By LaTina Emerson
ATLANTA — After landing a co-op at Moderna, a pharmaceutical and biotechnology company based in Cambridge, Mass., Rika Semalty (M.I.S. ’23) knew she wanted to pursue a career as a research scientist.
With the support of her professors and academic staff in the Biomedical Science and Enterprise master’s program in the Institute for Biomedical Sciences, she spent the summer and fall, nearly five months, doing research at Moderna while completing her capstone project and other coursework.
Moderna specializes in developing messenger RNA (mRNA)-based therapeutics and vaccines.
During the co-op, Semalty was part of the Protein Science team in Moderna’s Biological Science Department. Her daily duties consisted of culturing and transfecting mammalian cells, and she was primarily responsible for screening novel fusion constructs for expression and purification of membrane proteins.
The experience allowed her to develop new skillsets and network with people with extensive scientific acumen and expertise, she said.
“One major thing that I learned was to plan and execute experiments,” Semalty said. “My team was extremely supportive, and my manager allowed me the autonomy to conduct experiments at my own pace. This allowed me to gain a sense of responsibility. I got to participate in scientific meetings and have discussions. I learned how to troubleshoot experiments and how to deal with setbacks.”
To land the co-op, Semalty applied through Moderna’s website and participated in several interviews. She was a competitive candidate because of the research experience she gained as a graduate research assistant in Dr. Didier Merlin’s lab in the Institute for Biomedical Sciences and the mentorship she received from Dr. Pallavi Garg.
“She taught me everything when it came to research,” Semalty said. “Before the graduate program, I did not have a strong research background. I completed my undergraduate studies when the world was reeling with the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic made me lose out on any internship prospects back then due to the strict lockdown. I was only able to get proper research exposure after joining IBMS. Dr. Garg went to great lengths while training me, even arranging mock experiments to help me prepare.”
Born and raised in Ghaziabad, India, Semalty moved to the United States alone to earn her master’s degree. She comes from a family of scholars, but she’s the first to pursue education outside of India.
“The biggest obstacle I faced while completing my master’s degree was living alone with no family member present in the United States,” Semalty said. “It also took me some time to overcome the cultural shock. Adapting to all these changes was challenging.”
After gaining confidence in her research skills, Semalty was driven to pursue a research career. She hopes to one day join the biotechnology industry as a scientist, perhaps focusing on oncology research. She’s applying to Ph.D. programs and seeking job opportunities until she begins her degree program.
Semalty chose to attend Georgia State because of the flexibility and interdisciplinary nature of the Biomedical Science and Enterprise master’s program.
“I was impressed with the curriculum,” Semalty said. “The program offered a balance between theory and research. It allowed me to opt for interdisciplinary courses, along with the flexibility of research and professional tracks. I was also fascinated by the research going on in different labs and hoped to be a part of one of them.”
The master’s program teaches students how the healthcare industry works, from the bench to the bedside, and covers all aspects involved, from research and development to regulatory requirements, intellectual property and business, she said. Semalty applied this knowledge to her capstone project.
“My idea for the project was to build a self-rechargeable hearing aid, which I named as Sonicell, that works on a moisture electric generator (MEG),” Semalty said. “MEG produces electricity whenever there is a moisture gradient present between two surfaces, which helps in charging the hearing aid. This is an eco-friendly and sustainable product that ensures the comfort of users.”
She came up with the idea when she was traveling to work by train and her headset ran out of battery power.
“This incident was insignificant for me, but the thought of this incident being a major deal for people with compromised hearing resonated with me,” she said.
Semalty hopes to pursue this project more in the future.
Her advice to other students is that most everyone, at some point, has imposter syndrome.
“It’s fine and you are not alone in this struggle,” Semalty said. “Just keep putting in efforts and some day it will all pay off, slowly but surely.”