Formal education has its rules, but curiosity and learning have no boundaries, because they are driven by the need to understand the bigger picture !

Punitee Garyali (PhD), our next pathbreaker, Medical Advisor, works with start-ups to provide scientific insights and inputs for the development of novel therapeutics and programs that improve the health in the community.

Punitee talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about taking up an engineering and doctorate degree after doing her MD (Doctor of Medicine), to work at the unique interface between clinical and basic biomedical sciences.

For students, your goals might change, but the knowledge and skills you have gained through your journey will always support you in exploring new horizons !

Punitee, can you tell us about your early years?

Growing up, I was always the bright inquisitive kid constantly observing the world around me with a desire to know everything about everything. My parents, both doctors, always supported my interests and are the primary reason why I chose to pursue medicine/healthcare as a career, where I could see my work making a direct impact on the community. I had a keen interest in STEM and never shied away from doing my due diligence in learning. I distinctly remember my first encounter with Genetics in Grade 8, when I read about Mendel’s Laws of Inheritance. I was completely moved by the beauty of the simplicity of his experiments and the understanding of the knowledge he had shared long back. His mere observation of the pea plants has formed the basis of the entire subject of Genetics and Inheritance. As a kid, I often dreamt of being a major contributor to science, without much idea of what it takes to become a scientist!

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

I completed my MD from Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Medical Sciences (MGIMS), Sewagram, India followed by an MTech from Indian Institute of Technology (IITK), Kanpur, India and PhD from Indiana University School of Medicine (IUSM), Indianapolis, USA

What were the drivers that led you on such a unique and unconventional career?

After my enjoyable tryst with Genetics, Biology was the subject of choice in high school, which eventually led me to Medicine. I’ve always loved numbers, and Mathematics will be my favorite subject forever. A strong understanding of Mathematics is essential to understand concepts in Physics, Statistics, Biophysics etc.  My coursework in medical school helped me to understand the intricacies of the human system. The five years of my medical degree helped me to understand, in-depth, the underlying complex pathophysiology and the overt manifestation of diseases. Understanding precisely the how’s and why’s of human diseases is a challenge in itself. Often, I was bowled over by the fact that minor defects at the molecular level could lead to disorders so fatal and invincible. As a Physician, my interaction with the patients at the bedside and in the community enabled me to appreciate the complexity within the human system. I was a part of clinical trials, which pivoted my interest towards drug discovery. I realised that there are a number of diseases/disorders that we do not know the cause of and/or do not have a medical treatment for yet . I realised that the convergence of Molecular Genetics with Medicine throws up endless possibilities in the field of biological sciences. This provided me the impetus to pursue research in areas relevant to Neurodegeneration and Cancer for my master’s and doctoral degrees.  

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

If you look at just my degrees – I have an engineering degree, a medical degree, and a doctorate, so far. I cannot say with confidence that I’ll stop here. I am still the kid, at heart, who wants to know everything about everything and might end up going back to school to learn more. My career path is rather unconventional, but I am glad to see more people venturing into this role/path.

I was very particular about choosing the schools (premier public schools) where I studied to ensure that I don’t end up with a huge financial burden at the end of my educational tenure. My parents supported me financially for my medical school (since it is a public school, the tuition is minimal), and for both my masters and doctoral degrees, I received fellowships and research assistantships that helped me become financially independent. I strongly believe that it is essential for young students to know and understand how finances work – e.g., by taking up a job over the summer to boost your savings, or      becoming financially independent – the burden of responsibility helps you grow and evolve into a mature person at an early age.

High School:

I was an intelligent and diligent student with the goal to gain all the knowledge in the world. I worked long, tiring hours to win the mad race of national entrance examinations to secure a position as a medical student.

Medical Student (MD):

The community-based medical education at MGIMS trained me to become a doctor with a bias towards underprivileged and rural areas, and this strengthened my interest in community health and support. As a part of my medical training, I had multiple stints in villages starting from 1st year where I had opportunities to interact with the villagers to build a rapport, conduct regular health appraisals, and be involved in the process of organising the community-based decentralized healthcare delivery models. I also did monthly visits to the families in the villages, eventually becoming a friend, philosopher, and guide to the families over the 4 years of medical school. Knowing what is needed at the grass-root level, strengthened my desire to support the less privileged and give back to the community.

Attending Physician:

As a Physician, I wanted to transcend the boundaries of traditional institutionalized clinical care. I sought opportunities to work on a decentralized healthcare delivery system in rural areas. I am very proud of my clinical training, which was focused on community health. The long association that I had with the rural community as a medical student and later as an Attending Physician has fostered a deep respect for ethical values in healthcare. I also supported clinical trials and it intrigued me how revolutionary novel therapeutics can be, and thus driven by my interest, pivoted my career towards research.

Masters Research (MTech):

My maiden venture in research started in the Human Molecular Genetics laboratory at IIT Kanpur. I enjoyed every minute that I invested in my very first research project. The entire experience not only strengthened my understanding of the complexity of biological processes but also taught me that research is not just about working hard; it requires perseverance.

When I joined IITK, honestly, I was scared to my core. I had no hands-on experience in research, though   I knew that this is something I really wanted to do. So, I put in extra hours to make up for the lack of technical knowledge. I did a number of informational interviews with students from earlier cohorts to know about all the laboratories in the department with the aim to find the perfect fit for me, which led me to the Human Molecular Genetics lab. I worked primarily on a cell culture model system with focus on Lafora Disease, a juvenile epileptic neurodegenerative disorder. When I started the project, my goal was to gain technical expertise in preparation for my doctoral work. As I gained more knowledge and understanding about experimental design and techniques, bench experiments became easier and I became more comfortable and confident in taking up challenging work. At the end of my two years of master’s, I was able to lead and complete an in-vivo project with a team of 5 researchers that resulted in the discovery of novel therapeutic targets for disorders relevant to cancer and neurodegeneration. I built professional relationships with leaders in the field outside of my institute that further helped me during my doctoral studies. Outside of my academic goal, I took up additional responsibility in managing the lab inventory and handling external vendors, which was an opportunity to learn soft skills, such as time management, people management, planning, and communication. 

BioPharmaceutical experience (Dr. Reddy’s):

I joined the biologics division of Dr. Reddy’s, a pharmaceutical company, after my master’s well aware that I would not be continuing for long (I definitely didn’t say that during my interviews with the company) because I wanted to do a PhD. There were two main reasons behind this decision:

First, I wanted to explore the idea of working for a pharmaceutical company after my doctoral degree, eventually. Working in an academic set-up is entirely different from working in an R&D lab in the pharma industry. While I had heard this from a number of people, I wanted to be in the situation to see if it is a good fit for me.

Second reason was to buy time for my master’s research to get published. Paper submission and review takes time, and I had realised, early on in my master’s, that having research publications increases the chances of getting a doctoral position in the laboratory of your choice.

I enjoyed the overall experience of working at Dr. Reddy’s. Again, I chose some challenging financial projects outside of my comfort zone (I had no knowledge of finance before this), learned a lot, and I can say with confidence that if an opportunity arrives for me to work in the Pharma industry, today, I would accept it. 

Doctoral Research (PhD):

I wanted to continue my master’s research on Lafora Disease, so the list of laboratories was short for me. At that time, there were only 5 labs, globally, that worked on Lafora Disease and 2 of them were in the US. I continued my research from my master’s into my doctoral work at Indiana University School of MedicineIUSM. I am cross-trained in Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, and Bioinformatics and have worked on multiple projects that span Genetics, Neurology, Metabolic Diseases, and Cancer. 

I started my doctoral research as a continuation of my earlier work on Lafora Disease primarily using a cell culture model system. Gradually, I moved to the animal models of the disease, at the same time exploring the other areas of research. I gained vast experience in basic and preclinical research, learned techniques in biochemistry, molecular biology, cell biology, and bioinformatics. I worked on multiple projects with experiments ranging from in-vitro assays, in-vivo studies to proteomics study and mass spectrometry. Needless to say, there were more failures than successes. My ‘never say die’ attitude helped me endure the disappointments of failed experiments and did not restrain me from starting all over again. At the end of it, I linked the fields of glycogen storage disorders with neurodegenerative diseases and cancer, discovered a novel phenomenon in glycogen disposal, discovered novel functions of proteins involved in Lafora Disease, optimized new cell-line based analytical methodologies, developed and optimized mass spectrometry-based proteomics methodologies and more. In short, I started with a zoomed-in vision of working on one specific disease area, and ended up learning the importance of always keeping the mind and eyes open for new areas to explore. My doctoral work goes beyond epilepsy into cancer, neurodegeneration, glycogen storage diseases, cardiovascular and metabolic health. 

Medical Advisor:

My research interest primarily lies in biological systems with direct relevance to human health and diseases. My training and research have put me in a unique interface between clinical and basic biomedical sciences. I understand both worlds – the world of research and the clinic. I work as a Medical Advisor to provide scientific insights and inputs to develop novel therapeutics and programs to improve the health in the community.

How did you get your first break?

My first job, as an Attending Physician, was via my campus recruitment. It wasn’t very difficult considering the unmet need for Physicians in India. My second job was in the Pharmaceutical Industry right after my master’s and was again via campus recruitment. There were a few rounds of screening tests (written), group discussions, and panel interviews after which I got a written offer from the company. It was fast (all interviews in one day) and very competitive.

After my PhD, I worked pro bono for a few organizations and got my job offers entirely through networking within my professional network. I would like to emphasize that every young graduate should start building up their professional network from the day they land in college. Interaction with others provides the opportunity to know the details of different career paths. Everyone has had a unique journey and building a relationship within your professional network helps to learn from others’ experiences.

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

Challenge 1: Knowing my own worth: I was the brightest student in my school – “the topper”! However, there were times when I underestimated the value I was adding to a role and to an organisation. It took years for me to realise, understand, and eventually overcome the constant desire to question myself. Trust in yourself, have confidence in your strengths – because if you don’t, no one else would!

Challenge 2: Travelling to new places: I have traveled across the globe for education and for my work. It can be quite challenging to pack up your entire life and move to another place to start there all over again. Having said that, I would do it all over again. I don’t enjoy the packing and moving part, but I do enjoy exploring new places! So far, I have lived across 3 continents and would love to cover the remaining 4 as well.

Where do you work now? Tell us about your role in the larger Healthcare ecosystem

Without getting too much into the technical details, I work as a Medical Advisor for start-ups that are working on solving different health issues in the community. I am a part of Praan Foundation, where I developed the first of its kind training program to create awareness about mental health. It is a global program that enrolls volunteers to serve as first responders to help those in emotional and mental distress. I am also working with AITalos to create an AI-based breast cancer prediction tool to help in the early diagnosis of the disease.

Can you tell us, what are the skills required in your role?

The job requires technical skills and soft skills such as people management, community engagement, collaborations, networking, strategic planning, time management, collaborative leadership, scientific communication.

It is easy to gain the technical skillset – all my years of formal education are more than enough to provide me with the technical skill set. It is the soft skills that are most important and most difficult to learn, considering there is no formal education for that. I picked up these skills during my years of education and work, through activities that are often labeled as “extracurricular activities”. Nonetheless, they are as important as technical skills.

I’ll talk about soft skills in detail here because they are often neglected. I had worked on my communication skills from my early school years by participating in various extracurricular activities and this continued up until my doctoral days. I have been a speaker, panelist for discussions outside of the classroom, school/program ambassador, and so on. With every event, I was able to hone not only my communication skills but also learn how to develop relationships and build a professional network. I participated in sports events and led sports teams, which were great opportunities to learn leadership and people management skills. What I am trying to emphasize is to be involved in activities outside your classroom, because these are the platforms where you can develop your soft skills, which will help you in your career more than the technical skills.  

How does your work benefit society?

“Create a direct impact on the community” – this is what drives me every single day. As a part of Praan, I have trained more than 500 volunteers globally in just one year and I am very proud of their accomplishments as Mental Health Warriors on the field working tirelessly towards helping one individual at a time and improving the overall awareness about mental health. With AITalos, the goal is to address the unmet need for early diagnosis of cancer, especially in the developing world where advanced technologies are either unavailable or not affordable. Being able to touch the lives of millions across the globe with my work – is what I love most about my job.

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

I joined Praan Foundation, a non-profit NGO startup, with the goal to create a platform where discussions about emotional wellbeing and mental illness aren’t taboo. Within the first 3 months, I successfully converted Praan’s strategic vision of leveraging a volunteer-based model for mental-health awareness into a reality. There were multiple challenges along the way, and overcoming those challenges and successfully implementing the program isn’t the reason why I chose this example. Being able to amalgamate all my training and work experience – from bench to bedside to the community – to implement a global decentralized healthcare delivery model is the achievement I am proud of!

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Journey: It is the journey that matters, not the destination. Reaching your goals isn’t as important as the knowledge and skills you gained along the path to your goals. Everything that the journey has to offer – the good and the bad – all are learning opportunities, to grow and evolve to become a better version of you. Don’t be too focused on your own life and your own personal goals. Zoom out and look at the holistic picture and how you can contribute to creating a better world.

Passion: Don’t be just another person in the crowd. Stand out! And the easiest way to do that is to follow what you’re passionate about. It might not be easy, it might be the path less traveled, you might fail, but still, pursue your passion with all the courage and strength and you’ll be successful.

My one piece of advice to any young student would be to stand up for yourself and what you believe in. Give it some thought: find what you are passionate about. Please don’t follow a path because someone else did it, or because your parents want you to. If you want to be content with your life, choose your own path.

There are ample resources available these days to explore the various opportunities. If STEM doesn’t interest you, you’re NOT a failure. Find something else that piques your interest, and pursue it with all your energy.

Future Plans?

To be honest, this is open-ended. I am an eager learner and a “go with the flow” kind of person. At the moment, I have a keen interest in the interface of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Human Health, and I want to assimilate as much AI/ML knowledge to create innovative solutions to complex biological problems.