Fulfilling Her Potential
By Tracy Seipel
Future physician-scientist Alekhya Parvathaneni ’20 is on her way.
Halfway through 2020, it feels as though America has already confronted a decade’s worth of strife: a deadly pandemic, bitter polarization in politics, and nationwide protests to speak out against anti-Black racism and violence.
Yet there is hope for a brighter future. It comes from smart and ambitious people of all ages and races and backgrounds, old and young alike. Especially the young.
At Santa Clara University, the Class of 2020 recognizes the critical part they will play in our future. Filled with the confidence of all they have achieved and who they have become at SCU, they carry with them the promise of creating a kinder, better, and more just world.
Alekhya Parvathaneni ’20 is one example.
Growing up in the Bay Area, the 20-year-old Bronco remembers hearing about Santa Clara University and the “great things they are doing in biotech and research.” Add in its smaller class sizes, she says, “and I definitely wanted to apply there.”
SCU definitely wanted the Cupertino native in its 2017 freshman class. With the help of an SCU advisor, the biology and economics double major quickly mapped out a rigorous course schedule, which means she's graduating this week after just three years. There's no time to waste for the future physician-scientist who hopes to specialize in neuroscience, a field she was drawn to after her grandfather was diagnosed with some neurological issues.
Along the way, Parvathaneni received a SCU DeNardo Scholarship for her research in the Laura Cocas neuroscience lab, where she helped explore neural circuit formation. In her spare time over the years, she's also volunteered in area hospitals. Below, we talked with Parvathaneni about what Santa Clara has meant to her.
What was your favorite class at SCU?
Probably my biology upper division project lab. You get to do research for a professor for 10 weeks and I worked withProfessor Brian Bayless. He’s looking at how different proteins contribute to the stability of ciliary doublet microtubules. I learned about some new avenues of biology research that I hadn't considered before, and a lot about different experimental techniques.
Who were your favorite professors or mentors?
Assistant Professor Laura Cocas from the Biology department for sure. I got accepted into her research lab when I was a freshman. We were nearing the end of our research this quarter when COVID-19 happened and that’s delayed our experiments on neuronal activity. Also, Assistant Professor Julia Voss in English. I took her literacy studies class in the fall quarter and actually ended up working on a research paper looking at the impact of anti-vaccination memes on the vaccination debate on social media.
What was your favorite club/event or extracurricular at Santa Clara?
The Santa Clara Consulting Club. We consult for different companies that would like more insight on potential avenues for their products or marketing plans, so we do some industry research and present our solutions to them. My favorite project was helping a company looking at agricultural optimization and the potential to diversify into certain vegetables or fruits or to expand into different markets.
What’s the most excited you’ve been in the last four years?
One of my favorite memories was going to the Society for Neuroscience international conference in Chicago with some members of Assistant Professor Lindsay Halladay’s lab and a lab mate from the Cocas lab. We presented our research on the impact of neuronal activity on neuronal-glial connectivity and myelination. The whole experience was fun, and I really enjoyed attending the different speaker sessions and hearing about some cutting-edge research that labs all across the world are doing. Getting the opportunity to explore Chicago and have some deep dish wasn’t half-bad either!
What advice would you give your freshman self?
Being organized is the one thing that got me through all these different classes and got me to explore a little more. Some of the classes I thought had no direct relevance to my major were the most interesting, like literacy studies, and I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to fit them in if I hadn’t planned things out beforehand.
What GIF or meme best sums up your time at SCU?
It's Free Real Estate. It’s a line from the Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! sketch. It’s funny because it can be applied in so many contexts, including education and biology. It always makes me smile.
What’s something you didn’t know about yourself when you got here that you do now?
I know it sounds cheesy, but SCU helped me realize my potential. Coming to college, you feel like you don’t know very much—there are all these different professors who are experts in their fields. Having the ability to do independent research and grow my skill set has been really valuable and has motivated me to realize that I have the potential to be that kind of expert.
What was your favorite time working on a team at SCU?
Working on the team in Dr. Cocas’ lab. They’re people I made friends with very quickly, not just in the lab but through dinners and fun things like beach trips or hikes. You really get close to the people you work with in a lab.
How would you describe yourself when you walked on campus for the first time?
When I first walked onto campus, I was nervous and a little unsure about what to expect from my classes and professors, but I was also really excited about all the new opportunities, like research, that were now more accessible to me as a college student.
In what ways have you grown over the past four years?
I would say a growth in confidence because I have been able to build a better foundation in a lot of different things. I also had some great mentors and coaches to encourage me along the way.
What’s next for you?
I'm going to work as a research associate on the gene therapy team at Tenaya Therapeutics, a biotech company in South San Francisco that works on therapies related to heart disease. I also plan to take the MCAT this summer.
Where do you want to be in five years?
Hopefully, in an MD/Ph.D. program somewhere in the Bay Area. I’d like to work on more research related to neurodegenerative diseases like dementia or demyelinating diseases like Multiple Sclerosis (MS).
How did Santa Clara prepare you to get there?
I had time management skills coming into Santa Clara, but being here brought them back up to shape and helped me develop them further.
What’s one item that you think represents your college experience or will remind you of your time here?
Probably a poster we made in the Cocas lab to present on our research; whenever I see that I think about all the places that we’ve worked on it and presented on it. My car is another one. As a commuter student, my car is my link to SCU. It’s a navy Honda CRV; I got to drive my friends around and we’d go out to dinner together pretty often.
What’s your SCU bucket list—stuff you have to do (or do again) one last time, the next time you get to come back to campus?
I would love to come back to campus and see all my mentors and friends again. I’d also like to visit Annie’s Sandwiches near campus. I love their banh mi sandwich, and it was always my go-to lunch option whenever I was short on time.
Finally, any thoughts on the virtual commencement?
It’s certainly a little bittersweet. Commencement is a day to honor your achievements and it would be very nice for my parents to see me graduate in person. In the meantime, we will figure out our own little ways to celebrate.
Jun 8, 2020
Alekhya Parvathaneni and her SCU keepsake poster from the Laura Cocas lab.