Essay

Advancing science through adventure

Yamini Dalal
By Yamini Dalal
June 27, 2024

I was born to a middle-class family of doctors in India, and I grew up in the 1980s on a Westernized diet of the BBC, classical literature and Scientific American.

As a child, I was captivated by a Time magazine series on archaeology, “Ancient Civilizations,” especially a piece focused on the cryptic code found on prehistoric seals from the Indus Valley civilization dating back 3,000 years. My dream was to be an archaeologist, which warred with my deep interest in biology. Everyone around me assumed that the privilege and support of my family, coupled with my natural proclivity for science and writing, would lead me inevitably to biomedical science. And so it has. 

Yamini Dalal used to rider her second-hand classic Cannondale bicycle in Seattle; now she pedals through Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C.
Yamini Dalal
Yamini Dalal used to ride her second-hand classic Cannondale bicycle in Seattle; now she pedals through Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C.

At 22, I moved to the U.S. for graduate school. My older brother had started a job in Chicago, and he paid for my application and exams. To be near him, I focused on schools in the Midwest, with the hope of a full scholarship. I spent a year as a teaching assistant in Terre Haute before starting my doctoral work with Arnie Stein at Purdue, where I was funded by teaching 20 hours a week for four years.

Stein was from one of the original chromatin founder labs at the National Institutes of Health, where I am now a tenured senior investigator. We worked in the basement of the infamous Lilly Hall, surrounded by ecology and evolution labs, so I became friends with graduate students across disciplines, from parts of the U.S. I had never heard of.

Many of these friends had worked full-time jobs to pay off significant undergraduate debt before returning to do their doctorates in their 30s. I saw this, coupled with the intensely international atmosphere at Purdue, and I realized two things: First, privilege is not simply a function of where you are born, the color of your skin or the accent with which you speak. Second, no matter what your background, if you really want to accomplish something, your passion and drive can help you overcome adversity.

Some of my Purdue friends were avid outdoor enthusiasts and musicians; which, given my experience with fellow immigrant grad students, seemed inversely related to being a molecular biologist. From them, I learned about Americana, hiking and other outdoor activities I never dreamed I would enjoy. I hiked through the woods around Seely Lake in Montana, keeping an eye out for mountain lions and grizzly bears, and coasted on a decrepit hand-me-down bike along the Wabash River in Tippecanoe County. These adventures changed my life. I found a strange affinity with the wilderness because it challenged me in a way that few other things had until that point.

When I was choosing postdoctoral positions, the outdoors influenced me greatly. On my 29th birthday, I interviewed with Steve Henikoff at the Fred Hutch Cancer Center; he and I had once had a stimulating conversation while we were both stuck at the airport in Bozeman. The stunning backdrop of Seattle and the mountains was a major selling point, coupled with an ethos of intellectual equality inside the Hutch.

While exploring chromatin structure in the international crowd of postdocs, I embraced the egalitarian ethic that defines the science at the Hutch. At first snow, people would take off to ski Steven’s Pass; on the first nonovercast day, people would race to hike the Cascades. My first short hike with an immigrant friend from Germany, who now leads a biomarker clinical team at BioNTech, turned into an arduous 8.5-mile, 3,000-foot elevation slog. We got a bit lost on the way back, talking about chromatin, small molecule markers in cancer biology and the implausibility of yetis, while something indisputably large rustled in the brisk dusk behind us. This conversation, coupled to the fact that three friends developed malignancies during our postdoctoral years, marked the beginning of my interest in cancer biology.

By my 30th birthday, I’d saved enough to buy a second-hand classic Cannondale bicycle. Racing under a wet bridge in Seattle, my tires got stuck in the slick grooves left by the historic tram lines, and I crash-landed straight onto my helmetless head. After a few hours’ observation in the ER, I biked back for precious time reserved on the electron microscope. I was visualizing centromeres purified biochemically from fly cells, which had never been attempted before.

That evening, I captured images of strangely flattened chromatin structures, which made me worry that I’d suffered the loss of visual perspective from the fall. The micrographs developed the next week validated what I had seen. These findings, substantiated over years of hard biochemical and biophysical work, led to a major discovery that challenged existing paradigms. The subsequent years were not easy. I faced intense opposition from major researchers. Some of the criticism was rigorous; some of it felt gratuitous. Yet, to quote a famous senator, “she persisted.” I did not persist alone; support from friends, family, mentors and colleagues made the journey more enlightening than traumatic. This led to another surprising discovery: true allies may not always be who you expect based on outward appearances.

On my 34th birthday, I signed a federal contract appointing me a principal investigator at the NIH. I have now run my lab for 16 wonderful years, and I still feel every day is an adventure. When I commute through gorgeous Rock Creek Park, which cuts through our nation’s capital, on that same Cannondale I bought 20 years ago, the bright spark of intuition frees surprisingly good ideas, plus a few dubious ones.

I was recently appointed an honorary visiting professor position at IIT-Mumbai, a premier research institute in my country of origin, starting this fall. It will be my privilege to start paying back the scientific community that has supported my life in science.

The best part of this journey is working with talented colleagues, united in our curiosity about the fundamental nature of eukaryotic life encoded in our chromosomes and its contribution to cancer progression. This shared dream is made more powerful by the diversity in the origin stories that shaped us, the challenges that honed us, the family that supports us and the taxpayers who make these breakthroughs possible.

As an Indian American immigrant woman, I am proud and grateful to be part of this scientific diaspora.

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Yamini Dalal
Yamini Dalal

Yamini Dalal is a senior investigator and senior faculty advisor at the Center for Cancer Research of the National Cancer Institute.

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