In November’s blog post, we feature an interview with Dr. Padmini Rangamani, Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, University of California San Diego.
When did you first become interested in mathematics and biology?
I grew up in India and when we finished 10th grade, a vast majority of us had to choose between the math/physics/chemistry stream or biology/physics/chemistry for 11th and 12th for entrance exams to engineering or medical schools respectively. I vividly recall agonizing about having to choose between math and biology. I had toyed with the idea of becoming a doctor and the appeal it had from a service perspective. But the idea of not doing math going forward in my professional life did not appeal to me, so I ended up choosing the engineering stream. I never quite gave up on biology though. My undergraduate research project was on using bacteria for toxic waste bioremediation, and just like that biology was back in my training.
Was the decision to do a Ph.D. an obvious and easy choice?
Yes and no. It was an obvious and easy choice after I had made the decision but the process of making the decision was non-trivial. I had to choose between programs in India and programs in the US. I come from a very close-knit, traditional family, so going very far away to pursue my dreams seemed like giving up a big part of my life, and it was. But I had heard that the opportunities that the US provided were unparalleled, so when that was accessible, giving that up was hard too. The journey was not easy however. I did my Masters at Georgia Tech in chemical engineering and focused on cartilage tissue engineering. But the cells were so hard to grow and I didn’t know any biochemistry or molecular biology. Then, I had a chance to revisit my Ph.D program and I chose to plunge headlong into a biology program. I ended up doing my Ph.D. at the Department of Pharmacology in the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Now, when you meander through majors and degrees, you learn a lot and meet many interesting people, which is a big positive in my career. The downside, of course, is that you may not be perceived as a disciplinary expert.
How did you come to run your own group?
I was doing a postdoc at UC Berkeley with George Oster and was a recipient of the UC Berkeley Chancellor’s postdoctoral fellowship (on the 4th try!!). This fellowship program focuses on retaining talent within the UC system and I credit this program for helping me get a faculty position at UCSD MAE. My colleagues at UCSD MAE, primarily my faculty mentor, the late Prof. Juan Lasheras, actually saw great value in my research at the interface of math and cell biology and took a chance on me. I’ve been here since 2014.
What are your main research questions and why are they interesting?
I’m mostly fascinated by how cells change their shape and what it means for their function. Think about everything our cells do from development to death – they need to move, deform, add and remove material, divide, and respond precisely to both mechanical and chemical signals from within and without. How do they know how to do that? I’ve been focusing on this question using mathematical modeling. In my group, we use a combination of theory and computation to work on various aspects of these problems. More importantly, we work closely with experimentalists to understand the biological phenomena being studied and aim to be involved in the experimental studies as early as possible. This allows us to build models that are better representative of experiments. If you look at all the topics we work on, in some way shape or form, they come back to the interplay between chemical signaling and mechanical signaling.
What makes you passionate about your work?
I’ve had a chance to reflect on this a little bit and I think it is important to acknowledge to trainees that it is easier to be passionate about your research when you have a permanent position (survivor bias) and it is important to be passionate about your research to get to that permanent position. I think this is important to say out loud. As a PI, I have had the exceptional good fortune to work with some fantastic students, postdocs, and collaborators. Together, we have great fun trying to decipher some mystery of a model or the other. Mostly, what makes me passionate about work is that when I don’t understand something, it can keep me up at night, sometimes literally.
What is a typical work day/week like?
That’s an excellent question. First, no two days or weeks are alike. When I’m teaching, my work day tends to get busier with lectures and office hours. When I’m not teaching, I have more time for research meetings. One thing that I’ve tried to do with some success is to protect research days; I will try to save at least one but if possible two days of the week for research – derivations, calculations, reading, and writing. Sometimes this fails but knowing that I can protect that time at least most weeks of the quarter is important to me. This year, 2021-2022, I’m also doing university service, and that has been quite intense. I do try to have boundaries, avoiding to the maximum extent possible, meetings after 5 pm or on weekends. My choice to noodle on a research problem after hours is my choice, mostly because I’ve come to see research as a hobby not as work. But boundaries are important to maintain work-life balance.
Do you have any advice for someone considering a career in mathematical biology?
I don’t know that I would presume to know enough to give advice to anyone but I can tell you what I wish my younger self had known. Read, read more than you think you should, read about biology, read about math and read about everything in between. The more you read, the easier it is to identify interesting areas of research over time.
Write, write every day. Even if it is one paragraph explaining your thinking or a summary of a paper, write. Writing good papers is a learned skill. Pay attention to detail, use your writing to ask if someone can understand it without your having to explain it.
Biology is complex and fascinating but for a mathematical scientist, the barrier to entry may be hard given how many facts you need to know to get to the basics. Your collaborators should be those you feel comfortable asking questions and it should be a partnership. Finding good partners in science in general, but particularly in interdisciplinary fields, is key. Using forums such as group meetings to present your work, explain the math, and so on, are small but critical steps in lowering the jargon barrier that comes with interdisciplinary research.
What do you like to do in your spare time outside of work?
I have a full life outside of work – I have two children and at this stage much of our time is spent getting them to various activities. I enjoy a lot of recreational activities – knitting, reading fiction of various genres, running, and yoga. In the spirit of boundaries that I mentioned earlier, I’ve come to realize that various aspects of work can expand to take up all the available time. To avoid that from happening, sometimes, I’ll just mark personal time on the calendar to re-establish porous boundaries. This was a very useful trick while dealing with the worst of the pandemic.
Any final comments or advice?
Compared to when I was in graduate school, there are so many more resources available online, through journals, through society websites, and through social media. This is a powerful acknowledgement of how research is not a one-size-fits-all. Trainees can avail themselves of all these but sometimes having too many resources can also get overwhelming. I would advocate for some self-awareness. Please think about your working style, what type of mentoring best suits you and seek the necessary resources. Build your network of mentors, use your peers for peer-mentoring, and make sure you get the support you need. This is your journey. It needn’t look like mine or anyone else’s. And the final thing – if you have a seat at the table, then you have a voice at the table. Use it wisely.