Alumni Profiles Series: Samagya Banskota
Dr. Samagya Banskota, co-founder and senior scientist at Nvelop Therapeutics, was named one of the world’s top innovators under 35 by MIT Review. Dr. Banskota is originally from Nepal and received a B.S. in bioengineering from Penn State University prior to joining the Chilkoti lab at Duke University. In 2019, she received her Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering from Duke and then began working as a postdoctoral researcher in David Liu’s lab at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. While at Broad, she co-invented a new drug delivery system that uses virus-like particles to deliver genomic medicine that can correct genetic disorders.
Tell me about your current job.
I started in my current role at Nvelop about a year ago. Our goal here is to design drug delivery modalities for genomic medicine. It has been an exciting journey because every day, we work towards transforming an innovative idea from a lab into a meaningful technology to help patients. I get to see the process of clinical translation and contribute to the development of new technologies that will eventually become a new medicine. By building a startup, I have also developed several complementary skills besides research. For example, I have learned how to think about business model, identify a new disease target, and hire people who share my research vision and values. Among all these, the most fulfilling task has been the opportunity to mentor other younger scientists.
As a successful female entrepreneur, what advice would you share with young women in engineering?
I’m hardly what you would call a “successful” entrepreneur. I am new to this, and I still have a lot to learn. That said, as far as I have seen, it is important to be confident in one’s ability yet know your limits and be willing to learn from others. You must be patient because often learning new skills takes time. You should also be a good listener so you can help others “debug” problems and trust to delegate to others because you cannot be good at everything. In the past 20 years, many more women have become CEOs or hold executive positions in the STEM field than any time before. Many are advocating for, and dedicated to, making changes in our work environment to make it more inclusive, welcoming, and accommodating to all. Because of their leadership, companies everywhere have come to realize the value of a diverse workforce, building a positive working culture, and making social impacts. My advice to young women in engineering is to capitalize on these positive changes in the workforce and let’s do more for the next generation and the one after.
To that end, students can be involved in many opportunities in graduate school to build their soft skills, including building mentoring networks, being a mentor themselves to younger students, and being part of various clubs and professional groups at Duke. These experiences will help you gain confidence, learn about trusting and delegating tasks to others and develop team management skills.
Why did you choose to attend Duke?
Duke has a strong pedigree and research program on drug delivery, especially in the biomaterials field. When I visited Duke, I really liked the biomedical engineering department and Dr. Chilkoti's lab, so in some sense, it was an easy decision for me. I also enjoyed the beautiful campus and was charmed by it. I think it is important to remember that a Ph.D. is not just about one’s research. It is also about broadening your knowledge, learning from peers, and training to be forever intellectually nimble. You may not work on the same topic in ten years, but the friendships, collaborations, and critical thinking skills you nurture in graduate school will afford you to chart your future path. And I felt that Duke would give me all that, and that is why I chose Duke.
What did you like most about Duke and the biomedical engineering department?
There are too many things I like about Duke and the BME department to list here. But, if I were to name a few, those would be the intellectually fierce yet supporting faculty (and staff), friendly colleagues, beautiful campus, and the emphasis on the wholesome development of students.
The BME curriculum was designed in such a way that it allowed me to take a wide range of classes that taught me about interdisciplinary fields but also supported my passion for research. Besides excellence in research, several programs on campus focused on students’ professional development. Through programs such as Ph.D. Plus, you can train in different soft skills and have the opportunity to network outside of academia. I was a co-president of the Society of Duke Fellows, where we organized interdisciplinary talks every month, and once every year we organized an event called GradX to provide a platform for graduate students to communicate their research to invited guests, which often also included eminent scholars across fields. Being able to communicate one’s research to a wider society is very important for all graduate students. I also participated in Emerging Leaders Institute, where I learned how to be a good leader and communicate effectively.
There are also many fun extracurricular activities you can do around the campus. Duke basketball games, especially the ones against UNC, were memorable, particularly because everyone was united to root for one team. Duke also invested a lot of resources for students’ physical and mental health. I enjoyed going to the gym and fitness classes, which helped me to balance my Ph.D. studies and maintain a healthy lifestyle.
How do you balance your work life?
I enjoy running. My friends and I often run along the Charles River in Boston. When I was at Duke, my friends and I would go to the trails nearby. I also like trying different kinds of new food and reading good books. You should prioritize your health and well-being. While in graduate school, I made sure to eat healthy, sleep well, and work out regularly. Every Friday afternoon, I would go to kickboxing class at the West campus gym, which was a fun way to end a long week.
Ph.D. student, Biomedical Engineering
Jiaoni Li is a second-year Ph.D. student at Duke University in biomedical engineering. She is currently working on bone fracture healing and chronic pain in Shyni Varghese’s lab. She received her B.S. in chemical engineering from the Ohio State University and worked as a research assistant in immunology and cell biology for four years. Her current interest is developing novel therapies to prevent or treat nonunion bone fractures.