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UC Berkeley Senior and Dublin High School Grad Japna Kalra Awarded ASM Undergrad Research Fellowship

January 19, 2017

japna_ucb_asm_photo-1DUBLIN, CA–Our latest Life in College article is also a Women in STEM profile featuring Dublin High School Class of 2013 graduate and UC Berkeley Class of 2017 senior Japna Kalra. Japna was recently awarded an ASM Undergraduate Research Fellowship for her proposal “Analyzing the Targets and Transcription of a HipA Toxin in Caulobacter crescentus”. This fellowship is aimed at highly competitive students who wish to pursue graduate careers (Ph.D. or M.D./Ph.D.) in microbiology. Fellows have the opportunity to conduct full-time summer research at their home institution with an ASM mentor and present their research results at the 2017 ASM Microbe Meeting in New Orleans, LA if their abstract is accepted. Dr. Kathleen Ryan from University of California, Berkeley is Japna’s mentor.

We recently spoke with Japna to learn more about her UC Berkeley journey.

James Morehead: Describe microbiology to a layperson.

Japna Kalra: “Microbiology is the study of bacteria. It’s a fascinating field because bacteria are so diverse and there are such broad applications. Advances in medicine have come from microbiology, there are applications to biotechnology, biofuels and environmental remediation. if you don’t know where to go in biology it’s a great place to start.

“I also think microbiology is really cool! I’m interested in the study of host-pathogen interactions. Bacteria living on us is similar to the scale of us living on the Earth. It’s interesting to think about how bacteria living inside us help us out, and navigate the complex environment that is our body. Microbiology lets you think on a different scale and the biology gets really cool because all kinds of rules can be broken at that scale.”

Morehead: What experiences at Dublin High School helped prepare you for the rigor of college, and what do you wish you’d done differently, if anything?

Kalra: “My AP courses in science and math were really helpful – AP Biology, AP Chemistry, AP Physics, AP Calculus – given my major. AP courses in humanities helped because I didn’t have to repeat those courses in college. The workload of AP courses made the transition to college easier because my college workload has never been as much as it was in high school. Learning how to use social media to help with study groups was also helpful, Facebook groups for example. When you get to college it’s important to find all the Facebook groups that are used to help advise students.

“Settling on a major can be difficult, there are so many options at a school like Berkeley. I remember a speaker during one of my lower division classes, a founder of a startup, and his advice was to think of choosing a major like this: you are stranded up in Alaska with snow in every direction, everything looking the same, but you have to eat. If you stand still you won’t find food. If you start moving you might not find food right away, but you can make adjustments until you do.

“Early on every major looked the same to me, I wasn’t sure what path to take, so I picked one that seemed like it might be interesting and it ended up working out for me.” What was your experience transitioning from the way the sciences are taught in high school to your upper level science classes in college?

Kalra: “There are three different levels and approaches – high school science, lower division college classes and upper division. I would describe the differences using the analogy of a map.

“In high school you get a general idea of how big the map is, the different locations on the map, but you don’t get to learn too much any one thing but get lots of assignments. It’s work intensive but you can’t go too deep in any one area.

“In your first couple of years in college you get to learn how places on the map connect; in my case in microbiology you are learning chemistry, physics, math and biology and it’s now on you to decide how much work is necessary to understand the concepts. It’s much more concepts-focused and about problem-solving. AP courses overlap somewhat with this approach but the depth and scale is different, the map is getting more in focus.

“In your upper level courses you finally get to use the things you’ve been learning since high school, and why the concepts were relevant. I remember years ago that the answer to everything was ‘hydrogen bonding’, and when I learned concepts like that before they were devoid of context. In upper division courses you get to see the beauty of how concepts that seemed unrelated are actually very useful. In upper level courses there are clear places on the map where things are coming together and are much more relevant to things you are interested in.”

Morehead: What role have internships played?

Kalra: “I’ve had several internships – I was a marketing intern at a startup (an online auctioning platform), I’ve been interning at a free clinic in Berkeley, and I have an internship at a research lab. My general advice is to find a mentor and look for internships that are outside your comfort zone.”

Morehead: What were your strategies for succeeding in college-level science and math classes?

Kalra: “Through social media I was able to join and was already part of clubs, and through upperclassmen I met in those clubs I received lots of helpful advice. Clubs are a terrific way to meet people through a common interest. Make friends with upperclassmen – they are really helpful!

“Getting through classes where I had to rely more on myself took a lot of self-awareness. Every time you don’t understand something ask a question. I learned how to identify the gaps in my own understanding.

“In college no one’s holding your hand so you have to take responsibility for knowing what you understand, and what you don’t, and then figure out what you need to do to fill that gap. Do you need to talk to a professor? or ask an upperclassmen? or do extra assignments?”

Morehead: How was your transition from lower to upper division classes.

Kalra: “There’s a big transition between the completion of general requirements and the beginning of upper division requirements. When I was in really big chemistry or physics classes with hundreds of students, it felt much more competitive and isolating – you are one student in a sea of students. Interestingly I found upper division classes to be much easier, when the classes were smaller and you had more access to the professor.

“I took a class on strategies for minority students in STEM which helped with strategies for approaching STEM courses. I learned a lot about how views of myself can impact my performance. I became aware of how self-doubt about my abilities and could cause me to do more work than I needed to in order to believe I knew the answer. And even if I knew the answer I still had doubts. I learned that other students coming from similar backgrounds, who are not part of the majority group, face the same challenge of feeling the need to be extra sure before speaking up. Hearing similar experiences from my peers was really helpful.”

Morehead: Tell me about the process that led to being awarded the ASM Undergraduate Research Fellowship.

Kalra: “A year ago one of my professors reached out to several students including me to apply for the fellowship and offered to provide a letter of recommendation, so I applied. The application required two recommendation letters, evidence of past research experience, my GPA, a summary of the research I planned to do that summer and overview of my career objectives.”

Morehead: What are your plans after graduation?

Kalra: “I hope to get into an M.D. PhD program in order become a doctor who can go to clinics and see patients and also be a microbiology scientist.”

Morehead: Why is science so important?

Kalra: “Science is the best story there is, science is powerful. If you love stories, then studying science gives you the opportunity to explore so many fascinating stories and to ask creative questions. In science there is an impact to applying those stories.”

Morehead: How well did Dublin High School prepare you for UC Berkeley?

Kalra: “At Dublin High School I had the opportunity to work with teachers who really cared about what I needed to do to learn not just what I needed to do to get an A. That really helped me when I arrived in college because in college if you are only focused on grades and points you only get a few opportunities to be measured. In college you have much more control over how you learn the concepts than how you get points and grades. Dublin High School teachers inspired a love in the subjects I took and a curiosity in learning. Having good relationships with teachers in high school really helped me develop strong relationships with professors in college. Dublin High School teachers care about their students and about learning.”


One Comment
  1. Catherine Brown permalink
    January 19, 2017 6:41 am

    Congratulations Japna! You have come a long way from that spunky little first grader at Frederiksen! You have always worked hard and you are very deserving of this award! Thank you for representing girls in science and math so well!

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