Sometimes it pays to be patient, keep your head down and work towards your goals even when things don’t go as per plan, because, as the saying goes, “The best is always reserved for the last” !

Vibhuti Agrawal, our next pathbreaker, works with healthcare data to predict patients with rising risk, assess future treatment plans and glean other data-driven insights to help healthcare providers make critical decisions at the point-of-care.

Vibhuti talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy  from The Interview Portal about defining moments that led her to take up a Dual Degree in Biochemical Engineering/ Biotechnology from IIT Delhi followed by a PhD (Biological Engineering) from Massachusetts Institute of Technology .

For students, the only thing you cannot afford to lose during trying times is hope, because hope is the bridge from your dreams to reality !

Vibhuti, tell us about your background

I was born and brought up in a middle-class joint family in Delhi. Our house is called ‘Aadharshila’ which means the foundation. My mother was a housewife while my father is a Chartered Accountant. I have 2 siblings, one brother and one sister. Given that I grew up in a joint family, we stayed with our cousins and so, used to be called the Famous Five or sometimes the Five Pandavas. 

In the initial years, my interests were largely influenced by my mother. My mom really wanted me to learn dancing, and so enrolled me into dance classes during my summer vacations. As I grew up, we realized that dancing is not my forte, and instead I started swimming, playing badminton and basketball, and reading books. In addition, I remember that I was always fond of eating while my mother was fond of cooking. So, we became a tag team wherein I used to help her cook new dishes and then we would both relish them together (some of the fun days! ). Even today,I am a foodie — always up for trying new dishes and cuisines and now, I even try to cook some. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I did my B.Tech and M.Tech (Dual Degree) in Biochemical Engineering and Biotechnology from IIT Delhi followed by a PhD in Biological Engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

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

My parents have been the guiding light in my life. My mother, even though she was a homemaker, taught me to dream big and then work hard to accomplish those dreams. Her biggest philosophy in life was that all individuals, especially women, should be financially independent and never be dependent on their fathers or husbands or children later on for any support. Her teachings have helped me get past some of the most difficult times. Similarly, my Dad who is a C.A. taught us the importance of wisely spending money as well as hard work and so, he inspired me to study economics not only in class 12th as the fifth subject but also do multiple courses in the same field during my undergrad and PhD  also. 

My decision to study biology and biological engineering was influenced by a life-changing event – Twenty years ago, I lost my mother to breast cancer after battling for a year. It was not something that we expected, we really thought that she was getting better when life had something else for us in the store. That was a key turning point that inspired a girl who was afraid of Biology to not only do her ungrad in Biological Engineering but also go on to do a PhD in the same discipline. This was one of the reasons behind my reason to focus my PhD on cancer research and especially on drug-resistance and cancer metastasis. 

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

My career path has been a little bit of non-traditional. Not only have I joined a startup post my PhD but also returned back to India after studying for 5 years in the USA. Taking these choices was not easy, but the love of my family and great job opportunities in India brought me back. 

Let me talk about my journey to IIT first — So, I did not plan to go to IIT or study engineering, in fact to be honest – I didn’t even know what is IIT until the 10th grade. Everyone in my family came from a finance background – both my dad and uncle are Chartered Accountants and so that is what we all knew back then. Post our CBSE Board Exams for Class X, a few of my friends had started applying for coaching institutes for IIT JEE coaching (like FIITJEE or Brilliant Tutorials) and that is when I started researching about IIT and engineering. After talking with my dad and uncle, and some of the close friends, I realized that IITs are the top engineering institutes and so, it’s a matter of prestige to get admitted in them. Till then, all I knew were my mother’s teachings  — ‘Always Stand-up on your own two feets i.e. be independent and self-reliant always’. At that time, I thought that getting into IITs will take me closer to that dream, I said to myself — let’s try it. Given that all my friends are doing it, why can’t I do it (So, yes it was a sort of following the mob mentality or bhedchal in Hindi !! ). As a result, I gave the last entrance exam for FIITJEE for the 2 year coaching program and got through the same and hence, started my journey towards IIT. 

I opted for the weekend course and so, would have 8 hour long classes on the weekends. I wouldn’t say it was easy, but it wouldn’t have been possible without my family’s support. I tell this to everyone – it was the beauty of being in a joint family that I could pursue my dream of growing up as an independent woman. Given that my mother was not around, my aunt would do everything she could for all of us – from cooking to cleaning to taking care of my siblings. At the end of it all, while I was not thrilled with my JEE rank initially, my family was still happy that I got through into IIT. 

Based on the rank, I was allocated the Biochemical Engg and Biotechnology course at IIT Delhi. While everyone aspired to be in Computer Engg or Electrical Engg discipline, I fell in love with Biological Engg post a year at IIT, so much so that I opted out of the department change to Electrical Engg when given a choice after my first year. As I studied various subjects, a strong urge developed inside me to pursue higher studies (PhD) in this discipline. My inspiration for PhD were 2 fold – 

  • One, my mother was a PhD and so, I wanted to be a PhD like her.
  • Second, I thought PhD will help me find a cure or answers to many questions that I had about cancer. 

So, if I talk about the process of applying for PhD,  I had started my preparations, 7-8 months before the start of the application process in Nov-Dec of my final year. First, I had given a GRE followed by TOEFL and IELTS (some universities require TOEFL/IELTS even if  the medium of your schooling was English). Next, I researched about the universities and their departments where I wanted to apply for the PhD. For the same, I looked at university rankings on US News as well as studied the profiles of professors and research going on across different universities. A key rule of thumb here is that apply to only those universities where there are at least 2-3 professors whose research areas interest you as a student. Once the universities were shortlisted, then I organized all the relevant details into an excel sheet such as prerequisites, deadlines, application link, login-details etc to help me easily track my progress and ensure that I don’t miss out of any details. 

For a PhD program in the US, most of the applicants don’t have to worry about scholarships given that the department or their advisors fund them with their grant money. However, having said that, it is always great to have your own scholarships/fellowships. During my PhD, I also applied for multiple fellowships including Schlumberger Faculty for Future (a fellowship for women from developing countries who are studying PhD in developed countries) and Ludwig Center for Molecular Oncology Graduate Fellowship . I would encourage you to apply for scholarships and fellowships whenever you get an opportunity, usually you get these details from the graduate office in your college or from their websites. 

My PhD work dealt with identifying potential therapeutic targets to prevent drug-resistance in cancer. A number of cancer-patients who are on the road to recovery, often relapse to a more advanced stage of cancer. In my thesis, I used proteomics and phosphoproteomics methods to identify the reasons for drug-resistance in cancer to propose various combinatorial methods to overcome this resistance. 

Post my PhD, I used LinkedIn as the primary medium for my job-search. I had 3 criteria while I was looking for a job

  1. First, the job should be based out of India primarily
  2. The company should be a healthcare company working on innovative technology
  3. Last but most important, I should love talking to the people at the organization given that I would be spending 60-70 hours per week working with them for quite some time. 

Initially, I started looking on LinkedIn for opportunities. As a first step, I did complete my LinkedIn profile and enrolled into the premium subscription of LinkedIn. I also reached out within my network for recommendations. Importantly, I was also doing my own search for companies and would reach out to the founders or senior leadership of organizations that I found interesting on LinkedIn itself. This enabled me to talk with a few leaders, explore the work and the vision of a company so that I could make informed choices. In the process, I also learnt, it is not always necessary to apply for a job in order to get a job, sometimes people are willing to create new roles and positions in their company if they really feel that you will add value to their organization. 

How did you get your first break?

My first break post PhD was Innovaccer. I came across Innovaccer serendipitously on my LinkedIn one day. Reading about their work on LinkedIn and website, I reached out to their CEO and co-founder. He connected me to the other co-founders in the company and thus started my exploratory journey with Innovaccer. I had multiple discussions with them around their vision, goals, strategy. I was also given a case-study as a part of the process so that the company can evaluate my fit. At the same time, I was also evaluating them on the 3 criteria I laid down before in the last question. Overall, the process took us 2-3 months during which I talked with multiple stakeholders to ensure that it aligns with my goals and aspirations. It was not a rushed decision, and I am very happy with the decision taken back in the day. 

What were the challenges? How did you address them?

Challenge 1:  The biggest challenge for me was to speak up, learn to express my opinions and thoughts about any given topic. I always thought that what if I am asking a real dumb question, maybe others will make fun of me etc. During my PhD, I went to many mentoring and leadership development sessions that slowly helped me overcome my fears. In addition, one of my professors in the class used to always tell us that ‘No question is stupid’ and that really helped me open up. Since, then I have always encouraged people to open up and ask lots of questions. 

Challenge 2: The second challenge for me was to pursue my dream of a PhD when all the top colleges in the US rejected my application. For a bit more context, I had applied to top 10 colleges in the US during my final year at IIT Delhi and being the top-ranker in the class, everyone thought that it would be a cake-walk for me. However, that was not the case – day after day for months, I just received rejection letters from all colleges. Not only did this demotivate me, but also it seemed like that. Completely shaken and broken, I thought I had lost my dream. In this entire process, my confidence had also taken a hit. However, I decided not to sit-back and not to give up on my dream ( at least not with a fight). So, I gave GRE again, took a hard look at my application, and decided to change my target department to biological engineering rather than biosciences (I had applied earlier to the Biosciences department). As they say, second time is lucky — not only did I get through majority of the colleges wherein I had applied, but got into the #1 college – MIT. That day was one of the happiest days of my life and this entire experience further strengthened my belief that ‘Hard work and determination can get you through any obstacle.’

Tell us what you do currently

Currently, I am working as the Director for Data Science at Innovaccer. At Innovaccer, we are building the #1 healthcare data platform that will leverage the data to help providers make data-driven insights at the point-of-care. Some of the problems we work include predicting the future cost of patients, identifying members with rising risk, computing social risk-score for every individual, patient matching across multiple data sources etc. 

My team has multiple data scientists and data analysts. The key skills required include a strong understanding of various ML/AI concepts, an acumen for playing with data and numbers to identify various patterns/insights, and a strong hands-on experience with python coding. 

Even today, there are not many degree courses for data-science and so the majority of the people either learn it on the job or study it using the online courses. Almost all online learning platforms have data science specific learning paths. I learnt data science in the old-school way during my PhD thesis wherein I had to analyze multiple datasets to generate multiple hypotheses that can later be proven/disproven experimentally. 

How does your work benefit society? 

The hope is that our work will help providers identify better treatment plans for their patients and proactively address their needs. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

One thing that I always tell young folks is that ‘Never give up on your dreams. In fact, dream big and then work hard with determination to make that dream come true.’  I strongly believe that there is nothing impossible, all is possible with hard work and a little bit of luck. Always remember that even impossible says ‘ I am possible’. 

Future Plans?

Growing within my field to hopefully starting my own venture soon.