Graduate student Lokesh in the lab preparing research equipment.
Friday, April 24, 2020

Waterloo student earns first digitally-defended PhD at School of Pharmacy

Lokesh in the lab preparing a piece of research equipment

Lokesh Narsineni is the first graduate student to defend his PhD after the School of Pharmacy switched to online delivery

It was mid-March when Narsineni first heard that the University of Waterloo was transitioning courses online to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 on campus.

“I was so anxious and nervous,” he says. “Of course, I understood the necessity, but my PhD defense was scheduled for April 9. I had committee members across UWaterloo and at the University of Montreal. I wondered what was going to happen.”

A PhD defense is a rigorous academic milestone that candidates must complete to earn their degree. Students give a presentation on their research and are quizzed by their assigned committee, a panel of experts who are tasked with assessing the research.

Narsineni’s committee included six people from various University of Waterloo departments, University Health Network and at the University of Montreal.

“With an in-person defense, you don’t have many technical concerns. With an online one, I was now worrying about my own internet connection, webcam, mic, as well as the technical set-ups of all my committee members,” Narsineni says.

His initial panic subsided when the staff at the School of Pharmacy, Faculty of Science and Science Computing Office were quick to provide support and answer questions. Through ample testing, the team ensured that Narsineni was able to digitally conduct his defense on April 9.

“It went off without a hitch,” he explains. “I presented my slides over WebEx and my whole committee was online asking questions. We had a good discussion. Now I have to make a final round of edits and then I’ll be done.”

Narsineni is a researcher in the lab of Marianna Foldvari, a professor and world leader in drug-delivery systems research. His PhD research involved developing a non-viral gene delivery system for glaucoma treatment. With collaborators, he built a gemini nanoplex system that transports therapeutic genes to retinal cells at the back of the eye, slowing the progression of the disease.

a 3D retinal neurosphere

An image of 3D retinal neurosphere developed  by Lokesh and team

It’s been a long journey for Narsineni who started as a PhD student at the School of Pharmacy in 2014 after completing a Master of Pharmacy degree in India. His successful defense in these challenging times is a bittersweet end to this chapter of his life, and soon he will be starting a post-doctoral fellow position at a renowned research lab at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

He reflected on the people he’ll miss from the School, from the friendly custodian Larry who he chatted with during his many late nights at the lab, to the faculty members who provided insights and guidance throughout his research.

I’m so grateful not just to the staff and faculty who supported me though this last milestone, but to everyone at the School of Pharmacy for their support of the years. It has been such a positive experience, and I couldn’t have done it without my supervisor, Professor Marianna Foldvari, and the many other people at the School.

Lokesh Narsineni 

For grad students with upcoming defense dates, Narsineni wanted to share some advice for navigating the process in the days of online education.

Practice, practice, practice

“My supervisor, Professor Foldvari, listened to me rehearse my presentation in the days leading up to the defense. She gave me tips on each slide. With her permission I recorded our practice session and played it over and over. When I did the actual presentation, I heard her tips in my head and was able to incorporate feedback and present well.”

Test your setup

“I worked with IT at the School of Pharmacy and the Science Computing Office to test my set up and ensure all my committee members were also up and running on WebEx and able to participate. Doing all that testing beforehand helped minimize stress the day of.”

Prepare backups

“I also had a backup microphone, headphones and other equipment in case anything failed the day of. Steve Bradley at the School of Pharmacy was very helpful in supplying me with these tools for the day.”