Dr. Onisha Patel: An Artist and Scientist exploring the Scaffolding of Life

Dr. Onisha Patel in her workspace.

As a young woman growing up in Ahmedabad, India, Patel recognized the importance of education and how it could lead to independence and financial stability for women. Despite an interest in the arts, she was disappointed that the school system didn’t offer any options to combine art and science. This led to her pursuing a career in science.

“I went in with the logic that if I study science, I can always do art on the side, but it would be too difficult the other way around. Although at the time I was disappointed that I couldn’t do both, [looking back] I know I made the right decision because my current job as a structural biologist allows me to combine them. I also found that having a foundation in STEM has empowered me to make better decisions, not just in my day to day work, but also in life overall,” Patel told SEEMA from her home in Melbourne, Australia.

Although grateful for the opportunity to arm herself with a good education, Patel knew that she wanted to do more with her life.

“I knew access to girls’ education was a privilege [in India], but my dream (and that of my family’s), was to go overseas to further my education,” Patel said.

“My parents didn’t have as many opportunities when they were younger, or the freedom to do what they would have liked, so I have always had a strong sense of the importance of education and how it can change lives,” she said. “I remember reading about Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw (CEO of Biocon, India’s largest biotechnology company) in secondary school and her journey to Australia to study brewing. It was Kiran’s journey to study something that was very unconventional for a woman that inspired me to think outside the box and to be ambitious about what I wanted to achieve in life.”

With a revitalized sense of purpose and a determination to make a mark in the world, Patel headed to Australia and immersed herself in structural biology.

“All living things are composed of cells and cells themselves are composed of molecules,” Patel said, explaining her work. “As a structural biologist, I use cutting-edge imaging technologies to capture the inner beauty of molecules such as proteins. Every protein has a unique shape, and when this shape is disturbed due to mutations, or if protein levels in the cells change, it can lead to many diseases. My work uncovers the structure of proteins and contributes to a greater understanding of how they work. Eventually, this knowledge enables the development of more targeted treatments.”

Over the years, Patel’s contributions to structural biology has led to the development of biological tools that can detect a specialized type of immune cell, which is now distributed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Tetramer Core Facility. This work also led to a patent and the Eureka Prize for Scientific Research in 2013, an award presented by the Australian government that recognizes excellence in research and innovation, leadership and science engagement.

Patel’s work directly contributed to the development of Momelotinib, a drug candidate undergoing clinical trials at Sierra Oncology that treats myelofibrosis, a cancer that scars the bone marrow, leaving it unable to produce blood cells. Because of the need for it, the drug was recently granted a Fast Track designation by the US Food and Drug Administration, thus expediting the review process to in bring it to market.

Patel is a ‘Superstar of STEM,’ an award given by Science and Technology Australia (STA), an organization representing about 80,000 Australian scientists.

“My role as a ‘Superstar of STEM’ gives me the opportunity to share my passion with others. I can be a visible role model to smash society’s stereotypes and assumptions about women in STEM. I am also an artist, and I use art to illustrate my research, using it as a tool to communicate my love of science through exhibitions, collaborations with schools and public talks. Through my own journey as a scientist and artist, I want to inspire the next generation of young leaders”, Patel told SEEMA.

She remembers the lessons she learned from her first STEM role model, a retired school principal and mathematics teacher who tutored her during middle school.

“I was always amazed by her knowledge,” Patel said. “She taught me in a way that not only helped me improve my skills in mathematics, but it also gave me the confidence to keep trying and never give up. I hope to do the same with the opportunities I have been given. My mission in life is to be a mentor, create opportunities for others, promote the integration of cross-disciplinary fields (for example art and science) within our education system and to continue to contribute to impactful research.”

She felt that young women pursuing a career in STEM had to be give themselves a chance, and be prepared to shift directions.

“There are countless opportunities in STEM and no single way to find them, so make sure to look out for role models along the way,” Patel said. “Ask a lot of questions, look for work experience, internships and reach out for help when you need it. Don’t underestimate yourself and do what you are passionate about, but do it to the best of your ability. If you are not sure about where you are or where you are going, don’t be afraid to change direction until you find something you actually like.”