Simran Handa, a Kamiak grad, and current Lewis & Clark College senior on Thursday in Mukilteo. Handa is studying microbiology and biochemistry at the college. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Simran Handa, a Kamiak grad, and current Lewis & Clark College senior on Thursday in Mukilteo. Handa is studying microbiology and biochemistry at the college. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Kamiak grad’s cell research is inspired by younger sister

“It would be very difficult for me to tell a patient, ‘I don’t know why this disease is happening.’”

MUKILTEO — Simran Handa, 21, graduated from Kamiak High School and is now studying at Lewis & Clark College. She aims to do medical research and treat patients, and recently received a Women In STEM Excel scholarship.

Question: What are you studying?

Answer: Biochemistry and molecular biology.

Q: What do you hope to do with your degree?

A: I am not 100 percent set yet, but I think I want to do an MD-PhD path. It’ll be two years at med school, then I’ll leave and do my PhD, and then I’ll go back and finish my last two years of med school. They’re just really cool programs that help you become both a physician and a scientist.

Q: Is there a particular area that interests you?

A: As far as the science goes, I’m thinking cell or molecular biology. Things going on at the cellular level are really interesting questions. There’s this whole unknown world around us and we don’t know what’s going on. I want to be at that microscopic level. As far as medicine, I think that all diseases involving the immune system are really interesting because they’re difficult questions. A lot of scientists don’t want to put time and money into those types of diseases. I’m interested in that challenge.

Q: What got you into medicine?

A: It started with my sister. She is currently 16. When she was 9, she was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, a pretty bad autoimmune disease that affects the intestines. I spent a large part of my life as her caregiver, going to doctor appointments with her, being with her when she got her IV medications. I’m pretty used to the hospital environment and I love helping people, especially in times of sickness. Health is a basic need. At the same time, if I were a doctor, it would be very difficult for me to tell a patient, “I don’t know why this disease is happening or I don’t know what I can do to help you.” That’s the answer my sister got a lot, and that was really frustrating … What I envision doing in my career is an 80-20 split where you’re in a lab four days a week and a clinic one day a week. Science can get lonely and cutthroat sometimes, and you just need to ground yourself. For me, that’s going to be seeing patients.

Q: What were you involved in at Kamiak?

A: I did varsity golf all four years. I was president of our Human Rights Club, president of our Key Club. I volunteered at a bunch of local events, like Annie’s Soup Kitchen, Mukilteo town events, at the Swedish/Edmonds hospital. My junior year, I started working at a cancer research lab in Seattle. I was doing that in the summer and also part-time during school. I was tutoring a lot of local students in science and math.

Q: Have you kept up with extracurriculars in college?

A: I still do a lot of tutoring. I work in our writing center. Some people might think it’s weird because I’m a biochem major, but writing is really important for the sciences. Your data does not matter if you can’t explain it. I am the president of our Pre-Health Professions Club, of our Gender Minorities in STEM Club. Even at a school like Lewis & Clark, there are still issues in sciences with women. I also helped found our Asian Student Union. I’m in our student alumni association. I’m doing full-time research in a lab.

Q: What are you researching?

A: It’s a cell biology lab. We’re made up of all different cell types. Each type of cell usually contains different compartments that take on different types of tasks. So your neurons need compartments to hold neurotransmitters, but you don’t need those compartments in your skill cells. We’re studying a type of compartment called a lysosome-related organelle, only found in a few cell types: skin, lungs, some types of blood cells. When they’re not made correctly, they can cause rare genetic diseases … We’re just starting to figure out the mechanisms of why and what’s going on. I know it sounds very niche, but it’s a really cool concept because it’s so difficult and my lab is one of the only labs studying it.

Q: As a woman and minority in STEM, what is your advice to others?

A: A really big factor as to why I’m even in the sciences was starting early. To have confidence doing research in college, I had to start early. Find good mentors. Not all the mentors I’ve had have been great, but I’ve had a couple who have been super life changing … Form a community with other people who are like you. Sometimes, when you’re in a science classroom and you are one of only three women in the room, it can be really intimidating and you get impostor syndrome. You feel like you don’t belong there even when you have the credentials. Even in my lab, I felt that. I had more research experience than anyone else, but I still felt like I was going to fail. The best way to combat impostor syndrome is to find a community like you and share your experiences.

Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; kbray@heraldnet.com.

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