The human microbiome (huge and diverse community of microorganisms ) is closely linked to our health, through which we can understand diseases and our immune systems better !

Malini Kotak, our next pathbreaker, Microbiome Scientist at ITC Ltd. (Health and Hygiene segment), works on R&D of products for the Savlon brand, which has been in high demand for the last couple of years.

Malini talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about having worked on a vast array of projects in various fields including biotherapeutics, cancer therapy, skin microbiome, biofuel etc. that benefit the society through healthy, sustainable, cleaner and greener products.

For students, the field of Microbial Genomics has a diverse range of applications in healthcare, environmental and consumer products with the sole aim of a better lifestyle for all of us !

Malini, can you talk a little about your background?

I grew up in Vadodara, a small city in south Gujarat, in a lower middle class family. My father used to work in a Bank as an officer and my mom was a homemaker at that time. Growing up, we lived in a neighborhood where families did not welcome a girl child and did not invest much in her education. However, my parents, especially my father, made sure we got the best education, and from our formative years, inculcated in us strong values about education, career and overall independence. 

I distinctly remember, from the very early days, when my father and I used to talk about my interest in science and a career as a scientist. When I was in third grade I won a dance competition and received a book on the lives of world renowned scientists as a prize. That book sparked an interest in science and my father helped me nurture that interest by guiding me every step of the way.

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

For my bachelors, I majored in Zoology (minor in Chemistry and Botany) from Maharaja Sayajirao University, Baroda (MSU). Then I moved on to do my masters in Microbiology from the same University and later on obtained a PhD in Microbial Genomics/Quantitative Biology from The University of Texas at Arlington (UofT).

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

It’s a funny story ! After my 12th grade, I was contemplating my career options when one day during our dinner conversation, my father told me about Biocon, its founder Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw and how its shares were performing well. So the next day, my best friend had this brilliant idea of visiting MSU and meeting a counselor to understand what we needed to study in order to get a job at Biocon. That kind fellow mapped my career path by determining that we will need a Masters in Microbiology and a bachelors in Zoology to achieve our dream job. Funnily, my friend moved on to pursue a career in the aviation industry after bachelors, but I stuck to our plan of cracking the Microbiology entrance and working for Biocon. 

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? 

Since none in my family or close circle had ever worked in this field, my journey has been full of trials and errors. Below mentioned two strategies worked for me. I came to a point where I was unable to decide how to take the next step.

Having a mentor: This is when a mentor helped me move forward. My father set up a meeting with one of his clients, Dr. Raghu Rangaswamy, who at that time was working as a scientist with Schrodinger. During our brief meeting he talked about the fascinating field of drug discovery and showed me that scientists could be cool and funny and not necessarily nerdy or eccentric. After that, over numerous telephonic conversations, he helped me brainstorm various career possibilities, helped me put together a plan of action and eventually played a huge role in helping me decide my next career move which was to obtain a doctorate. Since it was a huge decision, he encouraged me to get some experience before committing to this decision and I am so grateful to him for mentoring me through this uncertain phase. 

After my masters, I spent 2 years exploring various career options and evaluating the right fit. To start with, I took up a DBT fellowship to work on a protein engineering project within a research lab at MSU. During this period I was introduced to doctorate level research, so I gained confidence in my research abilities and clarity on the kind of research I would like to do. Next, I took up a trainee position in an analytical and development lab at Indus biotherapeutics that manufactures therapies for cancer and infectious diseases. During my time at Indus I observed that problem solving roles, which I was interested in, were given to PhD holders while the non-PhDs did routine work and their growth was stunted. So even though I enjoyed working in industry, I decided to obtain a doctorate degree. 

These experiences not only gave me clarity about my career interests but also helped to strengthen my PhD applications. Owing to my strong application, I was awarded two very prestigious scholarships at UofT that are awarded to students with high research potential. As a part of these scholarships my entire tuition for the doctorate degree was waived off and I also bagged a teaching position that took care of my living expenses in USA. 

My PhD thesis was on Termites, as we all know, which are highly efficient at digesting recalcitrant wood particles and so they are considered as an ideal model to understand this process which can be applied to produce alternate/bio fuels.  This ability of termites relies on their partnership with numerous microorganisms that reside in their gut. My PhD project was focused on understanding the microbial makeup and functioning of the termite gut ecosystem. Culturing these termite gut microorgansisms is a big challenge, but Rodrigues Lab, where I worked during my PhD, is one of the few labs that has been successful in culturing key organisms from termite gut. I was involved in sequencing the genomes of these organisms to understand their ecophysiological roles in the gut ecosystem and their potential applications in the biofuel industry. My contribution in this project was to make the genome sequences of these novel organisms available to the scientific community for future research, identify potential enzymes/genes for biofuel production and understand the evolutionary mechanisms used by these organisms in adaptation for a host associated lifestyle. 

Short term internship or training which helped me in making an educated decision: A common concern among PhDs across the world is deciding whether to pursue a career in academia or switch to the industry. During PhD you are surrounded by people who chose academia, and so you feel that unsaid pressure to continue in academia. Having taught microbiology throughout my PhD career, I knew teaching was not my cup of tea though I did not know how to switch to industry as I had zero connections outside of academia. Around that time I came across this 1 year post-doctoral program at ITC Ltd., which is designed to give PhDs a flavor of the industry. My post-doctoral training at ITC was highly instrumental in my deciding to switch to industry as I fell in love with the fast paced work environment. 

How did you get your first break?

I got my first job through networking, through a friend of mine who recommended my profile to her company’s HR and that is how I landed my first interview. Honestly speaking, I got all my breaks through networking, both in industry or academia. The point I am trying to make here is that your good grades will only take you so far. But after you graduate from school/college/university you need a bunch of soft skills like networking to succeed. Unfortunately, our education system does not teach such soft skills and I will encourage all the students to take up online courses or take help from online forums to develop these skills. For example, I used to follow cheeky scientist ( when I was switching to industry after my PhD and they give some great advice on their blog for free. 

PierianDX was the first firm I worked for after my PhD. To explain my role in simple words, I was involved in the analysis of tumor/gene mutations in cancer patients to determine the treatment course. Though it was a short stint, I was highly interested to work with PierianDX because they are doing ground breaking work in the next generation precision medicine. However, the reason i quit so early was the startup environment, which is not for everybody, and the career trajectory in this field was not aligned with my long term goals. 

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

I think the biggest challenge I faced was in identifying the path to become a scientist and the steps to get to the career path. 

The second challenge I would like to mention here is to stay motivated and keep putting in hard work as the monetary reward of pursuing a career in the STEM field is very less and it requires a long trajectory of educational training. What helped me was investing time in identifying jobs that allowed me to work on projects that 

a. I was highly interested in 

b. brought job satisfaction or 

c. had potential for huge contributions towards society. 

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?

I currently work as a scientist for the FMCG giant, ITC Ltd., in their Health and Hygiene segment. A typical work day in my current job is highly dynamic because of the COVID-19 situation. I work on R&D of products for the Savlon brand, which was in high demand for the last couple of years. We start our day with a new issue almost every day and everyone on my team, including my manager, would have zero clue on how to solve that problem. As a team we identify the root cause of the problem, determine a course of action and execute the plan to solve the problem. I love this very dynamic and challenging nature of this job and the opportunities it provides for growth and learning. My current role requires a plethora of skills but the key skill required to do this job is out of the box thinking, which I developed during my doctoral and post-doctoral training.

How does your work benefit the society and what are your future plans?

Throughout my career, I have worked on a vast array of projects in various fields including biotherapeutics, cancer therapy, skin microbiome, biofuel etc. which all had intentions of helping the society in some form or the other. To give you an example, as previously mentioned, I am working on developing personal care products like hand wash and hand sanitizers for the Savlon brand. When news of COVID-19 outbreak first came out we knew that personal hygiene practices like washing and sanitizing hands will be essential to prevent the transmission of this disease. We worked throughout the first lockdown to establish efficacy of our products against the COVID-19 virus and developed new formulations to meet the rising demand for these products. At ITC, we are adapting our products to address the consumers’ unmet needs, for example I am working on technologies that provide long lasting antimicrobial action which will provide an added protection. 

My overarching goal is to create knowledge and understanding about key health and environmental problems through science and help the society by achieving sustainable, cleaner and greener products.

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

As I mentioned earlier, I have a keen interest in understanding health related problems and translating that understanding to develop cleaner products. During my postdoctoral training at ITC Ltd., I got to work on one such project that aimed at understanding the impact of personal care products on skin microbiome and how to leverage that understanding to create personal care products that are clean and gentle on our skin. It is a memorable project because of its challenging nature as very limited work has been done on that front across the globe. And it was very rewarding as I got to create knowledge for the science community and hopefully this knowledge will help formulate the next generation of mild products, for ITC consumers, which will impact their lifestyle in a positive way. 

Your advice to students based on your experience

I have given relevant advice wherever necessary in previous questions but as a parting remark I will ask students to travel and explore the world, it can be for studies or short term training as exchange students. When you travel as a student for an educational experience, you get exposed to new cultures and ways of learning which will develop cultural sensitivity, expose you to globalization and build confidence as you will learn how to handle vastly different and potentially chaotic environments.