A dive trip to Bali six years ago propelled PhD student Shaktheeshwari to further her studies in biological sciences, embarking on a journey that she hopes would allow her to push the boundaries of science, and potentially make discoveries that may help animals and the environment.
“I was diving with manta rays when one swam towards my face. Something in me clicked, (and I knew) that I needed to dedicate my life to animals and nature, living things that can’t speak for themselves. I wanted my science to do something for them,” says Shakthee, who is currently studying the gut microbiome of black soldier flies for her thesis at the National University of Singapore, as part of her research focus on microbial ecology with the university’s Reproduction Evolution Lab.
“I’m using black soldier flies to valorise organic waste from the edible oil industry. How can we use that waste to produce something valuable? I’m actually studying the flies’ gut bacteria to see how they adapt to different diets and how they function, so that we can optimise their performance. How are they able to degrade all these different kinds of matter?” she explains.
Shakthee’s interest in black soldier flies arose when she was a research assistant at agribusiness group Wilmar International, studying the gut bacteria of wild boars to see how she could come up with probiotics for piglets to help them wean off their parents better, and reduce their mortality rate. At the same time, her pet dog Luffy needed an alternative source of proteins.
“My dog is allergic to most proteins, so the vet has always told me to find exotic proteins. Then, I came across this company in New Zealand that had created dog food with black soldier flies. So that was when I realised I could use my education to make a difference and be of value to society,” she says.
Before joining Wilmar, Shakthee was doing research on epigenetics at A*Star, which she joined after getting her life sciences degree with honours from University of Technology Sydney. Her life journey hasn’t been easy though – her teenage years were tumultuous.
The youngest and only girl in a family of five almost didn’t complete her O levels. She hung out with the wrong crowd, was molested, and nearly raped. During her first year in Australia, she stayed with a close relative, and was subjected to verbal and emotional abuse.
Despite all this, Shakthee powered through her struggles to get to where she is today. Failure is not an option, she says, as she knows that she can fight through any hardship. Being able to hold her own ground also helps when working in a male-dominated sector.
“Growing up with two brothers, I always saw myself as having equal rights. So even now, during tough times, I would stand my ground and have my say. All of my life lessons and experiences made me who I am today. I am my own role model. I can do anything that I put my mind to because I have that potential and power within me,” she contemplates.
Away from the lab, the nature lover cycles, gardens, dances, and goes on mini outdoor adventures with
her eight-year-old dog. Shakthee also keeps busy with community initiatives like educating the elderly about the importance of going green, and is working on plans to organise a farmers’ market here, similar to the ones she had been to Down Under.
But for now, Shakthee just wants to live every day better than the one before. She also encourages other women to be their own cheerleader.
“Don’t let the actions of others determine your personal worth and define you. There is only one you in this entire world, and that makes you priceless. Don’t look to others to come and save you. I always tell myself, I’m the wisest and strongest person for me – that gives me courage and makes me feel like I’m not alone.”