Lifestyle diseases such as Obesity & Diabetes are a major challenge / threat to the society because these diseases are growing at a rapid pace, leading to several comorbidities and deaths.
Ankush Kumar Jha, our next pathbreaker, Doctoral Student at Helmholtz Munich, researches molecular mechanisms underlying Obesity and Diabetes which could give us more insights into pathogenesis of these diseases, to understand them better !
Ankush talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his keen interest in the field of medicine, and doing his masters in Pharmacology in order to research the biology of cells and diseases.
For students, research is not about failure or success. You can fail several times, but the number of attempts you give, and how you understand your faults or mistakes, will take you a long way !
Ankush, your background?
Though my story would be different for some people, it would be interesting for those who think that it’s not always necessary to be studious. I was an average (or below average?) student lost in his life, who was extremely confused about his career.
I grew up in Delhi (India), the capital of India, which is known for its rich heritage and culture. My father runs a business and my mother is a housewife. My father & mother did their schooling from Bihar and struggled to complete their graduation. When they moved to Delhi, they wanted to give me everything which was unavailable to them. I remember, when I was in 10th standard and I needed to choose my stream for secondary school, my teacher advised that I should take either commerce or arts based on my marks. But at that time, I used to think, why not science, intelligent people take science and average people take commerce and arts. I couldn’t get science in that school and hence moved to a different school to choose science.
What did you study?
I did my bachelors in Pharmacy, M.S. Pharm, Pharmacology and Toxicology from NIPER-Guwahati. I am currently doing my PhD at Helmholtz Munich.
What were some of the influences that led you to such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?
Thereafter, my marks in 12th were still average and I realized that there is a lot of competition for engineering and medical. Fortunately, I questioned myself, “am I capable of doing medicine?”. The answer was no. Because I wanted to be in this stream, I chose pharmacy as a career even though I was not aware of the scope for pharmacy. But the irony was, the people who don’t get into medical switch to the pharmacy field, and I followed the same path. Since an early age, I have had socialistic behavior and a stage caliber. I used to be involved in lots of extracurricular activities like skits, street plays, debates, extempore, mono-acting, cricket, table tennis, volleyball etc. With my leadership skills, I organized various events in my university. Days passed and in the final year, I asked myself, what would be my next step, a job or a masters degree?
In pharmacy, after bachelors, we don’t get enough money nor the type of job we want. So, I thought of going for a masters. A thought came in my mind, I never qualified any national exam till then, and I knew that if I did qualify, I would get a fellowship as well as a chance to select a good institute. So, I thought, “why not make it happen this time?”. Throughout my bachelors, I used to involve myself in one or other activities. But this time, I realized I had to cut myself off from everything in order to prepare. I deleted whatsapp, Instagram, facebook and distanced myself from my friends. The major reasons for doing masters were, 1) most of my juniors used to follow me and never said no to me anytime. At that time, I thought that if I couldn’t crack these exams they would think that when I don’t care about my future, how can I guide others? 2) Most of the juniors and colleagues used to come to me for favors from their teachers, and I used to put in a good word for them in front of teachers. Therefore, I thought if I had to do a masters and I couldn’t get a seat, I would have to request professors to give me a seat and after that I could not make eye contact with them. These thoughts instigated me to crack this exam and thereafter I cleared one more national exam, (NIPER-Jee) with good AIR, and took admission in NIPER-Guwahati to pursue my masters with full scholarship. I had a keen interest in Pharmacology in my bachelors, and so I wanted to continue in this area. I was always interested in understanding the biology of cells and diseases with respect to human life and animals . Hence, I was excited to choose this career. The aim of this course is to help understand what a drug does to the body and what the body does to the drugs. Also, I was curious to learn state of the art instruments..
Tell us about your career path
I did two internships during my bachelors, the first at Batra Hospital and Medical Research Centre (2017)- Here I used to dispense medicines and was involved in patient counselling. At the time of internship, I felt embarrassed and thought I did not want to spend my entire career dispensing medicine. Although some of the staff who had done their post-graduation in the same field, advised me that people often choose this career, I never imagined myself dispensing medicines my whole life. So thereafter, I chose to do an industrial internship. Next year, I got an industrial internship at Sun Pharmaceuticals (2018) – Here, I learned about bioavailability and bioequivalence studies. I got to know about chromatography techniques, LCMS, method development and validation. The major part was to understand how the industry plays a connecting role between generic drugs and patients, what protocols or SOPs need to be followed and how to get samples from the patients. These internships helped me to know the future scope of this degree in hospitals, industry and academics.
I remember, in my last year of masters, the world was disturbed by corona. Although the situation was not controllable, our director called us to the institute and kept us in quarantine for several days. We didn’t have anything to do. My professor motivated me to utilize this time to write articles and improve my writing skills. We published two articles in a reputed journal (European journal of Pharmacology, & Life Sciences), though we were allowed to enter the lab only on a few days to complete the master thesis. I used to work day and night to finish the objectives on time. Moreover, I successfully defended my master’s thesis.
My masters thesis was based on a compound and its activity in cardiomyopathy (a disease of the heart muscle that makes it harder for the heart to pump blood to the rest of the body.). The idea behind the project was to overcome the complications of Doxorubicin (anticancer drug), i.e, cardiomyopathy by synergistically using Nootkatone, which showed prominence effect as cardioprotective, hepatoprotective and neuroprotective drug. We developed a mice model by injecting Doxorubicin for 15 days and giving pre-treatment with Nootkatone. After 15 days, we sacrificed the mice and isolated the heart from them. Moreover, we performed some biochemical assay and to identify the mechanism through which the drug is demonstrating the protective effect, we did western blotting and rtPCR. Though, it was not so easy for me. I remember, a lot of my thesis time went in vain due to Corona. Though our director called us to the campus to continue the thesis work, it didn’t looked easy. We were in quarantine for several days in the campus. I thought to utilize this time and not to pass the days randomly. I started to write the article for the publications to improve my scientific and writing knowledge. I successfully submitted three articles at these times. I was always aware that publications plays a major role in getting a foothold either in industry or academics and so I worked on it. As the days passed and we were allowed to work in the lab, several limitations were still there due to corona, as the reagents were not provided on time, mice were not accessible. After a long time these things were provided to us, but by then the corona was spreading rapidly and we were told to complete our work in few weeks time. I was stunned to hear this but didn’t have any other way to finish my thesis. Though I was working tirelessly in the lab ( day and night), I was enjoying my master’s work. I never thought about relaxing or sleeping or taking time out for fun. I just wanted to finish my work and come up with good results. I finally did it and submitted my thesis. Those days of hard work motivated me to pursue a PhD.
The hard work I did at that time was pulsating inside me and I was looking to work at the same pace on another opportunity. At this time, I thought about doing a PhD. I applied to several reputed colleges. In the last semester of my master’s, I was the placement coordinator and I got a job and a PhD offer. I wished to be in academics and chose the PhD program in the BITS-Pilani, Hyderabad campus. At last I was happy to get the opportunity from BITS-Pilani. Getting this opportunity was very exciting. But, at the same time I connected with two people, 1) a mentor who was teaching in the USA and my friend who was doing her PhD in Austria. They told me that since I had a good publication and profile, I should try for a PhD abroad as well. Thereafter, I used to prepare to apply to universities abroad and later on got two opportunities from Germany and USA. Though it was difficult to choose amongst these two, I chose Germany as my destination.
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
- Time management: how to manage my time while applying for a PhD.
- Focus: I wasn’t able to focus on my lab work as I was busy sending mails to professors
- Stress: Stressed that I have invested a lot of money in application and invested so much time in sending mails, will it be worth it?
- Getting no replies and couldn’t figure out the problem with my application
How did you get your first break?
I was enjoying my PhD life in BITS-Hyderabad. The project was nice and the lab was also super. At that time I had never wished to do a PhD from abroad, maybe because no one in my circle had ever thought about it. So, the same thing came into my mind. I thought I am not such a competent student or I do not have enough money to study abroad. This was all due to my lack of knowledge. I still remember I met a friend on LinkedIn (Swasti Rawal). We were giving interview for IIT mandi for a PhD position. Although we both were not selected, she always aspired to do her PhD from abroad and she achieved it in a couple of months. She always used to encourage me to apply abroad, and the process made me curious to apply. I knew one guy at NIPER-Guwahati, who was our guest lecture from Thomas Jefferson University, USA (Dr. Pawan K Sharma). I told him about my curiosity towards doing a PhD from abroad. He was happy to see my credentials and praised my CV. He helped me with interviews, motivation letters etc. After that, I used to study for the TOEFL exam. Although I used to visit the lab for experiments, I used to study for TOEFL in the lab in such a manner that no one could see me and complain to my guide. I cleared the TOEFL exam and after a number on interviews, I started understanding the process.
There was a time when I used to apply to hundreds of institutes and didn’t remember which ones I applied to. One of them was Helmholtz Munich Symposium. In all, they got 250 applications from 50 countries of which they shortlisted 18 students for interviews. I got the interview call from them and had several rounds of interviews. They finally took 4 students and I was one of them. The PhD program offered funding. As Helmholtz is one of the premiere institutes in Germany, DAAD scholarship was also used to fund some candidates who were selected by the Helmholtz process, and I was one of them who got nominated to DAAD by Helmholtz. The easy thing for me was that I already had the proposal from my supervisor at Helmholtz and hence didn’t have to go through the DAAD interview. Actually, DAAD has introduced a new program that is the graduate school scholarship programme (GSSP). Individuals and students cannot apply to it. Only graduate schools can nominate some candidates to DAAD, and in this case, I was the one. I was unaware of this information and hence want to share details about this program with others.
What do you do currently? Can you tell us about your research?
Currently, I am working in the Helmholtz Centre, Munich, Germany. I am enrolled in the institute for Diabetes and Cancer, Endocrine pharmacology department in Dr. Anastasia Georgiadi’s lab
I am working on “mitochondrial translation and its role in gender dimorphic response to cold exposure”. My role is to find the effect of mitochondria in brown adipose tissue (BAT) in both male and female mice (In-Vivo & In-Vitro). Several studies have claimed that females have more BAT which in turn have more mitochondria as compared to males. Hence, obese females show healthier phenotype despite being overweight as compared to obese men, which show greater risk for dying through obesity-related comorbidities. In addition, we want to establish the polysome profile which will be helpful to identify the novel peptides from small, medium and large ORFs. Also, there is no available female cell line on different fat depots, and we want to develop it in our lab, which we can contribute to the scientific community.
As we are aware, obesity is also a major risk factor for diabetes. However, various sources have acknowledged that females tend to be more healthy than males in Type2 diabetes. We want to understand how and what is the molecular mechanism behind this, so that in future we can offer personalized therapy which can be helpful to number of people
What are the skills required for your role? How did you acquire them?
The necessary skills required are, being aware of molecular biology techniques and their basic principles, and familiarity with the concepts of basic biology, biochemistry and the cell fate.
I have seen people who don’t have prior expertise on techniques or little knowledge of the concepts. I would suggest to them that they should not worry much about this. At any new lab, one has to learn some new techniques or some other concepts. The interviewer wants to see the motivation in the student to do a PhD, because they do not want to waste their money or time in training you.
What’s a typical day like?
Sometimes it’s like going to the lab early in the morning, feeding the mice and culturing the cells for the objectives planned for the week . It also depends on how you plan, sometimes it becomes late in the evening or a tiring day or you run some instruments.
What do you love about this job?
Passion for science, curiosity in knowing the challenges in developing new solutions. We can fail several times, but the number of attempts we give, and how we understand our faults or our mistakes, can help us improve to validate our theory.
How does your work benefit society?
Obesity & Diabetes is a major challenge / threat to the society because these diseases are growing at a rapid pace, leading to several comorbidities and deaths. They not only affect one organ but damage all other organs simultaneously. We want to explore the possible challenges in the field of diabetes research in order to come up with novel solutions or treatments for society.
Your advice to students?
First and foremost, I would advise you to follow your passion. I would also suggest you to be laborious, be committed, focus on your goals, be confident in your abilities and have patience. Work on your limitations and convert them to strengths. Your weakness should be your major strength at some stage. Also, get the correct guidance from the right source of knowledge.
Lot of people who get in touch with me, lose their hope when they do not get any responses or their interviews are not going well. I would advise them to be patient, work on their application, be committed and persistent with their goals
I want to be in academics and to establish my own lab and to collaborate with scientists. Since the beginning of my career, I have been passionate about teaching and will look for any possible teaching role in India or abroad. I am also working on myself to gain skills to be an independent researcher and am learning how to write a grant proposal. So maybe in the coming years I would like to not only guide myself but also other people who is approaching me.
Great interview. Congrats Ankush for sharing your journey!!!!