Helping patients suffering from chronic diseases requires thorough research on latest treatment strategies and effective communication between scientists and medical practitioners.

Shashank Tandon, out next pathbreaker, Medical Writer at Nucleus Global, a medical communications company, works with pharmaceutical companies to disseminate information on research related to drugs being developed by them.

Shashank talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his doctoral work in Neuroscience, his postdoctoral research on the neural mechanisms of drug addiction, and his clinical experience as an Addiction Counselor.

For students, a career path need not be linear. On the other hand, it can evolve over time based on your interests and aspirations !

Shashank, what can you tell us about your background?

I grew up in an academic background at the then University of Roorkee (IIT Roorkee) campus. My father was a professor of Physics at the University, and my mother, who is a chemistry post-graduate, taught in a school on the campus. 

All my schooling was from the St. Gabriel’s Academy in Roorkee. I took biology and mathematics as electives for my 11th and 12th standard. 

My father loves reading and hence, while I was growing up, our house was filled with books on different subjects. The ones that fascinated me the most were those on human behaviour and psychology. As a kid, glancing through them and learning about how experiments were conducted to understand the functioning of the brain kindled my curiosity and fascination with the brain and how it controls our behaviour.

I also remember visiting my father’s department and noticing researchers working in the laboratory. While I never developed much of an interest in physics, those visits made me curious about research and how it is pursued.  

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

I did my bachelor’s in Human Biology from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in New Delhi and my master’s in physiology from the same institute. My PhD is in Neuroscience from the National Brain Research Center in Manesar, Haryana.  

What spurred you to take up such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?

At AIIMS, I was fortunate to be taught by inspiring teachers who all had their own research labs. As an undergraduate, I was able to do lab rotations with them where I got to be part of their research labs helping PhD students with their research.  During my postgraduation, I had my own two-semester research project that focused on understanding the role of a brain area in human sexual behaviour using functional imaging techniques. These experiences emboldened my resolve to pursue a PhD in Neuroscience.  In my PhD, my focus was on understanding how the brain is altered after amputation and spinal cord injury.

Following my PhD, I moved to the US to do my postdoctoral work that focused on the areas of the brain that makes us seek reward, be it high calorie food or alcohol. My research focused on the question – what is different in the brains of some people that makes them vulnerable to suffer from addiction issues? I thoroughly enjoyed doing research on this question. At the same time, it inspired me to move beyond lab work to do clinical work with patients suffering from mental health and addiction issues. This led me to pursue a certificate course to treat people suffering from addiction. I have since worked as an addiction counselor, off and on, on the side.

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 started out by enrolling in a one-of-a-kind undergraduate course  at that time, B.Sc. Hons. (Human Biology) at AIIMS, that focused on human physiology, anatomy, and biochemistry. I particularly enjoyed studying human physiology during my undergraduate. That led me to specialize in it for my masters from the same institute. 

In my masters I was part of a research laboratory that focused on understanding the neurobiology of sleep and sexual behavior. While being part of this lab, I read many research papers in neurobiology. As my understanding of the brain mechanisms that control our physiology and behavior improved, I got motivated to pursue a PhD in neuroscience.

Subsequently, I was selected as a graduate student at the National Brain Research Centre in Manesar, Haryana. It was and still is the only institute in India that specializes solely in neuroscience research. I was lucky to be the first graduate student of my mentor, Dr. Neeraj Jain, and it was amazing to learn all aspects of research, from doing the demanding animal experiments, to analysis, to presenting the findings first-hand from him. I learnt many techniques there, including brain surgery in rats and monkeys. Some of the experiments were physically challenging as well and involved staying awake overnight for 3-4 nights with a team of people.

After my PhD, I was lucky to get an opportunity to work at Duke University for my first postdoc. I got that job as my PhD work matched the research questions that were the main focus of that lab. However, there was a small part of that lab that focused on understanding the neurobiology of taste and how we get motivated to eat salty food. I was fascinated by this particular research topic and decided to pursue it. This also led me to read more research papers on how we get motivated to seek rewards

After a two-year stint there, I moved to the Department of Neuroscience at University of Utah for my second postdoc. My initial research there was on a fascinating research question – what motivates us to seek high calorie food despite feeling full? Research has now shown high calorie food can be addictive for some people. So, my next research focused on understanding the motivation to seek reward from alcohol use. After four years as a postdoc, I transitioned into the role of a research assistant professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology at the same university.

All throughout my research career, the most satisfying part has been communicating about my research work. Thus, ultimately, I decided to shift from academics into the medical communication field. I recently made that move in early 2021, and I now work as a medical writer for a medical communication company, Nucleus Global.

This shift required me to do a lot of networking through LinkedIn, and through my network, I was able to get many freelance jobs in the field. These freelance jobs made me competitive enough to land a full-time job in the field. I started with editing manuscripts on a freelance basis for language and content at two publishing services agencies (Accdon and Linc science). After that, through someone I knew in my undergraduate days, I got a freelance contract job offer with a medical communication company, Cadent Medical Communications. I also did some freelance work for a biotech company, Scipher medicine.

How did you get your first break?

My first break was when I got selected in the Human Biology program at AIIMS. Even though I did give entrances for medical colleges, as was the norm then, my heart was not into becoming a medical practitioner. I was more fascinated by biomedical research. I believe my time in AIIMS exposed me to the kind of academic atmosphere that established my future research career.

My first break in the medical communication field from academics was by networking through LinkedIn. I had written to a few medical writers I had searched on LinkedIn on how to break into the field, and one of them suggested that I start doing freelance work first with a publishing services company, Accdon, since they are always on the lookout for editorial assistance for the manuscripts that come to them. I wrote to them, and after they took a test of my editing skills, I started freelance contract work with them.

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

My move from my hometown of Roorkee to New Delhi, and living in a hostel, for the first time, at the AIIMS campus and adjusting to the competitive environment there was definitely a big challenge for me. The first year at AIIMS was particularly tough with the intense coursework and frequent exams. What helped me the most at that time was slowly finding friends in the campus who made me comfortable, and over the course of the first year I was pretty well adjusted there academically and personally.

A more recent example of a challenge I faced was when my postdoc boss left the university, and I had to adapt from being a postdoc to becoming an independent researcher in a quick span of time. From being part of a research lab to being alone and getting out my research papers and applying for research grants was definitely a challenge. Having a positive outlook and not being ashamed in seeking help from mentors and professors helped me a lot to adjust to the change.

A third challenge was when I decided to move fields into the medical communication field. It required me to spend extra time beyond my work hours to do freelance medical writing jobs. I think getting the time out to do extra stuff is always a challenge but you have to be prepared to give those extra hours towards your goals. 

Where do you work now? 

I work remotely for a medical communication company called Nucleus Global.

What problems do you solve?

My current role involves working with pharmaceutical companies to disseminate information on research related to drugs being developed by them to increase the lifespan and quality of life of patients with chronic life-threatening diseases. Our team works with them to publish posters and oral presentations for conferences and publish research articles in scientific journals.

What skills are needed for a job? How did you acquire the skills?

My work requires analytical thinking skills, being detail oriented, and an ability to communicate scientific ideas in a clear and concise manner. It also requires an ability to work as a team, to be able to be flexible and quickly shift from one project to another. I believe I acquired many of these skills as a researcher. My freelance work with different companies also helped me transition to this field. 

What’s a typical day like?

A typical day involves working on drafting different kinds of documents, evaluating best ways to address feedback from different authors of the study, team meetings and meetings with researchers from the pharmaceutical companies. On days where there is less work, I read to stay up to date on the current research in the field. 

What is it you love the most with this job? 

What I like the most about this job is that it is intellectually stimulating as I get to learn the latest research in the field. I am working on helping patients by disseminating the information about cutting-edge research and treatments for these debilitating diseases, which motivates me every day. Also, I like working with a team having a common goal. 

How does your work benefit society? 

My work benefits the society by effective communication to scientists and medical practitioners about research on latest treatment strategies that can help patients with chronic diseases like breast cancers, rheumatoid arthritis, and chronic kidney diseases. This gives these medical practitioners the knowledge  about latest treatments e.g. a new cancer drug therapy regimen that has less side-effects that they can prescribe to their patients who may be suffering from side effects from another cancer drug.

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

In my second postdoc I studied the role of a small brain area, lateral habenula, and how differences in its activity makes some people more vulnerable to addiction. You may have noticed that some people get bad hangovers after drinking alcohol while others can drink a lot but still do not have much of a hangover. I found out with my experiments on rats that lower activity in this particular area of the brain may be responsible for no hangovers in some people after drinking alcohol, which in turn made them more vulnerable to abuse alcohol with time. I found this research one of the most fascinating questions I have studied in my research career. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

My advice would be to focus on building your network. Many people who I knew through my network have helped me along at different stages of my career. Do not be afraid or shy of reaching out to people whose work interests you. Most people are very willing to help out with any career advice. 

Also, read and listen to stuff beyond your current subjects. As you get to know about the different kinds of stuff people do for a living, you may find unique opportunities that may spike your interest as a career option.

Finally, be a risk-taker, do not hesitate to go into something you want to, but are afraid of, because it is too new to you. 

Future Plans?

My future plan is to merge my interest in neuroscience, psychiatry and medical communication to be able to become an expert medical communicator that communicates about the latest clinical research on neuropsychiatric illness.