The human body has a natural defense system that protects us from infections, viruses/bacteria, and diseases like cancer. This is our first and most effective line of defense. However in some cases, like in Organ Transplants, our immune systems do more harm than they do good !

Sandhya Bansal, our next pathbreaker, Transplantation Immunologist, identifies the biomarkers for Human lung transplant rejection under different clinical conditions to increase the success rate for lung transplants.

Sandhya talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy  from The Interview Portal about Research being a long and never ending walk in which each working group of scientists has the potential to create a  milestone in reaching a specific goal, which can be either developing a drug to fight cancer, or COVID19 or finding a new treatment for people fighting with terminal stage organ failures/diseases.

For students, don’t be discouraged by failures. Instead, take it as an opportunity to do something better. Read on to know more ..

Sandhya, tell us about your background?

I grew up in different cities in different states in India and changed a number of schools due to my father’s posting in different cities. I was an introvert as a kid and loved being at home with my colours. I was a bookworm and books were my hideout. I was more into reading books of all kinds, like story books to study books. My father worked as banker (now retired) and mom is a home maker and she really shaped my interests and hobbies as a kid.

I started reading science fiction from a very young age. Those stories of inventions like how Michael Faraday  discovered the structure of Benzene in his dreams always made me curious about science. I was more inclined to serve the country as a doctor, so my approach was always to be a doctor. But I didn’t get selected in any of the good medical schools across India inspite of my best efforts.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I have Bachelors in Biochemistry from Guru Nanak Khalsa College, Yamuna Nagar associated with Kurukshetra University, Master’s and PhD in Biomedical Sciences from ACBR at University of Delhi.

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?

I lost track and focus in life due to the initial  disappointment of not being selected for medical after my 12th. I was disheartened and enrolled for a  Bachelor’s in Biochemistry based on the suggestion by my father. I was so disoriented that I did not argue about anything and just joined that course at Khalsa College. That was a turning point in my life. My department head Dr. Neera Raghav saw something in me and motivated me to do something good . With her motivation and mentorship, after a couple of months, I really started loving the course and became the star performer of the college and university. That was the time I realized that there were many doors still open and I can be a doctor in a different way. That changed the whole story. The sequence of events happened in such an orchestrated manner that eventually led me to Research and I started loving it. My parents and siblings always motivated me to move ahead irrespective of any failures in life. 

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

This career was never planned as such. After my Bachelors I entered a very prestigious Master’s degree course in Biomedical Sciences at the University of Delhi. During that course we had two training programs as a part of the course which were essential. Allotment to those labs for training were random and I landed up in a lab which was supposed to be the most difficult lab. That lab never used to close as it had researchers working 24×7 in the lab. It was not easy to cope with that kind of pressure along with course work, but after a while I started enjoying that madness and later joined the same lab for my PhD. It was very difficult to work there, but I gained tremendous research experience, strength and patience that is very much needed for a career in research. Now I realize that those experiences are helping me move ahead in life.

Tell us about your scholarships

I received multiple scholarships during my academic career:

  1. Secured 5th Rank in state after my 12th Boards and received a state scholarship after that for continuing my studies.
  2. I attended Biochemistry as my Bachelors specialization and secured first position in biochemistry in Kurukshetra University followed by receiving my college scholarship for rest two years of graduation.
  3. During my Master`s in Biomedical Sciences at University of Delhi I received “Catch them Young Fellowship” by Council of Scientific & Industrial Research.
  4. Qualified for NET/JRF examination for Junior Research Fellowship to pursue my PhD, 2005.
  5. Received a fellowship from “Department of Biotechnology” , Council of Scientific & Industrial Research and  “University of Delhi” to attend and present my research work at Meeting in Norwich, United Kingdom, 2008.
  6. Received direct Senior Research fellowship during 3rd Year of PhD by Council of Scientific & Industrial Research, 2008.
  7. Received Department of Biotechnology- Research Associate Fellowship during postdoctoral fellowship, 2014.
  8. Received travel award from Clinical Trials in Organ Transplant to attend the meeting in Washington DC (2017, 2018).
  9. Received Young Investigator Research Award in American Transplant Congress 2019.

What was your career path after Masters?

I started my first internship in a summer training program for a short research project as a part of my Master’s degree.

I did a 6 months dissertation as a part of my curriculum to complete my Master’s thesis.

My first  internship/summer training was in hard core chemistry and very challenging. It was synthesising a particular molecule through a fifteen step synthesis, which usually takes 2 months (after preparing all raw intermediaries). One needed to learn everything from scratch. Now imagine you has hundred’s of trivial stupid/ intelligent questions when you start, which can easily irritate an experienced person. So that phase was very difficult. One has to go through a lot of insults and humiliation during learning and I was not an exception. Eventually everything pays off. I failed to synthesise that molecule after two months and hence opted to continue till I synthesised that molecule even after my training was over. I kept going to the lab after my semester classes. I got to know that I would be the one doing experiments when the molecule would be synthesised and will get to learn molecular biology and other techniques. So I continued my 6 months training during my fourth semester in the same lab. During those six months I learnt many techniques in molecular biology which was not very easy to learn. During my Master’s I qualified for NET (National Eligibility Test) to  continue Lectureship/PhD. I opted to continue my PhD in the same lab, working on same project which I did for 6 months and this is how I started my research Career. It was not easy at first, like any other work, but slowly I developed interest with time and research turned into a passion. During my PhD I worked on a series of molecules called “Benzimidazoles” which were synthesised in our lab. I investigated the mechanism of action of those molecules in developing antibacterial drugs via DNA Topoisomerases. 

I continued my first job/postdoctoral fellowship at UNESCO-Regional Center for Biotechnology, Faridabad and as a part of my research, I investigated the mechanism of a few new molecules as potential drug candidates against cancer and different kinds of infections.

Another fellowship, which was my first job in United States of America, was  offered to me due to my experience in drug discovery. I did a study of the mechanisms of some new molecules for developing anticancer drugs for a short while there at UIUC (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign).

My current position as a postdoctoral fellow is different and interesting as it is in Transplantation Immunology which is a very specific and challenging field. This translational science area has broadened my horizon, interacting with highly skilled doctors and medical consultants.

How did you get your first break?

Finding a position in the USA was a real challenge as I had no references and contacts there to help me out. But my persistence helped me and I just kept applying until I had an offer with me. Then I made contacts with friends and peers in the USA and my next move was comparatively less challenging.

What were the challenges? How did you address them?

  • Challenge 1: 

Most of the times we get stuck, like I always wanted to be a doctor in the first place. Unfortunately, if things don’t work in our favour we feel that life is over. But real life starts from there, our initial failures. So take it as a challenge and don’t get discouraged if you didn’t get what you wanted. It can be a stroke of luck which can lead you to a better position. Keep looking for other options, you may not like them initially but eventually it will work out for your good.

I want to reflect on the one most important thing I experienced. The most challenging and difficult times of our life, which we hate the most, are the times which really shape us and are the most memorable times of life. 

  • Challenge 2: 

When something goes wrong, be persistent. Don’t lose heart and keep going for it, that is the key. Rejection is a part of life. It will always happen at every point in life. Persistence is the key. 

  • Challenge 3: 

Nothing is perfect ! You have to make it perfect for your needs and find happiness in what you have and what you do. There is no limit to your potential, if you can think about something you can achieve it.

Where do you work now? Tell us about your research

I work as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in St Joseph`s Hospital and Medical Center, Phoenix Arizona with a lung transplant group.

Organ Transplant  is a terminal stage treatment for any organ failure. Human Kidney and heart transplants are one of the most common transplants around the globe, with 10-15 years of life with transplanted organs provided there are very few or no medical complications i.e infections or other related clinical conditions. But human lung transplants have a relatively short survival of  5 years or even lesser. (unfortunately, as far as i know, we don’t do Lung Transplants In India). 

My current research projects are  focused on:

  1. Respiratory viral infections in Human lung transplant rejection.
  2. Identifying the biomarkers for Human lung transplant rejection under different clinical conditions to increase the success rate for lung transplants.

What skills are needed for job? How did you acquire the skills?

Research is a learning process at any given point of time. I was naive and ignorant when I started, like any fresher, but later acquired the skills through practice, reading literature, with the help of my seniors and mentors, as well as going to workshops, meetings and connecting to skilled people in that area. All the skills I acquired during the course of research help me carry out my current job. I still  don’t know many things which I keep learning from experienced people and my mentors.

What is a typical day like?

Over the weekend, I like to plan my experiments and prepare a list for the upcoming week. I prefer to start my work in the morning before 9:00 am and try to finish by 6:00 pm. Depending on the experiments, literature survey, protocol management and recording observations / results, it can take earlier or later than 6:00. Everything depends on that day’s work. But I try to keep up with my hobbies along with my work which I believe is important for a good work life balance. 

Along with research I like to do small creative projects like different kinds of paintings, experimenting with new recipes for cooking, practicing different types of meditations and many more activities in my day to day life to keep myself active and creative.

What is it you love about this job? 

The  most beautiful thing about research is that there is something new every day which invokes a childlike curiosity in you. I always have something new to learn, read and perform along with developing new ways to do trivial things, and multiple ways to analyze the same observations. Still I encounter experimental failures which keep me up all night to find out the how and why. That is the reason scientists are called a crazy bunch of people and I am happy to hear that because I can feel that adrenaline rush inside me, which makes me happy and alive from inside. The feeling that I am doing something good for mankind gives me satisfaction and this is my motivation for life. 

How does your work benefit the society? 

Research is a long and never ending walk in which each working group of scientists has the potential to create a  milestone in reaching a specific goal, which can be either developing a drug to fight cancer , COVID19 or finding a new treatment for people fighting with terminal stage organ failures/diseases. My work helps in understanding the impact of  research and its translational impact to mankind. 

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

During my PhD, i once I presented my work at a meeting in the UK where a lot of people appreciated my work. It was my first meeting outside India, so it was a new experience for me. A week after that meeting, my Ph.D PI received an email from a scientist in which she mentioned meeting me (your wonderful student) and talking to me about my excellent work which was really a moment for me and made me feel that I am really doing something good as a young scientist.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Never lose heart if you don`t get what you want, be persistent in your efforts and just keep going.

Future Plans?

I aim to fight the problem of infectious disease in our country. My goal is to find more options to cure these diseases and understand their mechanisms through research. I would also like to join the battle of  spreading awareness towards disease prevention and control.