2022 Harvard Graduate Student Employee of the Year

Pavithra Nagarajan, Grad Student at HSPH

Job Title: Research Trainee

Organization: Brigham and Women's Hospital


Appreciation note from Pavithra's Supervisor: "Working as a pilot study team in a large consortium, we faced a lot of challenges, such as choosing the optimal statistical model, compiling genomics software, applying various software, and comparing results with each other, figuring out the reasons of disconcordance (between software) and choosing the best one. Pavithra is good at handling those challenges. She is smart, self-motivated, and dependable, and helps us push forward the project quickly."

A Q&A with Pavithra

Q1. What made you apply to your current job while being a student?  

Pavithra: opportunity to encounter real-world research; experience collaboration with investigators; apply computational skills in a research landscape; Textbook knowledge only takes you so far -- I think it's challenging to shape your vision and perspective to tackle tangible tasks, and I wanted to experience that challenge with this position. Finally, I was incredibly excited about how the position involved a direct mentoring relationship; having a mentor is invaluable.

Q2: Where did you find your job? 

Pavithra: On a mailing list within the department

Q3: How have you been able to balance your schoolwork and work responsibilities? What are your personal keys to success, and what challenges or hurdles have you encountered?  

Pavithra: I think embracing change and looking at responsibilities as compartmentalized tasks helps; fixation I believe leaves to stagnation. It helps to take your mind off of one task -- rewire it, and tackle another task. I also learned to take things step by step: to spend an hour on one goal, and then be able to distance myself away from it, and tackle another one! Most importantly, as this cannot be understated, having an understanding, a very supportive mentor really helped me. I learned from my mentor that it's important and honestly the right move to be transparent about upcoming deadlines in school, or any overwhelming weeks.

Personal challenges include not putting myself down when things don't go right. Sometimes, when your code doesn't work it's something that's on your mind for hours! If something's broken on my mind, all I want to do is fix it. But I have slowly learned, that having an emotional basis of frustration doesn't help. It's easier said than done, but I've been teaching myself that a positive mindset and a clear mind are vital.

Q4: What does your typical day look like at work? What do you love the most about your position? 

Pavithra: Write Python scripts and R scripts to develop visuals if we are in the exploratory data analysis phase: Manhattan Plots, scatter plots, histograms, tables. Leverage the high-performance computing environment using Bash scripts to run specialized genome-wide GxE interaction analyses. Using Python and R format final results for final downstream reporting, assist in ad hoc visuals when piloting new software packages, and overall harmonization of various modalities of data.

Q5: How does it relate to what you are learning at Harvard? 

Pavithra: I see my field of computational biology as "code-ception" because it's about using code to decipher the human code (our genome). This position aligned well with my academic journey as it directly involves applied computation in the field of health and medicine. The regression analyses I helped run, involved leveraging information from millions of SNPs, which felt really awesome for me.

Q6: What is the most rewarding part of your job? What lessons have you learned that you’ll take with you after graduation?  

Pavithra: My mentor, Heming, has been so kind, and supportive and built up my confidence over these months. I've often felt self-doubt in myself, and her words and the unspoken confidence she had in me really have helped me shake away some of those real, negative thoughts. She has allowed me to feel both independent and take ownership of my work and has always been there for me from my silly questions to other questions on working in a research environment. What I have learned is the people you work with matter. My mentors from the present and the past -- their kindness and patience, inspire me to never let go of these core human values when I teach.