Trini Ph.D. student making her mark in Biotechnology
Priya Pollard dreams of a world where science is seen as a 'girl thing'
The far-reaching impact of Covid-19 has put the power of science at the centre of global attention. The world is looking to science and scientists to create solutions as the race continues to produce vaccines.
Scientific research is a field typically dominated by men, but more women are carving out spaces to make their mark.
One of them is 28-year old Priya Pollard, a Ph.D. student in Biotechnology.
“Over the past few months, I have come to realise that scientists are some of the most creative people I know. A lot of times you think scientists are very routine, doing one thing after the other very systematically but, a lot of times we encounter problems people haven’t come across before. How do you solve it? I think you have to be quite creative to figure that out and I think of scientists as creative people.”
As the only Caribbean and Trinbagonian woman at the Bantry Marine Research Station in Ireland, Priya brings a unique perspective to her team. Their focal project is making silage from seaweed, a process that prepares the seaweed for use as animal feed during winter. She explains the process, which is particularly important in countries with cold climates.
“So right now even in Trinidad, to make a seamoss drink, you would dry the seaweed first and that’s fine, if you want to dry it to make a punch with it or to cook with it. But if you want to use it in a bio refinery or if you want to give it on a larger scale to feed animals, drying isn’t cost effective because it’s expensive and uses a lot of greenhouse gasses in somewhere like Europe. In Trinidad, we just put it out in the sun and it dries. We can’t do that here (in Ireland) because it’s always wet and rainy. So, the silage process is: you take the seaweed and put it in buckets with different additives and it preserves the nutritional and monetary value of the seaweed.”
Stepping into the world of biotechnology was no easy feat. Coming from Trinidad and Tobago and from humble beginnings, Priya says her biggest struggle was getting a Ph.D. placement with a scholarship. But this young woman refused to allow rejection to stall her childhood dreams.
“I applied for many positions before I got this one, I stopped counting after 50. A lot of times when you apply for scholarships, you would be perfectly suited for the position but you are from the ‘wrong’ country. How can I be from the wrong country? Many scholarships are designed for only European students or only students from the US, and being from Trinidad, it was a bit harder to find fully international scholarships.”
If you think a girl in science is far removed from activities young women may naturally enjoy, think again! Starting from a very tender age, Priya has been an avid ballet, ballroom, and Latin dancer. She trains others to dance as well.
“I would arrange my courses at university around what days I had ballet classes. It was just my source of unplugging, which I think is also important in the pandemic. Have a way to unplug from everything.”
Priya believes girls should be given the confidence to pursue academic studies in science and engineering. She urges young women not to limit their potential by seeing some careers as ‘unsuitable’ for women.
“I can’t do science because I am a girl and maybe I should do something more feminine …ummm, NO! If you want to do it, do not let your gender be the thing that stops you. Being female is not a weakness, being male is not a strength. We are both equals, and I think the world needs to realise that, and I think it starts with you.”
Priya suggests that fixing gender imbalances in science could begin with promoting images that represent women’s contributions. She says it’s the little things that make a big difference.
“It’s what you see, and you might think you might see someone coming to a school and talking, and yeah that’s good. But then when you look at a brochure from a pharmacy or a new drug and you see men in a lab coat… it’s the little things. You need to know not only that men are there, but women are also there as well.”
Priya credits her success to having a passion for science and the support of her parents. She is very proud to be a West Indian woman flying the flag high. She leaves us with this statement as her main purpose: “I want to make a difference. That’s why I wanted to do a Ph.D. because I want to make a difference.”
Written by Melissa Maynard