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Learning English to Help Manage Cancer

Published on October 20, 2020

Growing up in a small village in northern India near the Himalayan sea by the Nepal border Pawan Upadhyay, Ph.D. said science was a very small part of his early education. 

Learning the language of Biochemistry

The child of a farmer, Dr. Pawan was the first in his family to attend college. He was active in extracurricular activities but didn’t have high academic marks growing up, however, he found his place in higher education when he fell in love with biochemistry. During his early education in India, the English language was his main barrier since the science books were written in English and he couldn’t read or speak the language. 

He overcame the English language barrier and earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and biology along with improving his grades. He went on to earn a master’s degree in biochemistry and was awarded a Gold Medal by the Dr. Ram Manohar Lohia Avadh University, Ayodhya, U.P. for obtaining the highest marks in 2011. During his master’s program he was awarded a five-year fellowship by the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) through the government of India for pursuing his doctoral work. “I give all credit to my family members, friends and teachers who supported me during this critical time in life,” Dr. Pawan said. 

For his Ph.D. program, Dr. Pawan decided to venture beyond the territory of northern India and approached the Advanced Centre for Treatment Research and Education in Cancer (ACTREC), a state of the art research and development wing of the Tata Memorial Center in Mumbai, one of the oldest cancer research organizations in India. During conversations with his peers, he realized research requires years of effort and its impactful outcome may not be visible immediately or even in this lifetime. This idea instigated him to pursue a doctorate in human disease biology to translate his research outcome to benefit the masses.

At ACTREC, he came across a young, dynamic principal investigator, Amit Dutt, Ph.D. who had just returned from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to establish his lab. Dr. Pawan was awe-struck with the research caliber and infectious enthusiasm of Dr. Dutt at the first instance and decided to join his laboratory to understand the somatic genetics of human cancer and help develop the next generation of effective targeted therapies to improve treatment of cancer patients funded by DBT/Wellcome Trust India Alliance. "Because, I was more interested in research issues that had a direct impact on human health, I choose to work on human cancers”, Dr. Pawan said. 

At Dutt laboratory, Dr. Pawan and his colleagues characterized tongue tumors from the Indian origin and discovered NOTCH1 novel oncogenic functions of and MMP10 genes in cancer. Additionally, Dr. Pawan developed the first Indian germline database i.e. TMC-SNPdb using genome sequencing data from normal samples of cancer patients. He extensively worked on human cancer using integrated genomics approaches and published several peers reviewed articles in high impact international scientific journals.

Dr. Pawan’s doctoral training under the mentorship of Dr. Dutt transformed his life both professionally and personally. Apart from training him to conduct scientifically sound experiments and perform computational analysis, Dr. Dutt also trained him in various soft skills related to professional development. Moreover, he motivated and supported Dr. Pawan to think beyond national boundaries for his future career.

Working in the largest cancer medical center in Asia exposed Dr. Pawan to a different working environment where he got the opportunity to interact with patients and leaders in cancer research from the world indirect manner. One of his primary research responsibilities involved in patient specimen collection for his research. Working alongside clinicians enabled him to comprehend a cancer patient’s psychological and emotional journey. This experience forced him to rethink his next steps on his career path. Traditionally, scientists get after finishing one’s Ph.D., opt for a post-doctoral fellowship position but Dr. Pawan was left wondering if that is a relevant career option for him. He believed that generally, academic scientists focus solely on individual research areas which is often a narrow subject area leading to the least direct impact of their research output to solve human health problems.

Therefore, Dr. Pawan wanted to explore the other side of the scientific ecosystem i.e.– the industry – to apply his scientific knowledge to a real-life problem. So he joined a leading company in genomics in Bangalore (MedGenome and Strand Life Sciences), India where he worked for two years as a Scientist in leadership positions. Working as a research scientist, Dr. Pawan helped the development of molecular assays for cancer care & clinical research in humans whilst working with a team of diverse scientific and business background from India and abroad.  While in an industrial job, he developed an interest to understand the intricacies of non-scientific sections of the world i.e. policy-making as well as the operational structures of the Indian and global governments.   

Working in America

While his industrial experience exposed Dr. Pawan to the larger picture of the scientific ecosystem, he now wanted to look beyond geographies and venture into distant lands to be a part of the global scientific community. Consequently, he took up a postdoctoral position at Washington University (UW) School of Medicine in St. Louis in Dr. John Welch’s group to explore leukemia disease biology using cutting-edge genomics approaches especially that occurs in older individuals. 

“When people get older, they are unable to tolerate the harsh chemotherapeutic drugs. More commonly, they succumb to the side effects of cancer treatment rather than cancer. The doctors try their best to exclusively treat growing cancer, but a side effect of the therapy also destroys many normal cells in the patient’s body. This occurs due to a lack of drug specificity” Dr. Pawan said.

Dr. Pawan performs his research at the Siteman Cancer Center and McDonnell Genome Institute (MGI) at UW. The project he is working on focuses on developing molecular markers for blood cancer patients using next-generation sequencing (NGS) technologies data to help clinicians select individuals to treat with specific therapy. Precision medicine has been the theme of Dr. Pawan’s post-doctoral career journey with a special emphasis on cancer genomics. Overall the process involves the identification of certain genetic markers that will help identify potential drugs that can specifically target cancerous cells while sparing the normal ones. An important part of cancer therapy is to identify patients who will respond to the specified treatment regimen. This not only avoids unnecessary treatment to the cancer patient who will not respond to the therapy (non-responders) but also saves finances and allows researchers to focus on alternative therapeutic regimes for non-responders. 

“We collect bone marrow samples from leukemia patients before and after chemotherapy and extract the deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and ribonucleic acid (RNA) from the bone marrow samples. We perform comprehensive omics analysis using NGS technologies. The data generated is used to classify individuals as good responders or poor responders based on their individual’s response to certain types of therapy.,” Dr. Pawan said.

Life outside of the lab

He moved to Missouri towards the end of 2019 and the COVID-19 lockdown started a few months later just as he was trying to settle in St. Louis. While in quarantine, he has kept himself busy by exploring various opportunities in the United States that led him to the Missouri Science and Technology Policy Initiative (MOST). Currently, he is working with MOST on an article regarding human genome sequencing to inform the Missouri legislature on the basics of sequencing and precision medicine.

He became a member of the (WU) postdoctoral society executive council and the National Science Policy Network (NSPN) where he works on the communications committee that involves organizing an event and writing notes for science policies and developing best practices impacting science policy across the world. Currently, he is also learning about science policy via a certification course offered by the University of California Irvine (UC). He is also part of STEMPeers newsletter team social media team to help the STEM community to remain updated about current issues

Recently, Dr. Pawan started a new organization named iSTEMCare along with his friends with an underlying aim of helping students and professionals get trained about various aspects of STEM career challenges he and his friends faced during their career journey. Among the several initiatives under iSTEMCare, the Nobel Prize work series on YouTube to reduce the language barrier in scientific information dissemination with volunteers and friends worldwide. The project consists of making short clips of Nobel Prizes announcements in 2020 in 20 languages from India and 20 languages worldwide. 

Dr. Pawan is also an avid scientific spiritual seeker with a keen interest to explore and understand life beyond the material conception. He is an active volunteer locally at the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), St Louis to help them in various humanitarian and philanthropic activities in St. Louis region. 

“When COVID19 lockdown happened and the whole city shut down, I was moved by the suffering of homeless people in my region. So, with the help of ISKCON St. Louis I started offering food in my locality at night. It was the most satisfying experience in my life”, he said.  

A few weeks back Dr. Pawan and a group of scientists from Missouri took part in the annual Hill Day. This year they spoke virtually with Missouri U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO), U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO), and U.S. Congressman Lacy Clay (D-MO) regarding medical research, increasing funding for the National Institute of Health (NIH), and the other projects that have stopped due to the pandemic. 

The lawmakers were receptive and interested to understand challenges in research due to COVID19 pandemic,” Dr. Pawan said. They also spoke about research funding for cancer, heart diseases, and other diseases whose funding has been affected due to diversion of funds for COVID research.

In summary, Dr. Pawan presents three short tips for students and early career researchers in the STEM community. First,  never accept the fact that your current financial and educational status will determine your future status and never hesitate to ask for help from people around you. Second, keep trying hard and utilize all the resources at your disposal and life will surely reward you in life as it is a common phrase "God helps those who help themselves." Finally, never stop learning in life. Your thesis title and research area are not your careers but a training and small step in a larger journey towards your future career goal. 

“Therefore, one must always remain in the “undifferentiated” stage and open to new opportunities in life if one wants to leave something back in this world during this lifetime”, he said.

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