Scripps Student Spotlight: Monica Thukral

A graduate student studies the importance of small molecules and the improvements they can make in medicine and science

Monica Thukral is a third-year PhD student studying marine chemical biology at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego. She grew up in San Jose, Calif. and later earned a bachelor's degree in biochemistry at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. At Scripps, Thukral is researching microscopic algae known as diatoms and the tiny but important molecules they make. She is working alongside advisor Andrew Allen and co-adviser Bradley Moore.

explorations now: Why did you choose to attend Scripps?

Monica Thukral: When I came to interview at Scripps, I was full of ideas, and Scripps was full of people who were excited about my ideas. I remember having great conversations with researchers Brad Moore, Andy Allen, Peter Franks, Kathy Barbeau, and Lihini Aluwihare, all of whom I have been lucky enough to work with since I arrived here.  

Scripps was unique among earth science institutions because they strive toward equity, diversity, and inclusion. It was a community where I felt comfortable. Meeting the Director of Diversity Initiatives Keiara Auzenne and Alyssa Griffin, a recent community engagement fellow and graduate of Scripps, assured me that Scripps would be the best environment to begin my career.

en: What are you researching at Scripps?

MT: The oceans are full of organisms that make a huge variety of small molecules. Some molecules have anti-cancer properties, and some can be used for biofuels, and others are toxic and can make humans sick. Diatoms contain a rich source of these molecules. Diatoms are eukaryotic (relating to, or being an organism composed of one or more cells containing visibly evident nuclei and organelles) microalgae; they produce, by photosynthesis, about 20 percent of the oxygen we humans breathe. I study a few of the molecules they make, including a biotoxin called domoic acid. I also use new technologies like metabolomics, the scientific study of chemical processes involving metabolites, to discover yet unknown molecules in microalgae. Studying the molecules they make lets me “eavesdrop” on them speaking their chemical language and understand how they communicate with other creatures and their environment.

A woman wearing a blue lab coat and clear protective glasses works in a lab
Monica Thukral in the lab, pre-pandemic.

en: How did you become interested in science and your field of study?

MT: I’ve been a social activist advocating for issues related to animal agriculture-induced climate change for many years. One significant negative effect of animal agriculture is the eutrophication (excessive richness of nutrients in a lake or other body of water, frequently due to runoff) of water. This can occur when farm animal waste is dumped into rivers and lakes. The high concentration of organic matter in the waste causes dynamic and rapid growth of microalgae in these waterways, using up all the oxygen and killing whatever else is living in the water by oxygen depletion. This growth is known as a phytoplankton bloom. Some marine blooms are caused by the diatoms that I now study for my PhD.

en: What’s life like as a Scripps student? Describe a typical day.

MT: I like to start my days running experiments and analyzing results in the laboratory. Pre-COVID, I enjoyed eating lunch with my friends at the café overlooking the ocean. In the afternoons, I try to attend a seminar to learn something new, go to classes and meetings, or work on my publications. If I can get in a beach run or an ocean swim, it’s a day well spent at Scripps.

en: What’s the most exciting thing about your work (in the field or in the lab)?

MT: I love the idea of discovering new roles for small molecules in the ocean. We know so little about how the tiniest creatures in the ocean communicate, and my work gives some insight into their language of small molecules.

en: Are there any role models or mentors who have helped you along the way?

MT: Dr. Laura Gomez-Consarnau was the first to spark my interest in scientific research as she served as my undergraduate research advisor at USC. Without her patience and scientific intuition about new biochemical functions in the marine environment, I would never have begun this microbiological research journey. Dr. Naomi Levine at USC has been a constant source of support at each step of my career. Dr. Daniel Petras has been an incredible science mentor, colleague, and friend. His genuine intellectual curiosity constantly inspires me and pushes me to be both a better scientist and a better version of myself. Lab mentors at Scripps have included Andrew Allen, Bradley Moore, Flip McCarthy, and Shaun McKinnie.

Additional mentors include but are not limited to Pushpa Seth, Shilpi Thukral, Rohit Thukral, Mark Janda, Beril Polat, Tony Kanal, and Becca Peer.

en: What are some of the challenges you face as a student?

MT: I’m always working toward finding the best work-life balance, achieving my science goals while also making the most of my time with family, friends, and the outdoors.

en: What are your plans post-Scripps?

MT: Future plans are still in the works – stay tuned!

Follow Monica on Twitter @MonicaThukral and Instagram @monthukral. She is also affiliated with Women and Minorities in Science at Scripps (@wmis_sio on Twitter and Instagram), a group dedicated to promoting diversity and equity within the Scripps community and within STEM.

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