Molecular modeling and simulation based approaches combined with machine learning and experimental techniques will continue to innovate, and accelerate our understanding of the inner workings of biological systems.
Neha Gandhi, our next pathbreaker, Program Lead at the Centre for Genomics & Personalised Health (Queensland University of Technology), leads a drug discovery team that investigates the structure and physical behavior of biomacromolecules using sophisticated computer simulation methods.
Neha talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about the importance of structural biology in understanding protein function within a cell or disease that would expedite translational research capabilities.
For students, a PhD is not only about learning to do science or conducting experiments but also about networking, time and project management and overall personality development (social and emotional intelligence).
Neha, can you tell us about your background?
I was born and raised in Navsari, South Gujarat, the town well-known as the birthplace of Jamsetji Tata and the Dandi salt march. My father practiced farming and horticulture, and my mother was a homemaker. My schooling took place in Navsari. In those days, commuting from home at one corner of the town to school and tuition was challenging due to limited road and transport infrastructure, in particular during monsoons. My papa and grandfather were associated with the sugarcane and rice research with the agriculture university, and cooperative societies like sugar factories, and philanthropy. Although I had exposure early on as a teenager to the research environment, tissue culture labs and breeding techniques, and diseases of plants, I didn’t think of becoming a scientist.
As a hobby, I enjoyed learning new skills that I could use in the future. The family holidays to Rajasthan invoked my interest in the history and architecture of forts and palaces, which continue to fascinate me even today. My work has taken me across the globe, though Udaipur remains my favourite destination.
Being a child born with a genetic disability who frequented maxillofacial doctors and speech therapists practicing in Mumbai, I strived each day to overcome the bias and stereotypes that people hold about people with disability. My parents shaped me in order to make me self-reliant; this was possible only through higher education and a career in engineering or medicine. I must acknowledge my school and tuition teachers for providing a positive learning environment for special needs students, like me. I scored well in my 10th and 12th, and my initial university preference was a bachelor’s in architecture followed by a master’s in town planning at the Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology (CEPT), Ahmedabad, one of the premier schools in India!
I grew up in an aristocratic but patriarchal family. My family spearheaded educational institutions for the empowerment of women and the underprivileged. However, upon reflection, I now recognise that the men in the family had more freedom to join businesses or courses like architecture than I had, simply because I am a female.
The Bollywood super-hit ‘3 Idiots’ pointed out how, in many families, girls are destined to become doctors; boys, engineers. Children tend to pursue the same jobs as their parents or aim to become what their parents recommend. In the worst case, you’d select engineering if you missed out on medicine, depending on the merit list. During the early 90s-2000s, computer engineering became the most coveted stream. In high school, I studied all four science subjects (Maths, Science, Physics and Biology), which made an undergraduate degree in computer engineering a feasible next step. I was never fascinated by computers or computer games; nonetheless, here I was, another misfit, a product of the Indian education system.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
I completed my computer engineering degree from the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, Gujarat, India in 2000. After significant work experience in the industry, I returned to academia and received an MPhil and PhD in Biomedical Sciences (2006-2012) from Curtin University, Western Australia.
What were some of the influences that led you to such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?
The final year of my engineering was a truly tumultuous year. I was hospitalised for a year without any precise diagnosis. I was treated for a range of diseases, from pneumonia to leukemia. When the diagnosis was finally made, it was evident that I had to go through a two-year treatment regime. Taking a break from university in the final year, however, wasn’t an easy decision. I feared missing out on my career as I saw my classmates engrossed in preparing for aptitude and English language tests to pursue MS degrees in the USA, one of the top destinations to work in the IT field. Although I managed to write the final semester exams while undergoing the treatment, I left the university demoralised, with low self-esteem and no hope of scoring a job or doing a MS in the USA. Fortunately, my father believed in me, even when I did not. He planned a visit to Pune, an education hub in those days, intending to help explore my post graduation options, like an MBA. I happened to meet Prof Kale at the University of Pune, who immediately recognised my aptitude for science-related careers and introduced me to the field of bioinformatics.
The bioinformatics field took India by storm in early 2000, and this seemed like a field where I could apply my training in computer science with biology. I packed my bags and headed to Hyderabad for training in bioinformatics (Certification from GVK Bio). Hyderabad, a city in southern India, hosts two central universities, three deemed universities, and six state universities, including the University of Hyderabad, Jawaharlal Nehru Technological University, Hyderabad, International Institute of Information Technology, Indian Institute of Technology, Hyderabad, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Hyderabad, Birla Institute of Technology and Science, Pilani, medical colleges like Nizam’s Institute of Medical Sciences, Indian Institute of Chemical Technology, Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology and International Business School. The vibrant cosmopolitan and scientific environment in Hyderabad provided the necessary stimulus to start my career in quantitative biological sciences. While studying the course, I worked as an intern (both paid and unpaid internships) at a few of these premier institutes. I thoroughly enjoyed my newly found independence in Hyderabad. From there on, there was no looking back. At this point, I excitedly took on a new professional identity as a ‘researcher’.
Tell us about your MPhil and PhD research?
Before my PhD, I was responsible for establishing a bioinformatics and molecular modeling facility at Zydus Research Centre (ZRC), the R&D wing of the multinational pharmaceutical company Cadila Healthcare Ltd., India. The challenges faced by pharmaceutical/biotech companies in identifying, developing, and approving novel chemical entities that can eventually become a drug is not only limited to the complexity of the research but also often time-consuming and expensive. At ZRC, I collaborated with medicinal chemists, biologists and pharmacologists on drug discovery programs related to cardio-metabolic diseases and inflammation. Using different bioinformatics, modelling and simulation techniques, I helped them understand the structure of the molecules in 3D, reduce the reliance on the use of experiments in the lab and expedite the process. I was also encouraged to teach bioinformatics as visiting faculty with the Idea Foundation, affiliated to Sikkim Manipal University, Ahmedabad (India).
In 2006, I moved to Australia to undertake my M.Phil. at Curtin University, intending to return to ZRC, India. It was my first international move, and I did not have any family or friends in this new country. That being said, I took solace in the fact that I could communicate in English without issues and had trust in my supervisor, who provided sufficient support through emails before arriving in Australia. Indeed, the first several months were difficult; I had limited financial aid and had to change the project within 3 months of arrival. My motto in life has always been that “whatever happens, happens for the better”. I began working on a new project on understanding the modelling of complex carbohydrates in collaboration with Prof Deirdre Coombe at Curtin University. We continue to collaborate to date, and she has remained one of my dearest friends and mentors. I met several wonderful friends, colleagues, and academic advisors, many of whom went out of their way to help me adapt to Australia. I benefited from the interactions with the millennials, who were technology savvy, transparent, conscious about the world economy and contribution to society, and more tolerant of different races, religions, and cultures.
From 2005 to 2010, India changed its pharmaceutical and innovation policy, facilitating a dramatic increase in international clinical trials involving study sites in India compared to the basic R&D studies. Many R&D centres of the top 10 pharma companies that invested in early drug discovery programs underwent restructuring, mergers and acquisitions or were closed. Therefore, I stayed at Curtin University and extended my MPhil work in glycosciences to a PhD instead of returning to the industry in India.
My thesis investigated the 3D structure of molecules called glycosaminoglycans (GAGs) and their interactions with proteins using computational methods. GAGs are negatively charged polysaccharide compounds that are present in every mammalian tissue. Traditionally, the function of GAGs was thought to provide hydration to the cell and structural scaffolding; hence they are highly used as gels for the regeneration of tissues. GAGs, through their interactions with proteins, regulate fundamental biological processes such as the immune response and pathogen invasion. Their molecular structure determines their biological function, but it is challenging to extract information about molecular-level interactions from experiments. This lack of knowledge hinders efforts to develop therapeutic approaches that target GAG-mediated processes. An alternative approach was taken in my thesis, i.e. computational modelling, to investigate how GAGs engage their target proteins. My PhD thesis received a commendation from the Vice-Chancellor for excellence, placing it among the top 2% of PhD theses passed by Curtin University.
My academic and research ability has been recognised by awards such as an Endeavor International Postgraduate Research Scholarship (2008-2012) and a Curtin University Postgraduate Scholarship (2008-2012). During my PhD, I also acquired certifications from the Australian Network of Technology of Universities in intellectual property management, commercialisation, leadership and communication. Throughout my PhD, I received numerous travel awards to attend interstate and international conferences. Alongside my postgraduate studies, I was also employed part-time on a project with the biotechnology company, Proteomics International to characterise peptides from venoms (reptiles/scorpions) using bioinformatics approaches. The goal was to identify the functional composition of these molecules, which can be of great value to the pharmaceutical industry for numerous clinical applications.
I have many heartwarming memories from my postgraduate days, and I still collaborate with now well-established researchers who were my friends and colleagues during my doctoral days. Moreover, I had an opportunity to visit different countries in Europe either as a tourist or for work which has been a considerable advantage to raise my international standing in the field, exchange new scientific ideas and build new collaborations.
Tip: There are differences in the commonwealth and the USA educational systems, and I recommend doing your homework before embarking on postgraduate studies or postdoc positions in these countries. For example, I settled on Australia as I did not wish to do coursework, nor write admission tests like GRE, and the duration for PhD was shorter compared to the USA, given my work experience. That being said, it seems there are better opportunities in the USA for professionals working in IT, chemical biology, pharma/biotech and biomedical sciences.
How did you plan your career after completing your PhD?
I briefly moved to the USA for a postdoc but returned to Australia the same year to take up an early career fellowship.
After six months of training on the experimental and modelling characterisation of complex carbohydrates in the laboratory of Prof Umesh Desai, Virginia Commonwealth University, USA, I returned to Curtin University, Western Australia, in late 2012 to take up Early Career Research Fellowship. Compared to the USA, Australia offered me a fast-track pathway to an independent career and permanent residency.
Since my PhD in 2012, I have been successful in obtaining a Curtin Early Career Fellowship (2012-2016), a QUT Vice-Chancellor’s Fellowship (2016-2018), an Advance Queensland Industry Research Fellowship (AQIRF; 2018-2022) and an ARC ITTC (IC190100020; 2020-2024).
I extended my research at Curtin University to molecular modelling of intrinsically disordered proteins (IDPs), which play a role in neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. I was introduced to this topic while attending an international conference in France. I established collaborations with Prof. Guy Lippens and A/Prof. C Smet-Nocca (University of Lille-I, France), world experts – focused on NMR spectroscopy and in vitro folding and aggregation of IDPs. The opportunities to recruit and supervise PhD students were limited in Perth, being the most isolated city in the world. I supervised three Honors students, and three high school students and also mentored a PhD student from the University of Sunshine Coast.
In 2016, I was awarded a prestigious QUT Vice-Chancellor’s Research Fellowship and I relocated to Brisbane. My research mentors were Prof. YuanTong Gu (former first ARC Future Fellow at QUT, current Head of School, Mechanical, Medical and Process engineering) and Prof. Kevin Burrage – a highly cited researcher in computational biology. Under Prof Gu’s mentorship, I led a sub-group in biomechanics and molecular dynamics simulations and supervised PhD students (1 PhD to completion). Through the co-supervision of two PhD students, I made breakthroughs in fundamental studies of molecules like collagen involved in bone and cartilage repair in collaboration with QUT researchers. I was subsequently an Investigator on the ARC ITTC grant (IC190100020) led by Prof. Gu. I ventured into a new area to investigate the biophysics of lung surfactants at the molecular level in collaboration with Dr Imamul (Uni Sydney) & A/Prof Zak Hughes (Bradford, UK).
Brisbane allowed me to connect with my passion for badminton and the Indian community. I find sports, like badminton, help me perform at my best – in all aspects of my life – because they increase my confidence, reduce stress and allow me to practice being ‘in the zone’. While I was happy with the decision of relocating to Brisbane, major life events happened within a span of six months – in a most unexpected and overwhelming way. I have battled with a condition called “adenomyosis” since my adolescence and it has impacted my career as a working woman. At one point, I was lying on an emergency room bed with a risk of a haemorrhage and two weeks after recovering from this incident, I lost my father on new years eve. I brought my mother to Australia and became a caregiver. We stood by each other like a wall in the face of adversities.
In 2018, I was awarded a competitive Advance Queensland Industry Research Fellowship (AQIRF; mid-career level), wherein I am 0.6FTE (Full Time Equivalent) embedded in the industry and 0.4FTE at QUT, covering research, leadership and teaching. This fellowship allowed me to leverage my industry experience from India, in drug discovery and translate my research to make a bigger impact. I lead the Biomolecular modelling and drug design group, consisting of 3 PhD students, 1 MPhil, 2 Research Associates, and 2 undergraduate research students. I have established several national and international collaborations as evident by publications in top-tier journals, co-supervision of students and co-led drug discovery projects. I am presently being mentored by Prof. Derek Richard and Dr Rodney Cusack – leaders in the DNA Repair and Cancer programs and research commercialisation. As a steering committee member and program leader in Personalised Therapies within the Centre for Genomics and Personalised Health (CGPH), I work with translational scientists from the centre and industry partners from Australia. I understand their requirements and expedite early drug discovery projects using computational methods complemented by experiments.
I learned how to conduct research at ZRC and Curtin University, and continue to hone my skills, to this day. Seven years at QUT taught me a lot about organisational structuring, strategies to navigate through the academic system, leadership styles and most importantly engaging and dealing with stakeholders from various program teams or others from the management team to discuss program-related challenges. Students and collaborations are the backbones of a successful career in academia and I have been fortunate in both aspects. I have always kept an open mind about collaborations and have been inclusive. Nonetheless, one should be mindful to not spread themselves too thinly and should recognise that not every collaboration leads to fruitful outcomes.
I started practicing better coping mechanisms and demonstrating success, and therefore the credibility challenges and the gender barrier I faced during the early years started disappearing. I received several opportunities as an emerging leader. I was the chairperson of the Association of Molecular Modelers of Australasia (AMMA) MM2021 conference. The hybrid conference (in-person and virtual) took place from 6th-8th December 2021. My responsibilities included overall vision, strategy, planning, and execution to deliver a successful meeting, the only event for biomolecular modelers in Australia-New Zealand. I was invited to edit a special issue on advances in modeling and simulations of anionic molecules for the International Journal of Molecular Sciences (MDPI, Switzerland, 2021). I am currently the regional editor for the Taylor Francis Molecular Simulation journal and a review editor for Frontiers in Molecular Biosciences (Biological Modeling and Simulation section).
How did you get your first break?
I got my first break in 2003 to establish a bioinformatics and molecular modeling facility at Zydus Research Centre (ZRC), the R&D wing of a multinational pharmaceutical company (formerly Cadila Healthcare Ltd., India). At the ZRC, I was mentored by Dr Braj and Dr Vidya Lohray (Chief Scientific Officers), prolific chemistry researchers and entrepreneurs. I still remember my interview with Lohrays, where I was challenged to address my limited medicinal chemistry and pharmacology knowledge in two weeks. I landed a job (possibly due to my good communication skills, mannerisms and strong integrity), and performed fairly well. I owe the success to my former colleagues for their endless interactions and for keeping in touch to date. This research environment comprising over 400 scientists with diverse educational and cultural backgrounds advanced my knowledge and skills in life sciences within an industry setting. It allowed me to take leadership roles in drug discovery research.
The words of Dr (Mrs) Lohray will forever be engraved in my memory: “we provide equal opportunities to every employee, but only a few take it seriously”. I follow her mantra while recruiting and managing students for higher degree research programs.
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
I am an observer and a thinker; based on these traits, I share a few of my professional challenges and experiences.
Challenge 1: The transition from engineering to life sciences
As mentioned above, I had an undergraduate degree in computer science, while my work experiences were in biological and pharmaceutical sciences. While working at the ZRC (2003-2006), I realised that a PhD was required for my career progression in the industry, and management was very supportive of this idea. The biggest challenge was in finding an institution in India that allowed me to transition from an engineering degree to a postgraduate degree in sciences. Most institutions only allowed me to pursue a master’s in mathematics or an MTech in computer science, neither of which suited my interest. Therefore, I started looking at opportunities in the land down under. Australia offered multiple postgraduate pathways that not only considered my expertise in specific science subjects, but also my work experience and interest/enthusiasm.
I undertook my MPhil & PhD for six years and graduated in my early 30s. I am a mid-career researcher according to the Australian funding system, and my previous work is no longer taken into account. I leveraged my experience in the industry while selecting projects for my postgraduate studies, which helped to accelerate my completion of two degrees in only 5 years. Australia offers a fast-track pathway to Honors students in their early 20s; however, they might lack significant work experience to hit the ground running during their PhD.
Challenge 2: Self-sabotaging your career
Gender inequity, inequality and justifying career breaks are long-standing debates in STEM, and essential measures are being taken to address them to ensure sustainable development. In the context of my field of computational chemistry/molecular modeling, to address gender inequity and inequality, several measures have led to a steady rise in gender diversity over the last 40 years and likely to stand at around 25%, exceeding women in computer science and medicinal chemistry (Holloway & McGaughey J Chem Inf Model. 2018;58(5):911-915). Publishers like ACS and Frontiers put up special issues for women to promote them as lead or corresponding authors (Wahab et al. J Chem Inf Model. 2019;59(5):1683-1692). A worldwide database of women in theoretical/computational chemistry, material science, and biochemistry is accessible through the link http://iopenshell.usc.edu/wtc/. I am an advocate for females studying and working in STEM. One such demonstration/example is that 70% of my group members are females.
Besides this, bias towards women, and overcoming the negativity associated with ambitious women is important. I work in a male-dominated environment, attend events with men (such as dinners with collaborators, where I am the only female in the group) and am ambitious. I often get advised to tone down my approach toward others (especially towards the male gender). Such unsolicited or out of concern advice gets me to overthink the future and the consequences of being an employee who exceeds expectations with research papers, proposals, or job or award applications. What comes next? Besides the reputation, my ambitions will grow.
As a consequence, the workload and pressure on me will grow. This overthinking consciously or subconsciously hinders my career progression. I am going with the flow yet haven’t figured out how to stop self-sabotaging my career. Maybe I should follow my gut instincts, talk to high-achieving women, seek soliciting advice from managers and co-workers, and keep doing what’s right for me.
Challenge 3: Transition from academia to industry after PhD/or postdoctoral experience
This is a ubiquitous challenge for postdocs seeking job opportunities in the industry, abroad or in their home countries. Resources like cheeky scientists help PhDs transition from academia to industry. I have a vast network in India, through which I have landed interviews. In the last few years, I have interviewed with colleges, pharmaceutical R&D companies and CROs (Contract Research Organization), with the hope of returning to India, to be closer to my family. Besides the centrally funded institutions like IITs, IIITs, NIPER, IISER or CSIR labs, most of the universities/colleges (900 of them) are teaching universities and have a mediocre research component. Companies based in India and research universities are biased towards graduates from the USA. It was a big culture shock wherein I faced conscious bias, lack of decorum from the higher management and perhaps a feeling of threat from existing employees due to new overseas recruitment. I withdrew my application and wrote to HR informing them of the situation. No regrets; I stood up for myself! Interviewers need to understand that when a candidate has reached a position of formal leadership in academia, their technical skills become relatively less important to their ongoing success. In my experience, joining a company’s R&D could lead you to a smoother transition than jumping directly to business corporate or CRO.
Where do you work now?
I am a mid-career academic (10 years post-PhD) in the School of Chemistry and Physics and the CGPH at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT). My biomolecular modeling and drug design group consist of 3 PhD students, 2 MPhil, 2 Research Associates, and 2 undergraduate research students. I am an internationally recognised computational structural biologist and modeler investigating the structure and physical behavior of biomacromolecules which is of importance to health and material science.
What problems do you solve?
The highlight of my career has been in applying my transdisciplinary training to solve complex problems in chemistry, biology, material science and pharmaceutical/biotech research. Translational research programs require the ability to learn and communicate across disciplines to achieve advances in health care. I am currently one of the Program leaders in early drug discovery and a steering committee member for the QUT Center for Genomics and Personalized Health (CGPH). As a program leader, I have strengthened research partnerships between academic researchers and industry partners (see collaboration below) by providing hands-on drug discovery capabilities for their projects.
What skills are needed for your role? How did you acquire the skills?
Biomacromolecules like DNA, RNA, and proteins, act as sophisticated molecular machines in the cells. Understanding their structure and biophysical mechanisms requires multidisciplinary skills, including knowledge of chemistry, biology, physics, and computer science. You also require communication and team-building skills, as well as initiative, because you need to discuss, debate, propose your ideas, persuade others, and explain your research.
The transition from computer science to life science (I find statistics and engineering challenging even now) put me outside of my comfort zone, but I was fairly self-motivated, enjoyed learning and had a bit of confidence to get on and pick up on other disciplines.
I have now been in this field (industry + academia) for over 20 years. Practical experience in the industry is important, and during my stint in the industry, I was mentored by Dr Braj Bhushan Lohray and Dr Vidya Lohray, as mentioned above. In academia, I benefited from engaging with different mentors with different mentoring styles: a few who gave me the freedom to pursue my own path, while others who would advocate for my cause, help set priorities, work-life balance, and ensure I do not lose sight of my values. It has also been important to have peers at work committed to supporting each other, listening to you vent out over a cup of coffee, collaborating with each other, and holding each other accountable. Every time, a male mentor stepped up and supported me. These research and corporate environments advanced my knowledge and skills in life sciences and provided me with the opportunity to take leading roles in drug discovery research.
What’s a typical day like?
I am not an early riser like the top achievers/technocrats tend to be. Rather, I prefer to begin my day at a pace which leads to productive outcomes. At times, my day can start with a meeting with the collaborators at the NIH, USA (7 am) and end with a meeting with collaborators from Europe or India (7-8 pm AEST).
I have reserved Thursday mornings for meeting with my team and if required, one-to-one discussions and troubleshooting for their projects. Training students, teaching, writing grants, committee meetings and reading research papers form the majority of the day. I regularly review research papers for journals, examine PhD theses and sit on various committees within the school, faculty, centre or institute. Coming up with new projects through collaborations is a big part of the role and team management aspects. Friday is reserved for hands-on research projects that suit my interest.
I make sure that I end my day with a phone call to my mother, who is based in India or catching up with friends on WhatsApp.
What is it you love about this job?
I want to mention a quote by Alan de Botton “There is no such thing as work-life balance. Everything worth fighting for unbalances your life”. I often discuss work subjects at home, and it struck me that whilst the subject was usually associated with the workplace, many of my skills, techniques, and approaches are transferred from work to home and vice versa. I have a similar approach to my projects where I enjoy translating my skill sets to solve challenging problems of life – from drugs to biomaterials.
I love that my job allows me to engage and collaborate with multidisciplinary scientists, clinicians and younger generations. It is important to embrace diversity in an interdisciplinary field such as mine, where each member (independent of gender, age, race, experience, sexual orientation, disability, nationality, and culture) brings unique experience and expertise to the table leading to better science.
How does your work benefit society?
In my field of expertise, researchers have consistently leveraged computing technology to solve significant practical problems in chemical biology, materials science, and energy and efficiency, and will undoubtedly continue to do so. Biomolecular modeling and simulation approaches combined with machine learning and experimental techniques will continue to incorporate, innovate and speed up the understanding of the inner workings of biological systems and help develop solutions for treating human disease, improving global health and enhancing our environment.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
I will narrate two of my works – one in the industry and the other in academia. Firstly, before my PhD, I was responsible for establishing a bioinformatics and molecular modeling facility at Zydus Research Centre (ZRC), India, the R&D wing of the multinational pharmaceutical company. At ZRC, I was instrumental in predicting the binding of anti-bacterial molecules to ribosomes (Gandhi N, et al. Tetrahedron Lett, 2004). These models were predicted to be highly accurate compared to the experimental structures. Years later (2009), landmark research on X-crystallography of these molecules was awarded a Nobel prize in chemistry to Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, Thomas A. Steitz and Ada E. Yonath.
Secondly, carbohydrates like glycosaminoglycans are present in every mammalian tissue and provide hydration to the cell. Therefore, these molecules are widely used in tissue engineering. They resemble molecules like DNA/RNA in terms of their chemical properties at the atomic scale. However, understanding their structure and interaction with proteins is highly challenging. My significant research contribution (career from MPhil to date) includes developing and applying computational methods to decipher the interactions of these complex carbohydrates with proteins. In 2012, I was awarded a Letter of Commendation from the Curtin University Vice-Chancellor upon external examination of my PhD for my founding contribution to complex carbohydrate modeling. My efforts have inspired world experts in glycoscience to investigate GAG-protein interactions at the molecular level in various diseases, including COVID19. I am ranked 4th in Australia and 40th in Asia-Pacific by the scholarly output on this topic from 2011-to 2020.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
I am old school and prefer students with fundamental degrees at undergraduate level. Of course, the most exciting research is happening at the interface of the disciplines! Students may consider multidisciplinary or dual degrees during postgraduation. Also remember, careers like medicine or biomedical sciences are not built in a day!
I want to share advice using an excerpt of Indra Nooyi’s life lessons from the NDTV living legend awards speech “Remain a lifelong student; never be happy with what you know…whatever you do, throw yourself into it (source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=24d4rfnsOxg).”
PhD is not only about learning to do science or experiments but also about networking, time and project management and overall personality development (social and emotional intelligence). Be strategic with your PhD, reach out for support (learn to ask) and master communication and writing skills. For any project, literature is the key to success. Own your work! Please consider expressing your views during a discussion with peers, mentors (outside the field of your work) and supervisors. Setbacks, multitasking, stress or pressure are the norms in research or academic career. Learn the four C’s- Confidence, Control, Composure, and Commitment, which can help achieve resilience (having mentioned this, I must admit that I am still working to master these four C’s despite 20 years of my career, but I am good at multitasking). During this journey, seek to grow your professional network on sites like LinkedIn and look for a mentor (a mentor is not a supervisor, seek somebody outside your field) who can guide you and whom you can respect and trust.
Those thinking of a career outside India (besides IT or service roles), remember that career change is inevitable. It is possible that a foreign entity does not recognise your degree or skill sets. So, plan for it in advance, which will help you adopt and adapt more quickly to a new system. Being open-minded to different things and being a receptive person is always a plus; it might open doors to more opportunities, even to a career that is not necessarily related to your degree!
With the completion of the human genome project, proteomics and AI-based techniques like AlphaFold2 have revealed changes in protein expression, post-translational modifications, protein interactions and protein structure, all of which are imperative for a complete understanding of protein function within the cell or a disease. Many novel biological targets (~85%) that play a role in aging-related diseases like cancer and dementia are not well-characterised in terms of their structure or mechanism. Targeted drugs are still absent for these targets. I plan to lead the development of innovative computational methods and their applications to understand molecular mechanisms of targets considered undruggable and perform compound screening, followed by in vitro validations. This will provide solutions to biotech/pharmaceutical industries, train the student community in transdisciplinary fields to meet the industry’s demands and expedite drug discovery progress.
Further details about me can be found at