Finding the Path to Belonging and Ikigai in Science and Bioinformatics
I have learned that sometimes you have to be a bit creative and create your own path. It may look like a messy path but every experience counts!
Shalini Nemani spent much of her youth struggling to fit in. A first-generation immigrant who moved from India to the United States at the end of middle school, she found solace in her connection to science.
“Even though I could speak English comfortably, I didn't look, sound, or feel like others around me, and that was such an isolating experience for me for years,” Nemani says. “It is hard for everyone at that time, but being uprooted completely and moving to another continent on the other side of the world levels up the difficulty to double black diamond slopes.”
Science, she says, gave her inquisitive brain a new medium and language for understanding the world. And it gave her a path. Now working in research informatics at Amgen in Tampa, Nemani is driven to share her story and path with ABE students and others.
“Not everything you want comes with a manual and a straight path,” she says. “This is my attempt to create a map I didn't have so others don't feel as lost as I once did.”
Nemani’s early inspiration in science came from her great-grandmother. Living healthily until age 105, Nemani’s great-grandmother added garlic daily to her lunch. This led Nemani to a science fair project exploring the antibacterial and fungal properties of garlic and connections to positive health benefits. The project would advance to the state level at the Georgia State Science and Engineering Fair.
While she was avidly interested in science throughout high school—taking “every AP class under the sun”—Nemani says that her understanding of career paths was limited at the time. “I thought an interest in science automatically translated to becoming a medical doctor,” she says. “So I thought pursuing a pre-medical track in my undergrad was a good option.”
After being accepted at the Georgia Institute of Technology, she eagerly flipped through the course catalog and saw a vast set of new possibilities. “I was struggling to decide on one science major when I stumbled upon a relatively new program: biomedical engineering,” Nemani says. “It appealed to me greatly because it was a multidisciplinary field that applied principles from many science and engineering disciplines to solve complex biological systems problems.”
Throughout college, Nemani had a diverse set of experiences in biotechnology, including in personalized medicine, cancer research, and tissue engineering, as well as bioinformatics and high-performance computing; she also got early corporate experience as a technology liaison. At the time, big data analytics was increasingly being used across a number of sectors, and Nemani saw an opportunity to combine her science background and business experience with her interests in data analytics.
She got a job as a product analyst at Amgen. “I get to be equal parts involved with the technology and business side and it's been a very engaging and satisfying experience for me,” she says. “I get to build authentic relationships with the people involved which brings me a lot of joy.”
Nemani is now transitioning to a new role in research informatics, working with Amgen scientists to develop data solutions. Data analytics, including machine learning and artificial intelligence-based tools, play a pivotal role in boosting innovation in biotechnology. She says, for example, that algorithms can be trained using lots of data to predict which molecule may be worth investigating further. “90% of the drugs investigated do not make it to market,” she says. “Any type of lead enabled by technology in this phase can vastly help advance human health outcomes much faster.”
Nemani is actively involved in diversity initiatives, including leading the Women Empowered to be Exceptional (WE2) employee resource group at the Tampa site and working to make the workplace a more diverse and inclusive place for Black employees, and she previously founded and led the Amgen Indian Subcontinent Network. “I am passionate about celebrating diversity, seeking inclusion, and nurturing a sense of belonging for everyone,” she says. “I guess you can attribute my special interest in these issues back to my experiences growing up—what I wish I had then.”
Nemani likes to discuss with students the importance of finding the right career fit. She often references the Japanese concept “ikigai,” which shows the intersection of where someone can add the most value aligned with their strengths and interests.
“I wish I had known when I was younger that there were so many ways to channel my interests and apply them in the real world in this field,” Nemani says. “I have learned that sometimes you have to be a bit creative and create your own path. It may look like a messy path but every experience counts!”