There is no shortcut to finding your calling. It requires adaptability to acquire different skills, curiosity to explore new domains and the resolve to follow through what you always wanted to do !
Savyasachee Jha, our next pathbreaker, PhD candidate at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), works on creating health policy recommendations for the advancement of neonatal healthcare in India.
Savyasachee talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about making the switch from his undergrad in chemical engineering to synthetic chemistry to health research and realizing his interest in policymaking.
For students, its ok if you do not know what you want to do. Its perfectly fine to jump careers. But its not ok to continue doing something that you don’t enjoy !
Savyasachee, your background?
My father is a doctor, and my mother is a physicist. I grew up in Chandigarh and studied at an all-boys convent school. I was considered a nerd growing up, and an enduring nickname which some still fondly call me by is “mad scientist”. I was always interested in writing (I was an editor for my school magazine) and I developed an early interest in history and politics. History because of Age of Empires 2, and politics because a lot of history books talk about it.
Neither history nor politics were things I pursued in college, mostly because I was equally interested in science, and because it became apparent to me that an education in science or engineering was the key to a more stable income down the line.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
I did my Bachelors in Engineering from BITS Pilani in Chemical Engineering. I then went on to get my masters in Synthetic Chemistry from Kyoto University, Japan.
What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?
I chose this career because I didn’t really know what to do with my life as I finished class 10. There is a school of thought (which my parents gently nudged me towards) which believes that an engineering degree is fundamental to getting a better life. One can build up to anything after a degree in engineering, so I was told.
I faced major doubts about this path in my third year of engineering. I talked to my parents, a few uncles, and their friends, before being directed towards the then director of IIM Bangalore. I wished to work in the space of policymaking because I thought it blended my interest in history and politics with my aptitude in the sciences. He, in his own way, set me straight. One does not become a policymaker without demonstrating any expertise in any one subject. My bachelors in engineering did not signal my expertise in anything.
However, the idea never left my mind, and I resolved to get into making policy after I finished my studies. I didn’t know what kind of policy, but I wanted to influence how governments behaved.
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 applied to a professor at Kyoto University during my third year. He was a synthetic chemist working with archaea, something I had no knowledge about. All I knew was that he was a biochemical engineer, which was extremely cool. He answered my email against all odds and offered me a paid internship for the second half of my fourth year.
I accepted and made the most of my time with him. I convinced him to take me on as a master’s student. He accepted, on the condition that I get the Monbukagakusho Scholarship, which is the Japanese Government’s flagship scholarship for foreign pre-doctoral scholars. I applied, got the scholarship, passed Kyoto University’s entrance exam (which was focused on chemistry, not chemical engineering, so I had to finish the syllabus of a BS in Chemistry in 3 months), and joined him. It was one of the proudest moments in my life: I was studying, someone else was paying me to study, and I did not have to sign any bond.
However, by the end of my time with him, I realized that I did not wish to work with archaea for the rest of my life, and thus decided not to pursue a PhD. I came back home and joined the Centre for Innovative and Applied Bioprocessing in Mohali. I worked there for 6 months before applying to the Centre for Biosystems Science and Engineering (BSSE) at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), where I began to work on a project aiming to understand certain aspects of Alzheimer’s Disease.
1.5 years into my PhD, I realized that this was again not something I wished to do for my entire life. My mentor and I parted ways, and I convinced a professor working on health policy in the Department of Management Studies at IISc to take me on as her PhD student, where I decided to work on creating policy recommendations for the advancement of neonatal healthcare in India. I am in the penultimate year of my PhD programme today.
How did you get your first break?
I got my first break when I convinced my current mentor to take me on as a PhD student despite having no prior qualifications in policy making or in the medical sector. It was what the Americans would describe as a Hail Mary, and I think it was as improbable as me convincing a professor in Japan to take me, an untested kid from a university he’d never heard of, as an intern and pay me for the privilege.
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
The major challenges were gaining skills at each level. Each leap I’ve made required learning different skills. Chemical Engineering was all about thermodynamics, fluid flow, heat transfer, and mass transfer. Synthetic Chemistry required me to know as much as an undergrad in chemistry and a huge deal about biochemistry. I also had to pick up a lot of genetics. When I came to IISc, I had to learn advanced microscopy and image processing, and my current policymaking work requires a lot of advanced statistical knowledge. The one constant through this journey has been my knack for writing.
There isn’t any shortcut to gaining hard skills. If you need them, you must get down and do the work. For everything I had to learn, I would square my shoulders, buy the books needed, and sit down with a pen and paper to pound those things into my brain.
Tell us about your work in policy
I am at IISc, Bangalore trying to finish up my PhD. As I mentioned earlier, I am trying to create policy recommendations for the betterment of neonatal health, specifically the introduction of universal screening for a class of disorders called inborn errors of metabolism which are thought to affect around 7 – 10% of all babies born in India. A good deal of my daily work requires people skills. I must convince people to talk to me, give me access to datasets, fill out my questionnaires, and give me interviews.
However, that’s only one part of it. I need to be aware and abreast of the frameworks used to construct policies as well as the policies themselves. Thus, I tend to divide my day into two parts. The first part is when I talk to people and get them to give me data. The second part is when I read up on everything new happening in my field to make sure I remain on top of my game.
When I get the data I need, I utilize statistics and probability theory to either make sense of it or create a model out of it.
I love this job because it requires a lot of ingenuity to get doctors, who are my target population, to talk to you. And once they do talk to you, getting their thoughts into a form which is actionable by governments is extremely difficult. It requires a careful mixture of someone who keeps abreast of research, knows statistics, and understands how to talk to and convince people.
How does your work benefit society?
My work benefits society because it has the potential to lead to a paradigm shift in how we treat newborn babies. India’s healthcare policies focus on communicable diseases because that’s how we’ve thought about these things historically, but that ignores a very large part of the neonatal disease burden, and the impact of their genes on newborn’s lives. There is so much to gain by making this technology available to everyone, and that is what my work seeks to do.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
When I’d just joined the Department of Management, I was asked to join a small, international team of researchers writing about the usage of Systems Thinking in healthcare systems design. Covid happened to hit the world around that time and the other researchers, who were all doctors, were pressed into service. I was the only one left who had time to write that paper. The deadline, unfortunately, was just one week away, and I had to do the work of four people. I ended up rewriting the whole thing, spending night after sleepless night staring into a monitor. The paper ended up getting selected for inclusion into the Oxford Handbook for Systems Thinking, which, I think, given that it was the first paper I’d written on my own, was one of the most amazing things which had happened to me.
It seems like a little thing now that I think about it, but it was the first moment where I felt I’d contributed to the healthcare community in a meaningful manner.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
Don’t be afraid to jump careers. If you’re good at something, build yourself up a bit and dive headfirst into what you wish to do.
Finish my PhD, and apply for an honest-to-god job!