Dr. Sonika Tyagi, scientist in the field of Bioinformatics, is an epitome of dedication, hard work, and among the very few scientists in this specialized field. She was part of a research team who discovered the root cause of Skin cancer. Not only in the field of academics and research, she has contributed very actively to the cause of social equality during her academic life.
Born and having completed early education in the state of UP India, she pursued higher education in Delhi in the field of Biology and joined the first batch of PhD program at Jawaharlal University (JNU), New Delhi in the field of Bioinformatics. Unlike, many families, her family was very supportive of her and provided constant encouragement to pursue her career.
During her PhD studies Sonika was offered a fellowship in 2004 to do research at the University of Queensland (UQ), Brisbane, Australia. After completing her PhD, Sonika worked as a research fellow at several prestigious universities and medical research institutes in Australia. She is currently a Bioinformatics Scientist and Supervisor at the Australian Genome Research Facility Ltd (AGRF).
As luck would have it, Sonika’s fellowship at UQ not only brought her research accolades but also her life partner, Akshat Tanksale, who was himself doing PhD at UQ. They both got married after finishing their PhD degrees, which brought Sonika back to Australia in 2007. Since then they have settled in Melbourne and are proud parents of two beautiful daughters.
What motivated you to pursue a career in scientific research and specifically Bioinformatics?
I was fascinated by science, biology in particular, since my early high school education. I was often inspired by the wonders of nature, which strengthened my desire to pursue career in biological sciences. The deeper I delved into the field, the stronger I felt my love and curiosity for learning in this field. I was fascinated by how different biological systems function in the human body. I found that the human body was a highly complex but elegant system for which the blueprint is DNA. Master of Life Sciences program at JNU was the doorway, which led me to the field of Bioinformatics, where we learnt to apply computer science to answer biological research questions. At the time, JNU was the only place in the country to offer a PhD program in the bioinformatics field and I joined the first batch. I was learning new skills like computer programing, understanding deeper biological problems at molecular level and finding solutions for them. Gaining all this fundamental knowledge would prove to be essential to apply them for numerous cancer research projects that I worked on after completing my PhD. I was part of the research team which discovered the root cause of skin cancer which will hopefully lead to prevention and treatment in the future.
What exactly is Bioinformatics and how do you apply that in your current research?
That is a good question and I get that asked a lot. I will try and explain it in simple terms.
All living organism on the Earth have DNA, which carries all the information about that organism such as color of skin, hair, height etc. DNA is made up of four chemical denoted by letters A, G, C and T. The whole DNA can be written in a long text sequence of these four letters. Human DNA is made of 3 billion letters
One aspect of Bioinformatics, as a field of work, involves using computer programs to study these billions of DNA sequences and research on genetic modifications in the DNA sequence, which can lead to diseases like diabetes for instance.
AGRF (my workplace) is one of the organizations in Australia where the sequence of these letters in a DNA can be found out from biological samples. My work involves writing and using computer programs and to make comparisons between normal and disease samples to find the modifications responsible for any disease. Hopefully by understanding the nature of these modifications (hereditary or environmental) our knowledge about the cause of these deadly diseases like cancer will improve and we will be able to prevent them.
There would be very few women in this field of research - do you feel any specific peer pressure or job related constraints because of this?
In general the ratio of women to men is better in the field of biology compared to some other fields. However, as we move into higher education PhD or research, and subsequently in work force, the number of women reduces. At managerial or executive position the numbers are low indeed. I have been fortunate to be working in a very supportive environment at home, university and at work. Naturally, there have been many challenges along the way while pursuing higher studies and career in science but my willpower to learn and succeed has always overcome the hurdles.
Your job requires you to spend long hours on research and also attending seminars, writing and contributing to research journals - how do you manage your time across all these activities and also able to give time for your family?
This is a tricky one to answer (laughs). I will not pretend that I can do it all ‘perfectly’. But yes it is all about creating a balance between all these roles. Depending on the time and situation I have to change my priorities and get things done. At work I am an ambitious career oriented woman and at home I love to cook for my family, dress up my girls, do their hair and play with them. My husband and I both work full time and share household load equally.
Can you tell us something about other activities you may have pursued during your career or academic life?
I spent eight years of my life on JNU campus. The campus not only stimulated my academic ambition and pursuit of scientific research, it also taught me to think, debate, share, and challenge ideas.
I was also involved with social causes and campaigned against the caste divide of our society and campaigned for changing caste based reservation to effective affirmative actions in the year 2006. Along with other likeminded students we formed a group called as ‘Youth for Equality’. As an active member of this group I devoted all my spare time to the cause of this group. The group marched on the streets, sat on hunger strikes and ran campaigns throughout the country. Since it was an independent group, not affiliated to any political party, it was hard for us to make our voices heard to the policy makers. Among other campaigns, we also ran for the JNU student union elections. The aim was not to become politically active, but to make our voices heard in and outside the campus, since the JNU student elections get a lot of attention from media and people. Within the group I was selected to run for the president’s post and the process of this election was a life changing experience for me. Coming from nowhere we finished second in the race against established student wings on the campus, which was an utter surprise for us. That was when I realized that we don’t need to be huge to make a difference. If we have good intentions and foundation the people will support.
Image source from Times of India
If you wouldn't have been a scientist, what would you possibly have been doing?
Honestly, I don’t want to imagine not doing the work that I am doing right now. However, since I was involved with programs for unprivileged children education in India, I would love to go back to actively working towards it. I would like to give something back to the society by working at the grass root level.
What motivates you at work?
I get to work on very challenging projects related to human health, environment and agriculture. Although I can make only small contributions in these complex problems, the idea that these contributions will one day help the society gives me the purpose to continue working in my research.
What do you like to do in your free time?
Even though I am not great at cooking, I like trying new recipes in my spare time. I love to spend time with my girls doing things that they like doing. I wouldn’t miss a chance to go out and explore nature with my family.
How do you balance your personal and professional life?
Its hard to strike balance between the two but not impossible. I try to be flexible and adapt to the situation. There is no magic formula to it. Once you have motivation to get out of bed in the morning and go to work you have to balance the personal life. You just need to identify the motivating factors for personal and professional lives and pursue them.
What was the most difficult period in your life, and how did you deal with it?
Becoming a mother I would say. It completely turned my life upside down. After my first baby, my respect for all the mothers on the earth increased manifold. A full time working mother of two is double the fun!
What does it take for a women to be successful in her chosen career?
Hard work, positive attitude and having a good mentor is the key I believe.
What is one advice that you would like to give to working women?
I will just end with a quote that “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking that they don’t have any”.