehensible way for clinicians, directing studies in terms of what their real life and clinical impacts could be.

 

What television series are you currently watching?

I’m currently watching Schitt’s Creek, which is a show about a wealthy family stripped of money and the high life and transposed into a tiny town in the middle of nowhere. It seems incredibly trivial on the face of it, but I adore it for the witty quips, the humour of misunderstandings, and the deep commitment of the show writers to writing unique character arcs that facilitate learning and growth for even the most hapless-at-first-sight characters. I feel it’s also a great lesson in never judging any book by its cover but especially people, whose books are still being written, and it gives me hope in the value of human kindness and nourishing your own growth and others’, which is a super important balance when otherwise spending most of my day in an artificial light basement with just my code for company!