University of Miami and IDSC Fellow (2019-2020) Alumna Chitra Banarjee reflects on her academic career at UM with gratitude for faculty support and numerous opportunities at the “U”. For Chitra “Chippy” Banarjee, pursuing a career in the medical sciences was always the big dream, and for the Miami native there was never a doubt about which local university she had in mind.
“The University of Miami was an easy choice because I wanted to attend a college with a strong pre-medical program that also allowed me to remain near my family,” said Banarjee. The University of Miami alumna graduated in with a dual major in biochemistry and mathematics. “From the beginning, I knew that I wanted to pursue a Ph.D., so I did my very best to do everything under the sun here at UM to help me prepare for that endeavor in my life,” she said. And prepare, she did.
Her efforts to seek out as much practical experience as possible, across a range of topics, came easy for Banarjee due to the many resources offered at the University. For example, she gained valuable undergraduate research experience via UConnect and participated in research opportunities that allowed her to begin working with established faculty members early and often—gaining experience and mentorship along the way.
The recent graduate also took advantage of other opportunities to figure out which areas truly ignited her passion. In addition to joining Phi Delta Epsilon, the co-ed fraternity for pre-medical students, Banarjee was also chosen as an IDSC Fellow for the 2019-2020 session. These investments in developing her skillset, while simultaneously fine-tuning her interests, proved fruitful. It was through this search that Banarjee first realized her passion for working with children with disabilities.
“During a UM Alternative Break in Texas, I worked at a camp for children with disabilities. I fell in love with the kids and the experience made me realize that I wanted to be an advocate for patients,” said Banarjee. “I went back the following spring break as a camp leader.
As a woman of color entering STEM, Banarjee knew that she might encounter some challenges unique to her identity. Though she acknowledged that not all STEM fields are equally inviting, she still recalled how the University provided an inclusive environment that she found reassuring. “I underestimated how comfortable I would be,” recalled Banarjee. “I had mentors like Drs. Daniel Messinger and Lynn Perry in the psychology department, who were both strong supporters during my time here, and I always felt welcomed at the University.”
Judging from her academic output, the U’s welcoming environment provided her with ample room to thrive. She published biochemistry research in 2020 and presented a poster on autism in children at an academic conference. Her undergraduate research culminated in the publishing of a research paper in Nature, the world’s leading interdisciplinary science journal.
Her study, which sits at the nexus of psychology and physics, is quite unique. It utilizes state-of-the-art wearable technology to investigate how children with developmental disabilities and typical development are predisposed to seek out the company of peers like themselves as playmates. “The work was the first objective measurement of social approach in a naturalistic setting,” Banarjee said. “We used non-invasive vests that recorded information on the children’s position and orientation every tenth of a second.”
By analyzing the data gathered on how quickly children gravitated towards children like themselves and how long they remained engaged in social contact, Banarjee was able to determine the presence of homophily, or the tendency for people to seek out the company of individuals or groups who are like themselves. Her study is entitled, “Objective quantification of homophily in children with and without disabilities in naturalistic contexts.” Banarjee is now on her way to earning her M.D./Ph.D. degree at the University of Central Florida, and she will soon choose her specialization within biomedical sciences.