Please tell us about yourself

Chetna Gopinath is a fifth year PhD candidate in the Cellular and Molecular Biology Program at the University of Michigan. Born and raised in Bangalore, she moved to the US for a Master’s in Biomedical Science from State University of New York in Albany and subsequently a PhD. Chetna talks of how starting early in her quest for the best places to study shaped her scientific interests and her career path in the US.

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How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and interesting career?

My fascination for biology began in high school. In biology classes, the inner workings of the human body intrigued and inspired me to expand my knowledge in this field. During that time, ‘Biotechnology’ was an upcoming and exciting field, gaining a lot of attention. It offered an array of opportunities and was a perfect blend of biology and technology. So, after 10th grade I opted for biotechnology as an elective subject and later decided to pursue a bachelor of engineering in Biotechnology at Sir M Visvesvaraya Institute of Technology.

At undergrad level, I quickly realised that I enjoyed life science courses such as genetics and molecular biology the most. I wanted to switch paths from engineering to life sciences and eventually work in the biotech industry. So I decided on a Master’s degree in the US since it not just offered great opportunities in the area but also was a hub of many biotech companies. I took the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) and Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) exams in the third year and applied to eight Masters programmes in the US. I chose a two-year Masters programme instead of committing to an intensive PhD programme to get a flavour of biomedical research.

How was your experience studying Master’s and PhD?

At the State University of New York at Albany, where I enrolled for a Master’s in Biomedical Science, a number of funding options are available to students such as teaching assistantships, research assistantships, and tuition waivers. F1 (or student) visa holders are permitted to work on-campus, so students have the option of working in various University jobs such as in the cafeteria or in the library. I reached Albany three weeks before orientation, which helped me settle in and find my bearings. During this time, I set up meetings with several professors and spoke to them about their research and was fortunate to receive a research assistantship to perform my Master’s thesis in Dr. Alain Laederach’s laboratory. I received a monthly stipend, which helped cover both my living expenses and a significant portion of my tuition fees. My Master’s thesis research involved studying changes in the secondary structure of RNA brought about by disease-associated mutations. This experience triggered my interest in studying cellular and molecular mechanisms underlying human diseases.

My experience in the Master’s programme served as a jumping off point for the rest of my career: it helped me solidify my interest in the life sciences, determine the type of research I was interested in, and gave me an academic foundation to build expertise that would be valuable for the rest of my career. In order to gain more research experience, and to further my knowledge of the molecular pathology of human disease, I worked in Dr. Anthony Antonellis’ laboratory in the department of Human Genetics at the University of Michigan as a full-time research associate. Here, I studied the transcriptional regulation of key genes involved in Schwann cell development and peripheral nervous system (PNS) myelination. My research paralleled my Master’s thesis in that I was again investigating molecular mechanisms of genetic diseases, so I could use the skills I learned during my Master’s. Working in the Antonellis laboratory also allowed me to gain new experiences in zebrafish model systems and in the neuroscience field. I chose to attend the University of Michigan for my PhD, where I am currently in the Cellular and Molecular Biology programme at the University of Michigan Medical School.

Most PhD programmes require first-year students to do two to three lab rotations, which are like trial runs that allow students to spend time in different labs before committing to a mentor and a lab for their thesis research, along with taking classes. Lab rotations helped me explore different topics of research. Choosing a thesis lab after your rotations is a tough challenge. Some of the important considerations are the funding situation of the lab, successful publication record, a collaborative lab environment and a supportive mentor. For all these reasons, I decided to go back to Dr. Antonellis’ laboratory for my PhD thesis.

Tell us about your PhD

My PhD thesis involves understanding the molecular mechanisms underlying Schwann cell development. Schwann cells produce the myelin sheath in the PNS. Myelin sheath wraps around the axons to allow rapid communication between the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) and the peripheral tissues. Damage to the peripheral nerve via physical damage, toxicity, diabetes or inherited mutations results in peripheral neuropathy, which is characterized by muscle weakness and sensory loss in the hands and feet. There are currently no treatment options available for these debilitating diseases. However, defining the regulatory pathways underlying Schwann cell biology will help us understand the pathology of peripheral neuropathy and design therapies for peripheral nerve repair. My dissertation focuses on defining regulatory pathways important for Schwann cell myelination by identifying target genes of SOX10, a key transcription factor regulating PNS myelination.

Pursuing a PhD has been an invaluable experience. In addition to the technical skills I learned at the lab bench, I acquired a number of transferable skills that I can take with me into any career I choose. Grad school has been an excellent avenue to learn things like how to give oral presentations, writing grants, management skills from working with undergraduate students, collaborations, and, most valuable, critical thinking and problem solving abilities. I know that whether I choose to stay in academia, or move into the biotech industry, my combined skill set will help me advance into any position.

Did you experience any Culture shock?

I thought I had the American culture all figured out by watching Friends (one of my favorite sitcoms) but I was wrong. I expected every city in the US to be like New York City. Being born and raised in a big city like Bangalore and moving to a small city like Albany, which has less than one-sixth of the population of Bangalore, was a big change. While people were friendly, they tend to live independent lives with little to no intervention from neighbours unless specifically requested. Small talk, be it about sports or weather, is an important aspect of social interaction in the US. The first few months were an adventure and everyday was a new learning experience; from figuring out the public transportation system to the different types of food, to chores as trivial as grocery shopping.

A second wave of culture shock happened during the first day of my biochemistry class. Classroom etiquette took on a whole new meaning; habits frowned upon in India such as eating and drinking coffee/tea during lectures and referring to professors by their first names were the norm rather than the exception. Most undergraduate colleges in India require a minimum of 75% attendance to be able to write the semester exam but here most classes do not have a minimum attendance requirement. The idea behind this is that students should be in class if they truly want to learn and feel that they will gain valuable knowledge from being present, rather than being forced to attend. The concept of ‘open book’ exams was completely alien to me and, contrary to what I initially anticipated, turned out be a lot harder as compared to closed book exams.

I kept an open mind and over time began to blend into the culture. These experiences have taught me a lot about myself and have helped me be the person I am today.

Your advice to PhD aspirants?

  • Having a Master’s degree is not a requirement to apply to PhD programmes.
  • Plan ahead of time: It takes almost a year and a half to prepare for the GRE and TOEFL exams, and to put together your application. GRE scores are valid for five years and TOEFL scores are valid for two years so my advice is to take these tests sooner rather than later.
  • Competitive PhD programmes look for students with undergraduate research experience. My advice would be to gain as much research experience as possible during your semester breaks. Volunteering at non-profit organisations also helps your application.
  • Professors in the US are friendly and helpful, so do not hesitate to contact them with questions.
  • Most universities in the US offer a myriad of research opportunities, which at times can seem overwhelming, so spend some time narrowing down to a few research areas to focus on.