When the focus is on the wellbeing of an entire community, the society can reap the benefits of preventive healthcare through healthy lifestyles, awareness programmes, well researched government policies and better infrastructure for detection, prevention and response to infectious diseases.

Joyita Chowdhury, our next pathbreaker, Program Manager at India Health Fund, scouts for technologies that have the potential to offer innovative healthcare solutions and supports innovators in addressing public health care challenges.

Joyita talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about the enormous healthcare burden that India faces which not only call for innovations at scale but also require active engagement and collaboration with multiple stakeholders to ensure the last mile of healthcare delivery to the community.

Impact in Healthcare is not just about research, but applying your research expertise in the community, by promoting innovation through development of technologies to tackle public health issues and infectious diseases.

Joyita, tell us about Your background?

My father was employed with an Electricity producing navratna PSU. Growing up in a small town, we were made to think that we have only 2 career options- engineering/ medical. I chose biology in my plus 2 level since I was always interested in the medical field. But I didn’t leave Maths because I knew that Maths will always be useful in the field of life sciences. 

I did my schooling from Delhi Public School. We were always encouraged to give equal attention to extra-curricular activities. I was always interested in every form of art and hence, learnt fine arts and music in school as well as under various gurus outside the school. That helped in cultivating my creative thinking skills.

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

Even though I didn’t get through medical school, I knew that I wanted to pursue a career in the health sector. That’s when my father introduced me to the subject of Microbiology.

My graduation was in Microbiology with Zoology and Chemistry as other subjects. My post-graduation was also in Microbiology. 

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

After I joined graduation, I was confused on what to do next in this sector. That’s when the domain of Biotechnology was coming up. Two of my University Professors inspired me to pursue this field. Though it wasn’t a tough call, a lot of my peers were choosing the path of MBA after graduation and I for once wondered if I am making the right choice. But my inclination towards life sciences was so strong that I didn’t even think of trying any other career option. 

I had decided on clearing NET for pursuing a PhD. Infact, getting through the masters course wasn’t a cake walk, but I was determined. 

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

I took a year break after my M.Sc to prepare for NET. Next year I came to Delhi to start looking out for opportunities, just in case I didn’t get through either NET or any other competitive exam for PhD. There was still an option of getting into projects under any scientist and then get registered with a University and start with a PhD. 

Thankfully, I cleared NET- JRF that year and got into Delhi University’s Biomedical department for PhD. 

Doing a PhD can be a make or break situation. It took me almost 7 years to complete my PhD. I would advise anyone taking up a PhD to be very sure about their decision since it needs immense patience, especially in life sciences/ basic research. Just because one gets 5 years of scholarship, one shouldn’t feel that it’s a long duration and very easy to complete PhD in 5 years. That’s not the case most of the time. One needs to be alert and cautious and keep exploring future prospects as well as trying to finish PhD well within 5 years. PhD students need to also build a network of their own, because that will also help them immensely while they are in their PhD. 

My thesis was on “Biological Evaluation of Quinazolinone Derivatives on Cholecystokinin-B Receptor Expressing Cell Lines”

I worked on the efficacy of the Quinazolinone compounds to stop the growth of certain kind of human cancerous cells. 

I had realized during my PhD that I didn’t want to become an academia scientist. But, I still wanted to be in research and hence, Post doctorate was the next obvious step, even if I wanted a role in the R& D industry.

As a post-doctoral fellow, my area of research was on high content cell-based screening of small molecule inhibitors of host proteins required for Mycobacterium Tuberculosis to survive and replicate within host cells.

I wanted to move beyond academic research. Hence, I had started exploring other career opportunities. That’s when I came across the domain of Market research. 

It was a complete 180 degree shift. Transition from lab research to market research and data analytics of the pharmaceutic domain gave me a thorough understanding of clinical trials, market assessment, competitive landscape and portfolio analysis of various therapy and diagnostic areas. The corporate world was totally new and I was just not used to sitting in front of a computer for 9 hours continuously. Eventually, I got used to it and learnt many new skills and gained lot of domain knowledge. The key to succeeding in this field is how fast one can adapt to the sector, learn new things and also finish tasks extremely fast. Meeting deadlines are a major parameter for success in this domain. The work majorly focused on supporting the business strategies of pharma companies. My first 2 jobs were in this field.

Eventually, I shifted to Public health, because of 2 reasons. Firstly, I realized that I don’t enjoy the breakneck speed and excess work pressure and secondly I wanted to work for the community at large, rather than for profit making of pharma companies. 

At the first public health job, I was asked to write a Systematic review.

My role was to develop a systematic review on “Task sharing interventions for cardiovascular diseases in low-middle income countries.” It involved reviewing all the research articles on the topic published during a specific period, do their meta-analysis and give recommendations for future studies and health policy makers.

I had not developed such reviews earlier, inspite of being from research. Thankfully, I had very helping colleagues, who taught me how to write a systematic review. I would like to mention this to the students, that once you are out of academia, you are generally on your own. Though you will be hired on the basis of your skills, there will always be many things which you will have to pick up on the job. One needs to be smart enough to pick up those skills, whether it be soft skills or domain knowledge.

Coincidently, all my tenure after Market research were contractual and on the one hand, while I got an opportunity to work in various organizations, ranging from public health to health policy to research management, my term would often get over in few months to 1 year. In India, we are always taught to look for permanent jobs, but one needs to be conscious that other than Govt jobs, no job is permanent. Hence, one needs to be clear on what she/he aims to achieve. 

Next, I got a consulting role in a Health Policy research organization, which required primary and secondary research on various areas. It gave me an opportunity to understand various health system gaps and interventions and give recommendations to health policy makers. I worked on projects such as developing a report for WHO on Safe injection practice and healthcare waste management in India.

Next I got an opportunity to work at ICMR for a year which was a great learning. I could also build a very strong network there, which helps me till date. My role at was to coordinate with ICMR institutes and support the preparation of a Strategic plan and agenda for 2030. I also contributed in various policy briefs of ICMR studies, evaluated gaps and proposed scopes in draft of various national health policies and guidelines.

My next stint was with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF). Within public health, there are numerous domains and I got an opportunity to work with the Vaccine delivery team at the India Country office. Not only did I learn about the basics of public health, but also got an opportunity to interact with the experts in this field whether it be in India or abroad and learnt so much from them.

In my role as Associate Program Officer in the Vaccine delivery vertical at BMGF, I supported and coordinated with the team by managing investment portfolio progress, providing research and analysis for grant-making, aiding in communications and advocacy. My support and coordination in developing the India Vaccine Delivery Strategy Plan 2018-2030 involved conducting workshops, synthesizing and analyzing data and preparing the preliminary drafts of the document. Grand Challenges in India call for innovations to address challenges in collecting, analyzing and using data on immunization, requiring my active engagement at various stages to collaborate with multiple stakeholders.

At my current organization, I deal with Healthcare innovation start-ups developing solutions for public health.

How did you get your first break?

I had realized during my PhD that I didn’t want to become an academia scientist. But, I still wanted to be in research and hence, I got into Post doctorate. 

Meanwhile, I had started exploring other career opportunities beyond lab research. That’s when I came across the domain of Market research and got into my first non-lab job.

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

Challenge 1: 

Change in domain – from research to corporate.

How did I address?- One learns with time. One needs to be open to adapt or make a faster decision to switch.

Challenge 2: 

Long and continuous working hours without any work life balance.

How did I address?- With evolving skills and techniques, one learns to complete the task faster. One also needs to be mentally prepared that the private sector will rarely allow work life balance.

Challenge 3:

Need of continuously learning new skills

How did I address?: Building a strong network and also learning new skills pertinent to that domain is very crucial.

Where do you work now? Tell us what you do?

I work for a funding organization which supports health care innovation start-ups and researchers.

My organization supports the development of technologies to tackle public health issues in infectious diseases.

What skills are needed for job? How did you acquire the skills?

One of the most important skills is the domain knowledge, acquired through relevant education and work experience. The other skills are Liaising/ networking/communication skill and documentation skills, like MS Office.

What is a typical day like?

I scout for technologies, interact with innovators, govt and private sector stakeholders, conduct portfolio management of the solutions we support

A typical day involves calls, meeting, presentations, lot of e-mails.

Though I didn’t pursue the field of research, the opportunity to support innovators developing new technologies to address the public health challenges in India gives immense satisfaction. 

How does your work benefit society? 

The technologies that our organization fund are taken to the last mile of delivery to the community for eg., primary health care with govt support 

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

At ICMR, I had the opportunity to work under the guidance of Dr. Sowmya Swaminathan, currently Chief Scientist at the WHO, who was the Director General at ICMR. My role was to support in the preparation of the agenda and strategic plan for 2030 for ICMR. I also had the opportunity to work on draft of various national health policies and guidelines. 

At Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, I supported the development of the India Vaccine Delivery Strategy Plan 2018-2030. With the Covid vaccine roll out, I can now see the value of the work that goes behind it. My boss Dr. Raj Shankar Ghosh and my seniors in the team immensely supported me in learning more about the field, since, I had no background in Vaccine delivery. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Be open to explore new domains, but, instead of getting confused, use each experience and learning for growing in the next phase. You are the creator of your own story. It is good to be inspired, but don’t waste your time trying to copy anyone’s career trajectory. 

We all reach where we are because of our hardwork and luck, but time and again we come across mentors who help us, hold us and guide us. When our opportunity comes to help someone, we must never let that go.

Future Plans?

I wish to work in the field of eliminating partial or avoidable blindness through new innovations.

Helping students in their career growth is also something which is very close to my heart. Hence, I would want to be associated with organizations working for career guidance.