Scientist Spotlight: Awanti Sambarey, PhD
Dr. Awanti Sambarey has a passion for applying science to everyday life. Her research at the University of Michigan focused on using medical records to identify new drug combinations for treating tuberculosis. From her daughter’s birth during the pandemic, she gained an appreciation for science’s potential to improve healthcare. This experience influenced her recent decision to accept a job at Tempus Labs in Chicago as a senior translational scientist, where she can use her training from UM to contribute to the company’s mission of “bringing the power of data and artificial intelligence to healthcare”. Beyond her formal scientific jobs, she also has a flair for communicating connections between science and life through art and humor: Awanti is a co-founder of @thestemtimes on Instagram, which makes science entertaining and accessible to the public.
Naturally, Awanti brings her affinity for applied and accessible science to her work with Michigan DNA Day, where she has been volunteering since 2018. She was immediately drawn to the program because of her desire to help students in surrounding communities understand how science affects their daily lives. One of Awanti’s favorite parts of volunteering with Michigan DNA Day is facilitating activities that help students understand how DNA analysis can be applied, like extracting DNA from the students’ own saliva or using forensic methods to solve a crime (like who stole the school mascot!). Awanti says, “My goal is to be as approachable, as accessible, as I can. I’ve been doing outreach like this since my college days and I think what I’ve understood is that you give students the space to approach you, instead of being the person that is constantly talking, so it gets a bit more engaging.”
While DNA Day activities are designed to make science fun for students, Awanti has seen the serious impact of these lessons beyond the classroom. The most poignant of her experiences was in 2021, when she taught a lesson on microbiology. Since her virtual visit coincided with COVID vaccine rollout in the United States, students were overflowing with questions about vaccines and the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The students’ engagement impressed the teacher so much that Awanti was invited back to the school’s town hall meeting, where she helped to answer questions from parents about COVID vaccines at a pivotal time during the pandemic.
Volunteering for Michigan DNA Day allows Awanti to reach out to girls interested in science, providing support she wished for when she was a student. Awanti says, “I had to take several courses in mechanical engineering, and it was so intimidating because I was only one of two girl students, as usual with the bias in engineering. It shouldn’t matter, but it was really intimidating, and I had to really reach out [to find resources].” Along with her work with the University of Michigan chapter of Girls Who Code, she values that her work with Michigan DNA Day allows her to show students of all genders and backgrounds that people like them work in science and that resources exist to support their journey in related fields.
Though inspiring future scientists is a perk of the DNA Day experience, Awanti hopes that her visits to classrooms inspire all students, not just those with aspirations in STEM. She says, “It’s not just about careers in science; it’s about a scientific attitude. No matter what career you choose, whether it’s finance or teaching or any other career in science, the key is to view things with curiosity…that will take you to great heights, no matter where you go.”