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International Women’s Day Q&A Spotlight on Puja Bagri

Puja Bagri is an accomplished IIDR trainee, passionate community volunteer and proud feminist. In her International Women’s Day Q&A spotlight, Puja talks about her research on women’s health; her plan to mentor young girls in her hometown of Scarborough; and her recent award from the American Society of Reproductive Immunology.

What is your educational background?

I completed my BSc in Biochemistry at McMaster University in 2013. I then shifted gears and chose the Medical Sciences Program for my graduate work. I started my MSc in 2014 under the supervision of Dr. Charu Kaushic and then transferred to my PhD in 2016.

What does your research focus on?

My area of research is women’s health, with a focus on studying the mechanisms by which female sex hormones affect the local environment and regulate genital tract immune responses to sexually transmitted viral infections (STIs) such as herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2).

What are the real world applications of your research?

HSV-2 is one of the most predominant STIs in the world, with no cure or vaccine currently available, and women are more susceptible to infection compared to men. One of the factors that may be contributing to differences in susceptibility is the presence of female sex hormones, produced endogenously and/or provided exogenously via hormonal contraceptives. Our research aims to elucidate mechanisms which explain how different hormonal conditions can affect susceptibility to HSV-2. We have shown that certain hormones are protective (estradiol), and can mediate efficient immune responses to HSV-2. These findings can be used for vaccine development, and to make safer recommendations for hormonal contraceptive use, especially to women who are at increased risk for acquiring STIs.

What do you love most about being an IIDR trainee?

The most appealing aspect about being an IIDR trainee is the collaborative environment. The shared facilities and openness demonstrated by everyone promotes a very positive environment. There are experts from different areas of research available to help you, and cutting-edge technology at your disposal. In addition, there are several opportunities for trainees to be involved in that go beyond research and the lab. I especially enjoyed writing for the IIDR Trainee Newsletter, which is a great outlet for students to express their creativity!

What is your proudest accomplishment in your academic career thus far?

I was fortunate to attend the annual meeting of the American Society of Reproductive Immunology a few months ago, as my abstract was selected from approximately 100+ submissions to be considered for the prestigious John Gusdon New Investigator Award. I was honoured to be considered for this accolade, but I was also very nervous about giving my oral talk, as I was competing against more experienced trainees. I received a lot of positive feedback following my presentation, and ended up being selected as the winner!

Winning this award made me feel a lot more confident in my ability as a researcher, and reassured me that if I put forth my best effort, I can succeed. Research can leave you feeling defeated at times; however, sometimes having your work recognized by even one person can be the motivation you need to keep plowing through!

What is your advice for aspiring female scientists?

Follow your passion and don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t accomplish your goals or achieve your dreams. Work hard, stay dedicated, and most importantly, always, always, ALWAYS have faith in yourself. I strongly believe that if you work to the best of your ability, then you will never truly “fail” at anything, because you will walk away from the situation knowing that you gave it your all. I especially wish to spread this message to women of colour, who face their own set of barriers when trying to climb the ladder of success.

Why should women and girls be interested in pursuing a career in science?

I think everyone should be interested in pursuing science! Research makes the world go round! For anyone who wants to constantly learn new things, and be immersed in an exciting and innovative environment, then they should definitely pursue a career in science.

Women and girls should be especially interested, as there needs to be diversity in science. Everyone brings their own unique perspective to the table, and we need the table to be as multifaceted as possible! When you often look at the “higher ups” in the world of science, women are still underrepresented and this can change if more girls pursue careers in STEM.

Do you have a female mentor? What are the benefits of having a mentor?

I am fortunate enough to have had different female mentors (family members, peers, co-workers, teachers, etc.) at different stages of my life. Growing up with two older sisters, I have always had two great role models who have supported and guided me. Currently, I am inspired daily by my supervisor, Charu Kaushic, who has helped me gain confidence in my ability to be a researcher. Although these women come from different walks of life, they all have one thing in common: they are empowering in their own way. Having female mentors is especially beneficial, as they can often relate to my experiences. Mentors act as role models, provide invaluable guidance and support, and inspire you to achieve your goals. Ultimately, mentors can help motivate you to become the best version of yourself.

What do you hope to achieve at the IIDR? 

I hope to positively contribute to the cutting-edge research being conducted at IIDR, and add meaningful research to the field of women’s reproductive health. I also want to make a positive impact on the overall graduate experience of my peers, which is why I try my best to get involved with student associations.

What is your dream job?

That’s the million-dollar question! I’m still on the journey of figuring this out. Although there isn’t a specific job title that comes to mind, I know I want to do something that involves constant learning. I love to learn new things and need to keep my mind stimulated at all times! I also want a job which will allow me to give back to others and make an impact on the global community. So, for now, my dream job is TBD.

The theme for International Women’s Day is “Be Bold for Change” which encourages women to declare what bold action they will take to specifically help drive gender parity. What do you do currently, or what will you do to “Be Bold for Change” in 2017?

I can confidently say that I am a feminist. For me, feminism means equality for all. Regardless of gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, and ability; inclusion is for everyone. This is something I feel very passionately about, and I spent many years advocating for equality as a volunteer and employee for YWCA Toronto.

An upcoming initiative I am planning is to provide mentorship to young girls in my hometown of Scarborough. Growing up in a community where many children come from low-income families or from cultures where girls are not always encouraged to pursue further education, I want to show young women that they can achieve their dreams. Many of these girls are from immigrant families, and like myself, will be first-generation post-secondary students. Using my own experiences as an example, my goal is to instil confidence in these girls so they feel they are just as capable as anyone else. I want to provide them with the support and motivation my mentors gave me, and hopefully become a part of their journey to success.

Look out for more Q&A spotlights on women at the IIDR throughout March and learn about their fascinating research, achievements, advice for women in science and what they’re doing to #BeBoldForChange in 2017.