MS Program Inspires Graduate Student To Change Focus

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Slesha Thapa found her niche in the Biological Sciences graduate program at Dominican University of California after earning her BS degree at St. Mary’s College and post-baccalaureate at UCLA coupled with internships at Ohio State University, UCSF, and UC Davis.

“It has been a transformational experience,” says Slesha, now doing neuroscience research in the Research and Early Development group at BioMarin Pharmaceutical Inc. in San Rafael. “The Dominican and BioMarin experiences have provided me with the ability to think clearly about the avenues the industry offers and has equipped me with the resources required to tackle what lies ahead in terms of problem solving in my area of research. Furthermore, it has given me the ability to look beyond the horizon and focus on the long term.”

In 2018, Slesha was exploring ways to combine her medical interests with her molecular biology courses, which she took as part of a post-baccalaureate program at UCLA. She has always found research to be intellectually stimulating, although a career in medicine was etched in her mind. A medical scientist training program seemed like a good fit as she was searching ways for the two professions to dovetail, thereby creating a symbiosis.

This led Slesha to reconnect with her mentor at St. Mary’s, Dr. Vidya Chandrasekaran, who suggested she look into the MS in Biological Sciences program at Dominican because of its science partnership with BioMarin - a world leader in developing and commercializing innovative biopharmaceuticals for rare diseases driven by genetic causes. Slesha was quite ecstatic about this program and wanted to learn more about it.

Professor Chandrasekaran put Slesha in touch with Dr. Meredith Protas, MS Biological Sciences Director and Associate Professor in the Department of Natural Sciences and Mathematics at Dominican. While on vacation in San Diego, Dr. Protas took a call from Slesha, as she was so impressed with Slesha’s credentials and her contagious enthusiasm.

“She said this program is the right fit. You’ll explore and you will learn what you like,” Slesha recounts.

That first meeting eventually led to an introduction to Dr. Silvia Siso-Llonch, who was then a honorary mentor for Dominican MS students at BioMarin. The conversation with Dr. Siso was very productive and culminated with Slesha learning more about the program.

“I knew this program would be the right fit for me given my keen interest in research and I was convinced that, upon completing this program, I would be able to successfully put into use the skill-sets I acquired, which in turn would expand my horizons,” Slesha says. “After trying so many things, keeping an open mind and acquiring skills along the way is essential.”

Slesha appreciated the support system provided by the program which helped guide and reassure her.

“That’s the beauty of a liberal arts school because you know the professors very well and mentorship is the key to knowing what you want to pursue,” she says. “It’s a unique program.”

The MS program in the School of Health and Natural Sciences partners with the Buck Institute for Research on Aging, as well as BioMarin. At BioMarin, Slesha, under Dr. Silvia Siso’s mentorship, worked on her Master’s thesis: Investigating the Human-mouse Interspecies Barrier to AAV- driven Gene Therapy Using a Mouse with a Humanized Liver. The results of the thesis suggest that PXB mouse model, a model with chimeric liver, almost fully repopulated with human hepatocytes, is a useful humanized mouse model to assess the AAV-vector translatability to the human liver.

“Slesha’s energy and professionalism are special,” Dr. Protas says. “Though she was initially set on a career in medicine, she really embraced her new opportunities in the program, and I think she came to the realization that a career in the biotech industry was what she actually wanted to do.”

“I love academia and I love mentorship. Dominican’s Master’s program grounded me in my scientific curiosity and gave me the opportunity to delve deep,” Slesha says. “I still like learning about the many facets the industry has to offer. However, after a year into this program and interacting with industry professionals, I am convinced research is an integral part of who I am. As we all know, career paths aren’t a straight line and I am looking forward to all the new experiences that will help me become a better researcher in the future.”

Photo above courtesy of Jorden Tahquechi '19, '21 MS


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