An Interview with Dr. Debabrata Mukhopadhyay

Prof Dev Dr. Debabrata Mukhopadhyay, PhD
Professor of Biochemistry/Molecular Biology,
Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota, USA

Dr. Debabrata Mukhopadhyay is a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and Director of both Tumor Microenvironment and Nanomedicine programs, at the Mayo Clinic, Rochester, MN. He has a joint appointment with the Department of Physiology and Biomedical Engineering and Associate Director of Mayo Clinic Comprehensive Cancer Center for Global Alliances. Prior to joining Mayo Clinic, he was an Associate Professor at Harvard Medical School, Boston, where he carried out angiogenesis and tumor microenvironment related research. Dr. Mukhopadhyay’s expertise lies in Tumor Biology, Nanomedicine and other key research areas such as Cancer, Cardiovascular Diseases, and Diabetes. In this interview, he gives career guidance and advice to students interested in pursuing a career in Tumor Biology, Cancer research, Nanotechnology and Nanomedicine.

Over the last few years, Nanotechnology has gained widespread popularity and recognition among students and researchers alike. Can you give us a brief overview about this exciting field?
Yes, Nanotechnology is becoming increasingly popular these days among students. Actually, if you trace back to the origin of nanotechnology, you will find that Ayurveda has long been using gold and silver nanoparticles, called bhasmas, to treat various medical ailments. Presently, Nanotechnology is widely used in many industries, ranging from cosmetics, agriculture, and textiles to medicine and health care. Nanomedicine is the application of nanotechnology for the diagnosis, detection, treatment and prevention of diseases.

Nanotechnology is a highly multidisciplinary field and involves a number of different fields such as physics, electrical engineering, biology and mechanical engineering, to name a few. What undergraduate major would be ideal for a student interested in pursuing a career in Nanotechnology?
Regarding undergraduate major, you can choose a major based on which area of nanotechnology you are interested in. If it is the engineering side of nanotechnology such as small device development in biosensors, then an undergraduate major in mechanical engineering followed by further studies in quantum engineering will be most suitable. Likewise, if you are more interested in the science side of nanotechnology, then an undergraduate major in any one of the basic sciences will be good. However, it is important to keep in mind that irrespective of which area of nanotechnology you are specializing in, you will be expected to work alongside biologists and clinicians. Therefore, a strong understanding of biology is very important, as it will help you understand the basic biological needs and challenges that arise within Nanomedicine. Universities that offer nanotechnology degrees must integrate courses from various disciplines to help students develop well-rounded knowledge in various aspects of nanotechnology. I developed this course at Mayo Clinic called “Molecular mechanism of human disease” and students from all levels take this course. In this course, they learn basic anatomy, physiology and biology, which helps them to understand the molecular basis of diseases. This helps students to develop clarity regarding their work, the various challenges they will face and the knowledge required to overcome those challenges. Students who are interested in specializing in Nanomedicine must be very clear on the various steps required to transfer their research work from the lab to the clinics for further clinical trials.

Apart from the United States, which other countries are doing great work in Nanotechnology?
Singapore, China, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan are doing extremely good work in Nanomedicine. Integration between university engineering departments, biologists, clinicians and research labs is essential for the research and development of Nanomedicine and this kind of integration already exists in the above-mentioned countries. To name a few universities, NUS (National University of Singapore) in Singapore, CAS (Chinese Academy of Sciences) in China and many others in Japan, Taiwan and South Korea are doing exceedingly well within the realm of Nanomedicine. They are coming up very fast and doing very well. I would highly recommend that Indian students check these places out if they are serious about pursuing a career in Nanomedicine. Within India, this kind of integration is yet to develop but there are other places such as NPL (National Physical Laboratory) and NCL (National Chemical Laboratory) that are doing good work in other domains of nanotechnology.

Considering that Nanotechnology is a research field, is a PhD degree necessary for good career prospects?
A PhD is imperative only if you want to enter academia and become a professor or work as a scientist in a lab or a company. If you are interested in the engineering side of nanotechnology, then you can do very well with just a master’s degree. You can join the industry and rise up the ranks with an M.S degree. However, from a discovery point of view, if you have an idea, you can get some angel ventures to fund your idea and you can set up your own company. It is not necessary to have a PhD for starting your own venture, you can do it with just an M.S. or a B.S. But, if you are thinking of following the regular path for a career in academia or research, then PhD is very important.

How is the job market for Nanotechnology presently considering various factors such as the economy and recession?
The job market for Nanomedicine is still developing, as we are yet to see a big success rate in treating diseases using nanoparticles. Research and clinical trials are going on at a feverish rate but we are still waiting for that big breakthrough. We have had a few small successful trials here and there, but the big success is yet to happen. We are anticipating it to happen over the next few months or probably a few years, but once it happens, the job market will evolve rapidly. There will be more jobs, bigger economy, better prospects as more pharmaceutical companies will start investing more and more in Nanomedicine. As of now, we don’t have many pharmaceutical companies investing in Nanomedicine. Companies are still waiting for the researchers to produce results that will show great success in the lab and in clinical trials. You do have a few small Nanomedicine companies here and there but the job openings are not large in number. On the other hand, nanotechnology is widely used in other industries like cosmetics and people may find good jobs in these sectors.

As far as recession is concerned, I believe, the worst part is over and we are getting better. The whole of United States got hit due to the recession, not just research and academia. I hope things will soon turn around for the NIH and other similar institutions that support academia. United States invests the most in R&D (Research and Development) when compared with other nations. But at the same time, the volume of academicians is also high. All of them are dependent on the NIH and other federal agencies for grants and funding and it is a big challenge to keep everyone covered. However, we are all optimistic and upbeat about the future. The economy is going in the right direction and things will gradually improve.

Tumor biology and cancer research are very popular career choices among Indian students but very few receive proper guidance regarding this area of study. What undergraduate major would you suggest to students who are interested in pursuing a career in tumor biology and cancer research?
I personally believe that an undergraduate degree in basic Chemistry is very important. A solid understanding of basic Chemistry will help students grasp Biochemistry, Physical Chemistry and Physiology concepts very easily as they are all interconnected. To be a successful tumor biologist, it is important that you get your basics right. Once your foundation in the basic sciences, specifically Chemistry and Physics, is strong, you can then proceed to learn other subjects such as Physiology, Cell biology and Biochemistry. Hence, strong background in Chemistry and Physics will help students learn the deeper sense of Biology efficiently.

In a field that is highly research oriented, there doesn't seem to be much of a difference between an M.S and a B.S degree. Labs and companies hire master’s grads as research associates, which is the same designation given to students with a B.S. Considering that tumor biology is highly research oriented, is a PhD imperative for good career prospects in this field?
Regarding M.S and B.S degrees, in some companies and institutions there is not much of a difference between the designation of people with a master’s degree and those with an undergraduate degree. If you are serious about pursuing a career in research and your goal is to become an independent researcher or a professor or start your own lab, then a PhD is very important. However, before you start thinking about career prospects, it is very essential to understand what it takes to do a PhD degree. Students who wish to pursue their doctoral degrees must be highly passionate about their work as PhD is a test of endurance and patience. You will be working on the same topic for 5 - 6 years and there will be many frustrations and successes as well. I have seen many doctoral students who get frustrated seeing their engineering peers make more money with just a master’s degree and wonder where they have gone wrong. If a PhD student is having these kinds of troubles, then they have chosen the wrong profession. One of the most important attributes for successful PhD studies is in-depth passion for your research work and the motivation required to become a professor or a scientist. This PhD system must not be used as a stopgap just because you did not get a job after your master’s degree or that your career prospects will be brighter with a PhD. Pursue PhD only if you are goal is to achieve something significant in research and make positive contributions to your field of interest.

Tumor biology has a lot of job openings in research labs, institutions and universities. What about the industry? Are there job openings in companies for tumor biologists?
Many pharmaceutical companies hire tumor biologists. Presently, hiring is slow at the various pharmaceutical companies due to the economy and recession. But it’s not like everything has slowed down, there is still recruitment happening but it is quite slow.

What advice would you give to undergraduate students who are interested in pursuing a career in research?
An innovative mind is very important for research. Many education systems place a lot of emphasis on grades, but equal importance must be given to helping students develop their out-of-the-box thinking skills. From a young age, we are made to believe that topping the class would ensure success in life, but real success in laboratories happens only due to innovative thinking. Students must be encouraged to think innovatively and learn concepts in a non-classical manner instead of rote learning. It will be incredible for us if students join labs with the hunger to learn something new, to try out different ideas and approach problems with an open mind.

What are the various ways through which students can sharpen their analytical skills and out-of-the-box thinking abilities?
I always encourage our research and education leaders to bring young students from schools and colleges to spend some time working in various research laboratories. Inscied Out, a program started by Dr. Stephen Ekker from Mayo Clinic, is one such program that brings together researchers, university faculty and teachers to create a special curriculum that integrates science across a range of subjects. This type of a non-classical approach to education will help children develop their analytical skills. I grew up in a small town where we did not have access to research laboratories during our school days. There was this one science club in our town that I was a member of and we would meet every week to discuss various scientific concepts and models with great zeal. Something like Inscied Out has the potential bring about a revolution in the way students learn from a young age. Implementing these types of programs requires a lot of effort as you need to bring together educators from schools, the government, universities, and research institutions considering that this is an integrated project. My lab at Mayo Clinic is open to students at all levels, be it school or undergrad, they are all welcome to come and volunteer and work and generally find their way in the world of research. Most eventually end up with a very good track record and are very successful in their careers. If you are really keen on taking up research as your career, then start visiting laboratories in and around your city or nation to see if you can volunteer or work with professors during the summer. This will give you a lot of real world experience, which will help immensely when you start conducting research on your own.

Does Mayo Clinic admit international students for their PhD programs?
Yes, of course. We admit 36 PhD students every year and out of this, 10 are international. Actually, we are very open when we select our students and are unbiased in the selection process. Every year, I see 1 to 2 Indian students enter our graduate programs. One of the criteria for our graduate programs is research experience. We expect students to have some research experience before they start their graduate studies. Most students who are admitted have a master’s degree and come with some research experience. We also look at other factors such as GRE and GPA. If you have a low GRE score, you can enhance your application with substantial research experience. You can develop your research experience by working in places like CSIR (Council of Scientific and Industrial Research) and publishing a few journal and conference papers. It is not necessary to be the first author in the papers, just having published a few papers helps immensely when it comes to increasing your chances of being admitted. Good GRE, GPA scores are very important but good research experience will give your application an edge over other applicants.

Indian students tend to give a lot of importance to rankings when it comes to selecting a university for their graduate studies. There are plenty of universities that may not be highly ranked but have a few exceptional professors who are doing great work. How do you think students should go about choosing universities for their graduate studies?
I think what Indian students need to do is to look carefully at the specific program they are interested in. They need to see whether the university they want to apply to is doing well in that particular program. A university, on the whole, may not be highly ranked but will be renowned for certain programs, be it tumor biology, nanotechnology or immunology. So, it is important that students look at the program first, see which professors are working, their publications, etc.… and then find out which universities are doing very well for that particular program. Also, ensure that there are several good professors in the university you are planning to apply to. This is important because the competition to work in their labs will be high and if you don’t get to work with a professor of your choice, you will have other options to choose from.