Ushanandini Mohanraj was an avid reader as a child. Her choice of books? Anything with adventure and mystery, so much so that she wanted to become a detective while growing up. Her father introduced her to the physician and novelist Robin Cook’s thrillers combining mystery and medicine.
“I loved the characters and thought the combination of detective work and science was so fascinating. That is how I was inspired to become a researcher.”
Disclosing mysteries related to recently discovered viruses
Mohanraj is a graduate of the Master's Programme in Translational Medicine and currently continues her research as a PhD student in the Doctoral Programme in Biomedicine at the University of Helsinki. Though her career focuses on topics affecting public health, it also involves detective work. As a virologist, she solves mysteries related to emerging viruses.
“When I started my internship during my master’s studies, a new virus was just discovered a few months before. It was a complete mystery that we had to try to figure out from scratch.”
Mohanraj was initially interested in microbes, but got drawn in by the study of viruses. Her research focuses on emerging human protoparvoviruses, which were discovered in recent years. The roles of these viruses in illnesses are yet to be resolved.
“Viruses intrigue me. They consist of nearly nothing, and yet we can see the havoc they can cause.”
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, people are now more aware of virology as a field of study. Mohanraj has noticed a growing interest in her work.
“Before the pandemic, mentioning virology was often the end of the topic. Now there are so many additional questions and people know more about issues such as vaccines and diagnostics. It feels good when research is recognised outside the science community.”
Adapting a new way to think and study
Mohanraj began her master’s studies at the University of Helsinki in autumn 2016. She came to Finland, a country previously unknown to her, because the master’s programme felt like a perfect fit.
“I had never heard of Finland, but I was searching for a study programme that included the clinical setting rather than techniques. The Master’s Programme in Translational Medicine was exactly what I was looking for.”
Coming to study in Finland was also Mohanraj’s first experience of travelling outside her home country of India. She was extremely nervous but excited.
“Everything was so different from what I was used to, including how people study and what is emphasized, but I adapted quickly and already worked in a lab two months after my arrival.”
During her years in Finland, Mohanraj has noticed her way to approach work shifting.
“I admire how people here think about the quality and not the quantity. They pick a few things and give their best. I am used to the opposite with taking on many things at the same time and pushing through. Now I have adjusted to the 'less is more' approach.”
Learning by doing
In addition to her research work, Mohanraj has distinguished herself in the start-up scene. In 2017, she started working at Demola, an innovation challenge platform that brings together university students and organisations.
“I wanted to experience the entrepreneurial setting, as I like to learn by doing.”
She is the co-founder of Meini, a web-based educational platform focusing on virtual and augmented reality in art and technology.
“At the moment, we are doing one-off projects, around five per year. We go to schools and make virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) integrated art with children. It is very rewarding, as they get to enjoy it then and there.”
”Answers can be found from other fields than your own”
For now, Mohanraj has settled in Finland. She enjoys the interdisciplinary atmosphere of the University of Helsinki.
"I have learned that you do not find answers to questions just in one place. They can be found from other fields than your own. I have learned to collaborate with people from various disciplines, from physicians to designers.”
In the future, Mohanraj wishes to establish a diagnostics company.
“I’m passionate about developing point-of-care test systems. I would like to work in product development, and hopefully have my own company at some point.”
She wants her work have a global impact by giving people an equal chance to get faster, cheaper and accurate diagnostics.
“Ten euros or nearly 900 rupees might not seem like much, but it is a lot of money for many. I want to create some kind of a collaborative effort to lower costs so that products would be accessible for everyone in need.”
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