Student spotlight: Ashni Arun

Lauren Smith

Jul 6, 2023

Ashni Arun sitting next to her dog and her brother.

Ashni Arun with her dog, Oro, and her brother, Arnav.

Ashni Arun says her dad and brother are her biggest support system. "I am who I am because of my dad. He still pushes me to be the best that I can be. I also have a lot of friends from back home in India who are a part of who I am."

Arun is a master's student in the Biotechnology and Pharmaceutical Engineering (MS-BTPE) program.

"For a lot of international students, being away from home is a struggle," she says. "There are a lot of differences between how I grew up and the culture here. Talking about these differences to my support system helps me."

Arun is part of a close community within the MS-BTPE program. She found it easy to get to know everyone. "My cohort is pretty tight knit. It's really nice, because we all talk to each other and discuss assignments, and we try to hang out, outside our classes, too," she says.

Arun likes the structure of the program and its balance of required and elective courses. A distinguishing feature of the MS-BTPE program is that it admits both engineering and biology students, who work side-by-side in their coursework as they will in industry.

Arun received her undergraduate degree in chemical engineering from Manipal Institute of Technology.

In her first semester, Arun and her classmates with an engineering background were trained in modern biology. In parallel, those with a biology background were trained in introductory chemical engineering principles.

A group of graduate students posed for a photo next to a whiteboard with a project flow chart.

Ashni Arun (middle row, left) with her MS-BTPE cohort on the last day of a biology lab course.

"I found it a challenge, a good challenge, to learn a lot of the biology, especially the lab work. It's not like I had done this before, and we were doing it at the master's level," says Arun. "It was a good challenge, though, because I really liked what I was doing."

She adds, "After the first semester, I think everyone has an equal understanding of all the subjects."

Arun manages the rigor of the program by taking some time off from her work. She likes to sing and also uses cooking and baking as an outlet. "I tend to bake only when I have a lot of assignments to do," she laughs. Arun started the summer visiting family and friends in India and California before returning to Pittsburgh.

A group of 10 young adults poses for a photo on and around a couch.

Ashni Arun (back row, third from left) at home in Chennai, India, with her friends from high school.

This summer, she is continuing research she started last semester in Luisa Hiller's lab. Arun is purifying extracellular vesicles (EVs) from bacteria and growing the bacteria on different media conditions. EVs are organelles found in bacteria. The end goal of the research, which includes other collaborating labs, is to use the EVs as vaccines.

Arun realized the need for a scale up of drug production as she witnessed the need for vaccines during the COVID-19 pandemic. She has always been interested in biology, and worked on drug delivery systems and tissue engineering with one of her undergraduate professors. "Pharmaceutical engineering seemed very apt for me," she says.

Arun comes from a family of engineers, including her dad and her uncle. She is the first chemical engineer. She believes that it's important to increase the number of women in STEM and wants to inspire other women to take up STEM.