Volunteering keeps Shalini grounded

Shalini Guleria

Master’s student Shalini Guleria says volunteering at the Cancer Society has helped keep her motivated while researching cancer at the University of Waikato.

“I feel like it gives me grounding. I love sitting there listening to people's stories. They tell me about their experiences, so it gives me purpose to do my research.”

Shalini’s just submitted her master’s thesis which focused on creating three-dimensional models of breast cancer tumours using bioprinting — the three-dimensional printing of biological tissue by layering living cells.

“The aim is to build a 3D model with breast cancer cells to see how cells interact and respond to treatment compared to 2D. Most testing is done on 2D models because it's cheap and relatively simple to do. But humans are 3D, so it's not an exact representation.”

When Shalini’s not in the lab, she works as an environmental engineer for the Wallace Group and visits local primary schools with an interactive science show she created. It’s hard to imagine where she finds the time and energy to volunteer with the Cancer Society as well.

“I’m human. There are times when I feel like I can't be bothered, but volunteering keeps me motivated to work towards my goal.”

Although keen to pursue a career in medical science from a young age, Shalini was motivated to specialise in cancer research after a friend at high school was diagnosed with leukemia. When the doctors ran out of options and treatment no longer worked, Shalini knew the only hope for many people diagnosed with cancer would be advances in research.

“My friend passed away one month short of her eighteenth birthday, which was a big shock. Since then I've been obsessed with cancer research. Maybe it's my way of grieving.”

Shalini began volunteering with the Cancer Society one year later, providing help with fundraising events like Relay For Life and Daffodil Day.

“I loved it ever since. I call up and say, ‘can I help?’ Just meeting people and being involved in the events, all the behind the scenes work, and then at the end when it all comes together, it’s a nice feeling to think ‘I made that happen’.

“It allows you to get out of your own head and do something for others. It's so rewarding at the end of the day.”

Although Shalini’s study has come to an end, she isn’t slowing down. In April she heads to Taiwan for three months after being awarded a scholarship from the Asia New Zealand Foundation to work in cancer research at the Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI). Beyond that, further research and a PhD beckon.