India Alliance Fellow Spotlight: Sushmita Chakraborty, AIIMS New Delhi
04 Oct 2019
In this interview, we meet Dr Sushmita Chakraborty, India Alliance Early Career Fellow, who speaks about her research career—a transition from the industry to academia—trying to understand the mechanisms underlying the development and progression of Rheumatoid Arthritis, a common autoimmune disorder.
What drew you to a career in science?
My parents always encouraged good education, and priority was given to science in my family. As I recollect old memories from my childhood, I was considered as a very curious child. As my family moved often due to the nature of my father’s profession, I was exposed to various places and cultures and this again fanned my curiosity. Every fact about nature, universe, and living organisms fascinated me in school. I used to wait enthusiastically for the practical classes and was drawn towards the scientific magazines section in school library. Perhaps, owing to these factors, science was the natural choice higher education. I would also give credit to the amazing teachers I had who made science irresistibly interesting for me and inculcated the process of science thinking in my young mind.
Additional influence is from my husband who is a scientist himself. Navigating through scientific career is extremely challenging for women; I am extremely fortunate to get the support of my family.
Tell us about your academic and professional journey so far.
After my Masters in Biological Science, I got the opportunity to work as a doctoral research fellow in National Centre for Cell Science, Pune. My doctoral work helped in delineating the distinctive functions of Ras-GTPases isoforms in the CD40 Pathway—a critical co-stimulatory receptor for immune functions. During this period, I received very good exposure in the field of immunology, which helped me develop an interest in understanding the pathogenesis of diseases. After my doctoral study, I joined a pharmaceutical R&D organization. I was involved in developing first-in-class small molecule inhibitors as therapeutics in airway inflammatory diseases. Following my time in industry, I moved to do a post-doc in osteoimmunology at the University of Heidelberg, Germany. This work was part of the IMMUNOBONE consortium of Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG). During this time, I got interested in autoimmune diseases especially Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) and was motivated to investigate the disease in my future research projects. Currently, I am an India Alliance Early Career Fellow at AIIMS, trying to understand the molecular basis of compromised regulatory T cell functions in RA. I am also involved in conducting out-reach programs for patients with RA to disseminate disease-related information, management and the ongoing research endeavours.
Why did you choose to transition from industry to academia? Was it a smooth sail?
I joined the industry just after completion of my PhD as the drug discovery process always fascinated me. Also, I felt that it was a wonderful learning opportunity to be a member of the discovery team of a leading global pharmaceutical industry. Until I joined the industry, I just had theoretical information; the experience in industry, navigating the tedious workflow of drug discovery, enriched me as scientist. Working in a cross-culture environment, maintaining Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), learning the high-throughput screening process—were some of the most helpful, enriching experiences.
However, in order to train at a research laboratory with world-class infrastructure, I wanted to venture into post-doctoral research. The transition did not come with many challenges as I was working already on inflammatory disease model. Also, my post-doc mentor was very supportive, generous, and one who appreciated my transition; this made the transition all the more easy. I feel that my experience in industry has helped me develop an approach where I analyse a scientific problem from different perspectives to arrive at a solution.
How did you get interested in immunology, especially autoimmune disorders? What do you hope to achieve through your work?
During my masters, I was introduced to immunology. Learning the timeline of the discoveries in immunology, which have tremendously impacted the research on human diseases, fascinated me. When I started to work on CD40, I was astonished to learn that abnormality in the CD40 pathway can have profound effect on human health. I realised the importance of understanding the immune system and that is how I took up immunology. The subject is very complex and has been rapidly evolving over time to uncover the intricacies of our body’s defence mechanisms.
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA), the disease I am currently working on, is an autoimmune disease and is prevalent in women. I guess everyone has witnessed the sufferings of our dear ones afflicted by RA. My association with IMMUNOBONE helped me develop a keen interest in autoimmunity as I was exposed to the latest work in RA. Currently, I am working to understand the pathogenesis of RA and develop/discover strategies that help restore the immune tolerance, which is essential for preventing autoimmunity. Additionally, we are trying to identify biomarkers for monitoring disease progression of RA.
You are a basic biomedical scientist working in a clinical setting. How has it been? What are some of the advantages as well as challenges that you come across?
I wanted to work with human samples; so clinical setting is ideal for my study. I get the benefit of working with fresh clinical samples. In my view, collaboration between basic biomedical scientists and clinicians is a highly effective way to study and understand any human diseases and consequently develop therapeutic strategies.
How has the Fellowship from India Alliance helped you?
The India Alliance Fellowship helped me to set up my research career in the area of translational immunology. I am extremely thankful to the India Alliance for providing me the opportunity. Without the fellowship, it would have been very difficult to work in the field of autoimmunity.
As a woman in science, do you face any challenges in your research career? How do you think the research ecosystem can support women in STEM?
It is true that woman in science have unique challenges. My challenges are mostly related to maintaining a healthy work-life balance. I was fortunate to get a lot of professional as well as emotional advice from my Post-Doc mentor; this prepared me well to face the challenges. This is why mentorship also plays an important role in shaping up your career.
I think women scientists will benefit from flexible work hours and good, in-house childcare facilities. Age relaxations could be an enabling policy for female candidates as they spend considerable amount of their time in childcare. These policy changes will benefit women in coping with the performance pressure. I feel it is unfortunate that many women have to make a choice between their family and their scientific careers due to inadequate amenities and enabling policies. This should change.
What role do you think scientists can play in society today?
Owing to rapid urbanization and expansion of population in the modern world, we have various challenges spanning from environmental degradation to human health. The scientists play very significant role in identifying and addressing these challenges through their research. In addition, creating awareness in the society and making it more attuned to the challenges of the modern world is also a job that should be taken up by researchers.
When you are not at your lab bench, what do you do for fun?
If I am not working, then I am spending time traveling with my family. It helps me unwind and I love exploring new places.
Finally, if not a scientist, you would be a...
I must admit that I get enormous happiness and satisfaction doing science. But if not a scientist, I would have done some job very closely related to science or environment.
Image Credits: Dr Sushmita Chakraborty