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Seventeen Minutes of Science: STEMpowerment: How a High Schooler is Inspiring More Girls to Pursue STEM

Tune in weekly to our virtual series “Seventeen Minutes of Science” every Tuesday at 11am PST / 2pm ET where we go live on Facebook with a new guest each week to talk about how science and biotechnology is woven into their lives for (you guessed it) 17 minutes!

For episode 48 of 17 Minutes of Science we talked with Neha Gupta about her science research in addition to how she is lifting and inspiring other girls to pursue STEM.

Since she was 12 years old, Neha Gupta has been competing in science fairs and exploring STEM topics related to biology and health sciences. Since 2017, her participation in the Bay Area Science and Engineering Fair has led her to compete in national (Canada-Wide Science Fair) and international level fairs (International Science and Engineering Fair). Her current research uses C. elegans to test for toxicity, and required her to develop a method of quantitatively modeling C. elegans behavior – something that had never been done before.

While participating in these science fairs is fun and inspiring, Neha noticed a theme among her fellow female science fair participants – there were not enough of them, and they all had stories about how if it had been just a bit different, they probably wouldn’t have had the opportunity to pursue STEM. Because of these conversations, Neha actively seeks to encourage young girls to participate in science fairs and STEM fields, as science is not a subject restricted to one population of people. This has inspired her to found STEMpowerment, a nonprofit run through Twitter aimed at creating more visibility around women and girls in STEM to empower youth to make strides in scientific fields and Dimensions Magazine, a science-based student-run magazine aimed to engage high school and undergrad students in science by publishing student-written articles. Neha also runs a blog where you can check out her most recent updates.

Tune in to learn more about Neha’s research and her drive to make STEM more accessible.


Dr Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:00:10] Welcome to 17 Minutes of Science. My name is Sarah Cheesman, I’m a scientist here at InVivo Biosystems and have been on the show many times. And today we have a guest I’m really looking forward to as we continue on our theme of the next generation of scientists. I have with me Neha Gupta who is joining us from Hamilton, Canada, and she helped me orient that she’s about an hour out of Toronto. So for those of you needing to brush up on your geography, she’s located in the greater area of Toronto. So our subject that we’re going to talk about today is toxicity testing, using C. elegans as a young scientist. So Neha has long been interested in science and STEM topics. She started competing in science fairs since she was 12 and she will tell us more about that when we chat. She is now a junior in high school. So she’s been at this for a while and she’s participated in Bay Area Science and Engineering Fair. She’s competed in National Level in Canada, and international level fairs as well. So we’ll hear more about that. She uses C. elegans as a model to test for toxicity and this has required her to develop a method of quantitative modeling worm behavior, which is something that hasn’t been done before. So we will get into that as well. So I’d like you to meet Neha. Please say a few words about yourself.


Neha Gupta (Guest): [00:01:29] Hello, everyone, my name is Neha Gupta. As Sarah said, I’m in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, and I’m really excited to be here today and share my passion for science and discuss the use of C.elegans in my research, which is something that, you know, was partly unconventional, not planned. But I’m really passionate about researching and science. I love advocating for more women in STEM. I love academics and I love challenging myself. I also love extracurriculars like running and swimming and such. And it’s just a pleasure to be here today and discuss my research.


Dr Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:02:06] Thank you for taking time out of that very busy schedule to tell us all about it. So tell us how you got interested in the STEM pursuits and then what sort of drove you in the direction of working with worms and how you, how you got going on that?


Neha Gupta (Guest): [00:02:22] So I thrive in inquiry based learning, I actually first interacted with inquiry based learning when I was in the fifth grade and I was sent to a gifted program as a part of my school. And there I was able to interact with the idea of starting your learning with a global question that you can answer through the different disciplines that you’re passionate about and seeking to work towards a global idea and something that is applicable to so many different domains. So for me, because I had always been I had always been able to see science from a young age, I began to incorporate science through the inquiry based learning method. So being able to ask a question and then derive an answer using the so many different disciplines that science offers my family. We’re kind of the science family. We have careers in science and are interested in science. So because of that, as a young girl, I had exposure to science already and I was able to see myself in the subject that sometimes can be seen as having a barrier in front of it. So I’m really lucky to have had my family in science and they gave me the capacity to dream about being a researcher and have that as something that’s accessible to me and something that appeals to me more than, you know, as a kid when you dream of being a ballerina or a chef. It gave me the ability to believe that I could be a researcher, that I could go into STEM and particularly into science. And my passion for research kind of came off of that.


Dr Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:03:56] Well, I love that because our lived experience so much informs how we see ourselves. So you were lucky to have that. But more after we get through a couple of these questions about your your goal to be that embodiment for other girls, because as you say, you have to see yourself sometimes to believe it’s possible. That’s huge. So tell us about, About how are you using silicon’s in your research and how you’re using it to study tox and what that looks like.


Neha Gupta (Guest): [00:04:24] So I carried out a study that focused on the detection of chemical toxicants in water bodies. And I used C. elegans as a model to visualize the changes in their movement. Essentially, I exposed C. elegans, nematodes, to different chemical toxicants, both metals and non metals, and I exposed them also to different concentrations of these compounds. And what I was able to do was to quantitatively analyse their movement by subjecting them to electrotaxis, also within a microfluidic channel. And I was able to also implement code that was developed on the Matlab platform to help me identify paradigms and nematode movement. And for the first time then I was able to quantitatively get results as to establishing paradigms of nematode movement in comparison to their velocity, their thrashing patterns and overall movement trends. And the process that I was able to test and work on actually reduces water screening cost by 2,184%. It costs about $1.50 Canadian, per household per month. And that really does significantly reduce the barriers, the current barriers to costs and accessibility of water screening and can allow for particularly resource poor settings to actually be able to actively identify chemical toxins in water bodies and then make decisions as to what water can be consumed.


Dr Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:05:56] So did you, it sounded like you started in the lab, maybe creating your own solutions? Did you then take it to the field? Have you gathered specimens from out there in toxic places?


Neha Gupta (Guest): [00:06:09] Well, because of COVID-19 research in terms of field work was extremely limited here in Canada. We’re still in lockdown, actually. So this project, the goal ultimately was to be able to use field work to test for water toxicity. But because of COVID-19 and because of public health, I wasn’t able to do that. But that is a next step. Looking at when Canada opens up hopefully a bit more in recent weeks. And hopefully I will be able to take samples from local bodies of water that do have toxins and test for them. Using the system.


Dr Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:06:42] That will be so interesting, to see where that leads you. Yes, of course. There’s always the next version of what we’re trying to do, informed by where we are today. And is this a story that you have taken to a science fair? Tell us about competing in science fairs and the kinds of work you’ve shown there.


Neha Gupta (Guest): [00:06:59] Yeah, since I was 12 years old, actually, I’ve been participating in science fairs. I did take this particular project to science fair since since 2017, actually, I’ve been competing in the Bay Area Science and Engineering Fair, which is the regional fair in Canada, and from there I’ve been lucky enough to be able to represent my region at the Canada wide science fair in 2017 and 2018. And in 2019, I was given the opportunity to attend the International Science and Engineering Fair as a student observer. So I didn’t actually present a project that year. But this year I was able to take this research that I did perform, for about six to seven months, and I was able to present it at the International Science and Engineering Fair this year as a finalist. And it was really exciting getting to share my research with a global platform of scientists and also getting to know all of these scientists from all over the world that our youth and that are interested in the same topics that I am.


Dr Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:08:02] And was that made possible by – was it a virtual science fair?


Neha Gupta (Guest): [00:08:06] Yes, it was. It was a virtual science fair, actually. And although it was a different platform, it still provided that same sense of community that science was always able to provide me with. And that’s what is always so important and infectious about science fairs, is knowing that – there’s a humbling reminder of the amount of youth that are in science, regardless of whether the fair is virtual or in person. And it’s great to see the global reach of science and how students from different countries are able to filter through the experiences and problems that they see in their own areas and be able to come up with the solution through science.


Dr Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:08:47] I imagine the work that you’re doing would have international interest for other areas of the world that struggle with these issues of water quality and maybe are resource, more resource constrained. Did you develop any interesting friendships or collaboration through the science fair that you think may continue on?


Neha Gupta (Guest): [00:09:07] Through science fairs, you’re actually able to network so much and meet other people, you’re also able to just communicate with judges that are experienced in areas that you’re passionate about. So every year after science fair, I’ve been able to make such lasting connections that actually still last today. Even participants that I met in 2017, I still interact with them today. So science fair really is this this community of tight knit people that are passionate about the same things.


Dr Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:09:37] That is very exciting. And I love, I’ve heard from multiple colleagues of mine who participated in virtual meetings this last year, how it enabled them to connect with people they might not otherwise have been able to because they didn’t have to travel or some other things that would have prohibited them. And so it actually has expanded the access in order for people to connect in this way. It sounds like that’s been your experience, too.


Neha Gupta (Guest): [00:10:01] Definitely.


Dr Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:10:03] That’s very exciting. And so, so science fair. And then you’ve – so that already happened this year. No, wait, it’s 2021. Yes. You said it happened this year.


Neha Gupta (Guest): [00:10:15] Yeah, it happened this year. Just last month, actually.


Dr Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:10:17] Oh, OK. So you’re fresh on that. And you said that you, you were what was your placement? You mentioned it.


Neha Gupta (Guest): [00:10:23] Sorry?


Dr Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:10:24] So did you receive an award there? Or you received?


Neha Gupta (Guest): [00:10:28] I, I actually didn’t win at the international level, but I was able to win at my regional level to make it to the international level. But it was just a pleasure to be able to represent Canada on the global platform. So I’m really just honored and humbled that I was chosen to represent my country.


Dr Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:10:47] Absolutely. Well, it’s all in achievement. It’s all an achievement. That’s great. So tell us more about your interest in supporting young women to become involved in STEM pursuits and hopefully careers and and what you’re doing in that regard.


Neha Gupta (Guest): [00:11:04] So through my experiences in science fair, I’ve been able to interact with so many people, as I’ve said, and it shows us all participants in science fair, or whether you’re just going to see what research students have done, it shows you that there are barriers to science, but that they’ve also been able to be overcome by so many people. And from participating in science fairs I’ve been able to learn that science fairs are so much more than science. And had I not had the exposure I had in science and in STEM from that young age, I might not have seen science as something that was accessible to me. So that really drove me to learn about how other young women became involved in science and they shared similar stories that I had. So in December of 2019, I actually founded a nonprofit organization that is called  STEMpowerment, and it’s based on Twitter by the name  STEMpowermentCA, which stands for Canada. And through this platform I seek to reach youth from all around the world and to share stories of those that have been able to become involved in science in STEM and have become intern trailblazers. And through  STEMpowerment, I’ve started a hashtag called Wednesdays for Women. So every Wednesday I highlight one woman that has been able to pave her own way in her respective area. And I seek to show people from all around the world or anyone that is accessing this platform, show them that women exist who have done the difficult job of finding their own way in an area and meant to motivate youth all over the world to also see themselves in that environment. And that’s something that I’m really passionate about. So I really do love my involvement in  STEMpowerment. Also in August of 2020, so amidst COVID-19, I was also able to co-found a magazine that is based on Instagram. It’s called Dimension’s Magazine. And what Dimension’s does is allow, again, for youth to be able to share their experience and stories in science. So we actually publish student written articles based on science and STEM topics, and it’s published in an accessible online format to allow for youth to interact with science. And it’s actually a one hundred percent female led initiative so far. And it’s just great to see how so many youth women from all around the world, most literally from all around the world, we have members from India to the United Kingdom to the Philippines, Spain and Canada, the US, how so many individuals are able to unite and work together to actually spread science throughout our communities. And when I founded Dimension’s, I actually never imagined that so many people would want to get involved.


Dr Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:14:01] Well, that is the wonderful thing about the reach of these tools, right, is that it creates possibilities where otherwise it might have been really challenging to connect. That’s inspiring to hear you frame it like that. Can you tell us with your amazing Women Wednesdays or whatever that special lot is called, one of the favorites of late that you profiled?


Neha Gupta (Guest): [00:14:24] It’s called Hashtag Wednesdays for Women. And one of my recent favorites, I highlighted the first woman to run a marathon. It’s Kathrine Switzer. And she participated in, she participated as the first woman in a marathon. And I was able to highlight her journey to registering in the race, how she concealed her gender and essentially how she was able to go through the journey of actually running the race and the instances of where there were actually men who came onto the course to try to remove her. And although that’s not particularly science oriented, it’s a journey that you can also see in science as well. Young women being turned away from going into science and her struggle is truly global. So she was able to, in turn, paved the way for women to run marathons and actually came up with that inspiration because I ran the Around the Bay Marathon and that’s based in Hamilton. So I was thinking of, oh, I might just do something in athletics. And I came across the first woman to run a marathon. So I thought, that’s perfect to be able to highlight that woman.


Dr Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:15:34] That is a powerful story. And as you say, a lot of synergy there between the two paths. You said you ran you ran a marathon?


Neha Gupta (Guest): [00:15:45] I actually participated in the Around the Bay, but I ran the 5K race that is, that branches off of the marathon.


Dr Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:15:52] Well done that. All of it is impressive to me. In our last minute because it’s almost over, that’s what we, what I promised you – that it would it go by so fast because we have been talking about so many interesting things. But in our last minute, tell us what you’re planning for the future after you’re done with high school or where you see yourself going. We’d love to hear more.


Neha Gupta (Guest): [00:16:14] I really want to go into university and I want to pursue science. I know that for a fact. I’m passionate about medicine. My passion for medicine branches off of my grandfather, who’s a retired orthopedic surgeon, and he resides in India. And what my grandfather was able to do was after his retirement, opened a clinic to provide medical care for those in poverty. And so from seeing how passionate he is about his work, it showed me that helping others truly is an end goal. And the way that he’s so positive about his work showed me that health is truly a gift that is the most valuable or one of the most valuable that you can give others. So I definitely do want to pursue medicine as I grew older. I’m also, I want to complete a full marathon someday. I want to be able to work as a lifeguard eventually. And I really just want to make my own place in the world and show others that you can do it to.


Dr Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:17:15] Well, based on just meeting you for 17 minutes, I have every confidence that you will achieve those goals that you set out for yourself because you seem like you’re very focused and all of them sound wonderful. If you accomplished half of them that would be amazing.


Neha Gupta (Guest): [00:17:33] Thank you.


Dr Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:17:33] Well, Neha, it has been really lovely to meet with you and hear about what you’ve been doing and what you envision for the future as as our listeners and viewers tuned into this, uh, Neha has a lot going on in social media. She also has a blog. So I believe we will post a link to her blog, probably off this Facebook event, so that if you’re interested in seeing what she’s up to in those other spaces, you can easily find her there. So we’ll, we’ll call it there for today, but thank you again Neha. It is really a pleasure.


Neha Gupta (Guest): [00:18:00] Thank you so much, it was a pleasure speaking to you today.


Dr Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:18:03] Ok, we’ll see everybody next time. Thanks for joining us.

About The Author

InVivo Biosystems

InVivo Biosystems provides essential services to help pharmaceutical, nutraceutical, biotechnology companies and academic research institutions around the globe accelerate their research and drug development efforts. An expert in CRISPR genome editing, InVivo Biosystems creates custom genome edited C. elegans and zebrafish models to enable aging and other disease studies. In addition, InVivo Biosystems provides in-vivo analytical services to produce data and insights for companies that need to make go/no-go decisions quickly in early-stage development of new compounds.

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