Varsha Rao reflected on her priorities when deciding between pursuing a degree in the natural sciences versus engineering.
This realization led her to pursue a bachelor of science in chemical and biological engineering at Montana State University-Bozeman. During her undergraduate studies, Varsha became very involved in research which informed her next decision to pursue graduate school rather than jumping straight into industry. When considering where to apply and what degree to study, she prioritized mentorship.
“It was more about the professors who I thought would be good mentors for me and then thinking more about the project. So I actually didn’t really focus on the degree itself as much. Even though my graduate degree is in chemical engineering, all of my research is tissue engineering and focuses more on biomaterials and regenerative medicine.”
While working on her PhD, Varsha co-founded the Alt Protein Project at CU Boulder. Varsha reflected on one of her proudest accomplishments while leading the chapter.
“We organized a research symposium so we could learn about what each other was working on. Members of the Alt Protein Project presented their research – from marketing research to plant-based and cultivated research. We had discussion groups which allowed people to have organic conversations and I think that was so unique and benefited us.”
Varsha highlighted key aspects of the program: exchanging knowledge freely and learning together. The Alt Protein Project welcomes undergraduate and graduate students from a vast array of disciplines and backgrounds because interdisciplinarity and diversity are essential ingredients to developing effective teams and a thriving industry. Another important skill to building a strong team is public speaking and science communication, a skill that Varsha developed greater confidence in through hosting events and talking about her research beyond the lab.
“Most of our events were open to the public. It’s very different speaking to a room of people with educational experiences and backgrounds that are similar to yours compared to the general public. As soon as I shared where I work and what I do, I started getting lots of questions…so I learned from watching how others describe what they do and then pushed myself to do that at my own events. I think that really shaped how I think about ‘why am I doing this?’ and just getting the right language to explain it to people. Looking back, that was really, really helpful.”
Varsha is currently an Associate Scientist on the cell integration team at Wildtype, an alternative seafood company making cultivated seafood, starting with sushi-grade salmon based in San Francisco, California. While the day-to-day work of her current role in the industry shares some similarities to her Ph.D. years, Varsha explained how these two chapters of her career journey differ.
“My team works really closely with the product development team. So we’re thinking about scale and what will actually go through the pipeline, but we’re also still doing some early research which is creative and I really enjoy that. It’s the right mix of being in an industry affecting the product and still getting to do cool, random side projects! The biggest difference is that the projects I do here [at Wildtype] are way more interdisciplinary and we’re kind of interdependent on everyone, versus my PhD was my own project where we had some people help us but you’re really individual and you have a lot of control over it. There’s more collaboration that happens in my work now.”
With some years of working in the industry under her belt, Varsha has some advice for others looking to enter the field.
“A job is never going to be 100% exactly what you want and so you want to land in the upper quartile of happiness. Writing down the things that you really enjoy can help a lot. For me, it was small things…I really enjoyed having lunch with my coworkers and being in the lab where it’s a mix of ‘thinking and doing’ type of work. Once you have that down, you feel competent about the type of job you would like to have. It made it a lot easier for me because there are a bunch of different types of roles in this industry.”