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Meet the student commencement speaker, Pankhuri Singhal

by Greg St. Martin

Over the past five years, Pankhuri Singhal has sought out myriad opportunities at Northeastern to engage in research, pursue new passions, and step out of her comfort zone. But a fortuitous experience—attending the wrong orientation session—was perhaps the most transformative for the soon-to-be-graduate.

Singhal enrolled as a biology major, but during freshman orientation accidentally found herself immersed in Northeastern’s neuroscience program. Yet rather than retreat from her error, she embraced the moment. “It was so captivating that I decided to switch in without even thinking twice about it,” Singhal recalled.

That mindset—to seize opportunity and explore new horizons—is a defining trait of Singhal’s Northeastern experience. Soon, she will share her journey with fellow graduates when she delivers the student commencement address on Friday, May 5 at TD Garden in Boston.

“I’m humbled to have this honor,” Singhal said. “Northeastern has afforded me a unique platform to explore my passion for scientific research, and I’m excited to share my journey with everyone. I’m especially hoping that graduates will reflect back fondly on their own paths here.”

Charting a research path

During Singhal’s freshman year intro course in neuroscience, assistant professor James Monaghan, who at the time was new to Northeastern, delivered a talk about his research on complex tissue regeneration—specifically, his work investigates the axolotl, a salamander that can regrow its limbs and regenerate parts of its organs. Fascinated, Singhal contacted Monaghan about joining his lab, and her persistence secured a spot there starting in her second year.

Singhal has since published research in two top-tier scientific journals and presented her work at RISE—Northeastern’s Research, Innovation, and Scholarship Expo—and the Society for Developmental Biology annual conference held in Boston last year. She also landed two co-ops at Editas Medicine, a biotechnology company in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she has worked with CRISPR, a revolutionary gene-editing technology.

Her driving passion in life is to study the genetic mechanisms underlying hereditary diseases, in order to create novel therapies that target the key gene mutations themselves.

A theme of ‘engagement’

In her commencement address, Singhal will urge fellow graduates to engage in dialogue with others who don’t share the same vision, beliefs, research discipline, or culture. As she puts it, our intellectual horizons broaden only when we are informed of opinions different from our own.

“We live in a time where there are so many polarized entities, and we get so hung up on our differences,” she said. “I wanted to write a speech that would try to unify everyone despite these differences. Engagement is essential for us as a community to going forward and bringing about innovation and positive change.”

Engagement and exploration have been hallmarks of Singhal’s Northeastern experience. Freshman year she launched her own freelance editorial business, through which she edits manuscripts and has published a series of cookbooks. In her third year, she served as co-president of Northeastern’s neuroscience club, NEURONS. During her fourth year, she joined the Husky Startup Challenge to learn more about entrepreneurship and how to form a strong idea, product, and team. And, to better understand her goal of creating therapeutics for genetic diseases from a firsthand human perspective, in her first few years at Northeastern she volunteered at Brigham and Women’s Hospital through its Medical Careers Exploration Program and interacted with patients.

“Interacting with people who have these diseases that I want to develop cures for in the future put into perspective the magnitude of research and how it can eventually transform lives,” she said.

At Northeastern, she’s learned that immersing oneself in unrelated, interdisciplinary activities can lead you to become a disruptive leader in your field, because the skills and knowledge you’ve acquired through these activities will allow you to see connections in your work that others may not see.

The lesson she’ll take most from her college experience is how to be a disruptive thinker—a characteristic she’s honed by embracing opportunities to learn new skills and meet people from other disciplines and backgrounds. She’s eager to apply this mindset as she continues her academic journey; she will enroll at the University of Pennsylvania in the fall to pursue a doctorate in genetics.

Happy birthday, student commencement speaker

On Friday, May 5, Singhal will turn 23. What better way to celebrate her birthday than to graduate and share her college experience with fellow graduates?

“It’s the perfect gift to have this opportunity to speak to my class and their families and share my experience,” she said. “Five years is a long time, but it really flew by in the blink of an eye. That’s what I was told as a freshman, but I didn’t believe it. I’ve learned a lot. It will be a very special day to share with everyone in that arena.”

Originally published in news@Northeastern on April 18, 2017.

Pankhuri Singhal, S’17, a senior and behavioral neuroscience major, has been named the student speaker at the undergraduate commencement ceremony. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

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