We don’t give too much of thought to choosing our first degree, probably because it is just a basic degree! However, a bachelor’s degree goes a long way in laying a foundation for our long term vision in terms of where we want to go.

Amruta Jambekar, our next pathbreaker, Scientific Advisor, Clinical Trials, helps pharma companies develop unbiased scientific information for developing drugs with the main aim to ensure that most effective treatments for diseases can be utilised in the most successful manner.

Amruta talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy  from The Interview Portal about taking up a bachelor’s degree in Biochemistry followed by a PhD, due to its applications in human health and disease biology and then making the transition to clinical research, the final destination of a new drug.

For students, keep your mind open to offbeat courses, understand their context in the real world and then make up your mind after you have done your research, because its worth all the effort.

Amruta, tell us about your background?

I am a Marathi who was born and brought up in Gujarat. I come from a middle-class family where there was strong emphasis on education and building a career. During my growing up years, I was surrounded by my independent working grandmother, mother and aunts. At the same time my father, who is a CA by profession, always encouraged me and my sister to study what interested us. So, even though we were pressurized to study, we were never pressurized to select any particular stream of subjects.

My extended family and parent’s friend circle consists of people from diverse occupations. I was always encouraged to ask people questions about their educational journey and profession. During these conversations, I slowly started realizing my interest in biology. I used to talk to a lot of people for career guidance in my 10th and 12th standard.

Now life has come a full circle for me. I have nieces and nephews who are in 12th and they often ask me for study options after selecting biology. I feel that having conversations with different people helps us to broaden our perspective.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I did my B.Sc. in Biochemistry from St. Xavier’s college, Gujarat University. Following that, my M.Sc. was in Pharmacology from University of Hertfordshire, UK and PhD in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from Wayne State University, Michigan, USA. 

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

I feel that my journey towards PhD started due to the following factors:

  • Academically, I was always very inclined towards biology. 
  • In 12th standard, even though I scored a distinction, I did not have enough percentage to get admission in medical sciences (at that time there were no entrance exams for medical sciences). 
  • I was determined to study science-based subjects and was not interested in spending 4 years in an engineering college where I would not enjoy myself. 
  • I used to find zoology and botany tedious to study (since I was not very good at memorizing). 
  • In my city (i.e. Baroda) there was one central university which offered only pure science subjects (zoology, botany, chemistry, physics) for B.Sc.

After understanding my dilemma, my parents sent me to Ahmedabad where I visited multiple colleges and understood the courses available. I found out that colleges in Ahmedabad offered biochemistry, microbiology, biotechnology, industrial chemistry and many more such courses. I read up on these courses in books, online and also talked to people to gain an understanding of the courses. Thereafter, I felt most interested in biotechnology or biochemistry. Also, when I visited multiple colleges, I felt that I liked the college environment of St. Xavier’s college. 

Once this groundwork was done, the only thing left for me to do was apply on the day of admissions. I remember standing in the admission queue for the whole day and being informed that even though I had sufficient percentage to get admission in biotechnology, the batch was filled, and I had to take admissions in general B.Sc. course wherein based on first year percentage, I could apply for Biochemistry as a specialization subject. 

Another turning point in my career was my journey towards M.Sc. There were two things which happened parallelly. One, many of my relatives would ask me why I selected BSc. over engineering (which made me feel that they did not value my career choice). Secondly, there was a competition in my college to do a research project in 3rd year of B.Sc. I cleared the competition and got into the research project for which I was later awarded a research medal too. This incident helped me realize that I need to build a strong career based on subjects of my choice and the second incident led to a revelation that I loved research. Hence, after BSc, I started exploring various MSc level courses in India as well as in the UK where I would get a lot of research exposure. I liked some of the novel courses offered by the UK and felt that it would be a good place to do MSc. as I would also get an opportunity to pursue PhD in future. I received admission from two colleges and ultimately decided to study at University of Hertfordshire based on a fees discount offered by the admission board due to my distinction grade. 

Post MSc, I realized that to pursue PhD, along with admission, I would also need fee waiver and stipend (i.e. a “fully funded” position). This was a very important criteria for me, since it was not possible for me to pay international fees and living expenses for a course which is generally 4+ years. I was unable to find such a position in the UK. Hence, I returned to India and immediately started preparing for NET examination. Simultaneously, I started GRE preparations and appeared for the examination. After clearing the GRE exam, I applied to 4 universities in the USA and received admit to 3 colleges. During my applications, I used to apply for scholarship programs too. One trick that I used for the scholarship program was being an “early applicant”. Most universities in the USA open admissions to their programs one year before the actual start date. Scholarship applications also close 8-9 months before the actual start date. So, for an admission in the August 2007 batch, I applied to universities in October 2006. I got admission to Wayne State University in November 2006 and selected the university based on their course work, scholarship and stipend program (I had admission letters from 3 other universities). 

I got married during my PhD and hence, I returned to my husband’s hometown (Bangalore) in India after graduation. Since I had not pursued higher education in India after my BSc., I was unaware of research institutions and research work happening in India. I searched online for research institutions in Bangalore and luckily for me, I realised Bangalore is a hub of science with many eminent institutions such as  IISc, NCBS, NIMHANS and SJRI and many more. I used to apply for advertised post-doctoral positions and got my first postdoctoral stint at NCBS.

Tell us about your career path

I did my PhD thesis under the mentorship of Dr. William Brusilow. My PhD thesis involved studying biochemical and immune pathways of cells in acute liver failure. I used mice models to induce liver failure, and then studied cell extracts for changes in protein and gene expression. I also conducted studies on different immune cells to co-relate immune pathway activation with changes in biochemical pathways. I frequently used techniques such as cell culture, ELISA, qPCR, confocal microscopy and enzyme activity assays. 

Additionally, I did very brief post-doctoral stints at the National Center for Biological Sciences (NCBS/ TIFR) in the lab of Dr. John Mercer/ Dr. Jim Spudich and St. John’s Research Centre (SJRI) in the lab of Dr. Amit Kumar Mandal. At NCBS I learnt protein purification from different sources such as bacterial cells, chicken skeletal muscle and bovine heart. Thereafter, the isolated proteins were tagged with different fluorescent markers and re-constituted together to build a model of cardiac muscle. Lastly, experiments were set up with mutated cardiac machinery proteins such as tropomyosin to study the changes in the movement of actin and myosin. This project aimed to understand the biology of cardiomyopathies. Lastly, my post-doctoral research with St. John’s hospital involved studying patient blood samples for abnormalities in haemoglobin using mass spectrometry. 

How did you get your first break?

I have transitioned twice in my career.

As I have mentioned earlier, I did my PhD in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. My doctoral thesis focused on understanding molecular and immunology pathways of acute liver failure. I used to conduct in vivo (mouse models) and in vitro (cell-based models) studies. Post PhD, I wanted to work in the field of disease biology and felt that pharmaceutical companies would be best suited for my interests. I used to search for jobs on job portals such as Naukri.com and my first break into the pharmaceutical industry in Biocon Bristol Myers Squibb Research Centre (BBRC) @ Syngene International came through the job portal. 

During my 4.5 years at Syngene I learnt about preclinical drug discovery while I nurtured my love for disease biology by working in diverse disease fields such as fibrosis, oncology and immunology. I used to be involved in various stages of research and development – target discovery, in vitro assays to establish disease biology, drug candidate screening etc. My tenure at BBRC was a typical pharmaceutical R&D job. A “target” for a disease would be identified and its role in progression of a disease would be studied. At the same time, companies would screen millions of compounds for inhibition or activation of the target. After few compounds were identified, these compounds would be further refined and developed to turn into drug/ medicine like compounds. 

My second transition happened in the field of clinical research. After spending 4.5 years at BBRC, I felt that I had stagnated at some level. Also, I became a mother (!!) and I had to re-evaluate my priorities to ensure good balance between my career and personal life. This process led to a break year for me, when I re-skilled myself by studying clinical research and applied to jobs on various job portals. Since I was not working at the time, it was feasible for me to dedicate full time to studies and job search while taking care of a small child. 

Currently, I am working as a scientific advisor at Novo Nordisk Global Business Centre. 

Did you have any mentors?

I have been fortunate to find many mentors during my educational and work journey. My first mentors were my parents who have always encouraged me to follow my choices – to study in the UK/USA, to return to India after PhD, to quit BBRC. Due to their support, I have always had the confidence to follow my choices. Secondly, my spouse is my sounding board. Careers are not built only on the basis of education. They are built on the basis of interpersonal relationships (with colleagues and co-workers) along with technical knowledge. So, my husband provides me with inputs regarding EQ and IQ.

My PhD mentor, Dr. William Brusilow was and still is my mentor. He has always provided encouragement and advice to me regarding my career choices. Additionally, I have met many helping and inspirational people during my career. One such person is Dr. Sandhya Mandelker, who has provided me with clear advice and mentorship from the perspective of career growth in industry as well as being “women in science”.

What were the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

What is unknown to us, is a challenge. So, during my research years, I have faced many challenges when experiments have not worked, or when my hypotheses were proven wrong. But each of these challenges has improved my scientific understanding. Additionally, living without family in the UK/USA has taught me the “way of living”. There were challenges at work too. However, I feel the below two challenges have been greatest for me.

Challenge 1: stagnation. I feel that it is important to periodically review how our education and career is shaping up within the boundaries of our choices. I have applied this principal to education as well as work. I have taken up additional courses during educational years (a choice which is available in most foreign universities) or discussed the changes required in project work with my PhD advisor. Similarly, with changing priorities in life, I have made similar decisions in my career too.

Challenge 2: work life balance. This is especially applicable in a career. As I have grown older, I have transitioned from being a student into a working professional. I need to play different roles in my everyday life. To do justice to each facet of my life, I try to prioritize work and effectively manage my time. 

Tell us about your current work or research

I work at Novo Nordisk Global Service Centre in India. My company is a Danish MNC which develops diabetes care medications.

So earlier I had mentioned briefly the journey of a drug compound from conception. Once a drug is identified by a company, it is tested in a small group of people for its safety, side effects and effectiveness in treating the disease. These studies are called clinical trials. If the drug is proven to be safe and effective, then it is sold to the general public.

In my current role, I help the company to develop documents for such clinical trials. In this role it is extremely important to have the ability to analyze data objectively and present it in a manner such that it is easily understandable. Another aspect of my work is very high attention to tiny details and accuracy of data. This work also involves a lot of creativity. The documents also have a lot of graphical and iconographic elements – which makes reading and understanding easier. 

Generally, my workdays are highly planned. I work on multiple projects at the same time. So, when a project/ task is assigned to me, I will plan the number of hours I will spend on each project each day. All the tasks are time bound, so there is no leniency in delay of the tasks. Workwise, I am involved in generation of documents, presentations etc. which are presented to doctors and researchers. I also generate content materials for scientific events, conferences and symposia. Additionally, I have to read a lot of scientific publications, protocols, and product associated regulatory documents. Lastly, my job involves working with diverse people from all over the world. I work with doctors, graphic designers, scientists, clinicians. So, time management and good people skills are two essential requirements for my job along with scientific knowledge.

How does your work benefit society? 

All results arising out of experiments are neither “all good” or “all bad”. It is extremely crucial to study drug development most effectively so that maximum benefit can be reaped by the general public. It is crucial to present the data objectively. In my current role, I feel that I help in developing an unbiased scientific discussion for developing drugs. The main aim is to ultimately ensure that most effective treatments for diseases can be utilised in most successful manner.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

I feel that it is essential to approach people who can guide us and share their experiences with us. We can learn a lot from our family, friends and co-workers. So, having conversations with experienced people provides us with different perspectives. At the same time, it is important to understand that every journey is different, and every person will experience a situation differently. Keeping an open mind to opportunities and challenges is extremely important. Lastly, be open to unconventional journeys for education and career.