#SciComm: Featuring Swapnali from @caffeinatedscientist

Posted by Applied Biological Materials (abm) on July 6, 2020

We recognize science can seem difficult to young scientists, and we hope to raise awareness about people who make it fun and accessible to broader audiences through social media, #SciComm!


Welcome Swapnali from @caffeinatedscientist_! Fueled by strong black coffee and equal amounts of determination, Swapnali shares her journey through undergrad to graduate school and beyond. Her instagram blog is filled with fun timelapses at the culture hood and doodles from her notebooks.

In this interview, Swapnali shares her advice on staying organized and how to take care of mental health while navigating the busy world of grad school!

Swapnali Portrait

Tell us a bit about yourself! Everyone’s journey in science is unique - did you always know you wanted to become a scientist and researcher?

Hi, my name is Swapnali and I am from India. I did my Bachelors as well as Masters in Biotechnology.

Biology as a subject piqued my interest in my childhood. My curiosity about the complex nature of the human body soon gave way to awe and wonder✨. Twelfth grade introduced me to two chapters on biotechnology- basic principles of biotechnology and the applications of biotechnology which caught my interest immediately.

My love for this subject increased, even more, when I started reading medical thrillers written by Robin Cook📖. Each book I read made me more aware of the various technological advancements in the field of biomedical sciences, as well as the socio-ethical problems caused by them.

"That was when I decided to be a part of the existing race and to create a more scientifically developed tomorrow."

So yes I always knew that I wanted to be a scientist and researcher.

Swapnali Portrait

Congratulations on graduating with a Master’s last year!🎓 Can you share a bit about what your project was about? What are you up to now?

Thank you so much. :)

My research project was on the “Evaluation of the anti-cancer activity of CIIMS CW-18 drug molecule using a cancerous cell line model”. 📝

The main objective of the project was to carry out preliminary studies on KB cancer cell lines and normal cell lines (PBMC-Peripheral Blood Mononuclear Cells) to evaluate the anti- cancer activity and the cytotoxicity of the drug. This was done by preparing several concentrations of the drug and inducing the KB cells and the PBMC cells with it for a period of 24 hours and 48 hours. The anti-cancer activity and the cytotoxicity were evaluated using Sulforhodamine B (SRB) assay and XTT assay respectively.

As of now, I am a talk show host where I talk with a lot of scicommers on a lot of different topics on Instagram📢. I also host many teachers and school principals on Facebook where I discuss about how the education sector which has been one of the hardest hit during this pandemic is coping up. It is really amazing and wonderful to talk with so many knowledgeable people. 🤗

Can you describe how a typical day in the lab is like for you?

Well, as of now I am not working in the lab. But a day in my lab was pretty interesting.

  1. I used to get to the lab by 10am🌇, turn on the UV of the laminar hood.
  2. Check on the cells to see for any progress.
  3. Grab a quick coffee and plan my day ☕
  4. Get going with the experiments which took most of my day.

"Apart from this, I tried to make it a point to record and take pictures of my work as much as possible as I wanted to share with everyone about how the life of a scientist is."

A lot of people love to see the time lapses of me working in the laminar hood.

Swapnali Portrait

You do a lot of work with cells and in your instagram blog @caffeinatedscientist_, you frequently mention how much you enjoy cell culture! Share with us why you enjoy cell culture!

Well cancer biology had me intrigued ever since my undergraduate days and I read everything about the cell culture lab and its techniques and know how’s.

I even learnt how we can isolate the Peripheral Blood mononuclear Cells (PBMCs) from the blood and culture them - that was the normal cell line against which I compared my cancer cells.

However, when I actually started doing the work practically I was truly in awe. 🤓 It is then I realised that theoretical knowledge isn’t enough and practical experience and knowledge counts for more. It amazed me as to how cells could grow in the flasks and outside the human body. I could do so much with these cells and put all the questions I had to reality and I could actually understand how the cancer cells and normal cells started morphological changes in the presence of varied concentrations of the drug.

"Entering into world of cell culture with infinite possibilities made me fall in love with it." 😍

Grad school involves writing, presenting, teaching, studying, labwork, and mentorship! This can be very overwhelming to a new grad student.

You post a lot about staying organized and taking good notes. Do you have any tried and true tips for newbies entering grad school?

Oh yes! Grad school can be very overwhelming with everything you said. 😵

Everyone expects you to balance your assignments, presentations, exams, giving time for your own study, labwork and then want you not to break down. Man its hard!

I have a few tips for the newbies and I am sure it would help them to a great extent:

  1. Choose your Grad School very carefully and if possible talk with students already enrolled.
  2. If the syllabus is already published online (or whenever you get it), start your studies from DAY ONE (don’t wait for the teacher to start)
  3. Stay organized and make a planner or diary where you can write everything for the week.
  4. Always revise whatever is taught in the class on the same day.
  5. I can’t stress this enough but make your own notes. Do not depend solely on the presentations provided by the teacher. Learn the concept and reason behind a topic. That way you don’t have to stress about mugging up at the last moment.
  6. Take out time for yourself everyday even if it’s for half an hour.
  7. Some days will be hard, but DO NOT GIVE UP. Don’t be hard on yourself. It is ok to feel low sometimes and it’s normal.
"Don’t compare yourself with others. Everyone is unique and has their own style of learning and doing things."

Swapnali Portrait

Days in the lab can be long and not every day brings good news. How do you stay positive and motivated when you hit roadblocks in your research? Do you have any tips for mental health?

Yes, there were some days when we used to work in lab the whole day only to get a negative result or a careless mistake on our part. I used to feel I can never achieve as a lot of my friends would get their results.

I used to always keep in mind one thing Daisaku Ikeda, a Buddhist philosopher says...

"If you fail today, start again tomorrow with a fresh determination" ✨

Some days you will feel like quitting and think it’s a mistake to have taken up grad school. Do not let those thoughts get to you. Remember why you started it in the first place. Take some time off and get back again.

Mental health is very important especially in Grad school with so much going on. I did write a post on Instagram regarding the same. I really feel these tips are important.

  1. Spare time for yourself everyday 😌
  2. Spend less time on social media before going to sleep, it hampers sleep and also keeps the mind agitated.
  3. Stay organized and make a planner or diary where you can write everything for the week.Try to learn something new every month (it will keep you excited and a distraction from the daily chaos).
  4. Start mediating, doing yoga early in the morning (it will be difficult initially but trust me your mood will be better throughout the day).
  5. You can start going to gym or even dance or zumba whatever keeps you happy.
  6. Try to maintain a diary and write down your feelings daily. This will help you analyse where you need correction.
  7. If you are feeling low, share with your close friends.
  8. Lastly, don’t be shy to ask for help and seek professional help if needed.

Your most recent post on instagram was in response to the historical 2020 protests for justice for George Floyd.

Sadly, racism and marginalization of minority groups are still very prevalent in today’s society. Being a person of color, have you ever experienced this during your academic career as a scientist? What can we do to fight against it?

Well I have never experienced this during my academic career and I think I am very lucky. However, it is everywhere and it is high time we bring about a change.

First and foremost thing which we can do is to make people aware and to educate them, mainly the elders. It is so deeply ingrained in our society that it won’t be an easy task.

"Secondly, I feel every school and college should teach about racism. It is not something new and it has always been there. The future generation needs to understand this revolution and historic movement and they should be taught young." 💪

Lastly, let us all learn kindness and try to be a good human being rather than trying to bring each other down.

Do you have any last words of advice for new graduate students entering the sciences?

Hahah it is going to be one rollercoaster ride but hey enjoy every bit of it. It is going to be worth it. :)

Swapnali Portrait


What are your favorite and least favorite lab assays/techniques?

Favourite assay- XTT assay 👍

Least favourite assay- ELISA (only because it’s so time consuming) 👎

Favourite coffee bean or coffee brand?

Starbucks and Bru Gold (Its an indian brand)

Favourite book(s)/book series or author(s)?

Favourite assay- XTT assay 👍

Favourite coffee bean or coffee brand?

  • Harry Potter Series
  • The Lord of Snow and Shadows (Trilogy) by Sarah Ash
  • Robin Cook
  • Agatha Christie

Describe both your best as well as your worst day at the lab?

Best day in the lab has to be when I submitted my thesis, it felt surreal. 👏

Worst day- well I forgot to turn off the UV of the laminar hood and went home… needless to say I was scolded a lot.>

You know you're a scientist when...

...you question everything. 🤔

What is your guilty pleasure?

Nutella and dark chocolate.

Who inspires you in your field?

Dr. Joyce Solheim

The world would be a better place if...

...we are more kind, compassionate and empathetic. 🤗

It was such a pleasure to get to know you, Swapnali! We wish you all the best on the next chapter of your adventures in science. You can follow Swapnali on @caffeinatedscientist_.

Swapnali Illustration

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