Early diagnosis and intervention based on genetic technologies has the potential to revolutionise healthcare globally !

Manali Naik, our next pathbreaker, Pre-Registration Clinical Scientist at West Midlands Regional Genetics Laboratory (Birmingham, UK), is part of a team responsible for carrying out genetic testing of prenatal samples of pregnant women in the region.

Manali talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about how her passion for Stem Cell Research built up over the years leading to a career in genetics.

For students, there are no shortcuts to your aspirations, its all about pursuing your goals relentlessly no matter what the obstacles are in your path !

Manali, can you take us through your initial years?

Right from the start, my upbringing and cultural exposure has been very diverse. As a family, we moved to a few countries; so, I have grown up living and traveling around the Middle East and different parts of India. My parents have always encouraged me to study a STEM subject. I always enjoyed Biology and Chemistry in school but knew that neither Engineering nor Medicine was for me.

When I was in the 8th grade, I came across an article in the newspaper about Stem Cells, and that was my first step in building a set of academic goals. I moved 8 schools through the years and studied in 4 different curricula and have been exposed to different teaching styles through my school years.

After 10th grade, I was really keen on studying the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme, which was great for me since I wanted to get into the science stream but wasn’t very keen on studying Physics! I finished my IB in Dubai and was able to apply for undergraduate studies in the UK. In doing so, I got to pursue this passion for Stem Cell Research which I had built up over the years and entered University hoping to become a Research Scientist in Stem Cell Molecular Biology & Technology.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I studied BSc (Genetics & Molecular Cell Biology) at the University of Sheffield in England. The course was very flexible wherein during my final year research project, I was inspired to switch streams from pure Molecular Biology to Genetics. I did an MSc in Human & Molecular Genetics also from University of Sheffield immediately afterwards. I was awarded two international student merit scholarships for the duration of my BSc and MSc, which financially benefited both my parents and me.

What were some of the influences that led you to such an offbeat, unconventional, and unique career?

I always knew I wanted to contribute back positively to society. My mother is a diabetic and has been on medication for many years now. She was my initial inspiration to go into this field and help people.

At university, I was initially unsure of which direction I wanted to head in. I did a summer internship in a research laboratory in India, and was not inspired by the research, as I had hoped. I was also beginning to realize that perhaps I don’t have a lot of original or new ideas that I could use to build a research project. 

Keeping this uncertainty in mind, I chose to do my BSc project in Cytogenetic Diagnostics, and this was what cemented my career goals. Analyzing real, anonymised patient samples for blood cancer diagnosis brought together both my passion for the subject and my desire to contribute to society. During this time, my project supervisor also strongly influenced my next learning steps – he motivated me to take this subject up further, and was my MSc course director as well.

As I studied the subject in greater detail, I realized the complexity of Genetic Diagnostics, its power as a tool in understanding disease occurrence & progression, and the overall value of diagnostics in a clinical setting. I knew at that stage that I wanted to build a career in this field.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Tell us about your career path

My path to my current position at work has been a challenge in itself; until I finished university, I was relatively certain that it would be easy for me to get a job and start my career in the right direction immediately after graduation. Right from my first introduction in 2015, I knew that I wanted to work in a Genetic Diagnostics Service offered by the NHS (National Health Service) in England. As such, I applied for a Scientist Training Programme offered by the School of Healthcare Sciences. After a very competitive selection and shortlisting process, I attended interviews, but was unsuccessful. This coincided with the end of my study visa, and I had to return to India.

Once back, I started working at a Contract Research Organisation – Anthem Biosciences – in Bengaluru. Here, I was part of a team that was carrying out research and production of in-house probiotic strains and industrial scale up studies. Despite enjoying the work and knowing that I was still in the field of biology research, I felt like I was moving away from Genetics and diagnostic work. I would spend my free time looking at PhD programmes abroad and applying for Research Assistant positions, in the hope that it would allow me to return to Europe and put me on a career pathway closer to my goals.

I worked at Anthem Bio for a year and through a colleague, found out about the cytogenetics lab at the Center for Human Genetics (CHG). This lab works in collaboration with multiple hospitals in Bengaluru and has their own genetics clinic. I went to visit and saw that the lab did a lot of pro-bono testing for patients of low-income backgrounds in their clinic. I applied for and secured a position in the cytogenetics lab and worked there for the next 14 months.

I immensely enjoyed the work I did at CHG. I was able to hone my diagnostic skills and spent a lot of time doing cell culture and other wet lab work to generate analysable material. I got the opportunity to attend guest lectures with the MSc students at the center and was able to teach them the basics of cytogenetic diagnostics when they came for lab training and projects. Again, however, I felt like I wanted to go back to the NHS. It was a dream and a goal, and I didn’t want it to slip away. I also felt that I had a lot more to offer to this field, and didn’t think there was much growth for me at CHG.

I got in touch with my MSc peers, most of whom had managed to secure diagnostic jobs in different NHS labs across the country. They guided me in building my CV and writing my Personal Statement. Now that I had some experience in the relevant field, I was able to apply for Genetic Technologist positions in NHS Laboratories and secure interviews.

The next hurdle I faced was getting a work visa. Most of the organizations I applied to believed I had the right qualifications to be employed; however, they were not able to provide me with employer sponsorship. I gave 4 interviews and though I was successful from a professional perspective, I got told they had to hire someone else because they were unable to sponsor me. It was a difficult time for me – I knew I had the right qualifications and experience, but was still unable to achieve my goal.

How did you get your first break?

In December 2019, I was offered a job for a Genetic Technologist position at the Birmingham Women’s Genetics Laboratory. They told me they were able to sponsor me, and started working on the process immediately. I was ecstatic, knowing finally that I would be able to achieve the goal I had been working relentlessly towards, for the last 4 years.

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

The biggest challenge I faced was the COVID-19 pandemic. Just as I resigned from my job to focus on my visa application, the first lockdown happened. It was a huge blow for me because my job offer was conditional on my securing a visa, and since the vacancy had to be filled within an acceptable time frame, there was a lot of pressure on me to obtain the visa. There was uncertainty on whether I would be able to make it in time, and the fear of what I would do next if I lost this opportunity. 

Through the months of lockdown, I continued to run around to secure my visa paperwork, and then wait for the offices to open. My family supported me through these tough times, and my new employers were patient; they believed I was a good fit for the organization and were determined to support me through these unforeseen circumstances. Fortunately, and after 6 months of struggle, I was able to travel to the UK on a bubble flight and start my new job.

Where do you work now? 

I started off as a Genetic Technologist at the West Midlands Regional Genetics Laboratory. Since February 2022, I have progressed to the role of a Pre-Registration Clinical Scientist here. This is a training role, which gives me the opportunity to learn new processes and analyses whilst still keeping me part of the very busy Prenatal Diagnostics (PND) team.

What problems do you solve?

The PND team is responsible for carrying out all levels of prenatal testing for the pregnant women in this region. As part of my role, I analyze fetal samples for common trisomies (including Down Syndrome) and carry out chromosome analysis via G-banding and microarrays. I also participate in multidisciplinary team meetings, maintain patient results lists, engage in continued professional development, and triage samples within the laboratory. In addition to my responsibilities at work, I am also working towards professional registration as a Clinical Scientist with the Health and Care Professions Council.

Since prenatal diagnostics affect ongoing pregnancies, all our tests require result output within 3-14 days of sample receipt. This means that we are often working under immense time pressure and have to prioritize cases often. 

What’s a typical day like?

On a typical day, I work alongside more senior scientists on a few cases and look at various test results to determine the best diagnosis for the fetal sample. We then generate reports which are simple to understand and convey all the information so that the patient can take a decision on the outcome of the pregnancy if they wish to.

How does your work benefit society? 

I love my job which gives me lots of opportunities to learn and grow, both as an individual and a professional. It makes me proud to know that our lab handles over 50,000 patient samples a year, and despite being a huge team, we work together to make a difference to society.

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

When I was in University, I used to do a lot of Science Communication work (something similar to this). As part of a departmental outreach programme, we organized a seven-week science festival called Krebs Fest, celebrating the life and work of Sir Hans Krebs and his legacy at the University of Sheffield. I was part of the group that volunteered for this festival and spent evenings interacting with people, both young and old, and displaying my passion for science and the University. It was a wonderful and enriching experience – teaching curious minds about science and showing “bizarre” things like cheese mites under the microscope and fluorescent zebrafish! 

After all these years, I still reflect on that particular event since it was a direct engagement with impressionable minds and it inspired me to always work with, and for society.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

My advice to students would be to make the most of every stage of your education and plan your time well! When I was in school, I used to finish off my work first, and then my parents would let me go out or spend time with friends. When I was in university, I was able to explore quite a few extracurricular endeavors, and this made me a well-rounded individual. Employers might screen via grades and degree classifications, but they keenly look for holistic development. Don’t worry too much about scoring top grades; instead, make sure you spend as much time as you can reading about new things, exploring your passions and honing your strengths.

The other thing I would say is – talk to people! Ask and absorb as much knowledge as you can. You might not like everything everyone says, but that’s okay, because you never know who will inspire you in your life, so don’t miss out on conversations ☺ 

Future Plans?

As of now, I am very happy working at the genetics lab here in Birmingham. It makes me very proud to know the difference I am making to patient healthcare and lives every day. At some point in the future, I would like to explore genetic diagnostic healthcare options in India and see how we can improve lives there too. I would love to impart the knowledge and skills I learn in my life to help as many people as I possibly can.