APSC Rising Star: PhD graduate Dr. Pranav Shrestha

This article is from APSC Student and Alumni Stars.

Pranav Shrestha

Combining Interests in Engineering and Global Health

“Get involved in meaningful initiatives, work with people that inspire you, and treat challenges as opportunities for growth and learning.”

Pranav Shrestha

Growing up, me and my twin brother always found joy in learning. The sciences peaked our curiosity early on and it was wonderful to discuss and observe how science so beautifully explained much of what we saw and experienced. My interest in physics and mathematics led me to engineering, and my curiosity to ask deeper questions and to try uncovering those answers led me to pursue research.

Although fundamental research brought immense joy, especially during new discoveries and explorations, there was still a part of me that wanted to actively work on projects that aimed at directly improving people’s lives. This aspiration likely stemmed from the altruistic role models in my family that I always look up to.

While in grad school, I kept being drawn to one pivotal experience I had in my undergraduate journey, where me and my twin helped deploy a sustainable 3D printing facility in Nepal and fit five upper-limb amputees with 3D printed prostheses (called the Victoria Hand) which had a profound impact not just in the lives of the amputees, but also ourselves. As luck would have it, there were a few pathways in UBC that encouraged PhD students to pursue such untraditional community-based research projects. UBC also served as the right platform to initiate a multidisciplinary and international research collaboration.

What was really transformative in my PhD was getting the support from phenomenal initiatives like the Public Scholar’s Initiative and the Global Health Initiative at UBC—both of which have a core fundamental philosophy of actively engaging in scholarly activities that have direct positive impact on communities, often that are most underserved. Not only did I get critical research funding from both of these initiatives to run two international clinical studies but also was empowered and encouraged by the champions of such initiatives (in particular, Dr. Serbulant Turan and Dr. Videsh Kapoor) to initiate a multidisciplinary collaboration between UBC, Stanford, BC Children’s Hospital, St. Paul’s Hospital and Bheri Hospital in Nepal.

Why did you choose UBC Mechanical Engineering for your PhD?

The main reason for choosing UBC for my Masters and then continuing on for a PhD was my supervisor, Dr. Boris Stoeber. He introduced me to microneedles, which are promising biomedical devices for drug/vaccine delivery and biosensing. Over the years, we got to discover some interesting mechanics related to microneedles, and then got to initiate an unrelated, but equally exciting, project exploring automated detection of a blood-based disease called sickle cell disease. Other strong factors that made me stay in UBC for my PhD were the diverse student body and faculty, the beautiful campus and the opportunity to engage with a multidisciplinary research team.

Pranav and Dr. Boris Stoeber at the 2024 UBC Engineering Convocation.
Pranav and Dr. Boris Stoeber at the 2024 UBC Engineering Convocation.
Image credit: apsc.ubc.ca

What has made your time at UBC memorable?

What stand out most for me are my interactions and connections with the incredibly talented and diverse set of individuals I got to meet and work with, while at UBC. I have learnt countless lessons from mentors and mentees alike, and with them, have enjoyed evolving simple ideas to large-scale studies and exploring new research directions. I was also lucky to have friends from all over the world, within and beyond our lab, to bounce off ideas, hang out with and even have unforgettable musical jam sessions with.

The opportunity to collaborate with so many experts from various fields in Canada, Nepal and the US, especially for the sickle cell disease detection studies, made my experience really meaningful and rewarding. I am extremely grateful that this international team was inspired by the potential and need for such a project, and helped make the clinical studies a reality.

Preliminary conversations with a health worker and technician at a rural health post in Nepal
Preliminary conversations with a health worker and technician at a rural health post in Nepal regarding current methods used for sample preparation and for diagnosing sickle cell disease in such health posts using microscopy.
Image credit: apsc.ubc.ca

What valuable skills did you learn during your time at UBC?

Aside from research-related skills like critical thinking, I found that “soft skills” such as communication, persistence, patience and time-management were equally valuable, especially in grad school. Learning to convey ideas and opinions effectively and coherently helped in written communication (including ethics applications, funding proposals, journal publications) and verbal communication (including presentations, seminars and team meetings). I particularly enjoyed my experience with the Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition and highly encourage graduate students to try it out.

What advice would you give to other students?

Undergrad is usually a rollercoaster with multiple courses and projects going on simultaneously, so try to learn quickly and execute efficiently, while also carving out time for rest and reflection. In grad school, prepare to slow down a bit to allow yourself to think deeply about your research topic and your research trajectory. It is valuable to get a good grasp of fundamentals, existing literature and research gaps to formulate a meaningful research question. Try to take initiative and lead projects—those are the most rewarding experiences. But, also make sure it’s a project you are passionate about or care deeply for and take it one small step at a time. For example, for the sickle cell studies, it started with one conversation with a member from the UBC sickle cell team, to getting support from the Public Scholar’s Initiative, and then assembling and collaborating with an incredible team around the world.

The student community at UBC was really diverse, welcoming and inclusive. The talented students I met in our lab, MEGA (Mechanical Engineering Graduate Association), and from other departments at UBC made my experience enriching.

What challenges did you face and overcome?

My initial transition to grad school was difficult—going from following a structured layout of learning outcomes in undergrad to exploring open-ended research topics was initially a challenge, which in hindsight was a blessing in disguise and helped me grow. Learning to prioritize what to learn, how deeply to explore a topic (without going into a rabbit hole) and to manage time was valuable.

Where do you find your inspiration for using your degree to make an impact?

Often, you do not need to look far to find inspiration. For me, a core of my inspiration comes from my family, including my parents, grandparents, siblings, wife and kids. My family has helped shape my values that guide much of my actions, and now my kids motivate me to try to bring positive change with the work I do. I am also inspired by the incredible mentors that I have encountered, including my supervisor and research collaborators.

I hope to continue developing technologies focused on global health and to deploy these technologies in resource-constrained settings in a sustainable and equitable manner.