Celebrating the graduates of Spring 2021: Bhavana Kanagala

Meet Bhavana Kanagala, graduate of the class of Spring 2021 and ISSS president.

Katie Willis - 21 June 2021

From digital flashcards and life in HUB to a research lab in Germany and leadership in student government, it’s safe to say that Bhavana Kanagala has made the very most of her time as a student. 

Originally from Calgary, the outgoing president of the Interdepartmental Science Students' Society (ISSS) came to the University of Alberta knowing exactly what she wanted to study: human biology. “In high school I was fascinated by human biology,” said Kanagala. “It felt so much more relatable and intriguing to me to learn about, for example, what happens in your brain when you don't eat enough carbohydrates, than to learn about plants and their chlorophyll.”

And so, upon arriving at the U of A in 2017, Kanagala enrolled in the honors physiology program offered through the Faculty of Science. This rigorous, research-intensive program involves a capstone project and honors thesis in the final year—one that Kanagala couldn’t wait to get started on. But first she needed to learn how to learn, she explained. 

“In high school, I did well academically, but I didn’t do so hot in my first year of university,” said Kanagala with a laugh. “It was because I was following the study habits I had learned in high school, which were much more passive—but that doesn’t cut it in post-secondary. I needed to learn how to be an active participant in my education.” 

But how exactly does one relearn learning? The first step for Kanagala was to simplify. “I ditched the highlighters and the coloured pens, and focused on great note taking, condensing those notes, and reviewing them using flashcards. I developed a process that is foolproof for me to really absorb all the information.

“I am also grateful to have made connections with fellow students and faculty in my department. I can name two or three professors that I am close to now. I am really glad I chose this area of study,” she added.

The university experience

In her second year, having honed her studying practices, Kanagala was ready to take the plunge, immersing herself in student life by moving into residence in HUB Mall. Living in apartment-style housing with roommates kept her feeling connected while being located right in the middle of campus kept her in close proximity to her classes, favourite study spots, and research labs. I volunteered in a couple of labs throughout my degree to get my feet wet in the field of research to get ready for my fourth-year thesis project,” Kanagala explained. “I wanted to know my way around a lab before I started the project.” 

And it was this volunteer experience that took Kanagala to her first paid position in a laboratory in an unexpected location: Germany. 

Funded by a scholarship through the U of A’s Go Abroad office and a research stipend from the Technische Universitat Dresden, Kanagala spent the summer months learning her way around the lab, a new city, and western Europe. 

“For three months, I worked in a lab in Germany. I lived in a beautiful apartment that was a five-minute walk from the university. I think this was my favourite part of my post-secondary career so far. There have been many highlights, but working and then traveling in Europe was incredible,” she said. 

“I would really recommend looking for some kind of experience outside of Canada during your undergraduate degree. It sounds cliche, but this kind of experience really helps to build your confidence as a person. It’s really true. It was really remarkable to live and work in a different country, to see how a lab works somewhere else in the world, and experiencing a new culture.” 

Moreover, her experience working full-time in a lab helped Kanagala land a research advisor.

“Having this experience was also really helpful,” she explained. “Because I had this research experience, I was able to take a research course with a well-known professor at the U of A who I consider my mentor to this day. I was able to have this opportunity because of the research experience with fruit flies that I gained while working in Germany.” 

Get involved

Arriving back in Edmonton, Kanagala realized she wanted to help her fellow undergraduate students to take advantage of the opportunities and experiences that had meant so much to her throughout her first two years. It was then that she got involved with ISSS, the undergraduate students’ association in the Faculty of Science. 

After volunteering to help adjudicate scholarships offered by ISSS in her second year, Kanagala volunteered as a director of professional development before setting her sights on a leadership position in hopes of effecting change. “In summer 2020, I applied for the interim president position. And in the fall, I ran for President of ISSS and won,” said Kanagala. 

COVID-19 pandemic notwithstanding, Kanagala and her team have revamped the mandate and services offered by ISSS—from offering virtual events during the pandemic to increasing the number of scholarships available to the student body to student advocacy.

“Everybody goes to university for academics. Getting involved the way I was able to was very special to me. I was able to get involved with causes that are very personal to me, such as educating newcomer youth in Edmonton and fundraising for building better schools in rural Latin America.”

“I think my team has transformed ISSS in terms of visibility,” she said. “I also began some academic advocacy work, which was particularly important this year with remote learning. It has been a remarkable year—the pandemic, the U of A for Tomorrow restructuring, and more. I participated in a town hall for all undergraduate students with Dean Matina Kalcounis-Rueppell and that was a really special moment for me.” 

For Kanagala, getting involved in extracurricular activities, clubs, student groups, and study abroad are what made her university experience special. When asked what advice she would give to her fellow students, she urged them to get involved—whether it is volunteering in psychology research labs, participating in the Bhakti Club, or going abroad. 

“Everybody goes to university for academics. Getting involved the way I was able to was very special to me. I was able to get involved with causes that are very personal to me, such as educating newcomer youth in Edmonton and fundraising for building better schools in rural Latin America.”

Life after university

What’s next after such a dynamic four years? The options are both exciting and nerve wracking. For now, Kanagala is keeping her options open and considering everything from a gap year to graduate school to working in a lab.

“I don’t know which option is the right one, but I have thrown my hat into the ring for a few different things to try. But if I do end up going to graduate school, I have my eyes set on the graduate students association. I want to continue my advocacy work. I’m really glad I came to the U of A. I love my degree and all that I’ve learned so far. I love that I came here.” 

Congratulations to all the graduates of the class of Spring 2021. Learn more, and celebrate with our graduates on June 25, 2021.