Nidhi Menon

An engineered platform to study the breast tumor microenvironment
Virginia Tech
Hi! Tell us a bit about yourself – what stage of your PhD are you in and what’s your project about?

My PhD is focused on developing an engineered platform to study the breast tumor microenvironment, that will be useful for diagnostic and prognostic purposes. The idea is to provide a suitable 3D in vitro microenvironment for culturing and studying the breast tumor stroma.
To do so, we first used a collagen-based matrix, incorporating hyaluronic-acid and heparin to suitably mimic the in vivo tumor microenvironment. We successfully cultured breast cancer cells, with high viability, and measured proliferation, drug response, and phenotype in this environment, which closely reflected in vivo tumor characteristics. You can read more about this study here.
My current study focuses on developing real-time FRET-based nanobiosensors to get a spatiotemporal readout of cell phenotypes in the microenvironment. Our goal is to eventually incorporate the 3D microenvironment in a microfluidic device, wherein cells from the surrounding stroma can be introduced and their interactions be studied, in real-time. I’m in the final stages of my PhD, and will be on the job market next year!

What does a typical day or week look like for you?

I start my day early, and spend the early half of the day being familiar with new research in my field. I then spend the day either running experiments, analyzing data, or writing my manuscript or thesis. Depending on the experiments I’m running, some days I have to stay late in the lab. However, most days, I reserve my evenings for recreational activities. Prior to COVID, I would hit the gym often, and now I usually play tennis, or go for a run. I try to keep my weekends free as much as I can. It’s usually a time to catch up on my interests and hobbies outside of my work.

Blacksburg Park, close to Virginia Tech’s main campus
What’s one thing that you’ve enjoyed the most during your PhD?

What I really enjoy is learning, and being able to make my contribution to science. This would not be possible without the people that have supported me both within academia and personally. I have also enjoyed being on Twitter, and building connections with wonderful scientists that I get to learn so much from.

What’s been the most challenging part of it?

Probably my imposter syndrome. Wanting to be a good scientist, but doubting whether you have what it takes. Because my early academic experience was scarred by bullying and my deteriorating mental health, it took a while for me to build back my confidence. I’m thankful for the support of my wonderful colleagues and friends. I am also glad that I decided to join Twitter and be a part of a very inclusive academic community. I have been able to share my experiences and learn from the experiences of others, and I’m truly grateful for the solidarity we share here.

Where do you see yourself 5 years after completing your PhD?
I love doing science, and would be looking to work in a position where I can utilize my skills in an industrial setting. I would like to contribute to science and society by pushing translational innovations into the market.

What’s one piece of advice that you’d offer students that are thinking of doing a PhD?
Embarking on this journey is exciting and terrifying. Use this time to learn and grow. Looking back, I would highly recommend that you reach out to people, and don’t be reluctant to ask for help. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to have a support system, where you root for each other, and help each other through difficult times.

What makes your university a good place to study?

Virginia Tech is well-funded and has a myriad of equipment, and the right infrastructure for engineering research. It is also a great place to find collaborators for interdisciplinary research. It is also situated along the Appalachian trail, surrounded by the Blue Ridge mountains. It’s a very beautiful town to be studying in.

The Virginia Tech Duck Pond
Lastly, what do you enjoy doing in your free time?

I play a lot of sports, and being around the Appalachian trail provides several options for hiking, which I also enjoy. I also learn a lot from traveling, and also do some amateur photography. I like astronomy, and take my telescope and camera to stargazing spots around town very often. I’m also an avid reader, and will spend most of my free time reading.

Thanks Nidhi! How can our readers learn more about you and get in touch?

You can connect with me on Twitter @_nidhimenon and/or LinkedIn. You can also learn more about me and my research on my personal website

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