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Starting up your idea – Face à Face with Kunal Kishore Dhawan, Founder of Navia Life Care

in Entrepreneurship/Face à Face/SciBiz by

‘Rome was not built in a day’ – as cliché as it sounds, it has stood the test of time even in this era of startups. Beyond the romance of building enterprises, one should take a reality check on challenges faced in building an idea from scratch and turning it into a reality. Somdatta Karak (SK) from CSG talks to Kunal Kishore Dhawan (KD), about his entrepreneurial experience while building ‘Navia Life Care’, a health tech company based in New Delhi, India. Navia Life Care builds customized mobile and software solutions for clinicians, medical providers and other players in healthcare ecosystem. Their goal is to provide easier and cheaper means of communicating, engaging and monitoring of patients.

Talking to us about his roller coaster journey from Navia’s inception to developing happy customers in market, Kunal opens up about the valuable lessons he learned while building his team, product, and skills that helped him sustain in the market.

SK: We would love to know about your journey so far – from having the first idea, to arranging funds, to developing your product and company into its current form.

KD: Healthcare is a traditionally fragmented space in India, with various stakeholders – medical practitioners, providers, pharmacists, pharma companies, insurance players and ultimately patients operating in silos. Getting them to work in tandem with each other, by exchanging information and interlinks, is any healthcare entrepreneur’s dream. I realized several critical issues plaguing the industry, ranging from the lack of essential quality health services, inaccessibility of healthcare institutions for differently abled, overall scarcity of medical professionals, to the quality of sub-standard medicines. My experience as an executive in the pharma industry made one issue particularly stand out – the patient’s adherence to drug regimens.

While we knew that technology can solve problems in this field, it was essential for us to first understand which problems we want to address, and for whom. Repeated interactions with different stakeholders prompted us, to develop a pill reminder system at Navia Life Care, that would function on a mobile device. Our first iteration of the app was based on a business-to-consumer model, i.e. by working directly with patients. The release of our app was well received, but could not open any avenues of monetization. That prompted us to further evaluate our company’s strategy.

We realized that it was imperative to consider drug adherence as a part of a holistic patient management process, so that our solution also adds value to the clinicians practice, and improves the relationship between patient and provider. Upon finalization of our product’s framework, we assembled an in-house team of developers, to improve work efficiency, reduce errors and turnaround time. Our second direct-to-consumer campaign consisted of roll-out and interaction with patients and providers, where they used our product for a certain period of time. It gave us useful information on the problems faced by both the sides, and compelled us to make the following changes:

  • Opt for a business-to-business (B2B) strategy, i.e., building the platform for healthcare institutions, ranging from individual practitioners, clinics, hospitals to health-focused social enterprises instead of working with patients directly.
  • Be flexible with the product we offer to the clients, instead of forcing one down their throat.
  • Understand first, needs of a client, and then put together a solution that best fits.
  • Be open to brand the product in name of the client, instead of pushing our brand to patients, which might give them incentive to pay for the product.

B2B strategy worked well in regards to generating a revenue and helped us get a small seed investment from Benori Ventures LLP – a private seed fund run by an industry veteran, Ashish Gupta – founder of Evalueserve, Gurgaon, India and co-founder of Ashoka University, Sonepat, India. We are now hoping to break even before the end of 2017.

The core Navia team (from left to right – Gaurav Gupta (Operations Strategy Lead), KD (CEO), Shourjo Banerjee (CTO)

SK: Tell us about the prominent challenges faced in an entrepreneurial journey. How did you work around yours?

KD: The biggest challenge was to identify the needs of customer and build our product around it, so that it gets adopted and paid for by consumers and customers. The only way, in my opinion, to achieve that was to keep the needs of customers in forefront of whatever we do. We have constantly gone back to the users to get their inputs on whatever we created. There is no point in making something, if there is no need for it. Another of our evident challenges was to identify and develop an in-house team who understands, appreciates this problem, and has the skillset to solve it.

Navia was bootstrapped from day 1 and we hired only freshers and trained them to fit the appropriate roles. Until Feb of 2017, we were not able to generate any revenue from our products. We re-designed our product and business strategy multiple times, so that users could see the real value of our product and we could monetize on it. This revenue generation has been very critical for our fundraising ability. Most investors look for a business model that works, i.e. has the ability to generate money, and not burn a hole in pocket of the company.

Meanwhile, there have been times when I felt like doing something else, although not necessarily giving up. I had decided to give myself a year to assess the business correctly, but based on advice given by several veterans, we decided to stretch it to year and a half. There were times during Jan and Feb of this year, where it seemed that we would not be able to pull our resources to last the entire time, but having a clear focus and time frame helped us tide over that period.

SK: How do you support your startup – in terms of funding, mentoring, etc.? Among the young entrepreneurs venturing into health technology in India, which ones do you recommend and why?

KD: I believe we are at a point in the Indian startup ecosystem, where a good support system exists for new entrepreneurs. Of course, it is not anywhere close to the “boom” of 2014-16, but in a way, that’s better. All business ideas are analyzed critically before they get funded. There is a continuous assessment going on from the entrepreneurs and stakeholders of products, which helps us improve the offering, and in better vetting of the business as a whole.

There are plenty of accelerators and incubators (some are associated with universities, which is good) that help the first-time innovators. But it is important to assess them for their merits, as there are always some bad apples. Some are just in business to make a quick buck from their struggling startups, and it is necessary to be wary of them. One has to also analyze the investor’s management team and success story as critically as they assess you as an entrepreneur – and remember – they need you more than you need them! The traditional VC’s are always good, but they come at a later stage. During initial stages, having a mentor from a similar field helps (and if they can fund you in a small way, all the better).

As for the list, I would suggest that every entrepreneur should do their research and identify a team that suits them. It helps not only to increase focus, but also improve one’s network, which is critical at all stages.

SK: According to you, what are some of the most important qualities an entrepreneur should have? Who would you recommend taking this path?

KD: I think an entrepreneur needs to embrace the “humanity” in them – the same qualities that make us human are amplified in entrepreneurship. Patience, diligence, grit, ability to repeatedly take a “no”, adaptability, ability to handle failures, and not being resistant to change, are just some of them. There are times when you might feel that this is the end, but you just need to dig in and get out of the rut. Customers, investors, stakeholders, even team members are often critical of the company and its products, so it is essential to listen, and imbibe what you think is beneficial for betterment of the business.

I think everyone should become an entrepreneur, and if not that at least an intrapreneur. Bring about a change in smallest of the ways, wherever you work or live – that itself is worthwhile. You don’t need to build a billion-dollar business, even the smallest gestures sometimes create a significant impact.

SK: What have been your most valuable learnings so far from entrepreneurship?

KD: This journey has been nothing, if not educational for me. From being a member of a 10,000+ employee organization, to taking the business idea to a 10-member group, it has been full of learning, both academic and intangible ones. Academics or educational apprenticeships have included developments in regulatory landscapes, company laws, human resource requirements, hospital systems, coding technologies/languages, and much more. Although, the intangibles have been more rewarding – such as handling teams and employees, ability to take rejections, adaptability, etc. Entrepreneurship is a long-term game, and one must be ready to slug it out for the long haul. Patience has been key, and not hesitating to seek feedback or help from people more experienced and connected to you, has helped. Lastly, don’t underestimate your network – collaborations, customers, even critics come from a network, and one should always be willing to expand that.

SK: How does the journey look for you in coming years? What are your next priorities? Where do you see yourself and your product in next five years?

KD: I sincerely hope that the coming years are rewarding. A saying goes “Entrepreneurship is the willingness to live for a few years like most people won’t, to enable yourself to live for rest of your life like most people can’t, and I hope it comes true for me. I will continue to build the company, add customers, improvise on products and services while focusing on innovation and differentiation. My aim is to create ten things during my lifetime – now whether it’s ten products or ten companies or a combination of the two remains to be seen. Navia Life Care is a first of these, and I hope in the next five years, I would be able to add to it.

 

Author: Somdatta Karak, PhD writes on science, business/ entrepreneurship and social challenges of education and global health.

Editorial team: Paurvi Shinde, PhD edited the article. Sushama Sivakumar, PhD and Akshaya Hodigere proofread the article.

Paurvi Shinde is a Post Doc Fellow at Bloodworks Northwest in Seattle, where she’s studying the mechanism of how alloantibodies are formed against the non-ABO blood group antigens. Apart from doing the actual science, she loves editing scientific articles, to help convey message behind it in a clear and concise form.

Sushama Sivakumar is currently postdoctoral scholar at UT Southwestern Medical Center, Texas, USA. She works in the lab of Hongtao Yu where she studies mechanisms that regulate proper chromosome segregation during mitosis.

Illustration: The cover picture is made by Ipsa Jain (follow her work as IpsaWonders at Facebook and Instagram) with assistance from Noun Project under CC license. The inset images are made by Somdatta Karak.

 

The contents of Club SciWri are the copyright of PhD Career Support Group for STEM PhDs (A US Non-Profit 501(c)3, PhDCSG is an initiative of the alumni of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. The primary aim of this group is to build a NETWORK among scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs).

This work by Club SciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

From Projects to Project Management with Dr. Cecilia Sedano

in Face à Face by

Shwetha interviews, Dr Cecilia Sedano, a Project Manager at the Biomarker division of Genentech (Biotech company based in San Francisco, California). Cecilia graduated, with a PhD from Stanford University and after a brief stint as postdoc at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, she returned to Bay Area and joined Genentech in 2015. Here, she talks about her experiences in academia, her phases of career exploration and her role as a project manager at Genentech.

SS: Tell us a little about yourself, Cecilia

CS: I was born and raised in Peru. I was seventeen when I moved to Fremont, CA in U.S.A. I was already hooked on to research, at the community college in Fremont. At that time, I got an opportunity to do couple of internships in a company in Emeryville, called Chiron. They were among the first few to start working on Hepatitis C, HIV vaccines and diagnostics. I spent two summers there at their protein chemistry department, purifying massive amounts of proteins in huge protein columns, and felt that I could this for a living. One of the things I really liked about industry, was that it was diverse with scientists from all over the world. It seemed very welcoming at that time, when I was still new to U.S. Then I went to UCLA for my undergrad and came to Stanford to do a PhD with Dr. Peter Sarnow at the Department of Microbiology and Immunology.

SS: After your PhD, did you immediately start applying for jobs at the industry or were you inclined towards a career in academia?

CS: Being at Stanford, I got a lot of space and room to explore what I wanted to do while doing my research. I did a lot of science communication and science education programs. I looked at science policy. I ruled out many things early on, like consulting, marketing and business development. I knew, my personality wouldn’t fit there. I definitely didn’t have ideas to start my own company or to be an entrepreneur. That got me thinking about the set of skills that I have, not just as a scientist, but also as a human being. What is it about science that I enjoy?

I loved being at bench and getting the first look at results. But, I knew that I won’t be able to reinvent my research constantly. I thought, I would be a five-year professor, have some mediocre success and that’ll be it, I’ll be out of ideas. But I did enjoy being at bench, and wanted to take it as far as I could. I did a postdoc at Mount Sinai, but it didn’t work out very well. At some point after investing so much in my education and training, I didn’t want to waste my time anymore. So, I wrapped it up fast, came back to Bay Area and started looking for jobs.

SS: With a background in academia, how was your experience of job hunting in the industry?

CS: Applying to an industry job is so different from applying to a postdoc or a fellowship, it was a bit of a learning process for me. I put in really useless applications for a couple of months not knowing how to even apply to a job. Later on, I learned that the process tends to be through connections, networking and talking to recruiters, so that people start viewing you as an employable person. I stalked a lot of people on LinkedIn, some I knew and some I didn’t. Everything I had done aside of the lab was very interesting, but it wouldn’t vouch for my ability to fit in the industrial setup. In industry, one of the main things you have to do, is put yourself out first, show that you can deliver results, stick to timelines, are highly dependable and can think outside the box. Once that clicked, I started to get a few interviews and I reached out to more people. I found a Stanford alumnus working at Genentech, who circulated my resume around. I was called for an interview and they asked me to come and work for them the next week!

SS: What is your role as a Project Manager at Genentech?

CS: My position is called Biomarker Operations Project Manager. I work specifically in the oncology space and currently support four studies. As human specimens are used in biomarker research, the main thing we do is oversee the life cycle of every sample right from the collection phase to data delivery. We review the trial protocol, and are involved in obtaining the informed consent of patients. The samples go through a lot of processing steps in between. In the end, we make sure that the clinic ships samples to the right vendors, in a timely manner. If we have data, that we are hoping to file with the FDA, its much more interesting and stringent in terms of documentation. As we are involved in all these different steps, which are part of multiple studies, at different stages, it’s quite dynamic and that’s the reason I like it.

SS: With so many projects in hand, is it difficult to meet the demands of time?

CS: There is a lot of flexibility at work. My day starts at 7 am and is usually done by 4 pm. I can also take a couple of calls from home and go to office later on. It is nice for people, who have families and children, that are very organized and detail oriented. Unlike early phase, where I used to work, the late phase trials are global and lot of my team members are located in China and Asia pacific. Therefore, I have to adjust my schedule to do a couple of meetings after dinner. In that case, I leave at three and make up for the time later. We have to remain flexible with our work hours, which as a scientist I think is great.

SS: What are the challenges that you face at work?

CS: There are many things that we have to monitor without actually being there. There are a lot of putting out fires. When there’s a chain of report, one has to respond right away, if responsible. Generally, wherever there are human beings involved, there is miscommunication. So, there are lot of people skills and email etiquette involved, which I hadn’t faced in academia.

SS: What are the opportunities available to move up the ladder from the position you are currently in?

CS: In the biomarker group, we have the project manager, and the next level would be project lead. The project manager oversees studies, whereas project lead oversees the programs. Project lead also develops biomarker strategies and is more influential in making big decisions. The next level, at least in the biomarker area, is biomarker therapeutic area lead. There’s also a lot of cross group mobility. We recently, had someone from our group move into clinical science, where one is responsible for looking at the clinical data rather than exploratory biomarker data. One can also go into data management, it depends on one’s interest.

Author: Swetha Sivaprasad

Shwetha Shivaprasad is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Stanford University. She is a virologist by training and loves to learn something new every day, expanding her knowledge base and skill set. She is currently in a phase of career exploration and trying her hand at science writing and reviewing.

Editors: Paurvi Shinde, PhD and Sushama Shivkumar, PhD

Paurvi Shinde is a Post Doc Fellow at Bloodworks Northwest in Seattle, where she’s studying the mechanism of how alloantibodies are formed against the non-ABO red blood cell antigens. Apart from doing bench research, she loves editing scientific articles, to help convey message behind it, in a clear and concise form.

Sushama Sivakumar is a Post Doc in the lab of Dr. Hongtao Yu at UT Southwestern Medical center, TX, USA. She is interested in studying the regulatory mechanisms that control proper chromosome segregation during mammalian cell mitosis.

Cover image: Pixabay

The contents of Club SciWri are the copyright of PhD Career Support Group for STEM PhDs (A US Non-Profit 501(c)3, PhDCSG is an initiative of the alumni of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. The primary aim of this group is to build a NETWORK among scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs).

This work by Club SciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

Career Path from academic research to supporting social enterprises – Face a Face with Dr. Arun Venkatesan, Villgro

in Entrepreneurship/Face à Face/SciBiz by

Here is our second article in line as part of our two article series on Villgro, a social enterprise incubator. The article is based on a discussion between Dr. Reetu Mehta, Vignesh Narayan, Club SciWri (CSW) and Dr. Arun Venkatesan (AV), Chief Technology Officer, Villgro. We discuss here Dr. Arun Venkatesan’s successful and trendsetting journey from being an academic researcher to working in Villgro.

CSW: What is your story- how did you arrive at Villgro?

AV: My training has been in Chemical engineering. I was an undergraduate at RAC, Trichy that is now NIT, Trichy. I completed my masters & PhD at the University of Akron and a post doctorate at Case Western University in fuel cells & materials. While working at Mitsubishi housed in UC Santa Barbara, CA, I was engaged in developing a fuel-cell material. Then I worked with a small company on an electrochemical oxygen generator, reverse of the fuel cell and later contributed in a startup working on device development. I moved back to Chennai looking for projects and started working as head of R&D at Phoenix Medical Systems. One of the projects that came out during that period was Brilliance, a low-cost phototherapy product – arguably the first openly priced product at 400$ for India, Nepal, Pakistan and 500$ worldwide. Other projects Phoenix has been involved with are, one from IIT Delhi, a Wellcome Trust funded project called SmartCane – an ultrasound based navigation device for the visually impaired costing Rs 3000. Another one was a standup wheelchair called R2D2 that was funded by Wellcome Trust at IIT Madras, designed by Prof. Sujatha Srinivasan’s group. I consulted quite a bit afterwards and one of my consulting clients was Villgro.

As you can see, I already had a bent of mind for product development in the social space. Eventually whatever worked out was where my heart was – they all had a social angle. So when the Villgro role came it was a natural fit.

CSW: What goes into making a social entrepreneur?

AV:. Social enterprise is a difficult field. We, at Villgro, really empathize with the entrepreneurs because they have chosen to solve a difficult problem and dedicate a huge chunk of their lives to it. Openness to ideas, and commitment is what we look for at Villgro. The social entrepreneur is the one who owns the problem no matter what and wants to solve it. It takes time, a good amount of their life – about 5 to 7 years before any sizable revenue is generated.

CSW: What are the skills a life science PhD requires to work at places like Villgro or an investment firm?

AV: Flexibility or versatility – You can be a subject expert but you should be able to very quickly probe into and assess knowledge regarding the field in question. Identifying the problem and relating it to the business side of things is very important. Multifaceted assessment of an idea is also very important.

2. Openness – You cannot be very dogmatic about anything.

3. Networking and having soft skills – Regarding soft skills I think it is very important understanding how to practically apply the knowledge you have.

I believe PhD is only a proof that the person is capable of defining, analyzing and solving a problem. Problems will almost always be outside your core training. You will have to use the general skills that you have learned to get there. Scientific and technology development principles still apply. But an intuitive jump (to understand the problem) is required.

CSW: One of the things we notice in India is your educational qualifications are not given their due credit when you enter the job market, especially for PhDs. What is your opinion on that?

AV: The entire industry working space is moving towards a more efficient lean model. There are research institutes where the degree and sector expertise are valued. In the entrepreneurial sector, especially in social entrepreneurship, knowledge is definitely valued but you have to be very productive and very efficient. The approach we take is that you have to be relevant to your customer, which in this case is the entrepreneur. So anyone who can share knowledge in a way that is relevant and creates an impact is always respected, especially in India where a lot of things are relationship driven. I find that it is not the degree but the deployable knowledge that is valued. If you can translate your knowledge to something that is relevant to the customer, then your knowledge is valuable. There are western systems where there are very set roles – if the role is not effective anymore then you may also lose value. However, in the Indian context, I wouldn’t say that your degree is not valued. If you value your degree then you value the knowledge your degree has given you. There has to be balance of respect and relevance.

CSW: What are the career options that a life science specialist can explore at investment firms or organizations like Villgro?

AV: If you are flexible enough, technical mentors are always needed. Sector knowledge is respected because that leads to quick solutions. We call them senior advisors but you can call them technical advisors. These are very knowledge driven roles.

CSW: What sort of options exist for those who are fresh out of their PhDs?

AV: There are a lot of analyses that investors rely on, for instance, landscape analyses. In those sectors they can add value. But one should remember that the value of the person and their degree would be subsequently determined by the impact they generate.

About the authors: The article is based on an interview conducted by Dr. Reetu Mehta and Vignesh Narayan, and transcribed by Dr. Somdatta Karak.

Illustration: The inset image was made by Dr. Somdatta Karak. The cover picture is from Pixabay.

About the editors: Dr. Shayu Deshpande edited and Dr. Roopsha Sengupta streamlined the article. Dr. Manoja Eswara proofread the article.

The contents of Club SciWri are the copyright of PhD Career Support Group for STEM PhDs (A US Non-Profit 501(c)3, PhDCSG is an initiative of the alumni of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. The primary aim of this group is to build a NETWORK among scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs).

This work by Club SciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

 

 

Villgro – Supporting social entrepreneurs stand on their feet

in Entrepreneurship/Face à Face/SciBiz by

Gone are the days when social work was perceived by many, as mindless charity. Today many bright minds work on ideas and innovations in various fields to make lives of the marginalized better – by attempting to make quality education and healthcare accessible to all, by providing sustainable livelihoods, to name a few. We are talking about those entrepreneurs who cater to the poorest of poor. These out of the box thinkers, in helping one of the most critical customer segments are aided in their journeys by support systems such as Villgro.

We have a two article series based on discussion between Dr. Reetu Mehta and Vignesh Narayan from Club SciWri (CSW) and Dr. Arun Venkatesan (AV), Chief Technlogy Officer, Villgro, Chennai. They discussed the role of incubators and venture capitalists committed to social development in India, with a special focus on Villgro’s medtech and healthcare programs. This first in the series article briefs our readers on the functioning of Villgro and the niche that it caters to.

CSW: Please brief our readers about Villgro- who does it work with and how does it work?

AV: Villgro is a 16 years old non-profit social enterprise incubator (not an accelerator) which works like a venture capital firm. One of its core missions is to work towards poverty elimination by creating for-profit enterprises with ideas that could help the poor, mostly in rural India. We look for sustainable impact in areas where even the poorest will be willing to pay – three such areas are agriculture, education and health. The organization not only invests in but also provides mentoring support to these enterprises and sits on their board to hold the companies accountable.

CSW: How does Villgro take care of its expenses?

AV: Operational expenses are largely covered by donations from foundations that believe in our abilities and cause. We are also being entrepreneurial ourselves by performing equity investments and are slowly contributing to Villgro’s sustainability.

CSW: What is the difference between Villgro and a venture capitalist?

AV: We give grants. Venture capitalists take primary interest in equity. While Villgro also takes equity in some cases, we follow a very mentor-intensive model. A lot of times enterprises approach us not only for the seed funding but also because of our high touch mentoring model. Our portfolio managers check on enterprises every week if not more often, have monthly reviews and assign time to guide each enterprise by providing a mentor and a senior technical advisor. Villgro does virtual business incubation- when the science and technology is already developed; we help the enterprise get to a product version, post-validation of that proof of concept. The product is examined from the point of the problem(s) it addresses, the solution it is providing and the strength of the problem-solution fit, its market, scope, consumer, price, etc. ‘Fail early and fail often’ is what people say in entrepreneurship. We push the enterprises at least at the thought level to figure out which concepts are failing and move on to the next.

CSW: Tell us more about the process of selecting the enterprises that Villgro wants to incubate. Who checks with the numbers that the entrepreneurs come up with and how is it done?

AV: When there is an application made to us we have an internal process. We have an internal investment committee and an external investment committee comprising some of our board members, to eliminate all kinds of biases in the decision making process. When an entrepreneur first comes to us, we do a preliminary screen to assess if some of the following check boxes are crossed. The checkboxes include:

  • The contribution made by the organization must have a direct social impact primarily to the rural Indian poor who are at the base of the pyramid. For instance, Reliance Jio creates thousands of jobs, which indirectly impacts the rural society. However an enterprise providing content development on science education in tier 2 cities or developing very low cost machines for small, marginalized farmers who have 1 acre of land is more likely to cause direct social impact.
  • Sustainability and scalability – Sometimes they are separate and sometimes they are inter-linked.
  • Technology innovation –We mostly hear from startups developing products for agriculture or medtech due to Villgro’s product bias. Rarely have we supported startups providing services alone. We are funded by Lemelson Foundation to fund inventions that directly impact society.

We classify graduation or exit as “when the company is able to raise subsequent rounds of funding on their own and stand on their own feet”.

Once all the three criteria are satisfied, we generally get a feedback from the sector leads, portfolio managers, and the investment committee. The sector leads take the decision if we should engage in detailed diligence for ensuring a bias free decision. The process of due diligence takes about 4 to 6 weeks and is a very iterative process. We talk to subject experts such as clinicians working in medical technology, practicing teachers, content developers, agricultural entrepreneurs, ecosystem stakeholders, distributors, businessmen and scientists from research institutes to get the facts and numbers verified. We do detailed analyses so that it validates as well as exposes gaps in the entrepreneurs’ armor. The due diligence is done iteratively till a solid case is built. If it cannot be built it gets rejected. Iteration happens every week or every two weeks. When a critical amount of evaluation is done for a case, it is pre-tested in an internal committee (IC) meeting, which is held every week. In this meeting, we discuss the new things that we have learned about the enterprise and decide if we should dig deeper into issues such as – size of the problem, potential customers, market size, cost of the product, regulations around the product and so on.

We also identify where subsequent funding will be available from and how it can be leveraged. We build a solid relationship with the entrepreneur especially via portfolio managers. A lot of feedback is also given during the diligence itself, which benefits the entrepreneur.

CSW: Why do you restrict the product to only the rural setup?

AV: That is where the toughest problem lies. If that is sorted, it can thrive in a private market very easily.

Healthcare related products catering to rural market that we look at, must:

  • Improve the quality of healthcare
  • Increase access to healthcare
  • Reduce cost of quality healthcare

There is an enormous need for these in the rural context. The three themes, which we have in healthcare, are Maternal and Newborn Child Health (MNCH), Communicable diseases and Non-communicable diseases (either therapeutic or diagnostic solutions). This is also in alignment with the millennium goals or now called sustainable development goals.

Some ideas may not satisfy all of our requirements of direct impact or sustainability or innovation, but we listen. We want to make sure that no novel model is missed out.

CSW: How long is the incubation period?

AV: Since this is not a physical incubation there is no ‘get out’ date. It is company and sector dependent. Life sciences/ medtech enterprises have long incubation periods of around 3 to 5 years. Ideally 2 years is sufficient but this is difficult in the medtech sector.

CSW: How do entrepreneurs support themselves during this mentorship period?

AV: A seed capital of 20-60 lakhs is given to them. Then we prepare them to raise other funds. A lot of funding in life sciences is also available from DBT, BIRAC and DST. Typically, if an enterprise passes through the detailed diligence in Villgro they are well considered elsewhere too.

CSW: What do enterprises gain from Villgro and how do they fare once they exit Villgro?

AV: Villgro takes on very early enterprises. Today’s average profile is a tech savvy person with a technology or engineering background who has a technology solution and is trying to launch a product. Some of them are pre-proof of concept. So business-wise, a lot of learning is required. We identify the gaps and when they exit Villgro they usually have a product, which may still be pre-revenue. Although Villgro has been around for 16 years, how enterprises fare post Villgro is still experimental.

One of the enterprises mentored by Villgro, Biosense, started off with two physicians who wanted to make a difference in tackling anemia in women. They developed a low cost solution providing other parallel diagnostic tests. They have glucometers and a noninvasive anemia-screening device. What is amazing here is that for sustainability a lot of companies go through public-private pivot. All get started with the government but they move to private sector for sustainability where margins are better. In public sector the numbers are large but the turnaround times are huge. Government is a tough customer but it is a great customer. Long-term sustainability can be achieved if you can crack the market. So, a lot of the companies pivot very easily towards private sector for immediate returns. We have a mandate for them saying that they cannot completely move towards private. Biosense has kept its primary focus on penetrating government channels to deploy devices at appropriate levels and quality and they have been in business for quite some time.

We realized there is a funding gap between enterprises coming out of Villgro and a mainstream investor picking them up, so Villgro principals launched a for-profit SEBI registered fund for social impact called Menterra. Menterra also focuses on sustainability, scalability and, tech based innovations. The fund has a size of 50 crores and provides a funding between 2 to 4 crores. Menterra was launched exclusively to bridge this funding gap.

CSW: So does Villgro now have two verticals; one for not-for-profit social enterprises, and the other for profit?

AV: Actually these two are separate organizations launched by the same core group of people that share a common mission and beliefs. Both are partner organizations and each believes in the others’ due diligence and mandates.

CSW: Can somebody who has been incubated at Villgro look forward for a funding from Menterra?

AV: It is not taken for granted. Both have the mandates of serving rural India but each has its own investment committee (IC). Some of the members might be shared on both ICs, but each organization has an independent voting process to avoid any conflicts of interest.

CSW: Apart from Villgro what are the other incubators in India, which provide such mentorship?

AV: Each one is unique in their approach, mandate and the sectors that they focus on.

For life sciences – there is CIIE, Ahmedabad that is sort of our competitor (But well, we work with social enterprises, it is not called competition, however geographical locations do matter). BIRAC has Bionest program. There are 20 Bionest incubators. Different incubators focus on different kinds of enterprises. Some focus on more mature enterprises whereas others focus on nonprofits, like Aavishkar. There is Venture Centre – an off shoot of NCL in Pune with a lot of focus on polymer chemistry, C-CAMP in Bangalore, KIT in Bhubaneshwar, FITT at IITD, IKP (ICICI Knowledge Park) at Hyderabad, to name a few.

Stay tuned for part-2 in this series that will discuss the career trajectory of Dr. Arun Venkateshan from academic research to working with a social enterprise incubator.

About the authors: The interview was conducted by Dr. Reetu Mehta and Vignesh Narayan, and was transcribed by Dr. Somdatta Karak.

About the editors: Dr. Shayu Deshpande edited and Dr. Roopsha Sengupta streamlined the article. Dr. Manoja Eswara proofread the article.

Illustrations: The cover image was made by Ipsa Jain (follow her work at Ipsawonders on Facebook and Instagram). The inset image was made by Dr. Somdatta Karak.

The contents of Club SciWri are the copyright of PhD Career Support Group for STEM PhDs (A US Non-Profit 501(c)3, PhDCSG is an initiative of the alumni of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. The primary aim of this group is to build a NETWORK among scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs).

This work by Club SciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

 

 

When PhDs become leaders, future unknowns become unambiguous

in Face à Face by

It’s well established that having a PhD does not necessarily mean that a career path is well defined and laid out in front of us. As a PhD in training or a post-PhD professional, one must constantly reanalyze their passion and what would help satisfy their career needs. Additionally, it’s imperative to inculcate transferable skills in one’s arsenal for the career they so desire. Such skills are not necessarily learned ‘on the job’, whether academic or non-academic, but also from hobbies, volunteer activities or any other task the individual can be a part of.

In conversation with Club SciWri (CSW), Vania ‘Vay’ Cao (VC), founder of ‘Free the PhD’ and Manager of Scientific Content and Training at Inscopix, elaborates on how her passion evolved with time and what led her to being an entrepreneur and a successful STEM PhD professional.

CSW: Let’s go back in time. What were your career plans while you were a PhD student at Brown University and NIH?

VC: To be frank, I didn’t have any – one of the commonly shared reasons I struggled more than I should have when ready to transition out of the academic path. As a college and then graduate student, I went with the flow to see where the current would take me, and as many know, this can be quite dangerous if you’re not paying attention to where you’re going from time to time.

I enjoyed the ride because I took detours when I saw something that interested me. Those detours eventually let me take control of my career direction, paddle against the current when I wanted to change direction, and end up in a different river taking me on a new journey that I’m quite excited about – working in the business world!

Eventually I started spending more time outside the lab – working with international students on community events, interviewing people for articles, and making my own music videos.

CSW: How did your passion evolve over time?

VC: During tea breaks between experiments, I always threatened to run away from lab and open my own lemonade stand with my classmate. But that didn’t quite happen!

What did happen was this: you know that little voice in the pit of your stomach, the one that tells you something is a bad idea? Since my undergrad days, that voice had been telling me that bench research wasn’t for me, and it just got louder over time. I tried to forge ahead despite that voice, because I wasn’t sure if it would change with a change in research topic.

But as I got older, I started thinking about what I really wanted to do – not what I thought I was supposed to do. Ultimately, the decisions you make will directly impact how happy you will be day to day, and sometimes you’re just not a right fit for a particular environment, no matter how hard you try.

Eventually I started spending more time outside the lab – working with international students on community events, interviewing people for articles, and making my own music videos (Genius in a Lab Coat). These activities kept me energized to finish my thesis project, and also taught me invaluable skills that were directly responsible for getting me employed.

CSW: You are currently working with Inscopix. How has your growth been?

VC: I started out at my company as an Application Scientist, a role that is responsible for the success of the company’s customers. Since Inscopix is a neuroscience company that created a new technology platform for preclinical brain imaging applications, my PhD background and personal interests in writing, communication and education made me a great fit for both the company and the role. I have a lot of fantastic colleagues and an impressive number of fellow PhDs at Inscopix because we highly value the ability to serve our customers – fellow neuroscientists – in accomplishing their experimental goals. It’s been a great way to leverage my research background and experience, and stay connected to a field I love.

As startup companies grow, employees can grow with them.  From directly addressing customer needs, I’ve moved into managing the educational infrastructure that supports them. My latest role also includes training new members of our field team to become masters of our technology for both sales and support roles.

Young companies are dynamic, living entities, and if you find one that you mesh with, you’ll never be bored!

The funny thing is, even karaoke contests and beauty pageants come with useful transferable skills.

CSW: And amongst all this, you never gave up on your passion for singing and being a beauty queen finalist for the 2013 Pacific Miss Asian America Beauty Pageant.

VC: I’m a singer and competitor by nature.  During grad school, I participated in karaoke contests and joined an acapella group at the NIH. Music is an amazing anti-depressant, and singing practice helped me through many tough days of failed experiments!

To really get out of my comfort zone, I competed in a local beauty pageant in my final year of grad school.  It took me two years to get my nerve up, but a good friend of mine encouraged me to give it a try.  Even though I’d spent most of my life as a nerdy tomboy, I figured well, why not?

Although I had no idea how to walk in heels or put on makeup, I approached the situation as a scientist would – do some research on what you don’t know and run some experiments, just like in the lab! I did a lot of Googling, YouTubing and analysis of fashion runway videos to figure out how to strut my stuff, and got placed in the top 5 as the oldest and possibly nerdiest contestant that year. Even my pageant Q&A answer featured Bill Nye and the need for more science communication!

The funny thing is, even karaoke contests and beauty pageants come with useful transferable skills. For example, I will be the “Master of Ceremonies” for a company event for the second time this fall, due to my past experience in the spotlight.

I want to change the definition of what it means to be a PhD, and free fellow scientists to pursue the personal path that is right for them.

CSW: How did “Free the PhD” come into existence?

VC: My transition outside academia was one of the most stressful times of my life. Many competing emotions and fears ruled my life in those last 2-3 months before I finalized the transition. I was afraid of moving on. I was afraid of letting myself and my graduate advisor down from what I thought was the “right” career path. After building a wonderful community in graduate school, I was terrified to move across the country to a new place where I knew no one. It was imposter syndrome to the extreme when I started at my company. I had no idea what I was supposed to do or pay attention to in a workplace with such different priorities and concerns than in academia.

So many of these fears were unfounded – and so much stress could have been avoided – if I had had access to a resource where I could learn from people who had made this journey before me in an efficient, organized and empathetic manner. I felt alone during that transition process, and wished for a resource that spoke to both my intellectual and psychological needs during one of the most defining moments of my professional life.

That’s why I founded Free the PhD – a learning and career coaching resource for fellow scientists who are ready to move into the world past the bench. I want to pass on the knowledge I’ve gained from personal experience and from interviewing fellow post-academic PhDs to build a community – one that people can benefit from through multiple transitions and new adventures. I’ve put hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars into this passion project because I care about empowering fellow PhDs to enter and impact all sectors of society, from industry to education to government.

I want to change the definition of what it means to be a PhD, and free fellow scientists to pursue the personal path that is right for them.

After all, if we want to change the status quo, it’s up to us to take the lead!

Choose to make an impact on the world with your skills and knowledge, inside or outside the lab, in the most effective way for you.

CSW: Very encouraging! What would be the take-home message that you would want the fellow PhDs to keep close to their heart?

VC: One of the reasons it’s so hard for fellow PhDs to leave academia is because we’ve grown accustomed to deriving personal value from the academic environment. That’s all many of us have ever known, and that’s OK. Just remember that your current environment is not a reflection of your personal worth– it can shape you, but it does not define you.

Your PhD experience will inform and enrich the rest of your life, no matter where you go next. Choose to make an impact on the world with your skills and knowledge, inside or outside the lab, in the most effective way for you. That is the path to success.

About Vania:

Dr. Vania Cao is founder of Free the PhD, a career resource and training platform for scientists looking to transition to a life they love. She works at a neurotech startup by day and still performs in a band in her free time.

 

 

 


The contents of Club SciWri are the copyright of PhD Career Support Group for STEM PhDs (A US Non-Profit 501(c)3, PhDCSG is an initiative of the alumni of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. The primary aim of this group is to build a NETWORK among scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs).

This work by Club SciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

Path of a TIFR grad student to an NIBR investigator – Face à Face with Dr. Ajeet Pratap Singh at NIBR

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My first encounter with Ajeet Pratap Singh (APS), then a graduate student was when I joined Prof. Veronica Rodrigues’ lab at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai in 2006 as a freshly inducted Master’s student. Sharing the work space, Ajeet was my daily dose of inspiration, support, comic relief and poetry; from his undying love for ghazals and poetry, and an accomplice in watching cricket together in between experiments.

Dr. Ajeet Pratap Singh at MPI for Developmental Biology, Tübingen, Germany

Undoubtedly, the one thing that everyone in the department could vouch for Ajeet is his single-minded focus on science. He is grateful to his postgraduate mentors, especially Dr. Suvendu Ray at Tezpur University, Assam, India for instilling his enthusiasm in the life sciences. “He would tell us about the most recent scientific discoveries in the field of Biology. These discussions opened a different world for us. Most of us were used to the matter of fact training that we get in our schools, with limited focus on free thinking. He was a big motivation for me to pursue a PhD and get a first-hand experience of the excitements in the field of science,” says Ajeet.

During his doctoral work on neuronal modeling under Prof. Veronica Rodrigues and Prof. K. Vijayraghavan, Ajeet benefited from their ‘complimentary approach to science’ and the comprehensive PhD program at TIFR. Ajeet credits his PhD program for emphasizing strongly on learning new skills. He is thankful to Prof. Vijayraghavan for having played a huge role in shaping his career even after his graduation from TIFR in 2011. It was his guidance that inspired Ajeet to pursue his postdoctoral research with the phenomenal developmental biologist Christiane Nüsslein-Vollhard, popularly known among colleagues as Janni, and a Nobel laureate of 1995. Things worked out for Ajeet and he soon moved to the beautiful, German university town of Tübingen to work with Janni at the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Developmental Biology. He was also a proud recipient of the EMBO long-term fellowship.

A glimpse of Tübingen summer punting, by Dr. Anurag Singh
Ajeet with postdoc advisor Prof. Christiane Nüsslein-Vollhard. Picture courtesy – MPI for Developmental Biology / momentum-photo.com

Ajeet fondly recalls his experience with Janni, learning basic concepts of developmental biology. In addition, the multidisciplinary and international research environment only made it all the more stimulating for him. He feels that interdisciplinary education is undermined in the Indian schooling system, and he encourages everyone to seek opportunities to learn from different fields to be able to deliver quality science in the current age of collaborations.

Ajeet is now an investigator at Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research (NIBR) in Massachusetts, since August 2016. However, the transition from his postdoc lab to NIBR didn’t happen overnight. While studying color pattern formation in zebrafish (for his post-doctoral research), he observed that the fishes liked to stay together (shoaling), and this inspired him to develop a system to study social behavior. Alongside his postdoc, he kept working on his idea and developed genetic tools to study it further.

Janni provided him the platform and freedom to pursue his ‘additional’ interests. Ajeet invested on developing simple behavioral assays to measure social behavior of zebrafish, made several gene knock outs to probe into the genetics behind this shoaling behavior.

Opportunities often come to those who are prepared – and Ajeet was prepared.

Towards the end of his postdoc in 2015, he came across an advert from the NIBR – looking for scientists interested in genetics of zebrafish social behavior, aimed to better understand human social behavior and the disorders related to them. As it was so closely related to his line of work and interests, Ajeet found a perfect fit and was offered the job the very same day as his interview. Commenting on the differences in research foci in academia and industries, Ajeet opines, “In general, the long-term goals of industry and academia are clearly different – both have a prime emphasis on the generation of knowledge base, but in industrial research knowledge, those that would seem to help solve diseases of humankind get immediate priority. However, at NIBR, fundamental research is highly encouraged – our work on zebrafish is basically like any other basic research.” Despite his spectacularly successful academic track so far, Ajeet acknowledges the imbalance between the increasing number of PhDs and postdocs coming out each year and the paucity of jobs in academia that cater to them; something that has been described as a Ponzi scheme by others. He feels that it is imperative to spread awareness about careers beyond academic tracks for researchers.

As Ajeet grows his group at NIBR to understand complex social behaviors in zebrafish and to utilize this model organism for drug-discovery in the longer term, I see his story reminding me of many crucial lessons in planning a successful career. It is a story that highlights personal commitment towards developing and working on independent ideas, and active mentoring at every crucial step of one’s career. With the synergy of the two, chances are high that one is ready to embark when the right career opportunity comes by. More importantly, these are pivotal in creating independent lines of ideas and research – the only way to nurture and pursue science.

More about Ajeet: Follow Dr. Ajeet Pratap Singh’s research works here, and get in touch with him here.


Author: Somdatta Karak, PhD works with Club SciWri as a writer and editor of articles aimed at helping Indian scientific community in research as well as entrepreneurship. You can get in touch with her here.

Editors: Mathura Shanmugasundaram, PhD and Sayantan Chakraborty, PhD

The cover image was designed by Vinita Bharat, PhD. Follow her work as Fuzzy Synapse at Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. The inset images were kindly provided by APS, Dr. Anurag Singh and momentum-photos.


The contents of Club SciWri are the copyright of PhD Career Support Group for STEM PhDs (A US Non-Profit 501(c)3, PhDCSG is an initiative of the alumni of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. The primary aim of this group is to build a NETWORK among scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs).

This work by Club SciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

 

Transition from Bench to Investor relations and Patient engagement-Face to Face with Dr. Michelle Avery

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Nida Siddiqui (NS), interviews Dr. Michelle Avery (MA), who tells us about her love for science communication, and how she used skills learnt during her PhD, to transition from bench research to being the ‘Director of Investor Relations and Patient Engagement’ at Summit Therapeutics.

NS: Could you tell us about yourself?

MA: I loved science since an early age, and even volunteered at a local science museum when I was old enough, but I could never have imagined where it would take me. I earned my undergraduate degree in neuroscience and dance from Skidmore College. While I was there, I had a professor who told me that in order to have a career involving neuroscience, you had to have a PhD. And so, off I went to get my PhD, which I obtained from the University of Massachusetts Medical School, where I studied axon degeneration in Drosophila. I knew that I wanted to branch out from academia and so opted to not do a postdoc. After graduation, I joined a life sciences communication agency, called MacDougall Biomedical Communications. I’m now the Director of Investor Relations and Patient Engagement at Summit Therapeutics, a small biotech company developing drugs in Duchenne muscular dystrophy and C. difficile infection. I also compete nationally in ballroom dancing in my spare time.

NS: What were some of the exciting projects that you did during your PhD/Postdoc?

 MA: I was a very fortunate grad student – the vast majority of my experiments went very well and resulted in several publications, two first authored papers and two others. My work centred on understanding axon degeneration. For the most part, I worked on a fusion protein that was originally discovered in mice about 20 years before I got to UMass, but its mechanism was still a mystery. We found that a protein, called Wlds, can stop axons from degenerating during injury and in some models of disease, a process that was previously thought to be passive one. I used Drosophila genetics to unravel how Wlds functions, and demonstrated that it acts through mitochondria. I also participated in a forward genetic screen, where we created thousands of mutant Drosophilas to find ones in which their axons didn’t degenerate; further proving that axon degeneration is an active process like apoptosis. We found several mutants that many others in the lab followed up on (and are continuing to follow up on).

 NS: Did you have a dilemma after your PhD, to choose from a postdoc/industry position?

 MA: My heart was not in research – I loved every aspect of it, except for doing it. I knew it wouldn’t be fair to myself or whichever research team I go to if I continued onto a postdoc. I was lucky enough to have a PI who was very supportive of me and my decision to go into industry, although some of my thesis committee members tried to pressure me into doing a postdoc.

 NS: When did you decide it was time to move on and transition to industry?

 MA: I decided a couple of years into my PhD that I wasn’t likely to continue on in academia. I’m a big believer that one should always love what they’re doing and make a change if they don’t. I did chat with several of my friends about whether to drop out of the PhD program or to finish my degree and most of them responded with “you’ve come this far, you’d probably regret it if you don’t finish.” I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished, but am happy to leave the bench behind.

NS: What are the skills that helped you crack your current position?

MA: Four main skills are crucial for my job:

  1. Learning – People often take for granted the main skill that we are taught in any PhD program. How to learn and then apply that learning. This ability has allowed me to learn the business of science, read and decipher scientific papers for the masses and be able to effectively research any challenge and come up with solutions.
  2. Problem-solving – They don’t call it research because you do it just once. Science has taught me how to expect the unexpected and find a way around it. Every company has unique challenges and figuring out the best way to address them is key to good communication.
  3. Communicating – In my career, it’s very important for me to be able to tell a compelling story to a wide variety of audiences – from young patients to other PhDs who have now turned into investors. The overall message stays the same, but the details change, based on the level of knowledge each group has. Having the opportunity to present to different groups during grad school has helped immensely in this regard. In addition, my PI was great at preparing us for presentations – any time we presented in a conference or other event, we practiced in front of the entire lab and received detailed feedback on every slide, from the words we used to describe to the content of the slide.
  4. Confidence in questioning authority – We all know that science would not advance if researchers weren’t bold enough to question the reigning dogma. We’re taught to prove the null hypothesis and question every aspect of ours and others’ data. This is a very useful skill when it comes to shaping a communications strategy, crafting the message that conveys your story and preparing your team well for a question and answer session with different audiences. It ultimately gives more credibility to the company, which is a company’s greatest asset in biotech.

NS: Could you describe your role as the Director of investor relations and patient engagement?

MA: In smaller biotech companies, investor relations and corporate communications are one and the same. The life of a biotech company depends on its ability to raise money and fund research. For that, you need a compelling story, honest and frequent communication and a good relationship with Wall Street. These three tasks fall under my purview.

A compelling story should start with a simple message that permeates through all communications of the company. Therefore, I’m responsible for all external written and oral communications – the vast majority of which I take the first draft on, whereas some others (mainly scientific presentations/posters) I simply review to make sure they support our story. The communications I draft include, website text, press releases, presentations, conference call scripts, Q&A documents and financial filings (as a public company, we have to file certain forms with the Securities and Exchange Commission).

On the honest and frequent communications front, I typically map out a year or two worth of upcoming events (e.g. conferences, corporate and scientific announcements), identify gaps in the frequency of communication and come up with clever ways to fill those gaps, such as targeting a scientific publication for that time far enough in advance.

In regards to maintaining a good relationship with Wall Street, there are three categories of Wall Street folks that I interact with: bankers: that help us to raise money; buysiders: the investors that buy our stock; and sellsiders: who write reports on our company recommending whether to buy, hold or sell our stock.

NS: Could you elaborate on investor relations strategy?

MA: An investor relations strategy includes interactions with the bankers, buysiders and sellsiders; a plan for continuing the relationships, and also building them. Thus, I spend a lot of time traveling with my Chief Executive Officer and Chief Financial Officer. Each bank typically holds conference during the year, where we present and get to meet one-on-one with buyside investors. Usually, we take a day or two on either side of these conferences to meet the sellsiders or other investors who weren’t at the conference. We also conduct what are called non-deal roadshows, meaning we’re not looking to raise money, but rather are out meeting with buyside investors at their offices. We try and conduct a non-deal roadshow every three months at different locations both in the US and Europe. For sellsiders, we frequently call and meet ones that write about us to make sure they’re as up to date as possible. We also seek out and educate sellsiders that write about other companies in our space. It’s important for them to know as much as they can about a disease space, so we make sure they have an accurate picture of our company which may increase our chances of getting mentioned in research they cover about other companies. In some cases, you can even persuade a sellsider to start writing reports about your company. Another incredibly important aspect of my job is to make sure that we all stay out of jail. All joking aside, there are certain obligations that a public company has in terms about what and when it discloses certain information. I tend to say I’m the nosiest person at the company because of this task – I need to understand what’s going on with every group within the company to know whether or not we need to make a disclosure and when we need to do so. It’s also great to have a head’s up when something like data might be coming, so I can plan the scenario and ensure we have all the right messages and materials ready when it’s time to get the disclosure out. There are many other aspects to investor relations, but these are the main components.

NS: Could you describe the concept of patient engagement?

MA: Patient engagement is relatively new in biotech companies. More and more, biotech companies are realizing that patients are very important for the development of their drugs. In order for a drug to get to the market, you need patient enrolment in clinical trials, and therefore, they need to be designed with patients in mind. So, this role is a two-way street – where we need to educate the patients and in return we need to be educated by them. On the educational front, I spend time traveling to patient organization meetings, to present our approach towards treating Duchenne muscular dystrophy and our clinical trials. These meetings are a great way for us to be educated about the patient population – the questions they ask and discussions they have could be very informative. We also set up periodic webinars, send around newsletters, use social media and keep the patient and family website up to date. Another way that patients educate us is through an advisory board, where we get their feedback on clinical trial protocols, what’s most important in their quality of life and what attributes they look for in a potential drug. It’s great to be at a company that cares about its patients and works to involve them in our drug development as best as possible. It’ll be even better if one day I can tell the patients that we have a new treatment option for them.

NS: What would be your advice to PhD students and postdocs looking to transition to the industry?

MA: I would advise students and postdocs to follow their hearts first and foremost – if you want to make a transition, you can do it and be successful no matter what pushback you may or may not receive from various advisors. Make sure that you openly communicate about your desire to transition – it could help open up doors to networking with others who may have made the transition. Look for other ways to network with those who have made a transition – your city may have a biotech organization that holds events, there may be alternative career talks at your institution or LinkedIn can be a good way to find people to connect with. Finally, look for ways to enhance your skillset for whatever career you may be interested in – if it’s communications, see if there’s a blog you can contribute to on a topic of your choice or sign up for presenting whenever you get a chance. Best of luck to you!

About Dr. Michelle Avery:

Michelle Avery, PhD, is Director of Investor Relations and Patient Engagement at Summit Therapeutics. Previously, she held various positions of increasing seniority at MacDougall Biomedical Communications with her last position being Senior Account Executive. She earned her PhD in neuroscience from the University of Massachusetts Medical School and BA in neuroscience and dance from Skidmore College.

 

About Nida Siddiqui:

 

Nida Siddiqui is currently pursuing final year PhD at the Centre for Mechanochemical Cell Biology, University of Warwick, UK. Follow her on LinkedIn and Twitter @siddnida.

Editors: Paurvi Shinde, PhD and Sayantan Chakraborty, PhD

Paurvi Shinde did her PhD, in Immunology from University of Connecticut Health and currently works as a Post Doc, at Bloodworks Northwest in Seattle. She’s loves editing and proofreading scientific articles, to convey the message behind it, in a clear and concise form. Follow her on Linkedin.

Sayantan Chakraborty is an IRTA postdoctoral fellow at the National Institute on Aging, NIH, Baltimore. A geneticist by training, he’s now exploring the realms of transcription factor dynamics in T cells using quantitative microscopy and systems biology tools. His interests extend to being the Editor for NPR Office Hours and Friends of Joe’s Big Idea. As he grows, he’s looking forward to interacting and networking with fellow science communicators and outreach managers across the globe. Additionally, he’s also a Crisis Counselor with the 24/7 Crisis Text Line. Follow him on Twitter @ch_sayantan

Cover image: Pixabay

The contents of Club SciWri are the copyright of PhD Career Support Group for STEM PhDs (A US Non-Profit 501(c)3, PhDCSG is an initiative of the alumni of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. The primary aim of this group is to build a NETWORK among scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs).

This work by Club SciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

 

Medical Science Liaison 101 with Dr. Martijn Bijker

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From SCIENCE to PHARMA, led by Dr. Martijn Bijker (MB) and his team of Medical Science Liaison (MSL) and Medical Affairs experts is an online training platform for PhD’s and postdocs interested in becoming an MSL. I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Bijker to learn more about the MSL role and how to make such a career transition. I hope you enjoy reading this interview as much as I enjoyed chatting with him about his life and career.

RR : What is your research background?

MB: I completed my Bachelor’s in Chemistry from the VU University, Amsterdam where I gained a deeper interest in DNA and molecular biology. This was followed by a Master’s degree from the same University majoring in biochemistry/molecular biology and I added two extra majors, one in immunology and one in immuno-oncology. The Master’s program gave me the opportunity to fulfill one of my long-term dreams – to carry out research in the United States. I had a nine months research internship in San Diego at the La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology (LIAI). This internship set the direction for my PhD and my long-term interest in T-cells and immuno-oncology. I started my PhD at the Leiden University in 2003 and focused on immuno-oncology and cancer vaccines, two hot topics at the time.

RR: Did you then decide to do a Postdoc?

MB: Yes, it was an obvious choice since I loved (and still love) science and discussing science. I went to do my postdoc in Sydney, Australia; however, I slowly realized that I enjoyed planning and designing experiments more than executing them. I liked predicting the data and making graphs that showed my scientific predictions (my PhD mentor always teased me by asking “Are these real experiments or just your hypothetical thinking?”). Although I was in the midst of a postdoc, I was ignoring my inner voice telling me that I had reached my limit of bench-work.

RR: What led to the career change?

MB: Eventually, I reached my tipping point. When I started my postdoc in Australia, I realized the project I had embarked on seemed far less promising than it was in the beginning. Also, my supervisor and I did not work well together. But I loved science and I thought academia was the only possibility to do science. I felt stuck and had to find a way out, as this was a very depressing time and environment for me. It took me 3 years (and a lot of complaining) to plan my exit strategy.

RR: Why did you choose to become an MSL?

MB: Actually, my wife gave me an MSL job advertisement and said “maybe this is something for you in 1-2 years time”. The job description was very appealing to me -discussing science (with the top scientific and clinical leaders in the field). Then, on a postdoc mentoring day at our institute, our presenter gave us a very wise life lesson. He said: “You should have a really good plan B, because then you can take all the risk with your plan A and reach great heights and have no fear of failing, as you have a really good plan B to fall back on.” On that day, I set my plan A to stay in academia, and my plan B was to become an MSL. However, 2-3 weeks later, I switched my plan B to be the plan A and went ahead with full steam to become an MSL. Exactly 12 months on the day my wife had sent me the MSL job advertisement, I started my first MSL job at Abbott (6 years ago).

RR: What does the MSL job typically entail?

MB: As the name indicates, you are liaising with the top clinicians in your specific disease area and discussing medical and scientific topics. You are seen as the (internal) expert on anything related to your (and your competitors’) drug, the mode of action, the disease, the clinical trials, the side effects of your drugs, patient management etc.

The MSL role has two major focuses: pipeline and inline drugs. Pipeline drugs are drugs that are still in clinical development, and clinical trials are in progress. Inline drugs have been approved by the regulators to be used in humans for only that specific disease indication. They are sold by the pharmaceutical company and prescribed by the doctors.

While a sales representative tries to change the prescribing behavior of a doctor, the job of an MSL is to better understand the current and future treatment algorithm in your disease area and how your (pipeline) drug best fits in it. In the pipeline phase, you need to understand how doctors will position your drug in the future treatment algorithm. You must understand their rationale for making your drug their first, second or third choice, or for prescribing it to either all patients or only a subgroup of patients with the disease. The MSL must also educate the medical doctors and nurses of certain side effects that inhibit the uptake of the drug and how they can be mitigated. Another aspect of your work involves knowing whether your drug requires any specific diagnostic test before it can be prescribed and if so, how can you expedite the process between diagnosis and drug prescription. In the pipeline phase, you explore all these aspects and share your key clinical insights with the internal colleagues at the company to create a successful plan to launch this drug most efficiently and safely to the doctors and the patients.

When the drug is already on the market (inline), your role is to continue to understand where your drug fits in the current treatment algorithm in light of the current and upcoming clinical data from the competitors. As an MSL you might also support the sales team (i.e. with training) and be involved in medical education for doctors.

Overall, as an MSL you are seen as the drug and clinical disease expert and the first point of contact for your internal colleagues and the external clinical experts. In short, it is a very stimulating environment.

RR: What does the career trajectory look like once you start working as an MSL for a company?

MB: After working as an MSL, one can become a senior MSL and perhaps even an MSL manager. To move up the ladder you often have to live in the vicinity of the local head-office. If you don’t, the MSL can be a cul-de-sac position, or more positively put, it is a career for life.

However, if you live close to or can move to the head-office, one can move up the ladder within Medical Affairs and could become a medical manager/medical advisor/(associate) medical director within the Medical Affairs department. In these roles, you will be mostly working within the office with your internal colleagues to develop strategy for the product using the in-field insights obtained by the MSL.

You can also switch to other departments such as commercial/marketing/market access and pricing. It is definitely very flexible and you can move around relatively easily between companies and/or departments.

RR: What were some of the challenges that you faced in your journey to become an MSL?

MB: The biggest challenge, at that time for me, was to find information on the internet about what an MSL is and what they do on a daily basis. The next challenge was, how to become an MSL without having any MSL experience. After figuring these things out, another big challenge was the MSL interview. The interview for an MSL role is not like the 45 minutes postdoctoral interview with your professor and colleagues in an informal setting. You need to do some serious homework for an MSL interview and it will take you days to prepare for it. Having experienced the lack of online information and the urgent need for it by PhDs/postdocs to support their transition into the MSL role, I started my online MSL training company – from SCIENCE to PHARMA – about 3 years ago.

RR: What were your biggest challenges on the job as an MSL?

MB: While on the job, I quickly realized the pharma world was a lot different than academia, and a lot better in my experience. The top things I had to get used to were:

  1. You can’t just walk into someones’ office to discuss something; you book a meeting in their calendar
  2. You work a lot more in cross-functional settings and not so much on your own, and have to therefore keep more people informed along the process
  3. Your focus changes from scientific journals to medical journals like the New England Journal of Medicine, to just name one. And your discussion partners are not your lab mates, but clinicians and clinical professors – a different kettle of fish
  4. People openly appreciate what you do; that was new and quite a positive experience for me
  5. And of course, the dress code. You can no longer come in your shorts, t-shirt or jeans to work. You are dressed up more formally, like in a typical corporate setting, especially when you go to see the clinicians

People talk about “going to the dark side” when someone moves to the pharmaceutical industry. I will tell you that it is a very bright side, with many kind and very smart people who have (far less hidden agendas and) one common goal in mind – to improve patients’ lives.

RR: What are the key points a postdoc/graduate student should be aware of while planning a transition into MSL?

MB: The big catch-22 is how to apply for this job if you don’t know what it entails. In my experience, candidates fail to tailor their CV for the MSL role because they do not fully comprehend the MSL job. Their CV therefore just looks like they are applying for a postdoc/scientist position and thus they keep getting rejected. Some tips for you CV and your interview:

  1. You are an expert after finishing your PhD, so call yourself an expert in that (disease) area on your CV.
  2. There is no need to indicate your lab work and lab techniques (western blotting, PCR, flow cytometry) as you will never use these techniques in your MSL life ever again. You must instead focus on diseases, patients and your clinical network.
  3. Know exactly what an MSL is and does on a day-to-day basis. This will enable you to prepare a more robust CV with a higher likelihood of making it to the interviews. The market is tougher now with far more applicants. Hence you need a CV that shows tremendous potential, and of course, you need to be well prepared at the interview. For this, you can take advantage of our online MSL training platform – from SCIENCE to PHARMA, webinars, podcasts, handbooks on MSL jobs, and talking to other MSL’s.
  4. This brings me to the next important thing PhDs struggle with. If you have undergone training, taken a course, or you have gained considerable experience in something, you can mention it on your CV. You don’t always need a certificate, diploma or degree to highlight your skills!
  5. Finally, be ready to answer the following three basic questions: What do you know about the MSL role? Why do you want to become an MSL? Why would you be a good MSL? If you can’t answer these, you are not yet ready to apply for jobs, or to talk to a recruiter about an MSL position. Rather, talk to me first.

RR: What do you think is the role of a good mentor/coach in professional growth and career transitions?

MB: First of all, I believe a good mentor will challenge your thinking and you should be open to it and not feel offended. Secondly, I believe having a mentor who is currently outside academia will benefit you in changing your status quo thinking. Thirdly, the mentor (and yourself) should focus on your skills, strengths and the things you love doing and building/finding a job around that, rather than the other way around.

My wife, who was working in the pharma industry made me question my belief that I could talk and discuss science for a living only by staying in academia. In hindsight, I was only pipetting for a living. As an MSL, on the other hand, I read, talk, discuss and present more science than I ever did in academia.

 

About Dr. Martijn Bijker :

 Dr Martijn Bijker, PhD MSc is the founder of “from SCIENCE to PHARMA” – the only global fully online Medical Science Liaison (MSL) training platform; helping Bachelors, Masters, PhDs, MDs, and PharmDs to maximize their chances of becoming an MSL. www.fromSCIENCEtoPHARMA.com

 

About the author : 

Radhika Raheja completed her PhD from Cornell University and is currently a Postdoctoral fellow at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Her research interests have centered around oncology and neuroimmunology. Among other things, she is striving to effectively communicate scientific discoveries to the community. You can contact her on LinkedIn or Twitter (@radsr11).

 

Editors :

Arunima Singh obtained her PhD in Computational chemistry from the University of Georgia, USA, and is currently a postdoctoral researcher at New York University. She enjoys traveling, reading, and the process of mastering a new cuisine. Her motivation to move to New York was to be a part of this rich scientific, cultural, and social hub.

Paurvi Shinde, did her PhD, in Biomedical Sciences (Immuno-logy) from University of Connecticut Health and currently doing a Post Doc, at Bloodworks Northwest in Seattle. Apart from science, she’s a trained classical dancer and loves outdoor and hikes.

Cover image: Pixabay

 

So you want to be a Medical Writer: Interview with Dr. Michael Fiedler

in Face à Face/Uncategorized by

Dr. Michael Fiedler (MF) shares his experience in the field of Medical communications with Imit Kaur (IK). He describes the job and also provides valuable advice on how to best transition from academia to industry.

IK: Please tell about yourself and your background.

MF: I am from Southern California. As a kid I loved animals and decided to study biology at UC San Diego. During my time at UCSD, I worked in an academic lab and learned techniques in Molecular Biology and Immunology. Unfortunately, after sophomore year, my PI lost his funding and had to let me go. That was a pivotal, enlightening moment in my life in that I realized I didn’t want to spend my life in the academic world where I would have to struggle for research money on a regular basis. I still loved science, however, and wanted to reach the pinnacle of academic achievement (i.e., earn a PhD). After completing my BS in Cell Biology, I attended graduate school at Yale University. While at Yale, I really wanted to challenge my mind and take advantage of any opportunity I could because I knew I wasn’t going to be in academia. I am naturally a talkative extrovert and writing was a way to harness that energy. During grad school I had multiple blogs and part time writing/editing jobs and was also on the board of the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine. Towards the end of my PhD I strongly considered law school as a way to leverage my passion and skillsets, but ultimately decided against it because of fears related to work-life balance and student debt. At that point, I was 4 weeks away from my defense and had no idea what I was going to do. So I sat on the computer and wrote 2 words into Career Builder, “Science” and “Writing” as these were the two things I was most proficient in. That is how I came to discover Medical Communications (MC). Shortly thereafter I got my first job at Infusion Medical Communications, where I still am today.

IK: Explain Medical Writing (MW) and Medical communications (MC) in general. The field of scientific communications is expanding and are there distinct roles played by MW or MC in different organizations?

MF: Well there’s a difference in the type of content in MW. I like to explain MW using the analogy of DNA replication. There’s a leading edge, which is when new/private information becomes public (e.g., publication of clinical trial results) and there is lagging edge where published information is metabolized and leveraged for various purposes (e.g., slide decks).

There is also a difference in the type of communications. Proactive communications are the ones you see on TV, billboards, and Journal advertisements and they provide information that is strictly in the prescribing information or “on-label.” This type of communication is highly regulated and mostly done by sales and commercial people. Reactive communication on the other hand is in response to questions from healthcare providers (HCPs) and can be explained using a car dealership analogy. When you buy a car at a dealership you usually talk to the sales people and finance. However, if you have questions or car troubles after you buy the car, you don’t visit the salesmen who sold you the car, you go to the mechanic. In the pharmaceutical world, the mechanics are medical science liaisons (MSLs) that can talk about things outside the prescribing information to address specific questions. For example, if an HCP wants to understand how a drug works or if it is safe to use in an older or younger patient. In response to these types of questions, an MSL can discuss scientific information in a neutral, informative way with the HCP to help them feel more confident in their decisions. In this type of reactive communication, a medical writer will prepare materials that an MSL can use to facilitate the conversation (e.g., data summary slides, mechanism of action illustrations, etc.).

Another example of MC is with advisory boards, which are like committee meetings for pharmaceutical companies. Say a pharmaceutical company is interested in running a clinical trial for an approved drug, but for a new population (e.g., children). They will call upon experts in the therapeutic area who also have experience with pediatric populations. They will bring them to a central location for a meeting (e.g., Dallas, TX) to discuss the implications of using the drug in children (e.g., safety and efficacy) and what kind of patients would need to be included or excluded in a clinical trial. An MC agency will facilitate everything for the meeting to happen and capture the feedback. They will plan the event in terms of location, attendees and contracts, and create the content itself (e.g., agenda, discussion guide, slide development and onsite reporting). Afterwards they generate a report of who said what.

From a structure standpoint an MC agency has 4 parts:

  1. Business development: people going out and getting the business from Pharmaceutical companies.
  2. Account Services: people responsible for managing awarded projects, client interactions, leading calls, and ensuring completion of projects in a timely manner.
  3. Medical and Scientific Services: people like me who generate the actual content.
  4. Editorial and Graphics: they clean everything up and infuse graphics into the content.

IK: Considering MW for a fresh PhD graduate, is it a huge transition from regular academia? What advice can you give?

MF: Short answer yes, it is a huge transition. I liken it to your very first day in the lab.

Long answer, I would say every PhD or science professional has a general concept of science. As a PhD you are familiar with data, present in journal club, you are used to reading and writing, but as a professional MW, you are preparing material for a client. It can be somewhat of a culture shock in MC to leave your technical skills behind and focus exclusively on these “soft skills” like searching pubmed, creating powerpoint slides, and/or summarizing general research trends. As an MC professional, a pharmaceutical company will hand over their data and it’s your responsibility to present it in the most professional and coherent manner possible. Clients will ask you to research the available literature on their competitors and summarize it in a concise and cogent way.

For advice, the hardest and most critical thing when applying is demonstrating a genuine interest in the field. A company is looking for candidates who have a passion for writing. Can you and are you willing to do it on a daily basis? Another piece of advice is to keep working on your writing skills. I spent several years writing a non-science blog. Just writing will sharpen your skills and help you develop your own style. This is critical to your development as a MW. While applying for jobs, PhDs and post docs like to point out the techniques they know or publications they have, but can neglect the skills that are actually transferable. For example, publications often have multiple authors and the person who ties all of the data together in an eloquent manner has more to offer an MC company than the scientists who conducted the actual experiments.

IK: How did you gain your first writing experience? You mentioned blog writing but are there other avenues one should explore to gain experience? Is freelancing a good idea or is it frowned upon?

MF: It all depends on where you are at in the education process. If you are a 3rd or a 4th year grad student, a blog may be a good way to establish your own voice and portfolio (it doesn’t even have to be about science). If you are closer to finishing, you might want to be more focused. One recommendation I give is to write summaries of biomedical research articles. For example, I would pick a random article from the New England Journal of Medicine or The Lancet and write a 250-500 word summary explaining the findings and why they are important. You can also post these on platforms like LinkedIn. In MC you are often asked to write on areas outside your expertise. So by metabolizing an article and posting it, you are demonstrating your skill and showing that you are actually interested in the field.

Freelancing is also a good way to sharpen your skills if you can find the right opportunity. I found freelance writing and editing jobs in grad school and while I had no idea I was going to pursue MC back then, the skills I learned were completely transferable.

IK: How do you get noticed with your resume? There are a number of organizations like the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA), are these worthy? Also do certifications help obtain a job?

MF: Resumes should be 1-page and maximize use of white space (e.g., use columns); cover letters should be short, sweet and as specific to the job/company as possible.

AMWA is a good resource and I went to a workshop where I mingled with like-minded people. Also, they have good freelance resources, so if you have worked in an MC agency for couple of years and want to breakout on your own, you can make use of their freelance directory. If you don’t have a PhD and/or not a lot of writing experience, certifications from these organizations can be helpful to establish credibility. Publication writers also often pursue a CMPP credential that ensures good publication practice.

IK: Is it okay for a fresh graduate to jump right in or should they gain more experience (e.g., do a post doc)? Also, you started your career a couple of years ago, have expectations changed overtime?

MF: You definitely don’t need to do post doc. If you want a career in MC it is in your best interest to start as early as possible. For example I started at 28 and have seen a lot of growth in my position and salary. Had I done a post doc, I would have delayed my career development and not gained substantive transferable experience in the process.

As for the MC field, it has changed significantly in recent years with more and more professionals entering the space. But that doesn’t mean the market is saturated. The market is actually growing because pharmaceutical companies are being asked to be more transparent and they want to do so in new and clever ways. Compared to when I first entered the work force, new graduates are much more informed about MC and are booted up to make contributions right away.

IK: Following up on this, how about competition in the field?

MF: There is competition and it will help to have a portfolio. You have to show some kind of commitment to writing. I would encourage people to write as much as possible. It just shows your passion and enthusiasm for your future occupation. As a field, a lot of MC agencies have historically relied on experienced writers to work on publications. However, in this era of digital communication, agencies now need to up their game to be competitive and are taking advantage of the army of new PhDs looking for fulfilling careers. These will be the innovators of the MC space and I feel fortunate to be part of the wave.

IK: What are the challenges in the field?

MF: One of the most difficult things is that you are developing content for someone else and thus have no ownership of it. From a publication perspective you have no authorship, you are just a mediator between HCPs and pharmaceutical companies. MC is also a service industry and working with clients is critical, but tricky. Executing someone else’s vision with quality and on time is not easy. Depending on the “deliverables” you work on there can also be some travel involved (e.g., advisory boards) and this tends to increase over time (i.e., you might travel 10% of the time to start, but that can grow to 30% as you take on more projects). Also, you have to learn to be cognitively nimble because you may have to jump from therapeutic area to therapeutic area within the same day.

IK: You are a career counselor; how can someone reach out to you? Why do you this?

MF: LinkedIn is a good resource. You can connect with me on LinkedIn but you need to follow the proper edict. People send connection requests all the time, but I won’t respond unless you include a message articulating why you are sending me a request. If you just send a connection request, I don’t know who you are and I can’t even respond to find out.

I like helping people for 2 reasons: 1) there is a huge population of PhD professionals trying to grab an opportunity, just like I was, and it is rewarding to help anyway I can; 2) self-interest, plain and simple. By exporting good will, if/when I ever need help in the future I can approach my contacts and hope someone returns the favor. People are usually willing to scratch your back if you have already scratched theirs.

IK: what is the growth potential in the field?

MF: It depends on the agency and work you do. I started 6 years ago and I have been promoted 4 times. There’s also a huge difference between publication work and non-publication work. Publications are commoditized (i.e., a primary manuscript is charged a flat fee) whereas non-publication work (e.g., advisory boards, slide development) is charged hourly. Because projects always take unanticipated twists and turns, non-publications tend to be more profitable and that is where I have spent my entire career.

IK: Before or during the interview process, should you try to get in touch with a recruiter?

MF: Yes if possible because you have nothing to lose. Finder’s fees are paid by the agency, so a recruiter can only help you. To do this, try and apply to as many positions as you can, which are often gated by recruiters. This will help you get on their radar and then you can pursue a relationship, should one manifest. Once you get into the field, recruiters will try and get you to change jobs because they get a commission. That is trickier to navigate and up to you based on your circumstances.

IK: Once you have the job, what do you need to do to stay in the field and keep loving your job?

MF: Maintain professionalism, focus on quality, and care about your team. If you help them do their job, they will help you do yours.

IK: Thank you so much for your time. I am sure our readers and prospective medical writers will benefit from this interview.

MF: I am happy to speak with you and I hope this is of some value.

About Dr. Michael Fiedler

Michael is the Scientific Director of Ashfield Healthcare for over 5 years and
is a dynamic and well respected presence within the company.

About Imit Kaur:

Imit Kaur, Ph.D. is a freelance scientific advisor, medical writer, editor, and an active science blogger. She pursued her PhD in Pharmaceutics and Pharmaceutical Chemistry from the University of Utah. She is experienced in the field of oncology, hematology, pharmacology, nanotechnology and drug development. Follow Imit on LinkedIn (Imit Kaur) or Twitter (@imit_kaur)

Featured image by Vinita Bharat

Editors:
 
The contents of Club SciWri are the copyright of PhD Career Support Group for STEM PhDs (A US Non-Profit 501(c)3, PhDCSG is an initiative of the alumni of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. The primary aim of this group is to build a NETWORK among scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs).

 

Story of Science: Dr. Ramray Bhat

in Face à Face/Theory of Creativity by

Ian Leslie said, “Curiosity is unruly. It doesn’t like rules, or, at least, it assumes that all rules are provisional, subject to the laceration of a smart question nobody has yet thought to ask. It disdains the approved pathways, preferring diversions, unplanned excursions, impulsive left turns. In short, curiosity is deviant.” And Ramray’s journey exemplifies the curiosity led transitions in his subjects of research interests at all phases of his career. He claims that he gets bored easily and cannot continue on the same thing for a long time.

As a nerd growing up in Calcutta, his inquisitiveness drove him to look up encyclopedias and science books. Being the text book ‘good’ student with good grades made him choose the option, biology and medicine.

I was inquisitive about things around us.’

Being questioning, he was more interested in interactions of physical world with the biological world. He remembers being intrigued by the shape of fishes towards the end of high school. He found it interesting that shape of most fishes is like a spindle in all cross sections. He wondered if hydrodynamic environment affects shaping of fishes. He bugged several physics students and found it annoying that the answers were not revealed in the many textbooks and encyclopedias he owned. He realized that there are a lot of biology-related questions that are still unanswered and that was the bait for him to lean towards basic research. He wanted to seek answers, a pursuit that continues to this day.

The fish is spindle shaped along all axes.

‘Does water movement shape the fish body?’ Ramray wondered.

However, he studied in a medical college, and he realized that most curriculum in India tend to dumb down curiosity.  He was driven into self education – reading biology, physics and mathematics books outside the strict curriculum. He believes that this reading developed an unorthodox and unconventional curriculum for himself that allowed him to ask different questions. He viewed his training in medicine as an alternate route to ultimately being a researcher. He claims that his training in physiological and pathological aspects on human biology were useful in gaining perspective on some of his research later.

I would read (science books) whatever I could get my hands on.’

He visited labs in Calcutta and Bangalore during his vacations and worked there. His interactions with scientists like Vidyanand Nanjundiah and Amitabh Joshi deepened his inclination towards basic sciences research.

After finishing his training in medicine, he started his doctoral studies at SA Newman’s lab in upstate New York. He worked on pattern formation in limb development. He elucidated novel information on the effect of physical forces on pattern formation and on how molecules come together to form a network leading to the same. These answers are reminiscent of his interest in shapes of fish. His love for pattern exists in physical and biological worlds. He also has a keen interest in architecture and pattern occurrence in man made structures as well.

He sought newer science for his postdoctoral studies. He worked with Dr. Mina J. Bissell on breast morphogenesis. There he dissected the importance of glycol saccharides in mammary tree branching. This time his research on morphogenesis had a relation with human pathogenesis. After four and half years, he sought a change and got recruited at the MRDG, IISc. There, he is now working on understanding the differences between metastatic routes of two different cancers, breast and ovarian.

Transitions allowed me to keep my love for science fresh, as well as, vigorous as it always was.’

While this is his first step as an independent principal investigator, it may not be the full stop for his transitions. We are on the lookout for all the things he will do with his love for curiosity and science.


About the author and illustrator:

Ipsa Jain is Ph.D. student at IISc. Wants to gather and spread interestingness. Prefers drawing and painting over writing. Posts on Facebook and Instagram as Ipsawonders.

 

 

 

Editor: Sayantan Chakraborty, PhD

The contents of Club SciWri are the copyright of PhD Career Support Group for STEM PhDs (A US Non-Profit 501(c)3, PhDCSG is an initiative of the alumni of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. The primary aim of this group is to build a NETWORK among scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs).

This work by Club SciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

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