Breakthrough advancements in human genomics and personal medicine are driving the future of healthcare !

Rasika Raman, our next pathbreaker, Principal Product Manager at Navipoint Genomics, works with engineers, researchers and bioinformaticians to fulfill specific product requirements in the personal genomics sector.

Rasika talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about the importance of preventive healthcare, as we fight off the coronavirus, by taking proactive control of our health and building better immunity.

For students, genomics is probably one of the greatest mysteries of biology that requires many professionals to take it up and decode it !

Rasika, can you take us through your background?

I grew up in Hyderabad and studied in DAV Public School, which is known for its high standard of education. The teachers maintained an excellent system for enabling students to speak and write in the main languages (mine were primarily English, Hindi) fluently. This has been an advantage for me, and in my career for professional communication.

My dad ran his own company for 20+ years, a software firm that was primarily into digital solutions/services. My mum is a homemaker and ecommerce graduate – she also has a degree in Hindi (Visharad).

While I found biology, chemistry more interesting than math, I also had a strong affinity towards English, which was my favorite subject – be it grammar, creative writing or poetry.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I graduated from CBIT (affiliated to Osmania University, Hyderabad) in 2010, with a degree in BTech (Biotechnology).

I am also a certified fitness instructor since 2016 and currently hold 5 certifications in group fitness, pilates and Barre.

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

Since I always had an inclination towards life sciences, health and fitness, I knew I could not take up a job in the software industry (though I was selected for one during my campus placements). I think the support of my family was a key point at that time. I was never pressured into taking up the first job that came my way.

The turning point was when I landed my first internship at one of the leading biotech companies in Asia at the time – Ocimum Biosolutions. I was assigned to their lab team.

Looking back, I think I always wanted to be in the health and wellness industry and hence aligned my choices along those lines.

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 my career as a research associate in a DNA sequencing lab, Ocimum Biosolutions. My work helped me understand the end-to-end process of how products/services work, as well as the basics of sample preparation, sequencing, data analysis and customer report delivery. 

After a year or so, I wanted to work with the bioinformatics team within the same company, as I was keen on working with genomics data. I was assigned a couple of projects and the team was very happy with my work. During this time, the founders started another company (Mapmygenome) which would go on to become the pioneer in India, for consumer genomics/personalized DNA testing. I was fortunate enough to work on developing and marketing very niche products, the learnings from which are priceless. 

Ocimum had a very strong team of bioinformaticians and researchers. We worked on identifying DNA-based biomarkers for assessing a person’s risk for developing various lifestyle issues (such as diabetes, high blood pressure or even obesity). This means months of data mining into published case-control studies as well as internal testing, 

This was in 2012-13, when there was very little awareness about predictive testing and prevention. I spent a lot of time educating potential customers as well as our internal sales team, on the nuances of our products. We had to work very hard on concept selling. 

One day in 2013, a local newspaper (Hyderabad) picked up our story and published an article on how our products help people take control of their health. I will never forget the excitement on our floor that day. I had to leave my desk and move to the room where our sales personnel were answering calls all day, in order to help them address queries. Telling someone who stumbled upon our ad in the newspaper that they could order a kit, collect their saliva at home and send it to us – so that they would know how to prevent disease – sounds a lot simpler than it really is! I am talking about the general population or junta, regular folks like you and me who are either worried about their family history of diabetes, or are frustrated with not being able to lose stubborn weight, and people who really want to take charge of their health and stay fitter, stronger for a long time.

By 2015-16, I had moved out of the lab to become a full-time data analyst. By then, we had expanded our marketing efforts significantly. Since I had worked on the products from the beginning, loved to write content and work on customer queries, I became the product liaison for my team – and this was a turning point for me.

I realized that my biggest strength was in a role which involved technical skills + customer management + marketing/sales support. That is when I fully transitioned into product management. 

For this, I am very grateful to my employers who recognized my potential and allowed me to move into the role that I wanted.

On a side note, I still remember some of the most interesting queries we received – will I know if my child has the Sachin Tendulkar gene? Would like to take a DNA test for my wife and I, can we know how compatible we are? 

(if you are reading this, you should know that genetics is not the only thing that matters – your environment matters, too. So you should eat and train right, if you want to become an international cricketer! But yes, you have an advantage if your DNA gives you the ability to sprint)

My current job (third company) is also in the personalized health and wellness industry. I landed an interview through a friend whose ex-colleague had told her about this position.

How did you get your first break?

My first break was the BCIL (Biotech Consortium India Limited) internship via DBT, India – this is a program that enables graduates/post graduates to begin a six-month internship at biotech companies in India. The good thing about this program is that BCIL pays the stipend for the entire duration of six months, not the company.

Based on performance, the company may offer the interns a full-time position after completion of the internship.

I had applied for the BCIL program after my dad told me about it.

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

I think it is very important to keep reinventing yourself. Staying relevant in your field of interest is always a challenge. And when work gets very busy, sometimes you don’t have the time to read or catch up on new skills or trends.

I keep myself updated by enrolling in weekend courses or taking up new projects in the same organization, even if it is outside my comfort zone. 

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

Product management is often misunderstood as either being a technical role or a marketing role. The truth is that a product manager solves several problems across various departments. And that is why I love my job at Navipoint Health. I work with engineers, researchers and bioinformaticians for fulfilling specific product requirements, and then work with marketing/sales personnel to take them to customers. But what brings me the most satisfaction is when I interact with customers or potential buyers and educate them about products and services that our team has worked on.

We currently have customized products for children and young to middle-aged adults. Using at-home testing kits, users send us their samples. Based on their unique genetic and gut bacterial composition, we identify the foods and lifestyle that is best suited for them. This helps prevent illness as well as manage existing symptoms (e.g., high blood sugar, digestive trouble) better. We are launching a product for older adults/seniors later this year.

During a typical day, I may work on customer queries, product training sessions, technical discussions for product development or map new features for the next product release. I have leveraged a lot of my previous experience for working cross functionally and bringing new products to market. Apart from a strong ability to multitask, this kind of role needs prior experience as a technical specialist, a deep understanding of the market/customer needs, project/time management skills and good business sense.

How does your work benefit society? 

A lot of the work I do is related to preventive healthcare. Today, after fighting off the coronavirus, people are more aware of the importance of taking control of their health and building better immunity. The future of healthcare is extremely promising, you won’t see people wait for symptoms and then visit a doctor. You’ll see people track their health every day, week and month – in which genomics (DNA studies, gut microbiome studies etc.) has a huge role to play.

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

In 2015/16, I was one of the creators of a personalized DNA-based fitness report. This remains one of the most memorable projects for me, as it allowed me to use the knowledge gained from both my biotech and fitness education.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

  • Look beyond salary/pay and brand. 
  • Select a role that suits your personality and interests – and you can do very well. This will help you create a niche.
  • When you look at which company would be the best fit for you, always look into the background of the founder/owners, see what their story is. Working for people whose ideologies match yours – is a major plus point.

Future Plans?

To grow in the product management stream, and bring unique products across health, fitness, skincare, etc. To be a part of a global team of experts whom I can learn from, and contribute to overall business/growth of the personalized health sector.