From the tiny island of Mauritius all the way across the world, Ashwarya Devason (C ‘23) has found a home in the ThaissLab, researching the psychological impacts of long COVID and aging in the gut microbiome. After taking an Academically Based Community Service course on Health Education for Incarcerated Women her first year, Ashwarya grew passionate about women’s health, leading her to pursue a triple major in Gender, Sexuality & Women’s Studies along with Biochemistry and Neurobiology. When she’s not working on science’s next breakthrough, she’s organizing the largest national conference for first–generation, low–income students with goals of building community and inspiring future generations.
Name: Ashwarya Devason
Hometown: Riambel, Mauritius
Major: Biochemistry and Neurobiology and submatriculating for a Master’s in Chemistry through the Vagelos Scholars Program in the Molecular Life Sciences (MLS) and Gender, Sexuality & Women’s Studies
What’s it like going to college across the world?
I'm from Mauritius, a tiny island right off the eastern coast of Madagascar. It's really small; we only have 1.2 million people. My hometown is a tiny village in the south—a coastal village. I grew up there, was born and raised, and everyone I know is still back home. Coming to Penn was definitely a big move and a little scary at first. I found out about Penn through one of my friends back home who was applying to colleges at the time. She was a year older than me and taught me a little bit about how to apply and gave me ideas on where to apply. I'm a first–generation, low–income (FGLI) student, so it was really important for me to have financial support, but also to have a good first–gen community wherever I would end up moving. I knew I wanted to go somewhere that had a really good science program, because I'd always been interested in that. That's why Penn stood out. It was nerve–wracking, but doing a [pre–first year] program really helped. I met some friends there and that really helped me get used to Penn, so it wasn't super overwhelming when classes actually started.
What does it mean to you to be a first–generation college student? What do you hope to accomplish by being involved in organizations like iFGLI?
Growing up, I didn't really hear the term “first–gen.” I first learned about it when I was completing my college applications and it was just a box that you had to check: Do you identify as first generation and or lower income? I didn't know what that meant, so I looked it up. Then I was like, “Yeah, that's me.” I am first–generation, because my parents didn't graduate high school. I'm the first person in my family to graduate high school and soon college. Being first–gen for me means going where no one in my family has ever been before and setting an example for future generations. It also means making something out of nothing.
Finding a community at Penn has been really, really helpful. I’m involved in an organization called iFGLI (International First–Gen Low–Income). There's this narrative around international students that all of us are wealthy and super well–connected, but in reality, I've met a lot of first–gen international students like myself at Penn. At first, there was no community for us. Then, through my friend Erica who graduated last year, I became one of the founding members of iFGLI. We have a GroupMe where international students can voice out their questions and opinions. We've also had a bunch of events in the past to create community and to bring awareness to this intersection of identities: being international and first–gen. What I want to accomplish through my involvement in these programs is just finding community and creating spaces for the next generation of first–gen students to feel comfortable and feel welcomed. Also, life is hard enough, so I hope to create a kind, judgment–free space where people can ask questions or navigate life at Penn.
Can you tell us more about your biomedical research?
I'm working on two different projects. The first one is pretty much complete and was a project that I picked up in the middle of the pandemic. We’re looking at the effects that COVID has on metabolites in the blood of patients. When we ran samples from Italy, China, and from our patients here in Philly, we found that serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter and hormone, is very downregulated in patients that have long COVID. This was very interesting, because the same patients were also reporting cognitive deficits or memory loss. The project is understanding why a viral infection such as COVID is causing that decrease in serotonin. Hopefully, we can come up with a solution on how to prevent serotonin from plummeting and that could have clinical applications. We're working on reviewers right now and hopefully publishing by the New Year.
The second project that I'm involved with is really cool. I am studying aging in the gut microbiome. There are like 100 trillion microorganisms in our gut, and they signal to the brain. We're looking at how when you age, the composition of the microbes changes, and how that change in composition can contribute to aging. We're investigating the link between the gut microbiome and aging and whether the gut microbiome could be involved in diseases such as Alzheimer's. It's all part of this new axis of research called the gut brain axis.
Tell us about your interest in Gender, Sexuality, & Women’s studies.
Freshman spring, right before COVID hit, I took an ABCS course called Health Education for Incarcerated Women. In the class, we would go to a correctional facility each week and learn about health education together with the ladies who were unfortunately incarcerated there. We learned a lot about prison systems and how people are navigating health there, especially women. How were reproductive health and other health issues being taught in the prisons? How were they navigating the whole health system there? That got me interested in women's health. I always knew I was interested in health, medicine, and science, but it made me develop a deeper interest in specifically women's health. So I was like, “Okay, this is cool. This is definitely something that I want to explore.”
I took a bunch of other really cool gender studies classes, and I started to fall in love with feminist theory. I found that it is such an interdisciplinary field and you can apply it to any issue. In the world of medicine and health, we need some feminist perspectives, especially given what's going on right now with the attack on reproductive rights. We need feminist scholars, [and] we need people who are well versed in queer theory and who are also interested in health. The Gender Studies Department is so interdisciplinary. It has really diversified my college experience. Coming from someone who thought they were only going to do science at Penn, I've taken so many classes that are non–science, and I've enjoyed them so much. It has really changed my perspective on how an education in liberal arts, humanities, and social sciences is really important to your development as a scientist or as a non–scientist too.
What is like balancing all of your activities, your triple major, and your biomedical research?
Initially, it was really, really difficult to find a balance. When I came to Penn, I joined a bunch of different organizations and I was spreading myself really thin, and it was hard to manage all of those together. Over the years, what has been helpful for me is identifying what I am really passionate about and sticking to a few things that I know for sure I'm going to enjoy. I would say time management is really important. While it can be difficult to turn down some clubs or some opportunities, I always try to prioritize myself and my mental health and know when things are getting too much to deal with. It's been really busy. I’m just trying my best, and I'm still figuring it out.
What are you most passionate about right now?
Right now I’m planning 1vyG 2023. I'm one of the two co–chairs. It is the largest national conference for [FGLI] students and it's going to be hosted at Penn in February. We're going to have around 200 students from other schools come [as well as] administrators, so it's going to be a really big conference. We are working with a nonprofit and we've been fundraising, planning all the workshops that will be held, and reaching out to administrators and students from other schools to gauge capacity and interest. Right now a lot of my energy is going towards planning and getting the word out and making sure that the conference is successful. I'm just really excited about the conference.
What are some of your favorite things to do in your free time?
I have plants, and I really like taking care of them. I love trying out new food spots in Philly. Fall is my favorite season, so I really like going on long walks and listening to podcasts. I am a person who picks up hobbies fairly often. I've just been trying some new things recently, like embroidery. I wouldn't say I have very fixed or constant hobbies, except the gym. That's one thing that I've been sticking with. Other than that, my hobbies change very, very often.
What’s next for you after Penn?
I want to go to medical school, but I am hoping to pursue an M.D. Ph.D., so I still want to continue doing research, especially clinical trial–based research. I'm taking a year off to work, travel, and to do more research. I'm also really passionate about mentoring. I’m hoping to guide more students, especially first–gen students from back home, and maybe do a college access program. When I was applying, I had to look for tiny bits of information everywhere, and it was hard to find all the information that I needed, such as how to fill out financial aid forms or how to build a list of colleges. I want to empower more students to know that even if no one in their family has done it before, it doesn't mean that they can't be the first ones to do it.
Lightning Round Questions:
No–skip song? “Anti-Hero” by Taylor Swift.
Favorite podcast? Crime Junkie.
Favorite movie? Blade Runner—the old one.
Early bird or night owl? Night owl, although I have 8 a.m. classes, so they force me to be an early bird.
Where do you feel most at home at Penn? My apartment. On campus, Penn First Plus.
Favorite food spot near campus? Dim Sum House.
There are two types of people at Penn … The ones that have classes in DRL and the ones that don’t.
And you are? The one that has classes in DRL.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.