Faculty Spotlight: Nisha Duggal
May 2, 2023
Nisha Duggal, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Molecular and Cellular Biology
Nisha Duggal awarded the outstanding faculty mentor award for the veterinary college.
This award recognizes a faculty member from each college for their role in supporting, encouraging, and promoting a positive and inclusive scholarly and teaching environment and for contributing to graduate students' professional and personal development.
Mentoring involves successfully directing projects, theses, and dissertations and providing guidance and motivation in the context of students' interests, passions, and personal circumstances.
What's your sort of day-to-day split between research and teaching?
My primary focus is on research. I teach a graduate-level biology class, but otherwise, I mentor students in my lab or other labs. I have several students in my lab, and then I'm on the committees for another 15 students or so.
So is mentoring part a significant part of your responsibilities??
So within the teaching umbrella, there's lecture-based teaching and one-on-one mentoring with the student in your lab. I like both aspects, but I enjoy teaching students one-on-one in the lab and seeing them grow over four years or so. It's a really fun experience.
Why is mentoring essential, and how important is it for young scientists just starting?
In my job, my research is important. But I think my impact on young scientists is the most important thing I can contribute, and it's really why I'm here. I like mentoring students. I had good mentors in my career who made a tremendous impact on me, gave me chances, and helped me grow.
Before I went to grad school, I was doing research in Michigan about 15 years ago. My mentor there has invited me back to do a seminar with her next week. So she was my first mentor, and now I'm returning as a faculty member to give a seminar in her department. So it's pretty cool! She is Alice Telesnitsky, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Michigan Medical School.
How did the mentoring you've received influence how you do your mentoring?
Very heavily. My grad school advisor, Michael Emerman, another virologist, had a mentoring style that I have tried to emulate. He meets with his students one on one every week and also meets as a group every week. He tries to be very available for his students, but you know, allow them to be independent and learn. So kind of a fine balance between hands-on and hands-off. I love talking about science with my students, but I also want them to be able to do it themselves.
I'm learning through being in this position that mentoring is so individualized. I've only had a few grad students so far, and they're all completely different and need different things. I've learned as much as they do from this experience. My first student, Sarah, just graduated last semester, and the whole time she was here, we were just learning together. It was fun, but it's always learning
What are the common areas that students need mentoring or struggle with?
It's hard to be a grad student; you have to take classes, you also have to do research, and you also have to write papers, and give presentations. So managing all of those responsibilities, I think, is hard for every grad student. Understanding how to prioritize and how to manage time is a challenge. Learning how to do experiments and write is a challenge for a lot of students as well, too. I personally love writing, so for me, I have no problem sitting down and writing. But many students have a lot of learning to do with writing, and it's challenging.
It's also a big jump from being an undergrad to a grad. The undergrad is more prescriptive. Often students will say, well, what do I do? And I say you decide, and they'll just look at me. I'm happy to give you my advice, but ultimately, it's your decision, so decision-making can be a big step for many.
What is the number one thing that students all struggle with?
I think confidence is a big one. They'll say something and then look at me, and I'm like, you know this! By the end of a Ph.D., they know the topic better than I do! So, I think that is something challenging.
How would you describe your mentoring style?
I try to be approachable and let them know I am invested in their success. I am trying to give them the tools to grow as a scientist so that they can function independently when they leave.
How do you balance your research, your teaching, and mentoring?
Well, I prioritize things, like my meetings with my students; we meet every Monday. Those meetings they're in my book every week, and I block out time every day for writing, and I block out time for the important things. Sometimes things fall through the cracks, and you get excited about certain projects, so you put a lot of effort into those projects. But setting aside time for things is important.
What advice would you give young scientists starting their careers, and how can they benefit from mentorship?
Your mentors are here to help you. Also, there are lots of people that can be your mentor, as well. So you know, your direct adviser may give you advice, and you can also ask other people for advice. Students learn not just from me; they're learning from each other and other labs. So being okay with asking questions to everyone is very helpful for students.
So what's going on in the lab?
So my lab primarily studies mosquito-borne viruses, including the Zika virus. We focus more on the Usutu virus, which you probably haven't heard of before. It's closely related to the West Nile virus. So West Nile virus circulates in the United States. It's mosquito-borne and can infect humans and give humans neuro-invasive diseases. It's spreading in Europe and Africa right now, and it has the potential to emerge globally, kind of like West Nile did a few decades ago. So we're interested in how it causes neuroinvasive disease and how mosquitoes and birds transmit it. Birds are the reservoir species. So my lab works with wild birds and mosquitoes.
What are you looking at in particular?
We are interested in how the virus is transmitted, what species of birds and mosquitoes are essential, and we're interested in how the virus gets to the brain. So the idea would be to stop transmission or disease eventually, but right now, we just know nothing about the virus. So we're just trying to figure out how it does these things in the first place.
How big a problem is it in Europe and Africa?
It's a growing concern. Compared to the West Nile virus, it's less prevalent, but the case numbers are increasing yearly. So I think in Europe, people are concerned that they're doing a lot of surveillance and investigations into the virus there.
Last question what does being awarded the outstanding faculty mentor award mean to you?
It's really special. It means more to me than any of the other things I've done here, and it means so much to me that students think I've positively impacted them. It's wonderful.