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Diverse Perspectives in Stem Cell Science: A Q&A with Sandeep Gopal

Written by Nicholas Leigh

In this interview, Sandeep Gopal, research group leader at Lund Stem Cell Center, shares how his journey through science has taken him across the globe and reflects on the insights he has gained from working in various laboratory settings with diverse teams along the way.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about yourself and what inspired you to pursue a career in research?

A: I wish I could say I was interested in science from the beginning, but it was not until I began my Master's thesis project that I became interested in the field. 

I am originally from India and moved to Sweden to study my masters in 2007. When I finished my bachelor's studies, I had a few friends and we decided to explore a few options and looked into Scandinavia. I wanted to do molecular biology courses, so I specifically looked for that course, and ended up in Sweden. 

I did not think I would be a scientist, but towards the end of my master’s project I was really interested in what I was doing. And I got freedom. My boss told me “You can design a project.” We sat together and decided. I like that kind of approach and the freedom I received. So, what really sparked my interest in science, was to see that you can work with what you are really interested in. That kind of freedom helped me to decide to say “OK, science is what I want to pursue.” 

After that, I moved to Copenhagen for my PhD. Then did a one-year short postdoc in France, before returning to finish my work in Copenhagen. From there, I went to Australia for seven years before returning to Sweden after being awarded a starting grant from The Swedish Research Council (VR). But then COVID happened. So, I waited two years, doing practically nothing, before being able to move to Sweden. 

Q: Can you tell us about your research group and your current research focus? 

A: Now, my research group focuses on germline stem cells and on cancer stemness. My interest in stem cell research mostly comes from my previous research which had nothing to do with stem cells. We figured out the basic function of a molecule, which could have an impact in stem cells and cancers. I pitched the project idea to several labs. Then finally, one lab in Australia took that idea. So, that is how I got into stem cells.  

My research group is a relatively new research group here in Lund, about two years old. When I moved to Lund, a few people came with me from Australia, and have since returned. So now we are in the rebuilding phase. We have a projector assistant, a PhD student and two undergraduate students. We also have a new postdoc and a PhD student joining soon before summer. 

Q: As a scientist, have you encountered any specific challenges within academia? 

A: My challenge was always communication. So, if I do not understand someone, I ask questions. If I am not OK with something, I discuss it. Sometimes it is a weird conversation, but then you can address issues and have that conversation at least. However, keeping problems to oneself is not going to solve the problem.  

The best strategy for inclusivity from my experience is to have social activities with no structure, with no agenda. A good example of this is from my Masters project at BRIC, Copenhagen. There they have a social Friday, so that means you have a beer with colleagues. You can talk about science, but it is mostly about how you are doing, what is happening, and did you watch the game? This happens once every few weeks and really helped create the feeling of being included. 

Q: As a research group leader, what steps are you taking towards creating an inclusive atmosphere in your own lab environment? 

A: I have worked in many different countries and understand that when you get to a new country there is already a culture set when you arrive. Not that people do not like you, but they do not know how to interact with you sometimes. So, my approach is to talk, talk to people all the time. So especially when I recruit from some countries that have a high level of hierarchical system, I talk. I also, no matter what, try to work a little bit in the lab which allows me to talk more with others. 

We also have a starting packet that we give to new members. It has information on the lab culture, and we also talk about what do you do if anyone has a problem. We discuss the cultural differences in terms of work. I try to have a conversation on the first day about the culture both in Sweden and the lab. We also work hard to communicate very clearly with each other, this includes being direct. 

Q: In your experience, what are some approaches that academic institutions or research organizations can adopt to promote diversity, equity, inclusion? 

A: It is quite important to be broad in what we define as diversity. For instance, it is not just about ethnicity, age, or gender, we need to be paying attention to many of people's traits. We need a plan and initiatives in the Stem Cell Center, but we also need support from the departments at the University to continue this work. This is tough because we are from different departments.  

Some places I worked have a strategy for recruiting that tries to make sure that diversity is one of the keys to recruiting. They want to make sure that at all levels there is diversity regarding gender, ethnic background, professional capacity and so on. 

Q: What advice would you give to aspiring scientists from underrepresented backgrounds who are interested in pursuing a career in stem cell research or academia?  

A: Settle into your group but think about what you want to do next. Keep a timeline in your head. The training students get in this aspect is limited and varies between countries. I see that in many postdocs from overseas, they are not aware of the timeline of the career. It is also important to move on at the right time. Challenge yourself a little bit and have an open mind. 

About Sandeep Gopal

Sandeep Gopal. Photo.

Sandeep Gopal, a researcher within the Department of Experimental Medical Science at Lund University, leads the Extracellular Signaling and Cell Fate research group which is affiliated with the Lund Stem Cell Center and the Lund University Cancer Centre. 

Professional Background: PhD from the University of Copenhagen, Research Associate at Monash University in Australia, Principal Investigator at Lund University 

Sandeep Gopal’s Profile in the Research Portal