Giri Anand’s path to studying biology started when he first got his hands on a copy of James Watson’s “Double Helix” as an AP Biology student at Newton North High School. He was fascinated by the scientific process and the story of discovery, and that curiosity was further stoked by a hands-on learning environment.
“My biology teacher was a very good teacher, and we did very interactive experiments and got very close experience with biology and biology research,” says Anand, a School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) bioengineering graduate student in the lab of Sharad Ramanathan.
Earlier in 2023, he was the first author on a paper in Cell, which detailed the design and execution of a series of experiments that explained how cells form the neural tube, a very early and important step in embryonic development.
“Giri brought together ideas from bioengineering, stem cell and developmental biology to change how we model early human development,” says Ramanathan. “His approach has opened doors to recapitulate the patterning of complex developing human tissues in a way that was not possible before.”
The work allowed him to pull from his background of both molecular biology and computer science, and to take advantage of the interdisciplinary approach of the Ramanathan lab.
“What’s unique, and this was apparent when I visited and rotated in the lab, were the different fields from which they draw their skills to apply to questions,” says Anand. “When I joined, there were people from applied physics, molecular biology, biophysics, and even pure mathematical backgrounds all in a single location. Having the ability to interact with people from different scientific backgrounds and approaches in order to address questions that we were all interested in was such a draw.”
Over summer, his experiment design earned him the honor of the Meselson Prize at the MCB research retreat.
“It’s based on the Meselson-Stahl experiment, which is considered a very elegant experiment in biology where they showed the mechanism of the replication of DNA,” says Anand. “It honors ‘beautiful’ experiments, or an elegant experiment that is able to show something new or test a hypothesis very precisely.”
Anand has been interested in combining his love for biology and computer science since those early high school days, when he took coding and other computer classes alongside his biology. An opportunity as a senior in a high school research program placed him in the Alterovitz Lab at Harvard, cementing the idea that he wanted to pursue an education in computational biology.
“These high school research programs are good in helping identify things that you’re interested in early on,” he said. “That was a good source of inspiration for me.”
He double majored in both computer science and molecular biology at MIT. He first came across the Ramanathan lab there, when he presented a recently published paper for a senior seminar on cutting-edge stem cell research.
“Reading that paper got me interested in his lab, the way they thought about these questions about how stem cells make decisions,” he says. “They were broadly interested in how organisms and cells make decisions. At the time I also had a computer science background, so I was interested in thinking about cells and organisms as computational agents. They take in information from their environment, process it, and execute decisions. It fit with my way of thinking about these things.”
He applied to SEAS, and eventually settled into his home in the Ramanathan Lab. He successfully defended his PhD work at the end of November, and will put the finishing touches on his projects with the Ramanathan lab until his official graduation in March 2024. He will then join Lorenz Studer’s lab at the Sloan Kettering Institute as a postdoc, where he will continue working with stem cells to either further his research into human development or pivot to disease models.
His time enjoying the interdisciplinary atmosphere of the Ramanathan lab influenced his decision to join Studer’s similarly diverse lab space.
“The training that I’ve gotten in my PhD has made me think in a certain way about research questions and science in general. And I think I’ll take that with me wherever I go. Going forward I want to take stem cells and organoids and try to push their capabilities to see how we can better understand development and disease using these model systems,” he says. “I would like to thank my family for their loving support throughout my PhD, and my advisor, Sharad, for his careful and consistent guidance over the years, as well as everyone else from my lab!”
When not in the lab, Anand spends time with family and friends who live in the greater Boston area. He also enjoys playing tennis and going for runs. But most of the time, you can find him in the lab, discovering new things about our world.
“A big part of who I am is pursuing these questions,” he says. “I would say I’m pretty curiosity driven. I feel very privileged to explore questions that I’m interested in, and the Ramanathan Lab gives me an outlet to explore that. I feel free to just explore my interests and I think that’s the most freedom anyone could ask for.”