Sirika Pillay

Current Job: 
Postdoctoral Fellow at Stanford University, California, USA

How did you obtain your current position?

I applied to a number of international research institutions to pursue a postdoctoral research position, and after two telephonic interviews, I was hired in the Microbiology & Immunology department at Stanford University.

In what way does your qualification relate to your work, whether directly or indirectly?

My PhD was specifically on HIV vaccine research. I am still interested in viruses, but I have now started looking more broadly at virus-host interactions. Understanding how cells facilitate infections will provide insight into ways that we can prevent infection through targeting anti-virals against non-essential host factors.

What are the key skills that have contributed to your success thus far?

Perseverance, hard work and believing the work I do will someday contribute to saving lives.

What are your day-to-day activities?

I work in a lab most of the day. We set up virus-related experiments on a regular basis, so I work in sterile tissue culture rooms most days. I also do a lot of fluorescent microscopy where I get to tag proteins of interest with a fluorescent colour and then look at where this protein localizes in a cell under varying conditions. My work also involves a fair bit of reading and writing. New research is coming out all the time, so it's important to stay on top of what new work is published in my field. In addition, research needs funding, and I am applying for grants every year so that the work I do can continue.

What are the best and most challenging parts of your job?

The best part is that I am constantly awed by the amazing scientists that surround me at Stanford. The research ideas are fresh and full of enthusiasm and I feel constantly stimulated by the calibre of research that is conducted here.

This is however also the most challenging part of what I do, because the pressure to be at your best all the time definitely takes its toll. I think accepting that you are always learning, no matter what level of academia you are in, is key to being a good researcher.

How did your extra-curricular involvement while at UCT add value (transferable skills) to what you offer the world of work/your degree?

I worked with PracSci while at UCT, which was a voluntary student organization that went out to disadvantaged schools in Cape Town and set up science practicals for students who had never before had access to the practical side of science. Doing work with PracSci made me truly value the importance of education, and encouraged me to pursue a career in academia, where I will have the opportunity to help the youth of today realize their potential.

I also received the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship (MMUF) at UCT, which helped shape my interest in academia and facilitated my transition into postgraduate studies. I am still associated with the MMUF foundation, and it has provided me with the opportunity to share my academic experiences with other aspiring academics of colour, to bring about more diversity in the sphere of academia.

What are your key lessons on being successful when living and/or working abroad?

Be adaptable!

How did you find/research the opportunity to work abroad?

I applied to a number of labs that were involved in research I was interested in. Stanford was one of them, and after demonstrating my excitement to work on virus-host interactions, my boss hired me.

How best should students use their time at university to give themselves a competitive edge in your field?

Work hard towards obtaining a good academic record, but also get involved in one of the many student voluntary organizations at UCT. These organizations aim to uplift humanity, and working with them will change your view of the world in a positive way. You'll have the opportunity to give back to the community, and you'll realize how important it is for those of us that are fortunate to help those who are not.

In retrospect, what advice can you give to students about how to approach their own career development journeys?

Follow your passion, and have a purpose to what you want to achieve.

Do you have any advice for a new graduate entering the world of work?

Persevere, and never feel that you are too good to learn from someone else.