Clinical Trials mark the end of a long and laborious Drug Development Process, either resulting in loss of millions of dollars/rupees (a failed trial) or a cure for millions of lives (a successful trial). Either way, the impact is enormous, both for the company and for the world !
Abha Chalpe Ghosh (PhD), our next pathbreaker, works on statistical models that aim to predict the outcome of clinical trials, so trials can be redesigned to improve their success rate, which is imperative to help the patients needing new life saving drugs.
Abha talks to the Shyam Krishnamurthy from Interview Portal about the opportunity to leverage her biological research background in analyzing the statistical significance of the results and align those numbers with biological parameters.
For students, as our world grapples with new diseases and viruses, we need scalable, accurate and time bound data driven models that can steer clinical trials to deliver drugs that are safe and specific to the target population.
Abha, tell us about Your background?
Hello all, my name is Abha and I am from Nagpur, India. I am the older of the two sisters and the naughty one as well! I went to a missionary school and absolutely cherish the values imbibed in me there. My dad was a law administrator by profession but he very well could have been a military man! The discipline at our home was of the strictest standards and often ridiculed by relatives and friends. However, I see its value now and am grateful to my dad for it! My mom is a social worker and a homemaker. She not only taught us sisters all the domestic chores but also to become strong women and always fend for ourselves!
I enjoy reading books, mostly autobiographies and short stories. But traveling is my first love! Meeting people of all temperaments and cultures is what I enjoy most on my travels! I aspire to see most of the world during my stay on earth!
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
I have always been interested in Biology and that’s what I chose for my graduate and postgraduate studies. I Initially wanted to become a brain surgeon but life had different plans for me. While finishing my post graduation in Biotechnology I realised my keen interest in research and appeared for the GRE/TOEFL exams. These exams are required to qualify for studying in the USA. I earned admission in 3 reputed Universities in the US and chose to pursue my doctoral studies at the University of South Dakota. I absolutely loved being in the little college town of Vermillion as it was completely different from Nagpur and yet felt like home. The people were very welcoming and my teachers were the best one could learn from. I got another masters degree there and followed it up with a PhD in reproductive endocrinology. I specifically studied endometriosis which is a female reproductive disease and affects 10% of women worldwide. After finishing my PhD I earned a postdoctoral fellowship at Northwestern University and studied the regulation of ovaries.My biggest learning from my time in school is that everything is achievable with one’s own brain, so trust your instincts and choose what’s right for you instead of following the crowd!
What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?
My dad is the biggest influencer in my life! His sense of discipline, determination, go-getter attitude, persuasive communication skills and fluid public speaking are the things that helped me get ahead in my career! Just like dad I have been blessed with amazing teachers who have also served as mentors in my life!
My PhD advisor was born and raised on a farm in Oklahoma and her resilience due to that was endearing! She was not only full of great scientific ideas but she also taught valuable life lessons to me. Despite being rich she preferred to take care of chores herself. Being a fierce scientist never got in the way of her humility and she treated everyone with utmost respect! She was just as strict as my dad and we got along very well. She thoroughly supported my decision of transitioning into the pharmaceutical industry after my postdoc even though she would have preferred me to be a professor like her.
Science has always been the driver for me and research is the tool that allows me to pursue Science in its most authentic form. Being in the laboratory and conducting experiments gives me immense joy and that’s how I chose this career! Designing experiments is ultimately like designing your life and sometimes the experiments work (happiness) and sometimes the experiments fail (life lessons). My PhD gave me the power to always look at life from all angles and never judge without having considered all the parameters.
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
After finishing my postdoctoral fellowship I transitioned into the Biotech industry. My first job was that of a research scientist at Lupin Biotech in Pune, India. My job responsibilities involved designing and conducting experiments to test the medicines being developed by the company. I primarily worked with human cells and interpreted the results using statistical softwares. Since this was my first job I constantly networked with people in the company to understand their roles and responsibilities. While doing so I discovered my love towards being a science writer and communicator as well management related activities. I learned many tips and tricks to maneuver my way into the corporate world and hence this job will always be special to me. You can read more about my learnings from Lupin here –
Fusing my passion of marketing and science took me to my next job which was at Enzene biosciences still in Pune. As a principal scientist at Enzene I managed a bigger team than Lupin and spent more time grooming the team for technical procedures. The head of our company asked me to organise a branding event for Enzene at a conference as well as present a poster to promote the scientific achievements of Enzene. You can read about my fabulous experience at the conference here –
I learned immensely at Enzene and strengthened my portfolio by adding branding ambassador to the things I could do well!
Like they say God is busy executing when you are planning your life! And that’s exactly what happened to me! I wanted to stay at Enzene for a long time but I got married and moved to Bhopal as that’s where my husband worked and lived. It was difficult to find a job in Bhopal as there are hardly any Biotech industries there. While networking for jobs on Linkedin I was approached by the founder of the Cheeky Scientist Association (CSA) who was looking for a marketing and communications manager for his company. I had been a member of CSA for a couple years now and had even attended their conference in Boston back in 2016. I was hired and thus began a new journey of working virtually for a US based company. The role was completely different from anything I had done before! I was helping PhDs transition from academia to industry. Making videos, writing relevant content and making social media posts was what I did all day and absolutely loved it! I did miss being in the lab but this was the best option available considering I was in Bhopal! This went on for a year and I was getting used to working from home and networking all day! My daughter was born at the same time and while I continue to work I understood that I needed to move into a more permanent position for a secure future.
I began searching for a job to move back to Pune .
How did you get your first break?
A visa situation brought me back to India (from the US) and I started looking for jobs in the biotech/Pharma industry here. Since I had never worked outside academia as well as in India, I had little idea as to what position would suit me best! I kept updating my resume on job sites and also networking with people on Linkedin. My resume was discovered on Naukri.com and I received an interview call for a research scientist position at Lupin Biotech in Pune. Few days later I also received interview calls from GVK, Hyderabad and Strand Life Sciences in Bangalore. However, by then I had made up my mind to join Lupin which turned out to be my first job in the corporate world.
What were the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
Not knowing how to navigate my ideas in the corporate world was challenge number one! In academia when I had an idea I would speak to my advisor, we would discuss and see if we could formulate a hypothesis to test this idea. However in the corporate world the company has a yearly plan and budget and everyone already has their goals defined. As a researcher it was very difficult for me to work on a predefined plan without infusing my own ideas in it. I overcame this challenge by aligning my ideas with those of the company goals. For eg: if I wanted to test out a new procedure to treat the cells in the lab, I would perform two sets of experiments with the old and new procedure so that we could choose the better one and change as needed instead of abandoning the old procedure altogether.
The next challenge was making a place for myself in a country which was my homeland but where i had never worked in! People spoke differently and Science was explained in multiple languages and not just English like I was used to! I was ridiculed for talking with an american accent and being full of it! While this bothered me, I did not let it affect my work and steadily kept working until my hard work was recognised and applauded.
Tell us what you do
Clinical trials cost millions of dollars to be conducted and they run for a span of 8-10 years. There are multiple phases in these clinical trials and each phase has multiple checkpoints. If anything goes wrong in these steps the trials could be redesigned or terminated altogether costing millions of dollars. What we do is build models to predict the success of clinical trials. We use artificial intelligence that simulates various combinations of parameters to be used in these clinical trials. By titrating these parameters we can predict what parts can be redesigned to increase the efficiency of these trials and increase their success rate thus saving the loss of millions of dollars and lots of time.
A typical day consists of data crawling, curation and mining (data scientists), cleaning and validating the data (SMEs and validators), creating models (data scientists), client meetings and presentations. We also have fun by playing table tennis and carom in the office and also refreshing our minds to work more!
I love tackling new challenges every day! Data normalization that is getting data in a format that is universal and acceptable to all software is a big challenge in our work and we are constantly looking for ways to address it! As a scientist I always look at the biological nature of a drug, disease or clinical trial in general, and then at the statistical significance of the results. However this job has taught me to look at numbers first and how to align those numbers with biological parameters.
How does your work benefit society?
Every drug that comes to the market has to undergo clinical trials to test its safety and efficacy. My work helps to predict the success of these clinical trials even before they are initiated thus showing early signs of the use of these drugs. Deadly diseases such as cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes need multiple drugs for treatment and speeding up their clinical trials is imperative to help the patients suffering with these diseases.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
Consulting on health related matters is very fulfilling for me! Especially issues related to female reproduction allow me to dig deep into my knowledge of reproductive endocrinology and also allow me to apply the concepts learned early on. I try to spread awareness in general and during one such talk of mine a lady approached me and told me her horrific story of doctors negligence leading to her poor reproductive health! I took the details and counselled her. We even looked at her reports and I explained them to her as much as I could. I also gave the number of two doctors I knew and trusted. She was very thankful. She called me after a week to inform me that her pain had subsided and that she was feeling better after years! This gave me a lot of peace and happiness!
Your advice to students based on your experience?
Be yourself! Choose the path that is right for you! Do not follow the crowds! Very often we hear that students need to score an ‘x’ number of marks to get into a certain institute or to apply for a certain field! First ask yourself what you want to be. If you don’t know, take the aptitude tests (online or in person) and find out where your interest lies. Talk to accomplished people and then to not-so-accomplished people to understand their journey and then make a decision as to how you want your journey to look like. Following what others are doing may look easy in the beginning but can leave you miserable when you do not have the motivation to continue. Always have a hobby that you absolutely love! Hobbies can be a great source of relaxation and rejuvenation when the work gets demanding. Lastly, never underestimate the power of extracurricular activities. They are the ones that distinguish you from a person with your same profile and allows the employer/guide to see your worth!
So many plans to accomplish in such little time! I would love to travel the world when this pandemic is over starting with Italy!
On the work front, I would like to be a scientific consultant where I can employ my communication, marketing and of course scientific skills!