When Shreeyaa Ramana graduates today as a specialist in neuroscience with a major in psychology, it’s just the latest milestone in a list of academic successes. She consistently earned good grades in school before university, was accepted to U of T with a scholarship, conducted valuable research during her undergraduate years and gave back to all her communities.
In addition to earning her degree, Ramana was also a Dean’s List Scholar and a U of T Scholar. As a member of New College, she won the New College Gold Leader Award and a New College Council In-Course scholarship. She was also president of three U of T clubs: StrengthIN, Team Up Against Concussions, and iCure.
For Ramana, graduation is bittersweet. “I’m happy and proud to be graduating,” she says. “But I’m also sad to be leaving. I absolutely loved being at U of T.”
What were the important milestones on your way to U of T?
When I was a teenager, I watched the Bollywood film, Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (This Youth is Crazy), in which the character I identified with was a medical student. That sparked my interest to look into the field and it’s how I ended up finding out about neuroscience.
But then, after talking to some graduate students in India, I realized they never actually got to do their own research; they weren’t doing any independent work until after they got their PhDs. I wasn’t interested in doing that because I wanted to have a say in what research I pursued as a student. So, that's when I started reading about students in other countries and learned there were opportunities to do independent research elsewhere.
However, it wasn’t an easy journey coming to U of T. As a woman, I faced a lot of resistance to pursuing post-secondary education. Most people thought it was a waste of time and money to educate women. But after two years of proving my interests and abilities, and with the support of my parents, I was able to pursue my undergraduate degree in Canada.
As much as you wanted to come to U of T, it still must have been an adjustment for you. What helped you make that transition?
It was mostly because I was at New College. Living on campus for the first two years of undergrad really helped. I wasn’t a very confident person back then. But I had an immediate connection with other students because we lived in close proximity. I feel lucky to have made those friendships.
I also took on leadership positions on the residence council in the college and got to meet practically everyone who was living on my floor and my building. I also played intramural basketball for two years and I think that was really helpful in getting used to a new environment because it was something I did for years before coming to Canada. I was able to make a lot of friends that way, while doing something I loved.
What research were you able to do during your undergrad?
For my undergraduate thesis, I worked with functional neuroimaging data for women across the menopause transition under the supervision of Professor Gillian Einstein at the Department of Psychology. I investigated whether hormone replacement therapy following menopause helped reverse some of the negative cognitive effects that happened because of menopause. We looked at women who have had their ovaries surgically removed as an ovarian or breast cancer prevention measure. But the procedure means they lose estrogen even before menopause. So ours is one of the first few studies to look at functional neuroimaging data in this population.
This type of work is what drew me to Professor Einstein who studies the relationship between neuroscience, sex and gender. I think it’s important that we fill in the sex and gender gaps in scientific literature because not enough attention is paid to women. Researchers worry that the menstrual cycle will confound the results of the study so they often only include men or male mice models. I was really excited to have been a part of the research. It’s something that’s very close to my heart.
When you think about what you accomplished in the last four years outside of your studies, what are you most proud of?
There are two things. One is the iCure student group that I launched in the middle of the pandemic. I wanted to cut through misinformation about the pandemic and provide accurate information about disease prevention to high school and university students — information about breast cancer screening, pap smears, and so on. I put all of that information out there through Instagram and Facebook. We also had events and workshops. For example, we had an expert from Mt. Sinai Hospital give a talk and answer questions when COVID-19 vaccines first became available.
The other project is The Science Revolution. It came about because I wanted to communicate science in a way that was accessible to everyone regardless of their science background. Again, I wanted to cut through the misinformation so I started by putting out information about COVID-19 vaccines — then expanded from there to different scientific topics like how to maintain your motivation to exercise regularly, or what to do if you're stung by a jellyfish. So, a broad range of topics. I’m very proud of both initiatives which, like all my initiatives, are driven by my passion for gender equity. I ensure that all information provided clearly indicates the implications for each gender as they are often not the same.
You were also active in mentoring. Can you tell us about that?
I’m proud of my grades and my research, of course. But I think I’m even more proud of the mentoring I provided to students. I think I was able to inspire them to become leaders in their communities, and I’m confident they’ll pay it forward and do the same for other people. If you've gotten to a better place, I think it's important to help others. For example, when I went back to India last year, I started a book club for children six to 12 years old who live in my old neighborhood and we would read a new book every week. I encouraged them to think about what new perspectives they were exposed to in those books and how to apply them to their own lives. I also encouraged them to advocate for themselves and not to let anyone stop them from pursuing their dreams.
What advice would you give to undergraduate students just starting out at U of T?
For one thing, get involved with the student community because you're going to make friends and you’re going to discover things about yourself that you never knew. But more importantly, never stop believing in yourself. There are going to be people who tell you what you cannot do and who you cannot be, and that can shake your confidence. You need to work hard and work hard consistently — that's important, of course. But you need to believe in yourself and your abilities.
Congratulations to U of T's Class of 2022!
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