Breakthrough advancements in Analytical Chemistry and Computational Biology have enabled early detection of metabolite biomarkers to better understand a disease and recommend innovative approaches through personalised medication.
Dr. Vidya Velagapudi (PhD), our next pathbreaker, Director of Precision Medicine at AstraZeneca (Sweden), provides expert advice on precision medicine based diagnostics and treatment strategies.
Vidya talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about leveraging her extensive R&D background in biomarker discovery, metabolomics and precision medicine to support potentially disruptive developments in translational science.
For students, we can’t control the beginning of our journey but we can definitely control where and how we end up! There is no short-cut for success!
Vidya, can you talk a little bit about your background?
I was born and brought up in Nellore, Andhra Pradesh, India. During my school and college days, I was very active in various extracurricular activities like science fairs, elocution, essay writing, quiz, debates, theater, dancing, singing and appeared in TV shows apart from my regular studies; and won many prizes and certificates in various competitions. I am a trained (semi)-classical and folk dancer, and Chess is my hobby. Among all the activities, I was always intrigued by science fairs and developed a keen interest quite early on. During that time, it was not very easy to score full marks. I still remember that I scored 98/100 in the Science subject in my 7th class and 90/100 in 10th class public exams. I can’t recollect any school event without any of my performances. Although I had to spend a lot of time in rehearsals and missed many lessons, I still managed to top in studies most of the time by putting in extra effort and obtained 84% in 10th class (1994). Computer science was just being talked about during that time. I participated in an inter-school written test competition, where the top 10 students would get free basic training in Computers during the summer break. I was one among them and was so excited, however, people discouraged me from availing the training opportunity as the thinking at that time was that computer knowledge was needed only for students, who would seek an Engineering degree.
My 1st lesson: If you want extra in life you need to put in extra effort.
Have a strong mind, don’t get influenced.
Though I scored 93/100 in Mathematics in my 10th class, my passion for science pulled me towards a Botany, Zoology, Physics and Chemistry course for my Intermediate (+2). I studied in my mother-tongue, Telugu, for 10 years and then switched to English medium. Though it was extremely difficult in the beginning, and I even thought of switching back many times, I decided to fight it out anyway. I used to go to college which was 5 KM away, by bicycle around 7:15AM and return around 6:30PM, and again study until midnight – which was tiring. I borrowed books from the library in both languages and learnt all the terminology, scientific names, spellings, etc. and put in a lot of hard work. In the board exams, I scored 80% in Intermediate (1996) – this was my first victory!
My 2nd lesson: Come out of your comfort zone for better growth.
Don’t run away from problems – stand still and face them how hard they might be.
What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?
For my Bachelors, I took basic science subjects – Botany, Zoology and Chemistry, where I developed an interest in Chemistry as well and scored 90/100. I finished my Bachelors in Biology (1999) with 80%.
I joined Biotechnology for my Master’s degree at Hyderabad Central University, India. That was the first time I was away from my parents, my hometown and in a completely new environment. Though it was overwhelming at the beginning and I felt homesick, I soon realized that I was on my own in a new city, first time in a hostel, adjusting to new weather, people and food. Despite all the odds, I tried to focus on my studies and for the first time leant how to use a computer. I quickly understood that I needed to develop experimental & technical skills, so I started applying for summer internships during my 2nd semester at various reputed institutes – CCMB, CDFD, ICRISAT in Hyderabad and TIFR in Mumbai. I actually had to learn how to even apply properly – prepared my first CV, cover letter, got reference letters etc. Except CCMB, I received offers from all the other 3 institutes and chose Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR). During my internship, I got an amazing opportunity to witness high-quality research with state-of-the-art facilities, attend scientific seminars, spend quality time with great minds – professors and research scholars, and immerse myself in discussions with peers who came from other prestigious institutes all over India. That was the first time when I came to know how Bioinformatics tools are going to transform future research and understood that I needed to develop computation skills. During my 3rd semester, I joined basic computer training outside the University. I finished my Master’s in Biotechnology (2001) with 72%.
My 3rd lesson: Self-discipline – even when nobody is watching you, use your freedom and free time for a meaningful purpose.
Self-assess – invest in your development and acquire new skills.
I pursued a Post-Graduate Diploma in Bioinformatics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Again, I was in a completely new environment and had a tough time adjusting, especially to food. I lost weight and hair (even more heartbreaking!). Though I was quite excited at the beginning, I soon realised that the course was very tough with intense Maths, Statistics & Computers. I studied very hard and finished my Post-Graduate Diploma-Bioinformatics (2002) with 71.5%. Based on my exposure at TIFR, I applied for a PhD program at ICGEB, Italy for which there was a 2 step selection process; I cleared the 1st step in India but couldn’t clear the 2nd step in Italy. I understood that I needed to gain research experience, which might be helpful in availing highly competitive, fully funded PhD positions abroad.
During campus placements, I was shortlisted for 2 companies. I had absolutely no idea about how to prepare for a job interview at that time. First one was a telephone interview for Cipla Pharma, Chennai – I was very nervous, some questions I couldn’t hear and some I couldn’t answer properly. Second one was an onsite interview for Dabur, Delhi – Though I did a little better in the interview, I was still too anxious and nervous. I couldn’t answer confidently though I knew the answers. Obviously, I was not selected. Then I analysed my mistakes, prepared and practised well, and attended onsite interviews for C-DAC, Pune and Dr.Reddy’s Lab, Hyderabad. I got selected in both and I chose Dr.Reddy’s Lab, where I could also learn new experimental techniques.
My 4th lesson: Self-analyse to improve yourself and keep on trying until you succeed.
What were some of the influences and driving factors that led you to such an offbeat and unconventional career?
I believe it is my passion for Science and self-motivation. Though I got inspiration from my teachers, lecturers and PhD scholars, I didn’t have any mentors to guide or advise me to build my career. I had to learn everything the hard way and pave a career path by myself. Since my childhood, I always wanted to learn new things and excel in whatever I do. The biggest turning point was doing my PhD, which helped to shape my career.
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.
1999-2002: I received fellowships from the Department of Biotechnology (DBT), India during my Master’s and Post-graduate diploma courses.
2000 (May-Aug): Visiting Researcher – Molecular Biology, TIFR, India. I received a VSRP fellowship. This summer internship was very close to my heart as this was my first job. Again, I was in a completely new environment that required me to adapt. I investigated sugar transport defective mutants of S.pombe: Analysis of genomic and cDNA clones. I learnt molecular biology techniques, how to – write a report, prepare slides and give presentations. I had given my first scientific talk in a journal club and presented my research results at the end of internship along with my peers.
My 5th lesson: Surround yourself with positive people, and don’t be shy to seek help.
2000-2001: Graduate Researcher – Microbial Biotechnology, HCU, India. This was my Master’s thesis, where I studied screening for phosphate solubilizing activity of rhizobacteria and cloning of partially digested genomic DNA from one rhizobacterial isolate. This was my fist high-throughput project where I screened so many strains manually and utilised various molecular genetics & microbial culture techniques. I learnt to plan a project, do experimental work, as well as interpret data etc.
My 6th lesson: Thesis writing takes longer than anticipated time – plan well ahead.
2002 (Jan-May): Post-graduate Researcher – Biostatistics, JNU, India. This was my Postgraduate diploma thesis, where I did statistical characterization of complete microbial genomes. This was my first project, where I learnt how to use bioinformatics tools, biostatistics methods, data analysis and visualisation techniques, and presented the results as a poster in a symposium.
My 7th lesson: Understand your data and choose the right data analysis methods.
2002 (Jun-Dec): Research Associate – Proteomics, Dr. Reddy’s Lab, India. This was my first full time job and again a new environment to adjust to as I lived on my own for the first time, and started appreciating how tasty the hostel food was. My role was to analyse Proteomics data from breast cancer samples in a newly built facility. I contributed to building the Proteomics lab, where I participated in installation and learning of MALDI-ToF Mass Spectrometer (MS), liquid handling system, protein separation techniques, imaging software, setting workflows, and also visited the hospitals to collect breast cancer samples and clinical sample management etc.
Since my ambition was to pursue a PhD, I started applying to many fully funded programmes. I was shortlisted for telephonic interviews at the University of Geneva, Switzerland – Molecular biology; Technical University of Munich, Germany – Bioinformatics; and for University of Saarland and Max-Planck Institute for Informatics, Germany – Metabolic Flux analysis, where I was also invited for an onsite interview (my first experience abroad). I got accepted in all 3 programmes and chose Max-Planck, as the research topic sounded quite novel to me where I could utilise both my experimental and bioinformatics skills. I resigned from my job and moved to Germany at the end of December 2002.
My 8th lesson: Volunteer and learn new techniques & cooking – Follow your dreams.
2003-2005: Doctoral Researcher – Biochemical Engineering, Max-Planck, Germany.
Again I was in a completely new environment to adapt – new country, culture, very cold weather, people, food, language, alone at home with no internet and TV, but I was still excited. I got my first mobile and laptop. My project was to investigate phenotypic and fluxomics profiles of S.cerevisiae single knockout strains under different carbon sources using isotope labelled tracer studies to identify metabolic and enzymatic activities. It is good to see how metabolic flux analysis is widely used in human health research nowadays. I worked closely with a Bioinformatician and contributed to building statistical and metabolic models. This was my second high-throughput project, where I screened 100 strains manually in 3 different carbon sources – 300 samples for all the experiments! The research area was completely new to me, first I had to learn about biochemical engineering concepts, all analytical techniques – microtiter plate batch cultures, GC-MS, HPLC, academic writing, reading research articles, MATLAB to run simulations etc. I also had to take 2 viva exams (almost the whole Stryer-Biochemistry and Industrial Biotechnology books) which I passed successfully, and every year I had to teach theory and lab practicals to Bachelor’s/Master’s students for a few weeks – that was my first teaching experience. To cope up, I used to work from morning till night every day and half-days during weekends. That was overwhelming – is just an understatement!
At one point, I was stuck because I couldn’t get any good results (I guess every PhD scholar experiences this phase). That was a very frustrating and depressing period. From then on, I gathered all the energy to fight my battle, paid attention to minute details, rectified my mistakes with the guidance of my supervisor, and redesigned the experiments. I had put in a lot of hard work and efforts, when I used to wake up at 3:30 AM, cook food for lunch, take the first bus at 4:30 AM and the last bus at midnight whenever I had to run time consuming experiments due to long culturing duration with hourly readings to take, and then come again early morning next day to continue the analysis of samples – that was quite exhausting physically. Slowly, I got back on track and co-developed a novel analytical method using MALDI-ToF MS. I received grants to attend conferences, where I presented my results. My research on quantitative metabolic flux analysis along with high-content phenotypic screening in yeast single knock-out strains on different carbon sources enabled elucidation of gene functions. I had finished my PhD in Biochemical Engineering with “Magna Cum Laude” grade (second highest honour) – this was my second victory!
In spring of 2005, I participated in the first FEBS Systems Biology advanced lecture course in Austria, where I was fascinated to learn about its role in human health and how future research is going to be transformed with Omics techniques and quantitative biology. Due to my exposure at the workshop, I wanted to switch my career to human health and systems biology research. Based on my background in metabolism and MS technical skills, I applied for a Post-doctoral position at VTT Oy, a Biotechnology Contract Research Organisation (CRO), Finland in September 2005. This was my first attempt and I was shortlisted for a telephonic interview in October, invited for an onsite interview in November, and received the offer in December. I moved to Finland in the 1st week of January 2006.
My 9th lesson: Never lose hope, how dark it might look around you.
Take control over your emotions and try to get out of the grey phase.
Have patience, perseverance, learn from failures & start over from your experiences.
2006-2007: Post-doctoral Researcher – Quantitative Biology, VTT Oy, Finland. Yet another new country & ecosystem to adapt to. In the beginning, it was not easy – it took a while for me to adjust to the extreme winter (-25C) and very long summer days (no Sunset). My European Union (EU) Post-doc project was on “Hepatic and adipose tissue functions in metabolic syndromes”. First, I had to learn about the therapeutic area and new analytical technologies – QToF, GCxGC-ToF, and ORBITRAP tandem MS for Metabolomics and Lipidomics analyses. I got trained in “Advanced MS based Metabolomics” in Denmark; “Hands-on workshop” in France; “Microarray data analysis” in Finland. My EU project was in close collaboration with the University of Cambridge-UK, where I visited the lab and worked along with the collaborators, and also other institutes across Europe. I had regular stimulating discussions with the computational biologists about big data handling and analyses. I contributed significantly to project delivery, coordinated clinical and animal sample logistics and management, analytical and statistical analyses, data interpretations and publications, and partnered with academicians and clinicians. I got trained in project management at VTT. I received an award for merit for exceptionally well-performed project work, and I was offered a permanent position at VTT.
My 10th lesson: Be proactive and broaden your horizon in diverse fields.
Collaboration and networking are crucial for successful teamwork.
2007-2009: Research Scientist & Project Manager – Systems Biology, VTT Oy, Finland. I continued to work on several EU clinical biomarker projects – Type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance, obesity & cardiovascular diseases, and also acted as a project manager. I followed up on the budget and contributed to internal auditing, milestones, deliverables, as well as being the point of contact for other partners, and taking responsibility for generation of good quality analytical data. I got trained in “Multivariate data modelling for Systems Biology” in Norway. I closely worked with bioinformaticians and statisticians, and bridged the gap between the “Multi-omics Analytical” team and “Biosystems and Modelling” team.
I had my first child, and while on parental leave, I worked on the manuscripts which came for revisions, and my ability to multitask really helped. After coming back, it was initially difficult to adjust to the new life as I was still nursing, and we moved to another house, all of which was quite exhausting. I worked on the Human Frontier Science Organisation project – “The gut microbiota as a novel target to treat metabolic diseases”. I was selected among top 10/100 applicants across Europe to attend the 1st “Future Systems Biology” workshop by the European Commission (EC) in Sweden. I also received an award for merit for excellent work and establishment of the Systems Biology platform at VTT.
Ours was the only group specialized in Clinical Metabolomics at that time. In order to provide access to all the academic groups, my supervisor along with other partners formed a consortium and applied for national restructuring technology funding. I was offered to represent the Metabolomics part in the consortium and take a lead role. Though the full picture of funding and road map were not clear, it sounded like an exciting challenge. I accepted nonetheless, though I had a permanent job. I took part in the consortium meetings to prepare for the interview round for funding evaluation. We were successful and received the grant to kick-off a new national core facility at the relatively new – Institute for Molecular Medicine Finland (FIMM), a Nordic European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) research institute. Slowly I transitioned from VTT to FIMM and finished all my ongoing projects and publications.
My 11th lesson: Believe in yourself – Don’t be afraid to take up new challenges.
For work-life balance – multitasking and prioritisation (ignore messy home) are key.
2010-2019: Director – Metabolomics/Lipidomics/Fluxomics, FIMM, Finland. The aim was to build a new national core facility and offer “High-throughput Metabolomics Services”. This was my first leadership position with big responsibility to form a team and develop people. I started building the new lab from scratch, inventory, technology scouting to select the best instruments via open bidding and procurement, installing QQQ MS/MS and a liquid handling system. We could recruit only one analytical chemist with our funding, which was not enough to run a functional lab and offer services. It was expected to generate revenues to recruit more people and cover running costs of the facility (egg and chick problem). I had my second child, and while on parental leave, I followed up with the latest technological trends, whenever I could.
After coming back, I realised there was a clear lack of leadership in the lab. Though I was just a scientist, due to scarcity of resources, I quickly realised that I had so many roles to play, though I was not formally trained in most of them – administrator, finance controller, fundraiser, recruiter, secretary, communicator, consultant, technician, line manager, reporter, planning & operational lead, and resources & project manager – that was a “one woman show”. First, I had to learn how to even perform these tasks while on the job and implement them carefully. In the beginning, it was extremely hard to manage all the work with an infant and a toddler, especially when they were sick; we moved again to another house and renovated. My husband offered his best support and equally shared all the responsibilities throughout, sometimes even more. As a mother, I wanted to provide the best care and nursed both the kids for around 18 months. I struggled to cope up as it was draining all my energy physically and mentally (used to fall asleep in the bus and miss my stop so many times). However, I was determined to run the facility successfully. I started planning and executing my day systematically.
First of all, I had to make sure that we offer the services asap in order to avail the next round of funding. For that, I had to finalise the analytical method development and validation according to regulatory guidelines, organize sample logistics, manage processes and biobanking procedures, as well as optimize the method for various biological sample types, set up QA/QC checks, data management and backup etc. Furthermore, it was very difficult to get customer projects in the beginning since ours was a new facility with new methods – foremost, I had to identify the groups that “needed” our services, for which I was going through their research area one by one to make a list; when I contacted some group leaders, they asked for proven applicability via research publications (metaphorically – asking a fresher for an experience). Though I am not a trained business professional in terms of branding, marketing & sales, I understood that I needed to build the “trust and credibility” first. I used to travel a lot, visiting various groups and presenting our end-to-end services with full validation, quality of the data, and our support from the study design until publication. I honestly explained what can/can’t be achieved, and the realistic turnaround time etc. My interdisciplinary educational and professional background, and proven expertise in various technical skills and omics data analysis really helped me to communicate well with group leaders from diverse fields. I marketed our services successfully and established a large national and international recurrent customer base across Europe.
Finally, we started offering the services in 2013, when I brought in new customer projects regularly; made strategic decisions to develop new assays where we often had to come up with creative and innovative ideas; provided expert consultancy and support to customers; made service agreements and invoices; handled thousands of sample and data analyses from clinical population cohorts; ran multiple big projects simultaneously and finished on time; assessed risks and mitigation plans; established robust workflows; established QA/QC checkpoints; defined standard operating protocols (SOPs) and ways of working (WoW); came up with best practises; led automation of the tedious manual data processing procedures; implemented full electronic documentation by following good laboratory practice (GLP) standards; and communicated effectively with cross functional teams, stakeholders and senior management. I got trained in “Integrated multi-omics data analyses” at the European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI) in the UK; also in “Leadership, Team work & Negotiation skills” in Finland; and the “EMBO Lab management course for group leaders” in Germany.
Many research groups across Europe (e.g., various Universities across Finland, University hospitals, Sanger Institute – UK, Karolinska Institutet – Sweden, CECAD – Germany etc.) utilised our high-throughput quantitative metabolomics and lipidomics analyses to predict early metabolite biomarkers, disease stratification, treatment targets, and associations with disease status etc.
We received excellent feedback in user surveys regularly (>4.5/5). I was successful in service business development and sales, where I was expected to generate break-even revenue every year starting from zero. We achieved self-sustainability status within a year of operations in 2014 and maintained it every year, which covered all the running costs, salaries, travel expenses, consumables, software licenses, and instruments’ annual service contracts etc. I also acted as Chair of the whole national Metabolomics platform, where I took care of the consortium meetings, annual reports, funding proposal submissions and participated in interview evaluations by external scientific advisory boards. We received an “Outstanding” performance rating and successfully generated significantly competitive infrastructure funding. I scaled up the facility with 5 instruments (QQQ, QToF, ORBITRAP, 2 QTRAPs MS/MS), secured the extended lab and office space which we renovated; and with steady increase in revenues, I was able to recruit 5 people. Based on my hands-on experience and expertise, I expanded the facility’s operations to Lipidomics and Fluxomics too. I fruitfully established national and international collaborations and published >50 research articles. I was successful in creating brand value also for the facility, where we gained international visibility and were invited to participate in inter-laboratory ring trails etc.
I formed an interdisciplinary team (Analytical Chemist, QA/QC Analyst, Metabolic Flux Analyst, Biochemist, and Biostatistician) and developed them into a high-performing group. I made sure that I developed my team members continuously, involved them as authors in publications wherever possible and motivated them to publish method papers. All my ex-team members got excellent career opportunities in academia and industry. I became a globally recognized professional and was invited to share my expertise to set up a new metabolomics core facility at EMBL, Germany. I was an invited technology expert for an interview and was featured in a spotlight article in a Canadian newsletter. I was a member of Pharmacometabolomics and Precision Medicine group at The International Metabolomics Society (USA), where I led the task group and published white papers as a senior lead author; international QA/QC consortium member – to set standards and best practices; EC ELIXIR Finland representative – Metabolomics community for Bioinformatics resources. I received performance recognition awards in 3 consecutive biannual rounds for excellent work. This whole experience made me feel like an “Entrepreneur”, who successfully built and operated a “Start-up” company. This was my third victory! Since there was no career development for service facility personnel, I searched for other prospects and held 2 more affiliations in addition to this role.
My 12th lesson: For work-life balance, effective time management is key.
You cannot unleash your full potential unless you stretch your limits.
Have an entrepreneurial, innovative and creative mindset.
Don’t be stagnant even if you are flourishing, drift towards growth.
2012-2019: Docent (A/Prof) – Translational Science, University of Helsinki, Finland. Since I was also interested in teaching, I applied for “Docent” status as I fulfilled the eligibility criteria (academic merits and publications), and I got trained in pedagogy from University of Helsinki (UH). Docent status is required to officially supervise PhD students and apply for some of the grants. The review of my application was positive and I was invited for a public teaching exam, which I passed with “Very Good” grade and I was offered the Docent status. I acted as PhD student advisor at UH. Initially, I had to balance my work to prepare teaching and training material. I taught Clinical Metabolomics and problem-based learning case studies to Medical, PhD and Master’s students at UH and other national universities. I received funding from graduate schools to organise annual hands-on Metabolomics and Lipidomics workshops and training early career researchers. Student feedback about my teaching has been excellent (>4/5). I was an elected steering board member at UH for the Translational Medicine International Master’s degree programme, where I contributed to the course development in board meetings, student selection and interview process annually. I have been acting as a reviewer for international peer-reviewed journals related to metabolism (e.g., Nature Communications); and an expert reviewer and rapporteur for many funding programmes (e.g., FWO PhD proposals, Belgium; Various national grant proposals – UK, France, Latvia, South Africa etc; EC Marie Curie Post-doctoral fellowships; Horizon 2020-21 etc).
My 13th lesson: Teaching, training, organizing, reviewing, and evaluation need a great deal of engagement and time commitment – plan the work well ahead.
2016-2019: Principal Investigator (PI) – Biomarker Discovery, UH, Finland. Since I had the required academic merits, I applied for a PI status at the Faculty of Medicine, UH as it is also required to apply for some grants; my application was reviewed positively and I was offered the PI status. I led precision/translational medicine, and early biomarker discovery projects in pan-therapeutic areas (metabolic, autoimmune, mitochondrial and neurological disorders, cancers, infections, allergy etc.) together with clinicians. I initiated and contributed to investigator initiated clinical intervention studies, analyzed and interpreted the complex scientific data. I also acted as a PI in a newly selected research program unit. I was a committee member for international conferences, organised workshops and satellite meetings. I was invited as a Precision Medicine expert to participate in panel discussions globally. So far, I have published over 70 research articles in reputed journals (Total citations:5515; h-index:34), and given over 35 invited talks at international scientific events.
I wanted to start my own research group. Since I was in the service facility for quite a long time, it was very difficult to come up with an independent research line. However, I had put in a lot of efforts (e.g., surveying literature to understand the state-of-the-art technologies and knowledge gaps, checking the groups working on similar lines etc.) to come up with a research proposal and applied for so many small grants initially, and also applied for group leader and tenure-track positions at UH and FIMM (Institute for Molecular Medicine Finland). All of them were rejected and I didn’t know the reason since foundations don’t provide any feedback, only decisions! As an academician with publication activities, though rejections were not new to me, I was very disappointed thinking that my proposal was not good enough for even small grants. Moreover, it was very time consuming as each funding body requires a CV and proposal in a different manner, format and varying page numbers! I finally thought it was just a waste of my time and stopped applying. But then I recollected my experiences and whatever lessons I had learnt so far and decided to fight the battle anyway. I aimed high and applied for Finland’s very tough call, “Academy Research Fellow” grant. I got 5/6 points from an external combined evaluation and was on the waiting list in my first attempt! This was my fourth victory! though I didn’t get the funding. I applied again a couple of times but was rejected. Every time I would get 5/6 points but no funding (some of those who had the same points got the funding based on criteria which I was not aware of).
Next, I aimed even higher, to apply for the toughest call, the European Research Council (ERC) grant by EC. I worked very hard to come up with a completely new proposal – partnered with clinicians, secured the access to clinical cohorts and metadata, arranged letters of support, generated preliminary results, demonstrated my ability to conduct independent research through publications as a senior lead author, discussed with vendors about new instrument’s capability etc. while reviewing 5 Marie-Curie Post-doc proposals and attending a conference in another country to give 2 talks at the same time. I cleared the first round, which itself was a great achievement! I was invited for the interview in Brussels, Belgium, where I had to organise a workshop and give 2 talks at a conference right after the interview in another country. I did my level best in front of 20 panel members (I felt “Shark-tank” was much better), however, I was rejected. But still this was my fifth victory! For the first time in my life I was a bit proud of myself, because I did this on top of my regular full time job without having my own line of research career; and with 2 small kids at home.
I achieved everything I could, where I brought the facility up to “auto-pilot” mode and I was left with no options other than running the facility until I retire, which was kind of cool as I had set everything up and it was time to reap the benefits of my hard work. But that would mean doing the same stuff, which was not challenging enough or exciting, for the next 30 years! That simple thought itself was suffocating enough to quit my 15 years of academic career. Thus, I decided to steer my career towards the industry.
My 14th lesson: If you are in a hamster wheel, jump out and move forward.
Don’t take rejections personally & let yourself down – they are just part of life.
Never undermine your capability – dare to aim higher and don’t be afraid of failing.
2019: My industry job hunting experience. This was a bit of a strange situation as I didn’t have to look for a job in the last 15 years and everything looked new to me. I started searching for suitable openings and applied with a CV that I used for grant applications. All my applications were rejected and I received automatic emails at midnight. I understood that I needed to come up with a better strategy – followed the job market, new trends, and used online resources. I reformatted my CV and cover letter according to the job description. Due to my proven expertise in various sectors, I was able to apply for a wide range of roles.
I was invited for an onsite interview at a pharma company in Finland. I prepared very well and to my surprise the whole time was used only for the HR round without any technical round. To the best of my knowledge, I did well in the HR round but I was not selected! I also attended an onsite interview for a start-up company in Finland. For a couple of rounds, everything went well but I didn’t hear their decision at all. Then I started applying outside of Finland. I was invited for an onsite interview for a company in the UK and the interview went very well. Meanwhile I was also invited for an onsite interview at AstraZeneca, Sweden. I prepared thoroughly and did my best but was not selected. Then I received news from the UK company that they could use my skills in another role than the position that I applied for and mentioned that they will create a new role for me to join. I stopped applying and I was mentally preparing to move to the UK. I waited for a long time and when I followed up they said they had changed their mind! I was back to square one – lost a lot of time, but then started applying again. I found another suitable role in AstraZeneca and applied in June, by telephone and for an onsite interview in July. I was offered the position in August, and I resigned my job and moved to Sweden in September. I believe all the previous rounds of interview experience helped here.
My 15th lesson: In interviews, demonstrate how you can bring value to the company.
My transition from academia to industry: I didn’t prepare anything specifically for this transition. I believe all the transferable skills that I acquired over 2 decades in different roles helped me. For e.g., leadership; line management; supervision; interdisciplinary team building and people development; problem solving; time management; effective communication with stakeholders, senior leaders, & cross functional teams; strategic thinking and vision; strong work ethic; collaboration and networking; flexibility and adaptability; critical/analytical thinking; decision making; handling difficult people and conflict resolution (e.g disagreements in consortium especially during funding period).
My 16th lesson: Implement the lessons learnt and skills acquired in life so far.
2019-2021: Director – Discovery Sciences, AstraZeneca, Sweden. There I was, after 15 years, again in a new country and environment to adapt to. It was yet another new domain for me to learn. I was Gothenburg site leader for “Compound Management” group operations and global leadership team member. I led a team of 10 in the delivery of research samples for drug discovery projects utilizing automation and robotics. I joined during exciting times when we were going live using completely acoustic technology for the first time. In the beginning it was quite challenging for me – new city, onboarding; adjusting to the corporate culture, getting to know my team members, global colleagues, cross-functional & IT teams, on-site engineers and external vendors; learning technicalities of the work, building network and collaborations etc., and all of a sudden the world witnessed the pandemic! I volunteered and led one of the core teams to establish Covid-19 internal assessment lab in Gothenburg.
We all had to come up with new ways of working as we are a central facility. Virtually, I led the team in establishing an automated aqueous sample management platform for new modalities; automated freezer; a platform for autonomous mobile robotics; process optimisations; department strategy building; to perform work in accordance with regulatory compliance standards. I was a lead for Center of Excellence – Sample Management; steering board member; core team member in Sweden Inclusion & Diversity group; committee member and interviewer for AZ R&D Graduate Programme. I was Discovery Science lead for a drug project. I led the team to improve sustainability – ours was the first lab in Gothenburg to achieve the highest “Green” level certification and acted as “Green lab champions”. I recruited people with complementary skills, developing them to maximise their potential and promoted 3 people. I received company recognition awards for Sustainability effort of the year – 2020; Outstanding contribution in delivery of Sweden Covid-19 assessment center; Successful reduction of cycle turnaround time to 50%; Discovery Sciences 2030-strategy building; R&D Graduate Program support; Performance Development Champion; Women in Drug Discovery – AZ Diversity & Inclusion. I wanted to be closer to the clinical side, hence I applied to other roles, where the interview process was exactly the same as before (as an external applicant). I got 2 offers and chose – Precision Medicine Lead role in Oncology.
My 17th lesson: Effective leadership is needed to cope up fast-faced corporate culture
How did you get your first break?
My first break was when I got selected for the Post-doctoral position in Finland, which helped to advance my career, by open call and interview process.
What were the challenges? How did you address them?
Well, my life has been full of challenges since childhood as described above.
My 18th lesson: Have self-confidence to tackle challenges and make tough decisions.
Where do you work now?
2021-till date: Director – Precision Medicine, AstraZeneca, Sweden. I started this role just 3 months back. Not surprisingly, again I am in a new environment where I have to set everything up and learn about new things. My responsibilities – to provide expert advice on strategic and innovative precision medicine approaches; planning and leading activities from technical, financial, risk, regulatory, IP and partnering perspectives. A typical day is like coordinating with cross functional teams, offering leadership and support to diagnostic experts to ensure the delivery of a diagnostic strategy. For this role – biomarker discovery, translational science and precision medicine expertise are required, which I acquired in my previous roles. What I love about my job is how my work is going to make a difference to patients’ lives.
My 19th lesson: Have a vision and think/work strategically to achieve set goals.
What, according to you, is the difference between academia and the industry?
My take on the difference between academia and industry: In academia, no matter how talented, hardworking and visionary you are, your research career eventually depends on funding which you can’t control and has become a lottery these days. However, the situation is much better in the industry, where your efforts would be appropriately recognised.
You may reach out to me via my professional profile at LinkedIn.
My 20th lesson: Secret of success – Self-motivation, lifelong learning and hard work.
How does your work benefit society?
Our aim is to bring the best medicines to patients. My work helps to provide the right treatment to the right patients at the right time – personalised care for cancer patients.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
I was invited as a lead reviewer in a committee along with the Noble Laureate Sir Paul Nurse to evaluate the EMBL core facilities in Germany. EMBL provides a diverse range of practical services in life sciences.
I have been actively advocating for Women in STEM and gender equality, where I was invited to participate in several panel discussions, official meetings as a host or moderator along with Ambassadors, Ministers and other dignitaries – Finland & India.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
In this digital era, you have a myriad of resources just a click away, so use them wisely. Find a mentor, who can guide and help you early on. There is no short-cut for success, if you excel in whatever you do there will always be plenty of opportunities. Usually we can’t control the beginning of our journey but we can definitely control where and how we end up. All the very best for your bright future.
Short term – I would like to establish and develop myself as a recognized global industry leader in precision medicine and diagnostics in pan-therapeutic areas.
Long term – In Sanskrit, the meaning of my name “Vidya” is Science or Education. I would like to remain forever a student, who always seeks new knowledge.