Technology has made remarkable progress in the realm of healthcare . But the last mile of healthcare delivery still relies on a human-centric approach that helps Clinical Researchers and Doctors make well informed treatment decisions for patients based on their medical history and genomic profile.

Shruti Rao, our next pathbreaker, Oncology Research Instructor and Program Manager at the Innovation Center for Biomedical Informatics, Georgetown University, liaisons with a multi-disciplinary team of bioinformaticians, software developers, genomic scientists, clinicians and clinical researchers, working towards the unified vision of driving personalized cancer medicine forward.

Shruti talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about her interest in Biomedical Informatics due to its inter-disciplinary nature and its potential in developing effective personalized treatment strategies based on the field of genetics !

For students, the day is not very far off when our genetic profile might accurately tell us which treatment option works best for us. Be a part of unravelling this fascinating biological puzzle !

Shruti, tell us about Your background?

I grew up in the suburbs of Mumbai, India. Both my parents were working professionals – my father was head of marketing at a chemical company and mother was senior manager at a telecommunications company. They both understood the importance of a good quality education, sincerity and hard work and instilled those values in me. 

Growing up, I think I always knew that I wanted to do something that impacted human health. So, I naturally considered becoming a doctor! This was probably also because I was not aware of other career options or education programs that would help me realize my interests at that time. When I was preparing for my medical school entrance exams, my cousin was visiting our family from the US. He bought me a beginner microscope kit as a birthday present and told me about a high school science fair that he had judged in the US. One of the winning teams had genetically engineered non-pathogenic E.coli bacteria with a gene that coded for green fluorescent protein from bioluminescent jellyfish. This made the genetically transformed bacterial colonies glow green when illuminated with UV light. Learning about this science fair project opened my mind to fascinating new possibilities. I started doing more research and came across the field of biotechnology and its potential to impact medicine. So, I decided to pursue a degree in biotechnology instead of going to medical school. 

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

I have a B.Tech in Biotechnology from SRM University, Chennai, India. I then came to the US to get a Masters in Molecular Biotechnology at The George Washington University, Washington D.C. During my Masters, I took a few business courses including international marketing, innovation and commercialization of technology. This sparked my interest in the intersection of science, technology and business. After working as a research associate for a few years, I realized that my interest in the application and productization of science only grew stronger. That’s when I decided to complement my scientific background with business skills by getting an MBA at Georgetown University.

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

The field of human genetics and its impact on medicine is rapidly evolving! What seemed like science fiction when I was in undergrad is now a reality due to the evolution of high throughput technologies. This is particularly true in the field of oncology because of our improved understanding of cancer genes and their role in disease progression, attributed to years of research done by scientists. Today, an oncologist is able to develop effective personalized treatment strategies causing fewer adverse effects by targeting mutations found in a cancer patient’s tumor DNA. It is this promise of the field that made me choose a career in cancer biomedical informatics.

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

In my third year (junior year) of undergrad, I was offered a job at a big consulting firm through on-campus recruitment. A year later, I graduated in 2008 during the global financial crisis. Needless to say, several multinational companies including the one that I was supposed to join were hit hard by this crisis. These circumstances indefinitely delayed my job start date. Due to all the uncertainties, I decided to take the GRE and pursue a Masters in the US instead. Unfortunately, I completed my Masters in 2011 during another financial crisis. The US job market was really bad at this time and it was particularly tough for immigrants like me, who required a visa sponsorship to work in the country. I had no prior work experience except through a few short-term internship projects and was still trying to figure out what type of job opportunities I should pursue in life sciences. Moreover, I had only been in the US for 2 years as a graduate student so I didn’t have a professional network to leverage. 

So I decided to do a couple of things – I started networking with life sciences professionals to learn more about their jobs and different functional roles in research, project management, marketing, business development, consulting, etc. I did this by reaching out to people on LinkedIn, volunteering with professional organizations that worked on issues that I was passionate about and attending local networking events. My goal here was to build my professional network and figure out what career path I wanted to follow, so that I could target my job search accordingly. In addition to applying for jobs, I also applied for internship opportunities to continue advancing my technical skills. During my Masters, I had really enjoyed taking a couple of biomedical informatics courses where I learned how to analyze large biological datasets including DNA, RNA and protein sequences by using computational approaches to generate hypotheses and understand biological processes better. I reached out to a few professors who did research in biomedical informatics and asked if I could work as an intern with them on their ongoing projects.

I worked on a couple of projects during this time. One of them involved conducting an exhaustive bioinformatics analysis on the S-adenosyl-L-methionine (SAM) ligand-bound and unbound protein structures using a ligand-centric approach. This novel comprehensive bioinformatics approach was developed by the professor that I was working with at the time and was published in the BioMed Central – Journal of Structural Biology. The other project involved using bioinformatics approaches to analyze molecular data associated with inflammatory response to certain diseases in order to better understand vaccine related adverse events. 

Through these internships, I was able to develop my informatics skills by working on several interesting projects involving the analysis of genes and proteins and understanding their role in different disease mechanisms. I realized that I wanted to pursue a career in this field. 

How did you get your first break? 

Eventually, after one and a half years of networking and doing internships after my Masters, I got my first full-time job as a Research Associate at the Innovation Center for Biomedical Informatics (ICBI) at Georgetown University. In this role, I had the opportunity to manage several research projects and developed a keen interest in the intersection of science and business. So, I decided to pursue an evening MBA program at Georgetown University while maintaining my full-time job. I have been at ICBI for the last 7 years working on cancer biomedical informatics projects and got promoted to Research Faculty and Program Manager a few years back. 

What were the challenges you faced in your career? How did you address them?

A really challenging time in my personal and professional life was when I had to juggle between a full-time job and attend business school classes at night and on the weekends for 3 years. During this time, I also chaired the Capital Region Program Committee for a non-profit organization called “Women In Bio” for 2 years. All these overlapping opportunities coincidentally came my way at the same time and I couldn’t say no to either of them because I was really passionate about them all. It was particularly challenging to mentally switch between thinking about my biomedical informatics research projects during the day, to learning about finance and the global economy in business school at night; and planning monthly events and providing a networking platform for women professionals working in life sciences through my role with Women In Bio. Those 3 years of my life required a lot of hard work but the experience greatly improved my time management, prioritization and organization skills. I met some amazing people along the way and established some great connections. All things considered, I’m glad that I was able to lean into these challenges because they have positively influenced my personal growth.  

Where do you work now? What do you do?

I currently work as an Oncology Research Instructor and Program Manager at the Innovation Center for Biomedical Informatics, Georgetown University. In this role, I manage collaborative research and education programs in biomedical and health informatics. In a typical work day, I liaison with highly motivated multi-disciplinary professionals including bioinformaticians, software developers, genomic scientists, clinicians and clinical researchers who are all working towards driving personalized cancer medicine forward. We do this by developing consensus based standardized processes to uniformly integrate information from disparate data sources and accurately determine the clinical significance of genomic variants that may help inform cancer treatment strategies. I read a lot of peer reviewed scientific literature on different types of clinical and pre-clinical (cell lines and animal models) studies that evaluate how cancer gene mutations may inform the diagnosis, prognosis or response to different drugs in different cancer types. I then curate and interpret this breadth of evidence supporting the clinical significance of cancer biomarkers from multiple data sources including peer-reviewed papers, large-scale genomic sequencing projects and bioinformatics reference databases in a standardized, easily accessible, interoperable and reproducible format that can be readily used by clinician researchers, clinical laboratory professionals and computational biologists for further analysis and reporting. This is a field that is constantly evolving due to the rapid advances in technology that improve our understanding of cancer genomics; so there is never a dull moment and always something new to learn!

How does your work benefit society? 

Before personalized cancer medicine became a reality, patients with the same type of cancer usually got the same standard treatment. However, it was observed that these treatments worked better in some cancer patients but not in others, which can be attributed to genetic differences in people and their cancer types. Advances in next generation sequencing technologies and the application of innovative biomedical informatics approaches to cancer research has improved our understanding of the genetic basis of cancer and why some patients with the same cancer type may respond differently to the same standard treatment. This helps doctor’s make better informed treatment decisions for their patients based on their medical and treatment history, cancer stage and genomic profile. 

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

As for most researchers, my first peer reviewed scientific publication as lead author was particularly memorable because I had the opportunity to work with and learn from some expert clinician scientists and cancer researchers who are well-respected in the field. In this research work, we tried to address a bottleneck faced by clinicians who have to deal with an enormous volume of often-contradictory evidence regarding the therapeutic context of chemo-predictive biomarkers. To address this, we extensively surveyed public literature to systematically review the therapeutic effect of a list of protein biomarkers claimed to predict response to various chemotherapy drugs. We focused on studies that investigated changes in gene or protein expression as predictors of drug sensitivity or resistance. We considered an evidence framework that ranked studies from high level evidence for randomized controlled trials to low level evidence for pre-clinical studies. This comprehensive cataloging and analysis of dispersed public data within an evidence framework provided a high level perspective on the clinical actionability of these protein biomarkers that could help inform clinical trial design as well as therapeutic decision-making for individual patients. This research project significantly improved my understanding of cancer genomics and the various challenges in this field; and therefore served as a great foundation for subsequent research projects.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

If you are confused about what career path to choose, try and reach out to professionals in the field and ask them about their work and why they enjoy it. More often than not, people are willing to share their story when you reach out to them. You can learn from people’s experiences and figure out what kind of job and work environment inspires you. Be open to new experiences and constantly learning, because it is the only way to adapt to a rapidly changing world. And lastly, make sure that you are happy and foster personal and professional relationships along the way. 

Future Plans?

I plan to continue working in the field of life sciences, pursue opportunities where I can apply both my technical and business skills and keep challenging myself.