Looking back, I never had to ‘decide’ on a career in medicine. Ever since I remember, the profession has been an integral part of my life. And I owe that to my physician-mother, educated at a time when far fewer women in India were attending medical college.
My childhood memories are vivid, with countless hours spent at her clinic – first as a toddler, playing with her stethoscope, and later as a young adult, completing study assignments.
My years in medical college ignited in me a passion for accomplishment and I am glad to have gained maximum mileage from that early academic phase. I completed my degree with distinguished honors, served as student representative, led civic awareness discussions, and conducted vaccination drives.
After graduating medical college, I started a one-year internship at a bustling government hospital. A mandatory component of this internship was to serve at a rural health center. I was posted to the city outskirts, in a small town, most famous for being a place of pilgrimage. For a few months, my everyday travel involved a taxing commute; starting with a local bus, followed by a six-seater rickshaw (popular Indian cabin vehicle), and finally a hike up a small hill to the health center.
At the time, I was irked to have to complete this service requirement, and preferred to use my time studying for the extremely competitive residency admission tests. In hindsight, I wish I had savored the independence of medical practice this opportunity offered, rather than setting my sights on the next big goal.
My years in medical college ignited in me a passion for accomplishment and I am glad to have gained maximum mileage from that early academic phase.
However, the time I spent studying for the specialty entrance exam did pay dividends, and a residency in clinical microbiology followed. For the next three years, I worked at a premier healthcare institute serving the defense forces.
In the diagnostic laboratory I explored the breadth of medical microbiology, from outbreaks of cholera, to fungal meningitis, and even the rarest parasitic infestations. I also undertook a research project, which was one of the foremost, large-scale investigations to characterize circulating Indian strains of varicella-zoster (the chicken pox virus). The study started with clinical samples from hospitalized patients and eventually used genomic approaches to type the viral strains.
Transitioning from bedside to bench
To enhance my research expertise, I reached out to a basic science laboratory at the local university. From Ph.D. students there, I learnt experimental protocols, analysis of gene sequences, and statistical tools. I thoroughly enjoyed the excitement and challenges of research, which shaped my desire to become a physician-scientist and pursue a Ph.D.
Moving to the United States with my husband, I found that securing a Ph.D. position in that particular geographic location posed a challenge. Immigration, global recession, and funding constraints were major obstacles.
Understanding my vexation, my husband encouraged me to take up a volunteer position at a research laboratory. This one-year stint proved invaluable. It expanded my skill sets, provided insights into the US academic system, and played a key role in entering a PhD program, albeit in a different state.
Finally, after almost nine years of medical education, I embarked on a Ph.D. in molecular genetics and microbiology. Undoubtedly the most challenging phase of my academic career, my PhD research focused on antibiotic resistance in microbial populations, using a multidisciplinary, integrative approach.
Five years in graduate school often took me to places way beyond my comfort zone, from understanding physics-based analytical models to learning the nuances of animal infection models. I relished the inflow of new ideas, spirited discussions, and crossing of intellectual frontiers, that builds the entire graduate school experience.
PhD and parenthood
Becoming a mother in graduate school was challenging, but hugely fulfilling. I often say that I did not do a PhD ‘inspite’ of having a child, but rather I succeeded ‘because’ I had a child.
Being a parent, gave me the perspective and patience to deal with the pressures of academic research. Planning dinosaur birthday parties and decorating Valentine’s Day cards energized me for a new day at the bench. I don’t think women need to compartmentalize to be successful professionals and mothers. Rather, I try to harmonize my roles. I often planned experiments while cooking and made grocery lists while waiting for bacterial cells to spin down.
Coming full circle: bridging bench and bedside in India
My long-term goal is to pioneer a combined MD-PhD program in clinical microbiology in India. Currently, India does not have dual MD-PhD programs. I envision a joint program, that bridges the bedside and bench, providing cutting-edge training in the diagnosis and management of infections, development of novel diagnostic assays, and basic understanding of microbial processes.
This program would forge a new generation of physician-scientists in India; equipped to address the challenges of infectious diseases through advances in medicine, innovation, and discovery. It has been an incredible professional journey so far, and I look forward to ‘re-inoculating’ my education and expertise into the system I started from. This physician-scientists’ journey has only just begun.