Ananya Mondal

Photo: Ananya with her REU mentee presenting poster at the Frontiers in Science Undergraduate Research Day 2022.

August 9, 2022: Interviewed by Anjaly S Menon, Lilly A Schaffer.

Can you introduce yourself to our readers and the area of physics you work in?

Hello, I am Ananya Mondal, a 6th-year graduate student in the Department of Physics at the University of Houston (UH). I work in theoretical and computational polymer physics with applications to problems in biology. My advisor is Dr. Greg Morrison, and our group also collaborates with biophysicists at the Center for Theoretical Biological Physics (CTBP), Rice University. I did my undergraduate and masters from IISER Kolkata, India.

Anjaly: Congratulations on being selected as one of the top 5 student employees of the year by Coog careers.
a) What do you have to tell your peers on this occasion? How do you feel about this achievement?
b) How did you hear about this position? Does one nominate themselves for this recognition?

a) Thank you. I feel very humbled that I was nominated for this award based on my leadership role for the women in physics group. I especially want to thank the founders of the women in physics chapter at UH (former graduate student, Dr. Vidushi Adlakha, and professor in the physics department, Dr. Claudia Ratti) for their efforts in securing the American Physical Society’s women in physics group grant. The grant has helped us to officially start this group. The group has expanded significantly after the pandemic lockdown and a lot of the credit belongs to my peers and faculty advisor (Dr. Ratti). They have always encouraged me in my leadership role by brainstorming event ideas together, how to involve more women in leadership roles, and making sure we pulled off the events. I would also like to acknowledge the efforts of the staff members (Jackqueline Owens, Shanequea White), UH-SACNAS (they are an amazing group of people to collaborate with) and professors (Drs Shuo Chen, Greg Morrison, and Kevin Bassler) at the University of Houston who have worked with our team on multiple occasions to make the initiatives possible.
b) I heard about this award from an email sent to us by the university career services. No, you cannot nominate yourself, but you can ask for multiple nominations from a professor or staff member with whom you have worked closely with.

Anjaly: Can you tell us about the current research project that you are working on?

Currently, I am mentoring an undergraduate student through the UH-Rice REU summer program called Frontiers in Science. Together we are developing a computational model (involving molecular dynamics simulations) that predicts the buckling statistics of biopolymers such as actin filaments inside a cell. I guess we have all seen the signs marking a weight limit for trucks that can cross certain bridges. The reason behind that is, with an exceeded amount of load, the columns of the bridge are compressed, and the columns can laterally bend and fail in structure. This phenomenon is known as buckling which is a classic example for mechanical engineers. In microscopic systems, such as long protrusions in bacteria called filopodia are composed of slender filaments of actin proteins which can also undergo buckling because of cell deformation or interactions with other biomolecules. These protrusions play roles in cell motility, wound healing, and cancer metastasis. Modeling the molecular mechanism of buckling is therefore ubiquitous to understanding key biological functions inside the cell.

Anjaly: As the president of WiPS for 2021-2022, you have worked hard and are a great role model for us, who demonstrates commitment and invests the necessary time and effort to achieve success.
a) What/who motivated you to take the president position of WiPS?
b) What do you think of your time at UH leading this organization? What benefits/disadvantages (If any) did you get from this position?

a) When the chapter was founded in 2020, I joined the leadership team as the webmaster. Covid hit and the growth of the chapter was stalled as everyone was suddenly thrown into a virtual world. Due to the lockdown, my mental health took a hit, and I realized the importance of community support in academia to share ways to navigate the unprecedented times. When the elections for the president position of WiPS began in 2021, I naturally gravitated towards nominating myself for it because I was highly motivated to bring back a sense of camaraderie and expand our professional network, after the pandemic.
b)The biggest takeaway from this organization is the relationships I have built. I have learned to be more open and seek help from my peers. I remember the time when I was struggling with something professionally and was doubting my ability to do physics as I am a woman. The tremendous peer support that I received helped me push through it. The biggest challenge I faced was finding ways to engage more students after the pandemic. But the WiPS leadership team has come a long way to overcome this hurdle and expand the impact of this group with the support from groups like UH-SACNAS. Recently I learned that more women are looking forward to joining leadership positions. That is great news!

Lilly: Which was your favorite conference experience?

My favorite conference experience was my first conference in the US – the Annual Meeting of the 64th Biophysical Society (BPS) in San Diego, California. It was exciting because I had worked on developing a model for about two years and just before the abstract submission deadline, I had some interesting results. It felt great to present these results to my peers from the community. I also met many of my undergraduate professors and friends (from IISER Kolkata) at this conference. Moreover, this conference was in February 2020, right before the Covid lockdown, and so I was grateful that I could go to this one and network with peers.

Lilly: What is the role of group work in your Ph.D. and extra-curricular activities? Do you enjoy working in groups?

I love working in groups because I feel very productive in such collaborative environments. One of the best examples is my time at UH working with a diverse set of leaders in the women in physics team. I got the opportunity to educate myself on a lot of things, like right from how glass ceilings for women can look very different around the world to recommendations for Netflix shows. I have learned to appreciate the diversity in groups a lot more. As for my Ph.D., currently, I am mentoring an undergraduate student and together we are building a project. I enjoy co-coding with my mentee a lot.

Anjaly: If you did not choose to do a Physics Ph.D. what career would you have chosen?

I think I would have pursued medicine. I almost enrolled in a medical school but changed my mind at the very last minute to pursue basic sciences.

Anjaly: What life lessons did Ph.D. experiences teach you? Also, what are the biggest challenge/challenges you faced during this journey?

I think over the years I have learned how to be both vulnerable, and resilient. Also, the fact that if you are stuck on a problem for too long finding a means to break the circle: playing around with cool data visualization software or working on a different project or just making yourself a cup of chai, helps. The biggest challenge was navigating the Covid pandemic, mostly because it happened right in the middle of my most productive years as a Ph.D. student and I also saw my family in the Covid crisis up-close.

Lilly: What are some fun ways you’ve found to relax or enjoy time outside of the university during your studies at UH?

Outside of my studies, I love to watch movies a lot. Other than that, I love exploring the diverse food cuisines that Houston offers.

Anjaly: We know that you are planning to graduate soon. As your next career step, do you prefer an industry job or a post-doc position? Why? How is your job/post-doc search going?

I do not have a preference yet as I am just getting started with my job search process. I am trying to cast a wide net based on my skill set and where I want to envision myself doing research. I would have liked the job search to have moved a little bit faster but I am swamped with research work and mentoring responsibilities this summer so I would say I am struggling to balance.

Lilly: What do you think are some of the most pressing scientific questions of our time?

If I were to pick one, I think it is the real-world effects we are feeling with climate change. Modern society is facing a pressing need to control excessive carbon emissions or irresponsible production of material waste like plastics. The Nobel Prize in physics in 2021, highlighted that climate modeling is physics. So, in the future, I want to leverage my training in polymer physics to help design biomaterials, and advanced polymers that are fully recyclable and biodegradable, unlike plastics.

Thank you for all your efforts in building and growing this community. What advice/suggestions will you give to other women students in the department for continuing the growth and spread of WiPS?

I loved my time serving as the president of the chapter as I got the chance to build bonds with so many talented people in the department. If there was one thing I learned, it is that even the slightest contributions make a difference. As students, we often have a thousand things to do for our research or courses, but sometimes participating in networking events or planning events together can teach us a lot of soft skills which we may not necessarily learn as a part of our research training. Examples include respecting differences, delegating tasks, or building professional relationships. So, I would like to invite more undergraduate, graduate, and postdoc women to join the discussions/events whenever possible and make `little’ contributions toward the growth of the group. I am very confident the current president (Anjaly), vice president (Atrayee), and treasurer (Lilly) have a fantastic lineup of events. They are also looking for more officers to join the leadership. Please get in touch with them!