Please tell us about yourself
Rakhshita graduated from Mumbai University with her B.Sc in biochemistry & microbiology before attending Georgetown University for her Masters in biochemistry & molecular biology. She then worked at Eduman Global Advisors as a consultant and then at Mass Bio as the Senior Director of Innovation Services. Since this interview was conducted, Rakhshita has begun working in the Business Development and Innovation Partnering departments at Roche.
1. In layperson’s terms, explain what you do.
At Mass Bio, I connect different people within the industry. We connect everyone in the industry from small biotech companies to large biotech companies to the venture capital world to alternate sources of funding to research institutions. Everyone has a place within the ecosystem that is required by the other players to make this industry move forwards. They are all needed for creating new drugs, creating new technologies, commercializing them. We know all the different people in that space and we speak all their different languages. My job is to connect the right people so that they can move their work forwards.
2. Why did you choose to become a scientist? How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and interesting career?
I was always fascinated by the sciences. I can’t think of a time where I was interested in chemistry and biology (but not physics!). Growing up in India, my parents thought that I was going to be a doctor, and so did I. I went down the path of getting my medical degree, and even applied to and got into medical school. I changed my mind the summer between graduating from university and going to medical school. I wanted to study genetics and molecular biology, and I had since high school. I realized that if that was what I really wanted, a medical degree is great but it wasn’t the most direct path to that. I ended up going for the biochemical route instead, and haven’t looked back.
3. What is your favorite aspect of your job?
I love 2 things about my job. One is meeting new people every day. The second is learning about new technologies, new ideas and groundbreaking science all the time. Combining the two, I love when people are passionate about what they are working on, and you can see that. That drives me as well.
4. What is the most challenging aspect of your job?
Science itself, as interesting as it is, is quite challenging. We all want the science to succeed but the reality is, that 97 percent of the time things fail. That can get a bit disheartening, and sometimes it gets hard to keep moving forwards. Seeing things you really hoped would work, failing is hard to deal with. In a broad sense, this is why science is so challenging, but it is also the reason that it is so exciting.
5. What does being a molecular biologist and geneticist mean to you?
To me, being a molecular biologist and geneticist means doing the science. I am not sure if I can call myself molecular biologist and geneticist anymore. That said, I still think my science degree has been important in my career. I am able to use my knowledge of the science, and my access to the business side of things to translate. I can help scientists translate their ideas and research into viable business opportunities.
6. What roadblocks have you faced on your path to where you are today?
It is always hard breaking into something new. It doesn’t matter where you’re from or who you are. Being a young person the roadblocks I have faced have mostly been convincing people that even though I’m young I can be really hard working and get the results they are looking for. Convincing people invest time and money in them to train them is something that all young people going into an industry face. Along with those roadblocks, I think I’ve had the most amazing mentors that could ever ask for. Having mentors, and people who vouch for you, and have your back no matter what, makes those roadblocks seem like fun challenges to get over.
7. What has been your greatest achievement in your career?
I have been at Mass Bio for over 6 years now. The achievement that I am very proud of is the department that I built. When I joined, we didn’t have Innovation Services as a group. My former boss and created Innovation services. We built a mentoring service for new biotech startups. We look at new ideas and technologies coming out of universities and help form companies. With us, they have raised funds, created partnerships, and launched products. This might not have been possible without the network and mentors we gave these companies access to. We also created a partnering program so biotech companies could find smaller companies to create partnership deals. I am so proud of these programs that I created. I think now, because of these programs I created and all the hard work my coworkers and I put into them, we have created a launch pad for ideas and companies that wouldn’t have otherwise existed.
8. What do you believe is the most important thing for girls to know before pursuing STEM?
I was looking back on some of the things I have done in the past. At the time, I never thought about things too too much. I would say don’t think about things. If you are interested just go do it. The more people think about things, and ask themselves questions like “is this for me?” or “is this too hard for me” they put themselves into a gray area of “maybe I can’t do this”. You can’t let yourself psyche yourself out. If you want to do it, and you think that it is interesting, nothing can stop you.
9. How do you think your field will change in 10 years?
There is a whole new wave coming through the industry with a bunch of changes/ I think the biggest one is communication with patients. So, the way that the pharma and the biotech industries are set up is probably very different from other corporations or businesses. In most other businesses, you are selling directly to the customer. That is not the case in pharma or biotech. In those industries, you’re selling to a 3rd party but you are advertising to your consumer, who don’t have the power to buy prescription drugs. You are selling to a very fragmented consumer population, and communication gets lost in the mix. When it comes to asking who is to blame for people not being able to afford their medication and why science and drugs cost so much, that communication has been completely lost. Over the next decade, the industry needs to start getting better at communicating with the consumers of these drugs, even though they are not the ones who are directly buying their drugs.
10. What problem would you like to see solved by STEM in the next 10 years?
Essentially, I would like completely debilitating diseases to be cured by STEM. I also know that STEM is a bunch of different things, not just the science part I’m talking about. There are engineering and maths as well. Maybe there is a way to combine what we know about genetics with coding and essentially create an Internet of the body. Another thing that I would be really interested in is seeing how far this brain-machine learning interface will go. That could create humanoid robots which is pretty cool.
11. What motivates you?
In one word, curiosity. Curiosity about the world, about science, about what we can uncover every day. Curiosity about how I can help someone else who is very curiously working towards something or finding out about something. I want to be there to make that happen. I mean, wouldn’t it be a shame if we all just sat there and did nothing? That would be a dull world.
12. How do you define success?
There are so many ways to define success. If you got into great school, or have a great job or a doing great things and are achieving all your targets. If you’re in my field, making a drug that has the potential to cure people. One of the most important metrics of success is essentially failure! I think it is important to fail often and to fail hard, but to learn from those failures. I think we learn so much more from failed experiments, ideas, promises or experiences than natural successes. Most of the time success, at least in my field, is a fluke! If you aren’t failing you aren’t learning.
13. What one discovery in science do you most admire and why?
Lately, I’ve been obsessed with CRISPR. I think that piece of science and the development of gene therapy is really cool. As a molecular biologist, anything to do with genes and new technology in that space is incredible.
14. What one book do you recommend everyone read, and why?
Lord Of The Rings. Seriously it is one of the best books. You can actually learn a lot from it about life, perseverance and dropping rings in the fires of Mount Doom!
15. What is the best piece of advice you have received?
Always strive to keep learning. The day you feel you can’t learn anymore, or that you’ve stopped learning in an environment is the day to blow everything up and try something new. Why? Because you can never stop learning, and when you’ve stopped learning, you’ve completely stagnated, and that’s not a good place to be. Always strive to be learning
16. If you were not pursuing molecular biology, what would you be doing?
Traveling the world as a backpacker!
17. If you could invent anything or make any discovery, what would it be and why?
I would want to learn how to Apparate. It would just be so easy! (Apparating is a form of teleportation from Harry Potter)
18. If you could go back in time what advice would you give your high school self?
You’re doing ok, don’t worry so much! There is another quote about that, “worrying is essentially failing twice”, so there is no need to worry.
19. What would you say are the top three skills needed to be a successful scientist?
- A curious mind
- Coachability and openness to other ideas
20. How would you say your gender has impacted your experience as a scientist?
There are times when it feels that my gender has put me at a disadvantage. There are also certain advantages that come with it as well. It is not fair to say that being a woman in STEM is bad. The less you focus on your gender, the more you can focus on what your actual content is, and what you bring to the table, and the more people see it that way as well. In that, I don’t mean your appearance, as in dressing in a not feminine way or not talking in a feminine way, I mean that when people bring up their gender as a card in a conversation, it tends to hurt more than helping them. It is something to keep in mind.
Sometimes I feel like I have been as given as many opportunities as a young male might have Other times, I feel like I’ve gotten a lot more opportunities to interact with people. It is hard to say as there are a lot more variables in the situation than just my gender. I’m female, I’m, young but I’m also very energetic and outgoing. You can’t tell which variables have been in place specifically. I will say that I have always had good mentors, both men, and women, and it is important to surround yourself with people like those who will really sponsor your career to move forwards.