In a growing economy like India, with an exponentially growing human population, and where treatment is not accessible or affordable due to large health inequities and disparities, health care should focus on prevention and control rather than cure !

Nikita Rajput, our next pathbreaker, Scientific Officer C at the Centre for Cancer Epidemiology, Tata Memorial Centre, works on understanding the risk factors of the different cancers in the  Indian population.

Nikita talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about her work on the GWAS project (Genome wide association study) for gall bladder cancer, which was the first GWAS from India on gall bladder cancer that was recognized and published in reputed journals.

For students, though you might not get instant results from working in the field of public health, the long term implications are enormous, through informed policies that promote healthy living and better lifestyles !

Nikita, tell us what were your initial years like?

I come from a humble middle class family and was born and brought up in Mumbai. My father is the only breadwinner, and my mother is a homemaker with profound hearing loss in both ears. I also have a younger brother who is currently a graphic designer by profession and mechanical engineer by education. Since my father is also from the science field, being a B.Pharm himself, we always used to have discussions on various topics of science and mysteries of the cosmos. Myself and my brother were always fascinated watching discovery, Nat-Geo and other science channels to understand how things work.

From my school days I was excited about biology, fine arts and altruism. I had cleared elementary and intermediate exams of drawing with good grades at school with the hope of pursuing fine arts if not science, in the future. I scored good marks in SSC and pursued science in 12th. Due to my mother’s hearing loss, I often accompanied her to the clinic or hospitals for regular audiometry consultations and understand the types of treatment. Waiting in the OPD, looking at the young kids having hearing issues and other speech issues, I dreamed of being a doctor so that I could treat or cure my mother’s deafness atleast and help the society as well. But there came a time when I was confused whether to choose science or fine arts. During my preparation for CET exams for the Medical field, I also started to prepare for JJ school of arts examination for BFA. But though I didn’t have much time for preparation for the upcoming exams ,I tried my best to cover the portions and practice for 2 months, but didn’t secure a seat there. Also, my CET marks were not optimum for getting admission in good medical colleges. But I had a plan B. I was very much interested in genetics, and biotechnology seemed an attractive option, as I came across this subject in my 12th science portion.So, having a good score in my HSC made me eligible to apply for this course. So, I went ahead with my gut feeling and opted for BSc in biotechnology at Khalsa College.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I did my BSc and MSc in biotechnology from Khalsa College, Mumbai.

Further what inspired me to continue masters in biotechnology was, a quote written by my late friend.

“DNA is the secret book written by Gods……………

Which now we have begun deciphering!!! ”

-Pranav Dixit

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

I never chose to be an Epidemiologist in the first place since I was unaware of its impact or courses which were available for a non-medical person during my college days. During our time, we were only introduced to a description of epidemiology in a small paragraph, for any disease we studied in our biotechnology course, and we didn’t know the role of epidemiology or its scope in transforming health.

I always wanted to do something in science and something for the society, and so the field of public health was apt for fulfilling my aspirations. I was an intern at KEM NIIH ICMR institute for my master’s project, where I learnt the skills of cytogenetics and fell in love with observing chromosomes under the microscope. My journey in cancer research started from there and I am thankful to my teachers, Dr. Lily  S Kerkette from NIIH who imparted her knowledge about cytogenetics to me. I am also thankful to my late professor at G N Khalsa college, Dr. Sneha Panvalkar for constantly motivating me and encouraging me to overcome any difficulties be it personal or professional, as well as my other professor, late Dr. Geeta Sadani for encouraging students to follow their dreams. Also apart from them, my other teachers like Priyanka Dave, Ajitha Rani, my friends, and their parents too had constantly held my back while I was going through a rough patch. I used my talent to organize events and won prizes at various inter-collegiate events ,and kept moving with my head high. My guide, seniors and current PhD guide also imparted knowledge about public health and epidemiology during work discussions. And last but not the least, my beloved parents supported me to pursue what I liked and what I enjoyed.

How did your build your career in the field of biotechnology?

When I opted for biotechnology as plan B after not getting into medical or fine arts for BFA, I decided to do research and accordingly applied to companies and institutions. I had two options for my internship during my master’s, one was from Cipla, a famous Pharmaceutical company and the other was from KEM NIIH which is a reputed ICMR institute. I chose the research institute even after knowing that working in Cipla would earn me a stipend and would increase my chances of getting hired after training, because my heart wanted to work in research and I wanted to experience it to decide if I should pursue it in future or not.

Five students each representing a different college were selected at NIIH.I was selected not solely based on my rank or percentage but also on the basis of my extracurricular activities that I participated in and volunteered for. 

At NIIH, in 9 months, I completed my project juggling between the college lectures and the ongoing project at NIIH, KEM. I have spent some Sundays too at NIIH where I was the only person in the institute, but everything was effortless because I loved the work. I learnt the skill of Karyotyping, G-banding, Cell Harvesting, Microscopy, Staining, Western blot, Gel Electrophoresis ,Interviewing, history taking and helping other colleagues ( team work).This experience helped me in cracking my first job interview at Tata Memorial Centre, which was a walk-in.

It is there that I realized that the work in which I helped my colleagues at NIIH was a required skill and not which I had done as part of my internship. Since I had experience of it while assisting my seniors in NIIH, I was selected out of 90 students who had applied for the interview. So always help your colleagues, because you never know what more you can learn.

My willingness to travel, learn and work hard with a positive outlook was appreciated by my interviewers. I worked as research fellow on a project at CCE (Center For Cancer Epidemiology), when it was just a department at that time, not a whole institute. Along with research I had to do administrative work, inventory management for the lab, and many other jobs under the same post since we had low manpower. But being a part of the core team for setting up the CCE institute and one of its kind Biobanking facility (Biobanking is the process by which samples of bodily fluid or tissue are collected, annotated, stored and redistributed for research to improve understanding of health and diseases) in the campus , gave me a lot of exposure to the management part, lab designing part of an institute. Since we saw the institute growing in front of us, I have a special bonding with it. But after working in Tata Memorial Centre for 11 months on contract and not being paid for the last 6 months due to poor DBT fund allocations, I had to try for a new job with more stability to support my family ( even though we were paid the whole salary as a lump sum after 6 months). I tried giving interviews in Glenmark, Genetic Diagnosis Center, and I got a break in Piramal Pvt limited, as a permanent employee in the R&D, Drug Discovery section which is a dream job for any Biotechnologist.

I was super excited, and learnt cell based Immunoassay and Cell Culturing for Drug Discovery. But this dream popped up as soon as I completed 3 months of service, when one day HR came into our section and delivered each of us an envelope. We were all given this same envelope and we couldn’t understand till the end what it was all about. To our surprise, the company was laying off its employees right from the top to the bottom with only 1 month notice and shutting the whole R&D unit with almost 1000 plus employees. We all were shattered, and as days passed, we accepted the reality and started enjoying our last days in office. We all started applying for jobs, but available positions were less, which was exacerbated by the sudden unemployment created by layoff. 

Due to family responsibilities, I again tried for a walk-in interview at TMC in the same section. Since I had good work experience and was a trained staff, TMC welcomed me again to join in the same post but sadly with the same salary as what I had earned a year before. I worked with the same enthusiasm and energy. I slowly applied for a higher post of Scientific Assistant and then for Scientific Officer at the Center for Cancer Epidemiology (CCE). There were many obstacles on my way, some were thrown by my own colleagues and some I used to make a bridge to cross over these hurdles. But at the end, one should always try their best and leave the rest to the universe.

Tell us about your PhD

Thanks to the blessings of my loved ones, I also got through the PhD entrance exam at the same institute. I started working with dual responsibilities, one as an employee and one as a student.

My PhD work is on finding the risk factors for Esophagus Squamous Cell Carcinoma in India, a case-control study. My review paper of the same is also accepted in a peer reviewed Indian Journal of medical and pediatric oncology. I am pursuing my PhD in health sciences under HBNI University (Homi Bhabha National Institute), which is the educational body associated with TMC.

During the Corona pandemic, I was in my second year of PhD. We did not have enough manpower to go to OPDs to collect data from patients nor were there patient who were coming for hospital visits.

During the pandemic, when everyone was in distress and my own family was hit by the same, I felt the need for healing by expression through art, especially after observing my teacher’s art work when she was dealing with cancer. I will always remember late Dr.Sneha Panvalkar as a role model who completed her PhD while her kids were studying. Along with her other responsibilities, she dedicatedly worked for her career, family and students.

With this, I started my pursuit of art therapy to heal people in stress or manage their pain. I found such a course and also wanted to help cancer patients with Art Therapy in my institute. So, I went ahead by pursuing a diploma in Art therapy. After completion of my course, I myself was going through a tough professional and personal phase, which I tried to manage by art therapy. I realized that healing myself was my first responsibility before supporting and helping others.

How did you get your first break?

After my masters and as soon as the results were declared, all my college friends would inform each other about interview opportunities in institutions or companies. During those days, we didn’t have linkedin or social media channels for applying for jobs. I am thankful to my college friend for forwarding the message about an interview which I cracked first and got an opportunity to work in Tata Memorial Center (TMC).

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

Challenge 1: 

Personal loss :

I took one day at a time.

I participated in various activities to keep myself occupied and confident. 

I accepted things and was full of gratitude. 

I believed in god.

Challenge 2: 

Work loss :

I accepted the loss and moved ahead. 

I applied for jobs and didn’t give up, though I was flexible and kept faith on god

Challenge 3

Office politics :

I kept my views solid and did not get affected by anyone.

I concentrated on my work and not on others.

I was hardworking and sincere.

I kept records of my work and kept transparency in emails.

I was open to share but brave to also point out what was unfair.

I believed in myself and forgive

Challenge 4:

Health issues:

Currently I am facing one.

First step is to accept it, trust your mind and body, and give time to yourself.

Do what you like and what little you can. Trust a therapy or your doctor and also know that this is only a phase. Acknowledge other good things you have

Where do you work now? Please tell us about your current role

I am currently working as Scientific Officer C, as a full-time employee in the Centre for Cancer Epidemiology, Tata Memorial Centre , and also pursuing PhD in health sciences. I am also responsible for laboratory design, instruments quality maintenance and procurement.

My role at TMC is to understand the risk factors of the different cancers in the  Indian population that visit TMC hospitals. Since I am working in molecular epidemiology and population genetics, we deal with various kinds of data, be it lifestyle data based on a questionnaire or biospecimen collected from the subject. We need to manage this data, and in order to store this biospecimen data, we have installed an automated Biobank (-80˚C) , which will store, retrieve and manage 2 million biological samples from our different cohort and case control studies. Once stored, we review the sample for extraction of DNA or any other relevant biomarkers for that study. In initial days when we did not have the automated system, we had to manually extract thousands of DNA from samples, since the sample size required for epidemiological studies is quiet large to obtain significant results.

As a growing economy, we are also a growing human population, which needs effective health care in terms of prevention and control first, where treatment is not accessible or affordable due to large health inequities and disparities. 

What do epidemiologist do ? Basic skills required for this field ? How did you achieve them ?

Epidemiology is a study of population in a given area, where we study the causes of a disease and its distribution in that area. The burden, risk factors of cancer are studied in cancer epidemiology where it helps in designing and implementing new preventive strategies and help develop policies to control the disease.

As epidemiologists we try to understand the relationship between the exposure and outcome. Eg. If we are studying lung cancer, then smoking is the exposure and lung cancer is the outcome. Epidemiology basically explains what? where? when? how? why ? Of an illness.

Basic skills are required such as analysis, computer skills, field work, lab work, communication, writing and investigating.

I have achieved these skills and am still polishing some purely on the basis of my practical work that was allotted to me. Since I had no master’s degree in Public Health or any certificate course in it, I learnt by observing, reading and listening.

What’s a typical day like?

My typical day looks like any other 9 to 5 job if I’m not working in a lab or field. But If I have a duty in the lab or field, then time and space are not defined for us. We need to work extensively till we get things right since there is no undo button on the field or in the lab, or save button to resume your work from the next day.

I love this job as it gives me an opportunity to connect with society, serve society and learn.

How does your work benefit society?

You do not get instant satisfaction from working in this field, like being in a medical or a social healthcare field, because they are working with the patients directly. We collect information and then analyze the cause of the disease to improve prevention and control of that disease.

But I can assure everyone that this work will help people to live healthy lives by preventing disease. Because, Prevention is always better than cure !

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

When we worked on the GWAS project (Genome wide association study) for gall bladder cancer, it was the first GWAS from India on gall bladder cancer and had a huge impact. Our work was also published in Lancet Oncology where I was acknowledged for my contribution in lab work for the same.

Though we had a very small team, we had great coordination, trust and dedication in completing this huge project and experiencing the technology and results which were new to us 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Students are not guided to deal with personal life experiences which come along with their professional career.

So I would share a few:

1. Life is short and beautiful:

Always take time out for your loved ones in the middle of your work or career. You won’t remember your salary or marks when you are old, but will only laugh or smile at your good memories.

2. Be a student for life:

Try to learn as much as you can and from every one in your circle, about their experiences or work which may help you some day to crack your dream job.

3. Participate more:

Participate in competitions, volunteer for various organizations, organize different events to gain life skills needed for your growth.

4. Be away from energy drainers (at work or college):

Say no to people who gossip, play politics, or involve you in the mess to drain your positive energy. Your mental and emotional well being is more precious than any salary you’re being paid for or post that you are being promoted for.

5. Know your purpose :

When you know your purpose, you will reach it any how, sometimes by changing your field, place or situation. Knowing your Ikigai helps to be satisfied in the long run. After all, it is not important to be a billionaire, but to feel like one in your heart and be happy, which maintains your holistic health.

Future Plans?

I do not have exact plans drawn on a paper, because whenever I plan, life shows me it’s own map, so I go with the flow and believe in my purpose which will take me towards my goal.

I want to be a better human with lesser regrets, help myself overcome my shortcomings, help others and give back to the ecosystem, live blissfully and with conscious choices.

I believe in below quotes:

“Jab aap ko koi cheez ko dil se chaho toh Puri kayanat use tumhe milane ki koshish me lag jati hai”

“Jio aur jine do”

As my late grandfather always said,

“ aur haste raho, khulke bolo and swast raho !!!!”

So just be honest with yourself and believe in yourself, rest other things will be taken care of !!!!

Gratitude note:

I have been fortunate to have good friends, mentors, cousins, as well as the support of elders, in moving slowly but steadily every time I was pulled down by life’s unexpected surprises. But these experiences only made me realize how strong I am and helped me mould myself into a person that I am today.

I am grateful for all the life experiences that I had , and will be having in future.