Unique Scientist: Heema Kumari Nilesh Vyas

Meet Unique Scientist Heema Kumari Nilesh Vyas (She/Her)! Heema is originally from Australia where she is a PhD student at the University of Wollongong (@UOW) and the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute (@IHMRI).

What kind of scientist are you?
I am a microbiologist currently studying the role that Group A Streptococcus (GAS) biofilms may play in cases of GAS pharyngitis that don’t resolve upon antibiotic treatment. My PhD, in part, focuses on how pharyngeal cell surface glycans impact GAS biofilm formation.

“My parents have always taught me to value education, to stay determined and focused in my academic pursuits, and have always supported me in my pursuit of science. And for that I am thankful.”

Heema Kumari Nilesh Vyas

What made you want to become a scientist?
From a young age science has been my interest and passion. I was lucky and privileged enough to have parents that recognised that, and were able to provide me with the necessary means to support me. Science kits and educational books were pivotal in propelling me towards science. Notably, the ‘Horrible Science’ book collection comprising of; ‘Blood, Bones, and Body Bits’, ‘Chemical Chaos’, and ‘Deadly Diseases’ were among my faves! However, the book that completely changed my life, and led me down the path of microbiology was ‘Microscopic Monsters’. I was completely fascinated by the historic breakthroughs spanning the plethora of discoveries of and around the various microorganisms, to the gruesome but fascinating diseases they caused, and of course the subsequent development of the arsenal of various antimicrobials and treatment strategies to obliterate these pesky critters.

I pursued the sciences throughout high school, with biology remaining my favourite, and moreover the realisation that being hands on via lab work and experiments was super fun and engaging to me became crystal clear. As such, enrolling into a Bachelor of Science (Medical Biotechnology) at the University of Wollongong was a no-brainer, as it covered many amazing subjects around human biology/health/disease/microbiology/antimicrobial resistance – with content covered not only in the lectures, but with a lot of lab time! I also pursued an Honours in Staphylococcus aureus biofilms, in which I was assessing their effective eradication via novel antimicrobial formulations. I finished with a first class Honours, and was 100% set on continuing on with microbiology, and particularly #biofilms and #antimicrobialresistance for my PhD!

What makes you a #UniqueScientist?
I am a biracial South Asian woman of colour (WoC) in STEM, and am particularly interested in gender equality and equity in STEM. Moreover, as a WoC in STEM, I firmly believe in the importance of diversity, representation, and inclusivity. As such I am quite passionate about intersectionality when discussions take place around equality, equity, diversity, inclusivity, and representation, with my focus not just limited to the race, but also how sexuality, disability, and age further limits or impedes access to opportunities in STEM.

What’s something cool you do outside of work?
I am a professionally trained Bharatanatyam dancer (traditional/classical Indian dance form) of 18+ years. I enjoy watercolour painting and love gradually expanding the collection of tattoos that adorn my body.

” I am a biracial South Asian woman of colour in STEM. I firmly believe in the importance of diversity, representation, and inclusivity.”

Heema Kumari Nilesh Vyas

If you had one wish and could change anything in science, what would it be?
Change the current socio-political landscape that disadvantages many on both an institutional and systemic level with regards to equality, equity, diversity, inclusivity, and representation.

Who has inspired you the most in your journey to where you are now?
My parents have always taught me to value education, to stay determined and focused in my academic pursuits, and have always supported me in my pursuit of science. And for that I am thankful. I am also thankful to all my school teachers, university lecturers, supervisors, mentors, friends, and family for being a source of encouragement, guidance, strength, motivation, and support. I also think that researchers I know personally through my institution/research facility, and those whose work I see/hear about via conferences/seminars etc – they truly inspire and motivate me.

Let’s end on a high note! What’s something you’ve done this week that you’re proud of?
My review article titled ‘Current Understanding of Group A Streptococcal Biofilms’ was published in Current Drug Targets, with open access. Check it out here!

#WomenInSTEM, #WoCInSTEM

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