Unravelling the mysteries of our immune system to understand how a disease fights back, is a puzzle that our healthcare system is confounded with !

Kasturi Banerjee, our next pathbreaker, work as an immunologist, trying to find an antibody/vaccine against Multi-Drug-Resistant-Bacteria that can work with the patient’s immune system to ward off the infection without side effects.

Kasturi talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy  from The Interview Portal about her masters project on Cholera that helped her make up her mind on Immunology as a career.

For students, our immune system holds the key to many cures. Immunology is a multi-disciplinary career that will push your limits.

Kasturi, tell us about your background?

I grew up in a small village called Ukhra located in the Andal-Asansol coal-field belt. I loved biology from the very first day when science was introduced as a subject in the class. Neither of my parents are from science-background, but my father used to sit next to me and listen when I used to teach biology to my younger sister. You can say my father and my sister were my first biology students. My family inculcated my passion in teaching and understanding biological sciences from a very young age. Growing up in a village taught me a very important lesson “Helping people who are less fortunate than myself, is the true purpose of a humankind.” That is still the reason why I want to help people as much as I can with my strengths. 

I wanted to become a doctor and work in a village hospital, but I didn’t qualify the medical joint entrance exams. At the same time I got the KVPY SX fellowship (only 13 students got it in 2008) and I joined IISER Mohali as a BS-MS student. Before joining IISER-M, I had no idea about the field and impact of the research community. 

After 11 years of scientific training, working as a scientist gives me the trifecta satisfaction of fulfilling my passion, my purpose and helping people simultaneously.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I graduated from IISER Mohali, India in 2013 with BS-MS Dual Degree (Biology Major) and after that I joined University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC), Omaha Nebraska, USA for my PhD. I worked under the guidance of Dr. Maneesh Jain, and in 2018 I graduated with my PhD in “Pancreatic Cancer Immunotherapy” from the Dept. of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, UNMC.

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

As I said, before joining IISER-M I was unaware about pursuing a scientific research career. I applied for the KVPY fellowship exam, because one of my high school classmates Abhishek Banerjee motivated me to try for it. He showed a lot of faith in me and I didn’t want to disappoint him, so I gave the exam with zero expectations. 

I was very surprised that I could clear a competitive exam like KVPY and decided to join IISER-M, after giving the second round of KVPY interview at IISER Pune. From the very beginning, every single moment at IISER-M had been a life-changing experience for me. But if I have to tease out crucial memories that dictated my future career choices, then these will be my top 2 picks:

  • Dr. Lolitika Mandal: Lolitika Ma’am has been and is my continuous inspiration. I was mesmerised by her dedication and passion as a teacher, as a researcher, as a spouse and as a mother. She gave me the drive and faith that I could become successful both as a researcher and also in my personal life.
  • Summer Internships: Every year, I did summer internships in various labs across India and once I went for a workshop in Germany. These experiences opened my mind about the vastness of scientific research done in various labs and also made me feel confident that the training I received from IISER-M made me suitable to work in any scientific labs.

During my PhD training at UNMC, I worked with cancer patients for my biomarker studies. Surprisingly, while staying at Omaha I met a lot of people who had someone in their families affected with pancreatic cancer. Every time they got to know I was doing research on pancreatic cancer therapy, their eyes would light up and they would always show a gratefulness towards me. At that very moment, I truly realized the effect a scientist could have on a community through their work and I continued to pursue my career in translational medicine as an immunologist.

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

Studying at IISER Mohali opened my eyes towards the field of research and I knew that my heart definitely was in the field of immunology. To ensure that’s what I wanted to do my research on, I explored different topics in life sciences like evolutionary biology, protein biology, genetics and biochemistry during my summer internships. My summer internships definitely strengthened my case to pursue research in immunology, but I also did my Masters thesis on cholera to finalize my choice.

I did 2 summer internships at IISER Mohali and did 2 summer internships outside of IISER Mohali. I chose to do summer internships on topics that I got interested in the class. So I decided to see whether the subjects I liked in the class, is the one field I would enjoy doing practical research on. My summer internships topics were proteomics, evolutionary biology (worked with Drosophila melanogaster), bacterial genetics and immunology (T cell biology). The first field I realized that I couldn’t work on is evolutionary biology especially with Drosophila (fruit flies) model systems. I simply didn’t have the patience to work with fruit flies.I enjoyed working on the rest 3 topics, at the same time I realized that all of these fields have a lot of techniques and they are interdisciplinary in nature. My Masters research on Cholera focused on understanding “how the bacteria escapes the patient’s immune system”.  I used molecular biology techniques like PCR, RT-PCR, cloning etc; and immunological assays like immune cell culture and ELISA to answer my research question. This gave me the confidence that even if I get a PhD in biochemistry or molecular biology, I can still work on an immunology project. This is something I really did for my PhD research in cancer immunotherapy and received my degree from the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. Surprisingly, all three of my research projects (Masters, PhD and Postdoc) focused on the same question “How did our immune system get duped by these diseases?”

When I started looking for PhD programs, my focus was on the research that faculty were doing in the department rather than just the name of the program or the university alone. That’s why my PhD is on pancreatic cancer immunotherapy even though my department was Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. Right now my research is focused on finding a cure for multi-drug resistant bacterial infection, which is a nuisance in hospitals, and can be life-threatening for immunocompromised patients. Because our immune system is crucial in keeping us healthy and alive  by fighting against infectious diseases or cancer. So I knew that becoming an immunologist is the smartest choice to make.

My career path is pretty much focused on learning and figuring out strategies on “how I can cure diseases as an immunologist”. 

How did you get your first break? 

I personally don’t think the term “first break” applies to my career trajectory. But I can surely say that if I never joined IISER Mohali, I wouldn’t have become an immunologist.

I would like to thank all PIs and lab members with whom I have gotten the chance to work with and learn a lot. Without them and those experiences I wouldn’t have made some choices that have led to the position I am in today. I am simply grateful.

What were the challenges? How did you address them?

I asked myself, “Should I become a researcher? What will society think?” 

When I joined IISER-M, everyone except my own family had a lot of opinions and judgements on pursuing a research career. There were primarily two comments: 1. “What is IISER (in 2008, nobody knew about IISERs)?” and 2. “What will your future be like?”

I chose not to pay any heed to either of the comments. That was the best way to address that situation. Today, IISERs are well known research institutes in India and I am a proud Alumni. As for my future, I am glad to work as an immunologist with diverse teams, and my research journey is still ongoing.

The next challenge was to work with medical professionals/hospitals? 

There was one thing I was very adamant about during my PhD program search. I wanted to do my research in medical centers and work on projects where I could directly interact with doctors and nurses. It was extremely difficult to get admitted to PhD programs at Medical Centers, because my GRE score was not great for a lot of US Medical Center PhD programs.

I kept on applying and fortunately got admitted at UNMC. While at UNMC, my cancer immunotherapy project allowed me to work with doctors and cancer patients. I again faced the same challenge when I was looking for postdoc labs. Thanks to networking, I got a chance to get interviewed by Dr. Fries at Stony Brook University and get hired in her lab. Today, I work with an amazing team of researchers and doctors of the Infectious Diseases department. Everyday is an amazing learning experience about challenges faced by doctors to treat patients in the hospital.

Becoming more than a researcher?

As an individual, I am very driven to create a name/legacy for myself. Being a researcher gives me one avenue to create my own research and contribute to the medical field. But I also wanted to do something else on my own. I struggled a bit with this idea because I am an immigrant in the USA and I didn’t have enough economical means to invest into something.

During this time, a lot of students from India were reaching out to me with their doubts and fear regarding becoming a scientist. That was the trigger and I started my own podcast “The Journey of A Researcher”, where I share my personal journey as well as bring other researchers as guests who are working in non-academic settings.

Where do you work now? Tell us about your research

I work at Stony Brook University as a Postdoctoral Research Associate.

I am working on finding a cure to treat patients infected with multi-drug resistant bacteria.

My work needs a good understanding of immunology and microbiology, as well as expertise on immunology techniques like ELISA, multi-panel flow cytometry, working with mice models etc. I acquired a lot of these skills and knowledge during my summer internships, Masters thesis, and PhD training. But as we know, that learning never stops in the field of research. So every time, if there is a new skill needs to be learned for my project. I reach out to an expert for those skills and get hands-on training from them.

What is a typical day like?

My typical day starts at 9 am, with planning experiments for the day within the first hour after I enter the lab. I like to do all the planning and thinking in the first hour because it determines how the rest of the day will look like. After I have my plan for the day, I proceed to get things like reagents and equipment ready before starting my work. It is very important as we share equipment in the lab and it’s a general courtesy to book and inform your fellow labmates, so that they can plan their experiments accordingly without creating hindrance in their ongoing work. I usually check and respond to my emails during my lunch break. Mostly I work daily anywhere between 8-10 hours, unless I have a big experiment to run that can go upto 18 hours of work. Fitness is very important for me, so I go to the gym directly from the lab at least 4 times a week. After gym, I come home and play with my cats as well as catch up on current news with my husband. We have a simple rule at home, “no phones after 10pm”. This helps us to rejuvenate our mind and take time out for ourselves after a whole day of work.

What is it you love about this job? 

There are a couple of things I love about this job.

i. Having a supportive PI (Dr. Bettina Fries) and colleagues to work with daily. Also, my job provides flexible work hours that provides a huge mental boost.

ii. The opportunity to interact with patients and work with doctors and nurses directly. 

iii. Learning skills as part of my research as well as courses provided to postdocs at SBU, that I can use anywhere either in academia or in industry.

How does your work benefit society? 

Multi-drug resistant bacteria is a growing nuisance for the medical industry as these bacteria cannot be removed from hospice or nursing homes. Patients with weak immune systems can get infected by these MDR bacteria that can become lethal in some cases. My work as an immunologist is to find an antibody/vaccine against the MDR-bacteria that will work with the patient’s immune system to clear off the infection without causing too many side-effects. Such personalized approaches could help in developing immune memory in vulnerable patients that can subside reinfections by the MDR-bacteria when they are hospitalized.

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

I cannot specifically choose a work because I have enjoyed all the research that I have done in the short span of my career. The memorable part will most definitely be interacting with patients. It is a constant reminder to me about the impact of my work when I see the eagerness of these patients who consent to be part of my research. 

They are as desperate to get a cure, as I am desperate to find a cure for their ailment. Those interactions will always stay very close to my heart.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

My advice to students will be to understand that to become a researcher/scientist, you need to be driven by your altruism. You will need to keep the greater good in mind to be able to navigate through the hardships and motivate you to achieve your dreams.

Remember that research is made up of 90% failure and 10% success. This career makes you pretty strong to think out of the box and learn from your failures. 

There is not one way to do research. You can contribute to this community in both academic and non-academic settings. Develop your soft skills like networking, communications, writing etc., as you will always need them to collaborate and work with diverse groups of people.

Lastly, my suggestion will be to take care of your mental health along with your research. A healthy mind can work through any problem, and start interacting with people outside of your labs, programs and universities. I have enjoyed networking with people who work in different scientific fields like consultancy, program directors, study coordinators etc. These conversations have helped me in developing my soft skills that are as important as our technical skills.

Future Plans?

My future plan is to continue working on my dream to bring therapies from the bench to the bedside. I haven’t decided whether I want to fulfil my dream in an academic or a non-academic setting. This is something only my future will tell. I am excited to see where my journey takes me.

In the meantime, apart from completing my research, I will keep advocating for science and research through my podcast and posting articles on LinkedIn. I am thrilled to bring a diverse array of guests on my podcast and share their stories with my listeners. I have also taken some initiatives to give back to economically challenged communities in India through NGOs, and am looking forward to working with them.