Medical Research is an evolving process in our fight against diseases that have no cure, but definitely a step in the right direction towards improving the quality of lives in the future.

Madhurima Chatterjee, our next pathbreaker, Scientist at uniQure (Netherlands), researches therapies for neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Madhurima talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about being introduced to world class biological labs during her BTech (Biotechnology) which whetted her appetite for research, and for a subsequent doctorate in Neuroscience.

For students, keep your options open in the early stages of your career, explore new areas out of your comfort zone and then decide what motivates you !

Madhurima,what were your growing up years like?

I grew up in a small town called Coochbehar in West Bengal. My mother is a high school biology teacher and my father was a government official. Since childhood, I have had a keen interest in science. I mean to say that science is something that is part of our daily lives and not just a subject in school. We should question and be curious about everything around us. I always participated in science Olympiads and science exhibitions in school. Doing something creative is what inspires me. I also spent a lot of time drawing and painting, taking inspiration from nature.

What did you do for graduation/ post graduation?

Since I was interested in biology and at the same time in the latest technologies that can be applied to biology, I chose biotechnology for my bachelor’s (BTech in Biotechnology at Amity University, Noida). I realized later that it was a good decision for my career path in the future since many streams in biology such as zoology or botany don’t teach the latest technologies that are actually used in world class biological research labs. Towards the end of my Bachelor’s, I realized that I didn’t have interest in pure IT stuff. This was also partly driven by my introduction to a good biology laboratory at the National Institute of Immunology, New Delhi. At NII, I learnt how life science research is actually done. So, I did not sit for any of the campus placements driven by major IT companies in India. The system in technology institutes forces students to take up IT as a career option no matter what they have studied. It is really sad to see that most of the graduate students in India only know this career path of taking an IT/consulting job after finishing BTech. Then, I did my Master’s degree (MS in Biological sciences) from Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Kolkata (IISER). 

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

The key influencer was my interest in biology/life sciences. I knew that I wanted to do research, as the life sciences field is driven by research on a global level. I am glad that I went to IISER as this really laid the foundation for my research career. I am thankful to all my mentors at IISER. I got inspiration from my immediate supervisor as to how women in India could contribute to the research landscape. There is really a dearth of women researchers in India. So I urge all young girls who are reading this article to consider research as one of the career options.

Tell us about your career path

My first introduction to proper research was through a fellowship (Summer Research Fellowship) offered by the Indian Academy of Sciences while I was pursuing my BTech in Biotechnology. Getting selected among the top students all over India to get a flavour of scientific research in one of the top research labs of India (National Institute of Immunology, Delhi in my case) really inspired me. Then I got selected for pursuing my Master’s degree at IISER Kolkata with a monthly fellowship. It is a government institute that also has one of the top research labs in India. There, I really started to develop as a researcher. The environment at IISER challenged me to get out of my comfort zone and head out abroad to gain world-class research experience. 

My Master’s at IISER Kolkata was part of the integrated PhD program. The Master’s part was for 2 years. In the second year, I worked on a project related to the effect of murine corona virus on cellular prion protein along with the usual course work.

I started applying to various PhD programs in Europe. I searched for labs in EU working in the field of neurodegeneration. Then, I looked for full fellowships and only applied to PhD programs that offered full fellowships. 

As my Master’s thesis was related to neurodegenerative diseases, I got selected in one of the European Union’s PhD Programs in Neuroscience.

I got the chance to work in two labs as a part of Erasmus Mundus Joint PhD Program, one situated in Goettingen, Germany and the second one in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. I feel really lucky that I decided to take up this opportunity. It helped me to build an international research network in my field of neurodegenerative disorders while getting a decent salary as a PhD student.

My PhD was based on developing biomarkers based on body fluids for neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. My research was at the forefront of translational medicine that helped me later to find a position in the industry.

My PostDoctoral role at DZNE was quite similar to my PhD where I applied my skills as a biomarker scientist, a role acquired during my PhD. I further developed my knowledge on extracellular vesicles or exosomes. Exosomes are an emerging yet unexplored source of biomarkers in body fluids such as plasma. A lot can be explored regarding exosomes. 

The vision of DZNE in the future is to find cures for various neurodegenerative disorders that pose a huge health and financial burden on the society as the world population is ageing.

How did you get your first break? 

I did not get the PhD position with the help of any contacts per se. I think that it is very important to have good connections with mentors and colleagues so that they can give you good recommendations. The key is to apply to multiple places and build a good CV with relevant experience in the field you are interested in.

I got an industry position after 3 years of my PhD. I think the skills acquired during my postdoc such as leading projects independently, supervising a group of people, acquiring funding for your own projects and setting up collaborations helped me in getting the industry position. I have heard from a lot of people that visa could be problem but I did not face the issue personally. My employer happily agreed to sponsor my visa.

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

I cannot count the number of challenges. There were many. However, none was very significant if you believe in yourself and your own capabilities. There is no shortcut in the research field. You have to work hard but at the same time be smart. Additionally, networking with people from your field of interest is the key.

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

I currently work as a scientist in a Biotech company, uniQure, trying to develop therapies for neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease. Throughout my career, I had a background in neuroscience. Apart from the skills, I need to plan a research project, execute it and work in the lab. I think soft skills are also very important. The ability to be open to change, talk to people, work with people with different cultural backgrounds, does contribute to our intellectual enrichment. We should never underestimate the power of interpersonal communication.

A typical day for me is planning experiments that are part of bigger projects, performing those experiments in the lab, analyzing data, troubleshooting, supervising people and writing reports. What I love about my job is that whatever I am doing on a daily basis will have an impact in improving patient’s lives in the future.

How does your work benefit society? 

My work would benefit many patients around the world who are suffering from devastating diseases related to the aging brain. As the world population is getting older, it is highly relevant as the number of patients with neurodegenerative diseases would only rise in the future.

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

I cannot pick one. Research is an evolving process. Every small piece of work I do is a tiny step forward in the direction of finding a cure for neurodegenerative diseases.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Follow your interest and NOT what the majority of students are doing (taking up placement in an IT company!). Don’t choose a field looking at who is earning how much. Rather try to be the best in what you do.

Future Plans?

My future plan is to keep doing science!