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Simran Handa

Simran Handa ’19

Class Year: 2019
Hometown: Mukilteo, Washington
Major: Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
Extracurriculars: Research in Hermann Lab, LEAP Mentor with Inclusion and Multicultural Engagement (IME), Pre-Health Professions Club president, Gender Minorities in STEM president, Asian Student Union co-president, Writing Center peer tutor, SAAB tutor, lab TA for Biology, Student Alumni Association ambassador, Student Health Center assistant

What three words would you use to describe L&C?

Polyphonic, engaging, interdisciplinary

What’s your favorite class? How has it expanded your knowledge?

Structural Biochemistry with Janis Lochner was simultaneously the most challenging and most rewarding class I have ever taken. In this class, we investigated the structure-function relationship of biological molecules through a variety of fascinating case studies. Beyond memorization, I learned how to analytically interpret data to answer relevant scientific questions. We also extended this knowledge to understanding the pathobiology behind several human diseases. The interesting thing about this class is that class content changes every year as research advances, which is one of my favorite things about science as a whole. This class cemented my love for molecular process within the cell and reaffirmed my commitment to a career of lifelong discovery.

“At a liberal arts college, we have a great opportunity to take classes across many different departments and draw interdisciplinary connections; seize this chance while you can!”
What made you want to come to Lewis & Clark?

I was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, so I wanted to stay near home surrounded by the PNW culture. Visiting several colleges across the country reaffirmed to me that people in the PNW tend to be more empathetic, open-minded, and interested in collaboration rather than competition. I looked at LC specifically because I loved the idea of small class sizes and the opportunities for me to engage in research and other extracurricular activities. I also got in touch with recent LC graduates from near my hometown, who all sung praises about the quality of education they received at LC. They told me about all the free resources I would have access to, like the Writing Center, Health Center, SAAB tutoring, and SAAB funding for academic pursuits. LC also offered me a great financial aid package, which made the decision even easier.

What advice do you have for prospective students?

Visit schools and ask students their honest opinions about campus life. When visiting colleges, I usually knew within the first hour whether the campus felt right, but talking to students gave me an idea of what issues to expect. This was especially important to me as a first-generation college student, since I had no idea what to expect. In addition, no matter where you choose to attend, be willing to try new things and be flexible in your interests. I came into LC knowing I wanted to major in BCMB, but I quickly became interested in other departments as well. In fact, some of my favorite classes have been in psychology, anthropology, and education. At a liberal arts college, we have a great opportunity to take classes across many different departments and draw interdisciplinary connections; seize this chance while you can! This applies to all aspects of the college experience, including athletics, clubs, and other extracurricular activities.

“Our professors are decorated researchers dedicated to training the next generation of scientists, a passion that comes through in the rich quality of our classes.”
What’s your favorite spot on campus?

My favorite spot on campus is the oversize books section of Watzek Library. I often find myself here during midterms and finals because this is such a beautiful and relaxing place to study, overlooking the reflection pool. Be warned, however; there are all sorts of cool oversized books in this section to distract you from studying, including a really beautiful book of medieval bestiaries.

What’s your favorite thing about living in Portland?

Portland gives you the best of both worlds: the excitement of living near an up-and-coming city while surrounded by beautiful scenery. At LC, I have engaged in both aspects of the Portland experience in order to get to know the city a little better. Every year, I’ve gone on a couple retreats and trips with College Outdoors to experience Oregon wildlife and scenery. I also spend a lot of time exploring different Portland neighborhoods and engaging with other academic institutions in the city.

How did you decide on a major?

My passion for science fully blossomed during my eighth grade biology class; as I learned about DNA and cells for the first time, I immediately fell in love with the unseen molecular world surrounding us. Since I knew in high school that I wanted to study molecular biology, choosing to major in BCMB wasn’t a hard decision. BCMB is special in that it is a unique program not offered at many liberal arts colleges. BCMB gives students the opportunity to learn about molecular processes occurring at the cellular level in preparation for a life-long career of discovery. Our professors are decorated researchers dedicated to training the next generation of scientists, a passion that comes through in the rich quality of our classes.

Have you had the opportunity to do research with a professor? If so, please describe the project and the experience.

I began doing research with Professor Greg Hermann in the biology department my freshman year, and I’ve been working in his lab ever since. In biology classes, we learn about many different organelles within cells, each with distinct functions: lysosomes, mitochondria, ribosomes, and many more. My lab studies how a subset of these organelles—lysosome-related organelles (LROs)—are made. My work focuses specifically on the recruitment and activation of a Rab GTPase (a small signaling protein) involved in LRO formation. We use a microscopic nematode, C. elegans, as a model organism for our work, utilizing techniques in genetics, molecular biology, and microscopy.
This research experience has been incredibly rewarding since I have been able to see and experience what I would otherwise learn about in textbooks. Though our research question may be quite niche, I am learning broad scientific skills that will be essential to my future in research. Primarily, this research has helped me learn how to design good experimental questions and collect the right data necessary to answer these questions. I’ve learned how to troubleshoot through many failures, and I’ve found that sometimes the most interesting discoveries occur when you’re not looking for them. I’ve also been able to practice the vital skill of communicating scientific results clearly with peers and the general public. I have been able to share my work with the scientific community through several talks and posters, most recently at an international scientific conference at UCLA. I’ve also presented more accessible versions of my work to the whole LC community at Festival of Scholars and other venues.

What have been the biggest challenges you have faced at Lewis & Clark?

One challenge has been managing my time by taking on a reasonable number of extracurricular activities. There are countless ways to get involved outside of class, and it has been really difficult for me to say no to some of these opportunities. After a while, being a full-time student forces you to reassess your priorities and choose the things most important to your personal interests and career trajectory. This is a really important skill for life in general, so I’m glad I’ve been able to practice saying no.

What’s your best Lewis & Clark memory so far?

My best memory is actually quite recent; for one of my finals, my Psychiatric Health class went to our professor Amelia Wilcox’s house for dinner. To me, this dinner was the quintessential LC experience. Throughout the semester, we critically assessed our country’s fragmented mental healthcare system and the role that law enforcement, healthcare providers, and community members play in this system. At the dinner signifying the close of the semester, we discussed solutions to these issues and how each of us can do our part in serving our country’s most vulnerable citizens. Dr. Wilcox also invited several leaders in the Portland mental health community in order to give us some insight on current local projects. I will forever remember the valuable lessons we learned in this class and continue to consider the state of our mental healthcare system in my career in biomedicine.

How do you manage stress?

Being involved with so many extracurricular activities comes with a lot of stress, but over the past couple years I’ve gained some tools to get by. I keep an up-to-date, color-coded Google calendar with all of my commitments so I’m never surprised by a meeting or event. I also take self-care days where I put my work to the side and give myself time to recharge through yoga, Netflix, and reading. In addition, I make sure to incorporate time into my schedule to hang out with friends and talk to my family in order to keep things in perspective.

Where do you find community on campus?

I have found several different communities on campus that are relevant to different parts of my life. I am most grateful for being involved with Inclusion and Multicultural Engagement (IME), since they put so many resources into fostering community among students of color and first-generation college students. Since I’ve met most of my closest friends and support system through IME events, I’ve continued to pay it forward by mentoring first-year students through an IME program called LEAP. Being a part of clubs has also helped me meet like-minded peers. Perhaps most influential is the Gender Minorities in STEM club, through which I’ve been able to share space with other underrepresented genders in STEM on campus. I have also found an academic community through my research lab and my small upper-level science classes.

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