The Chronicle Of A Khorana Scholar: Swati Mohapatra
“We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.”
An indomitable spirit for learning, an ambition to excel diligently and an exemplary dedication are a few among the quiver of virtues she possesses. Swati Mohapatra, a final-year Integrated M.Sc student from the Department of Life Science, NIT Rourkela recently bagged the prestigious scholarship in the Khorana program. Despite opting for a branch that is not very popular, her focus and exceptional determination made her bag some coveted scholarships like DST INSPIRE. On a pleasant Saturday afternoon, she talked about her success saga and shared her views and future plans. Here are her candid responses:
Monday Morning: Tell us about your journey to NITR. Was integrated M.Sc. amongst your preferred choices?
Swati Mohapatra: I hail from Puri, but was born in Bhubaneswar. My father, currently serving as the Branch Manager in Indian Overseas Bank, has a transferable job so I got the opportunity to travel across many cities as Puri, Berhampur, and Delhi. I completed my primary schooling from Blessed Sacrament High School, Puri.
As a student, I had equal affinity for Computer Applications and Biology. However, I chose the latter with a greater inclination to pursue Medicine. I completed my secondary school education at Ravenshaw University, Cuttack. When I look back on those days, I feel fortunate not to have bagged a seat in a government medical college (chuckles). So life science was a natural preference for me as I loved Biology and its concepts. I got selected for Integrated M.Sc in Life Science in the spot round of JEE Counselling and accepted it, following my father’s perception that one should chase what one loves to do.
MM: How has your experience been in this institute so far?
SM: My life at NITR is filled with crests and troughs. As a freshman, I faced problems with the engineering courses as was inevitable for a Biology-enthusiast. However, my classmates were a great support and helped me with Electronics, Mechanics and Basic Electrical courses. I fared well there and life after the first year followed a pretty smooth curve. The professors in our department are very cooperative and approachable, not only in matters of academics but in matters of personal and mental interest. Our batch was fortunate to be under the care of Dr. Rasu Jayabalan as our faculty advisor who always encouraged us in the field of research.
My primary focus was always oriented towards performing well in academics and maintaining a good profile by bagging internships from reputed universities.
MM: When did you come to know about and apply for the Khorana scholarship program? Walk us through the application procedure. Was there any CGPA bar in the selection criteria?
SM: In my third year, I expected to bag a good internship in Mitacs or Khorana, given the prior projects and research I had performed before but unfortunately couldn’t get through either of them. Determined to achieve that feat, I applied for Khorana scholarship in my pre-final year again. The requisite documents are as follows: a statement of purpose of around thousand words, a research-experience file of the aforementioned word limit and letters of recommendation from two or more supervisors. I got the required recommendation letters from Dr. Monalisa Mishra ( professor in the Department of Life Science), Dr. Bibekananda Mallick (HOD, Life Science), and Dr. K. Thangaraj (CSIR-Centre of Cellular and Molecular Biology).
MM: Share with us your internship at Baylor College of Medicine. What was it about?
SM: My internship commenced with an orientation at the University of Chicago and all the Khorana-Bose scholars attended it. Following that, I travelled to Houston where Baylor College of Medicine is located. I worked under the guidance of Prof. Debananda Pati on a couple of projects in the Department of Pediatrics- Oncology. The first project was the Study of Sepin-1 on neuroblastoma mice models. This study provided data that will inform critical early stage “Go/No-Go” decisions on the direction to take Sepin-1’s preclinical program. Another project was the Study of statins on Ewing Sarcoma models. Statins are a common class of drugs used to treat high-cholesterol patients. This involved the screening of statins and checking their efficacy in invivo model.
I found the work-ethics, focus and the dedication of the people to be commendable. That entails a sincere eight-hour working rule, either from 8 am-5 pm or 9 am-6 pm. I really enjoyed the whole process of working with such diverse people. Apart from the work-hours, we also had a road trip to nearby cities like Austin and San Antonio as my roommate knew driving ( chuckles).
MM: Was there any financial aid provided to you for the internship? Was the accommodation a problem?
SM: I was awarded a total stipend of $2500 for two months before I set out for my internship. The funding entailed nearly all expenses apart from the visa. So far the accommodation is concerned, one of the students of a professor of my department was doing his Post- Doctoral degree in M.D Anderson Cancer Centre which was located in the same campus as mine, and he helped a lot with the housing.
MM: You also did other internships here in India. When did you get your first internship call? Brief us about your experience.
SM: I did my first internship in my sophomore year. It was in the Indian Academy of Sciences’ SRFP at the Centre for Genetic Disorders, Banaras Hindu University under the guidance of Prof. Parimal Das. My project was about the Functional analysis of Polycystic Kidney Disorders (PKD2) gene variants in mammalian cell lines. Prof. Das has a magnificent persona; he developed an analytical approach in my thinking, and I was exposed to basic molecular biological techniques. Overall, it was an enriching experience.
Initially, I got an acceptance from a professor of NISER, Bhubaneswar in my third year. At the same time, I also applied for AcSIR(Academy Of Scientific & Innovative Research)- Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam Summer Training Program, but I was not expecting acceptance from there. Luckily, I got a call for an interview from AcSIR. The interview session was quite good, though it was the first one of my life. After the interview, I had this intuition that I am going to be selected, and yes, I got selected. After the selection of applicants, CSIR(Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology) labs are allotted on the basis of the overall score of the application, and I was the highest scorer among all the applicants. I had my first preference at Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad. I got selected there and started working under the guidance of Dr K.Thangaraj. The project was on Screening of POLG1, POLG2, and C10orf2 mutations associated with spectrum of mitochondrial disorders. The internship went on for two months, and it was a great experience for me as it also gave me a lot of confidence to work on any project independently. I also got an offer a professor of McGill University, but it did not provide funding, so I did not accept the offer.
MM: In your experience how much different were the internships in India from the one you did in the USA?
SM: In Baylor College of Medicine, USA you will find all the labs well facilitated with instruments and resources. While, in CCMB also, many labs were abundant in resources. I was lucky to be in one of them.
In USA, you are free in your way you want to do your research. There, I got an experience of animal-handling for the first time, even though working with animal is not usually allowed in an internship, especially in India.
In USA, I underwent a training on handling mice for around one week, and after that, I was all on my own. I had worked hard during my internship at CCMB, and that experience guided me through in my foreign internship. I am in general very scared of mice (laughs), and the toughest job for me was to hold it and give an intraperitoneal injection. Eventually, I got used it though. In the USA, we had members from China, Spain, Japan other than India. All of them were very hard working, and the resources were also abundant. The experiences were unique in their own way.
MM: Integrated M.Sc. in NITR is not a very popular choice and often underrated when it comes to career options in India. What is your take on that?
SM: Biology is not a very developed branch of science in India, while it has a wide scope of career opportunities in foreign countries. Still, institutes such as IISC, NCBS have a good amount of facilities.
I have a great interest in this subject, and I knew I could sustain for studying only biology and biology-related subjects in these five years of the program. And there was a perception infused in me by my parents that I should do what I love, then I will be able excel in the field. So for the students who have joined the course without any previous interest in this subject, the faculty and the professors are really very helpful, so they can, and in my opinion should, approach them if they face any difficulty in their academics. That said, one should not go for something they have no interest in, because in that way they only stand to waste five years and at the end of the day will be left regretting that choice.
So far as my story is concerned,
I never regret my decision of not being able to secure a medical seat. I feel very much happy that I did not waste a year but joined here. I am also very satisfied with whatever internships I have done and the scholarships I have bagged.
MM: What is the role of NITR behind what you are today? How did your family assist you throughout your journey?
SM: All these could not be possible without my brother who is my role model. He believes in me more than I do. And not to mention, my parents who have always been with me and believing that I can do whatever I want.
Talking about the professors of our department, I am very thankful to Dr. Rasu Jayabalan, my faculty advisor, Dr. Bibekanand Mallick, under whose guidance I am doing my final year project and Dr. Monalisa Mishra, who is a very compassionate and motivating woman. The professors in our department have very high profiles as some have done their postdoctoral research in Stanford and MIT. The students in our department would get the best guidance for their future from them.
MM: What are your future plans after your M.Sc.? Are you planning to pursue higher studies?
SM: Yes, I will be doing a PhD after my M.Sc. I hope I will get a good institute (grins) be it in India or abroad.
MM: Were you a part of any club in NITR?
SM: I got into Genesys, the bioengineering club of NITR in my second year. I became the chief coordinator of the club in my third year. I was also a member of Bureaucrats. I spent a good amount of time in coordinating and managing events. They helped me a lot in developing essential communication skills required for effective networking.
MM: Pupils are often confused between CGPA and experience of internships and projects, added by the academic pressure. What would be your message to them?
SM: Firstly, CGPA is not a bar because it is not the fact that because you have a low CGPA, you are not going to get a good internship, apart from the internships which have a CGPA cutoff. So, you should have an excellent profile with experience of working on projects to cover up your CGPA. You can also work on projects in NITR as well. The professors are very open to including interested students, and one can work on whatever interests they have. That said, there is no substitute for hard work, it is essential to achieve significant outcomes.
Especially for the ones, who didn’t have biology in 11th and 12th but ended up in LS department, you have to strengthen your basics first. I have seen students in my batch who didn’t have biology in their 12th but have worked hard in their initial days and are doing very well now. If you put your sincere efforts in what you are doing, you will definitely excel in that someday.
Good outcomes may come late for which you need to be strong and persistent.
Don’t be demotivated by whatever CGPA you have got or whatever comments you have received from people around you in the first year. You need to work hard to prove to yourself that you are no less and you deserve everything that you have dreamt for yourself. Have proper plans, be focused on academics and start working on projects if you are interested in having a career in research and resting everything would eventually fall into place. Take part in extra-curricular activities and enjoy these five years at NITR. Good luck to all of you and I am pretty sure that with the help of very supporting and friendly professors in our department you will do well if you work hard.
Team MM congrats this star-achiever for all her accomplishments and hopes that she touches higher degrees of success in future.