Outstanding Volunteer: Natasha Girdharry
Natasha Girdharry, Toronto born-and-raised and of Guyanese descent, has always been passionate about Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM), “I really enjoyed science and I was always kind of good at it.” She began her undergrad at the University of Toronto in 2015, majoring in human biology and immunology. In 2019, she started her master's at the Institute of Medical Science (IMS), the biggest graduate unit in Uoft’s Temerty Faculty of Medicine. Her general field of study involved cardiology, while her thesis specifically focused on understanding how obesity influenced rest and exercise hemodynamic measurements. Her volunteering journey with Pueblo began at the start of the pandemic, and since then, Natasha has contributed to a multitude of initiatives.
What inspired you to pursue STEM?
What inspired me actually started at a very young age and I think I kind of owe that to my amazing teachers. I remember one of my first big science experiments in grade 6 was to dissect a squid and pop the ink pouches to write our names with it. It was really interesting and that kind of spurned my love of biology. In high school, I remember a particular chemistry experiment where we used equilibrium concepts and pH indicators to create the colours of the rainbow – it was really fascinating. Because of these great experiences I always loved it and have continued to pursue it.
How did you first hear about Pueblo Science and what attracted you to this cause?
I first heard about Pueblo in 2019 from my friend Hamzah. He had gone on the Rural Initiatives for Science Education (RISE) program in SE Asia (Philippines and Thailand) and had an amazing time. He expressed how rewarding it was to be able to teach students in different countries science and show them what to do with the local resources available to them. When I heard about this experience I thought it would be great to participate in this initiative and help enrich the lives of students both locally and abroad. I voiced my interest in volunteering and was given the contact information of Pueblo’s executive director, Maryrose, and it’s been history ever since!
What volunteering activities have you done with Pueblo Science and how have these experiences impacted/changed you?
I’ve contributed to a couple of different initiatives with Pueblo. The first few were more marketing-focused roles. I helped advertise for good morning science, their annual fundraiser and their eBooks, Around the world science volumes 1 and 2. It was really fun and interesting to work alongside a team of young students. I also got the opportunity to teach 6-8-year-old students—I love kids so it was really easy to do that. Since I’ve also been a Teaching Assistant at the university, I wasn’t completely unfamiliar with teaching. Overall, it was amazing to see their curiosity stem from witnessing what we were doing in these science experiments.
Why do you continue to support Pueblo Science?
I continue to support pueblo because I really believe in their mission statement. There are so many different charities, especially in Toronto that really try to enrich science education in different ways but with Pueblo, because everything is so accessible, they really try to make it for everyone. They also don’t just try to do it locally, but also abroad. Since they also do it in an area where my parents are from, Guyana, it does hit close to home. I would love to be able to contribute and act in a way where we can increase access to this type of education abroad. Global access to science education as well as global health is very important to me.
What is the most valuable skill you learned?
My ability to critically analyze situations in my own personal life and professional life is something I’m continuing to develop and will probably do so for many more years to come. These skills began to develop in high school, but in my master's, is when they were really solidified. Being able to do that has taught me to look at life in a very different way. Even when I’m reading research papers I’m not blindly taking everything they are saying at heart, I’m looking at it and seeing what aspects can be improved, why maybe certain experiments weren't able to be done and whether the experiments themselves are ethical – I even put that lens on my own work. It has really helped me become a better researcher and has taught me to look at life in a very different way. This skill really does extend everywhere.
Women and visible minorities are largely underrepresented in the STEM working field. As a woman in STEM, what are some of the challenges you may have faced in your career trajectory and how do you continue to overcome them?
In my own experience, I believe that women are scrutinized differently than men in STEM. I do feel that I have been pre-judged, not only by superiors, but also my peers just for my appearance, the way I dress, or look, or if I put on makeup. And that’s not to say that’s everybody, it’s only a handful of people, but it only takes a handful of people for you to feel a bit self-conscious.
I also believe I have been underestimated a couple of times, but I think one thing I have learned which has helped me overcome this is realizing that I don’t need to prove myself; my work will speak for itself and it has. Something that can kind of complement that experience is talking to female mentors. Personally, I do mentor a few graduate students as well as some undergraduate and high school students and it’s something I do try to talk about with them because I feel that it should be talked about. And I’ve been lucky enough to have female mentors that have shared their personal experiences with me. It’s something that I’ve really appreciated and has helped me look at things from a different perspective.
What advice would you give to young children or anyone, in general, hoping to pursue STEM?
Be open to learning and really try your best; your best is enough. Even if you get things wrong, don’t be afraid to take a chance. At the start of my master's my supervisor would ask me questions and I would be so intimidated by it. But even if you get it wrong, that’s how you learn! Life is a learning experience; not just being in school but outside of school as well. All these things are learning experiences so don’t be afraid to take a chance!
What are some things you enjoy doing in your free time?
I play cricket every weekend, which I kind of owe to my family. In the summer I also enjoy playing volleyball on the weekends since I grew up in the beaches. I do like to work out a lot so I try to stay active in my personal life as it does also help me manage my stress. I enjoy cooking and dancing; I used to competitively dance and do hip-hop and jazz when I was younger so I try to keep up with it a little bit if I can. Finally, hanging out with my friends and family is my favorite thing to do - I love being able to see them!
Natasha does hope to eventually go abroad with Pueblo and perhaps contribute to teaching science in the country her parents are from (Guyana) one day. “Unfortunately, I began volunteering in 2020, when the pandemic inevitably hit, and I was unable to go on any trips,” Natasha expresses, “but I think honestly, everyone that I’ve worked with at Pueblo has really tried very hard to do their best to still make this experience super accessible for people in different countries.” Since the start of the pandemic, Pueblo has made many program deliveries abroad possible, particularly in the Philippines, making use of remote technologies. “We’re still trying to do it even though there are some barriers that have been put up by the pandemic but hopefully we’ll be able to do the in-person activities soon.”
As of last December, Natasha has successfully defended her thesis. She attended her convocation in June of 2022 and was delighted to be back in person to celebrate. She is now applying to medical school, and we wish her the best of luck!
About the Author
Raisa Razzaque, a recent graduate from the University of Toronto, specialized in Health & Disease during her undergrad. She enjoys bringing accessible science to the table and advocating for STEM education, both of which she’s had the amazing opportunity to contribute to here at Pueblo. Going forward, she hopes to continue intertwining her interests in sci-comm and writing through these featured blogs!