Neha Mehta, PhD

she/her/hers

You can find her on Twitter @mneha123  

Education:

  • Indian Institute of Technology, Roorkee, Pulp and Paper Chemistry, 2010
  • University of California Berkeley, M.S. Chemical Engineering, Product Development, 2011
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology,M.S. Technology and Policy, 2012-2014
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology, PhD, Environmental Science, 2014-2019

Current Job Title: Postdoctoral Researcher at IMPMC, CNRS and Sorbonne University, Paris, France

What experience first got you interested in science and is that field the same one you went on to pursue?

When I was growing up, I never thought that I would end up being a scientist. I actually was fascinated with a career as an air hostess because I wanted to travel to places. Later, I changed my mind and wanted to become a “crime detective”. Anyhow, in school I loved maths, so my parents encouraged me to pursue it further. The decision felt natural. It was only when I was doing a summer internship at the end of my sophomore year, I realized that damn, I really like science. I was interning at Polymer and Paper Science Lab in Finland and just fell in love with chemistry. I enjoyed making polymers and learning about their applications in the paper industry. This experience led me to believe I would like to pursue a higher degree in the field of Chemistry. As you will see further below, I ended up wearing multiple hats before I finally landed to be labeled as an environmental scientist/geochemist.

Tell me about some people who helped or inspired you along the way, in your early training and later in your career.

During my early training,  my family has been a big supporter throughout my career, especially my mom, who fought fiercely for me to ensure that I got to the education of my dreams and my career was not stalled because I was a girl child. I also admired my teachers who believed in me and dedicated their time and efforts toward my success. Some of my closest friends and my partner have been my lighthouse in times when I doubt myself and in my capabilities as a scientist and suffer from imposter syndrome. 

During my Ph.D., I was very fortunate to have an amazing group of friends and peers, who were my daily source of inspiration. At MIT, I got to meet amazing professors, who were committed to science and their passion for science fueled my own scientific journey.  

Can you tell me about any moments of doubt you had as a student or early in your career and how you dealt with it?

I guess it is hard to be an academic and not suffer from imposter syndrome. 

When I was submitting a postdoctoral fellowship, in my last year of Ph.D., I was very confident that I did my best and I would be a good candidate for the fellowship. But the results came out and my project didn’t get the funding. At that point, I took the rejection as an indicator of my own lack of scientific acumen and was 100% sure that I didn’t have what it takes to be an academic. It was a rough time. I also got the news that another fellowship fell through. Both the news left me devastated and made a very convincing argument in my head that if I cannot get funding, I don’t have what it takes to be a scientist/academic. 

How did I deal with it? I started stress baking and gyming :). Both of these activities helped me get some perspective. Talking to friends, mediations and just giving myself time, also helped to develop a mindset that these things are part of the game. I reached out to my mentors too and hearing their stories of failures comforted me because it gave me a ray of hope that there’s light at the end of the tunnel. 

Can you share two or three surprising twists or turns in your early scientific training and your later career path.

Well, I had many interesting twists during my career path so far. I started as an undergraduate with a degree in Paper Science, transitioned into a master’s degree targeted towards managing new product development pipelines, and made again a shift to join a start-up to work on water treatment membranes. There I realized, I am not yet done with school, and decided to venture into the realm of policy as a master’s student at MIT. All these shenanigans were interesting and thrilling experiences in their own way. I embarked on each experience (aka career twist) with a desire to fully explore and indulge my own scientific curiosity. Having gone through all these experiences, helped me to confidently embrace my decision to pursue a PhD. 

Can you give some examples of how you have incorporated your non scientific interests into your work.

I really love cooking and baking. I often think of becoming a chef as my plan B in case my academic career tanks 🙂 I started to incorporate it into my work by baking defense cakes for my lab members/friends. It was super fun because I would bake the cakes themed on their research. So it was super cool! 

I also enjoyed engaging with high school students to inspire passion for science. I often volunteered with the Science Festival to showcase some cool science demos to high schoolers.

Is there some advice you could share from your own experience to help someone with a science degree who is just starting off on their own career path.

My key piece of advice is don’t restrict yourself or narrow your options too early in your career. I think there are valuable lessons to learn from allowing oneself the freedom to have hands-on-experience in diverse fields. It also brings a holistic perspective when tackling a scientific problem and helps to think out of the box. 

Another piece of advice is to keep networking and find mentors early on in your career. Find mentors who can be your cheerleaders and committed to your success. There are plenty of good resources to reach out to mentors: conferences have mentorship programs, professional societies in your field of research (e.g. ESWN is amazing for women in earth science) often have mentorship advice.

Take time for yourself to focus on the bigger picture. Often, as young scientists, we love doing what we do and disconnect from the question, why am I doing this? How is this going to fit in the broader research question? Taking a step back and looking at your work from a distance, in my opinion, is so important for becoming a successful academic in science.

Lastly, be active on social media if you can. Publicize and advertise your work because you never know what interactions may lead to amazing scientific and career opportunities. Pay forward and support your peers. 

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