Thanks to the power of bioinformatics, we can understand the complex information stored in DNA and make sense of it, allowing us to understand the biological workings of every living organism.
Nitin Agrawal, our next pathbreaker, PostDoctoral Research Fellow (Bioinformatician) at the Folkhälsan Research Center in Helsinki, Finland, uses computational methods to look for biological indicators of current and future diseases (like diabetes) in children.
Nitin talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about facing the tough decision of declining a job offer in software to continue studying biology at the Master’s and PhD level.
For students, though you will always feel the pressure of the future, you need to develop the attitude to experiment and learn without the fear of failing !
Nitin, can you tell us about your background?
My name is Nitin Agrawal. I grew up in Kolkata and studied in Abhinav Bharati High School till the 12th grade. In class 11-12, I studied science. We were a regular, middle-class family with my father working in a company and my mother, a housewife. I used to play cricket fondly as a child, however, that stopped once I reached class 9th as I needed to focus on my 10th boards. Because I was an average student in class, I joined coaching classes to prepare better for the boards.
My interest in biology grew from 8th grade when the topics started covering human evolution. As I recall, this is the first time I took an in-depth interest in a subject and wanted to learn more about it.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
My interest in biology was alive and thriving since 8th grade and that is what led me to pursue a degree in biotechnology. My rank in AIEEE engineering exams got me a seat in NIT, Durgapur college, where I chose to study biotechnology. I continued my pursuit of biology by studying bioinformatics for my master’s from the University of Turku, Finland. I then did my PhD (Biochemistry) from Åbo Akademi University, Finland.
Tell us, how did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?
One of my earliest influences was my biology teacher in school, and later, biology teachers during my college and master’s degree.
I realized that they had the power to influence my interest in a subject, and my genetics teachers were excellent which led to my interest in that subject.
My discussions with teachers led me to finally realize that I am good at something (subjects like biology and chemistry).
A school quiz in the 8th-grade biology class about human evolution also piqued my interest!
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
Though it feels easy to look back and connect the dots of my career, in reality, I felt lost a lot of times, not knowing what I was doing and where this would lead to. The only thing I was sure of was that I wanted to study biology. But biology is a vast field. So, I made the best decision I could at any given circumstance, accessing the choices I had. In college, I did internships in different fields and laboratories: Chemical technology, Vaccine development. My projects were in different fields as well: Renewable energy, Waste Collection technology. I was experimenting and learning different subjects to understand what I liked most. I liked a lot of the subjects I studied. My key thought was not to be driven by a goal for a job, but by a goal for knowledge.
During my third year of engineering, it was time for a decision on my future. Not knowing what to do, I had cast a wide net. I sat for campus placements, I applied for Master’s studies in universities in India and Europe. I also registered for competitive exams for different universities and at an all-India level. For my master’s application, I had to choose the degree programs I wanted to study. I selected all the programs I was interested in. Finally, after the results came in, I weighed my options based on the input of my college teachers and from what I had learned about the different programs from the internet.
I chose bioinformatics for my Master’s studies based on the university reputation, the future potential and scope of the subject, and after talking to seniors studying in the same program (I found them on Orkut groups back then, it is much easier now with Linkedin ). Even after getting campus placement in a software company, I had to make the tough decision to decline the offer because I wanted to continue studying biology at the Master’s level. I always felt the pressure of the future, but I knew that this was the time when I could experiment and learn without the fear of failing, and that’s what I did.
During my master’s degree, we needed to do practical research and write a thesis book about our results. During my thesis research, I was studying the movements of proteins inside the cell membrane. I was doing this computationally by making simulations that were able to mimic the movement of the protein in a virtual environment in the same way proteins behave inside a cell. By the end of my thesis, I was able to track the movements of the protein virtually from inside to outside the membrane. Proteins are very important for the human body as we all know, but scientists still do not know how a lot of proteins function inside the body. Thus, my research was a really important step to find out how this particular protein behaved inside the cell. When I got exciting results and saw that my work made a difference in the scientific world, my interest in scientific research grew. This led me to look for research opportunities that I could pursue after my master’s degree. I got a PhD position in the same laboratory and started a new project for my PhD degree, in the field of Bioinformatics.
My PhD project still dealt with proteins, but a different one than my master’s degree. I was studying avidins, which are present in egg-laying species in the animal kingdom. Interestingly, avidins are also present in bacteria which is very unusual. My research was to computationally study the binding of proteins with different molecules and hormones present in the cell, such as biotin, steroids, and others. One important thing to note here is, I got accepted into this position because of all my experience during my bachelor’s degree, including my internships. I was asked during the interview if I can work in a lab since I also needed to do experiments for my PhD. To this, I confidently said yes, because of all my different experiences during college internships. So, even though I did not know at the time, my experimental phase in college helped me get a job in the future.
During my weekends in Finland, I had a lot of free time on my hands. In my first few months, I had made a few friends who had introduced me to different activities to stay healthy and not get bored. This was before the time of Netflix or Amazon prime, so watching movies was also not so easy, and binge-watching had not been invented as a concept yet. During this time, I found a small cricket team of primarily Indian people in my city. I was curious and went to try it out. This helped me reconnect with my childhood love for cricket and I started playing it as a hobby. This gave me a well-needed break from the hectic research life and made me more social, helping me come out of my shell.
During my PhD, as a hobby with my friends, I used to apply for hackathons and competitions. This allowed me to present my ideas to companies directly. In one such competition, we presented an idea to Valio (the largest milk company in Finland, similar to Amul) about reducing carbon from the environment by changing the diet of the cows they own. I learned a lot about running a business in this project. We opened a consultancy to do projects like this full-time.
After 2 years of successfully working as an entrepreneur, due to the covid virus, the business took a massive hit and we could not get any new projects. This was a difficult time and I had to look for a job. Finally, I found a postdoctoral position in Folkhälsan research center based on my master’s and doctoral qualifications. I have been working as a bioinformatician/postdoctoral researcher since May 2021.
How did you get your first break?
I consider my first break as my master’s degree admission. Before that, I was doing what was expected of me, such as getting admission to a good college.
A close friend and classmate told me about Finland and their free education system. He encouraged me to apply together. We prepared our applications and our other necessary documents and finally applied.
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
Challenge 1: Understanding what I want to do in life when I grow up was a big challenge. I addressed it by learning about subjects I was curious about and indulging my curiosities without feeling guilty.
Challenge 2: When I was faced with problems and challenges that I was unable to solve, I asked for help from my seniors or other people knowledgeable in my field.
Challenge 3: When things were tough with my business and I felt lost, I kept my faith in my abilities and kept trying by applying for different jobs until I found one.
Where do you work now?
I am a PostDoctoral Research Fellow (Bioinformatician) at the Folkhälsan Research Center in Helsinki, Finland.
What problems do you solve?
I look for biological indicators in the bacteria present in the saliva (mouth) of Finnish children. We estimate that these bacteria will help us know about the current and future diseases (like diabetes) that these children may have.
What skills are needed in your role? How did you acquire the skills?
The skills needed to do my work are knowledge of bacteria and computational tools. I acquired both during my bachelor’s and master’s degrees. My PhD degree helped me with the interpretation of the results that I get from my work and to confidently present my work in front of others.
What’s a typical day like?
A typical day involves me using computational methods of bioinformatics to work on finding the types and names of bacteria in a saliva sample. Then we need to compare the bacteria with a healthy person’s bacteria to see if our sample has some differences or not. If we find differences then we check further to see any indications of diseases, if not then we classify the sample as healthy.
What is it you love about this job?
I love the fact that I get to make a real-world impact with my job. My results and my work improve the lives of people by helping them understand that they may have diseases and can take steps to prevent that.
How does your work benefit society?
As I mentioned, my job has a real-world impact that directly helps improve the lives of children in Finland. I feel this is impactful and beneficial for society. So, anyone who wants to work towards improving the lives of others should definitely look into topics such as microbiology, genetics, medicine, and epidemiology.
Any living organism are complex in nature, and they have a lot of information stored about themselves in their DNA (millions of petabytes). To understand the biological workings of a human body, we need to understand the information stored in their DNA. To go through all the information in a person’s DNA, we will need hundreds (if not millions) of years. The steps involved are, first, decoding the information, then reading it, and finally, making sense of the information. Thanks to supercomputers and sequencing machines, we have now been able to decode genetic information from DNA now in a matter of days. This information can be now read and deciphered quickly thanks to various bioinformatics tools available. This is the power of bioinformatics: it helps you to understand the complex information stored in DNA and make sense of it, allowing you to solve complicated problems such as diseases and their cause.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
I remember the first results I received in my current work. It showed how the use of antibiotics impacted the bacteria in the children’s mouths, which in turn had long-lasting effects on their health. This was new information for me and I was very happy to present this information to the world (I am working on the report at the moment).
Your advice to students based on your experience?
Be curious and do not be disheartened with failures. Life is long and sometimes failures that seem big at the time, may not matter in a couple of years. As long as you are curious and want to learn about the things that interest you, you will do well in life.
I would like to continue working in the same field, working on bacteria and having a real-world impact on people’s lives.