Carving A Niche At The University Of Texas: Swati Mohapatra

Carving A Niche At The University Of Texas: Swati Mohapatra

Smruti Sudha Biswal | Apr 08, 2019

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Patience and perseverance are mere words to describe an explicitly pragmatic personality such as Swati Mohapatra, a final year student of Integrated MSc from the Department of Life Sciences. She has defined the fact that “when you desperately want something the universe conspires to help you achieve it. Battling odds, facing numerous rejections, she has finally emerged victorious in her endeavours by bagging a Ph.D. offer at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Centre UT Health Graduate school of Biomedical Sciences. Team MM caught up with her to know more about how she achieved this feat through sheer determination, dedication, and commitment.

Here is an excerpt from the interview:

MM: How did NITR Life Science happen to you?

SM: I did not know in the first hand that such a branch existed at NITR. After my higher secondary, I had appeared for medical entrance exams but was unable to fetch a seat in a good government medical college. So, I decided to shift my path without taking a gap year. Given that I was passionately inclined towards Biological Sciences, I was gripped in a state of utter confusion whether to go for research or clinical domain. Just then I came to know that I was eligible for the NITR Life Science stream. I appeared JEE, got qualified and then got admission into through the JoSAA round.

MM: Walk us through the procedure you undertook in order to apply for a PhD position at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Centre UT Health Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences (MDACC).

SM: From Fall 2018, GRE General Test has been made optional for students applying for a PhD in the Biology streams in many U.S. universities. Some universities don’t even have a slot for entering the GRE score. While in others even if you enter GRE Scores, the screening committee won't consider it unless it is a part of their procedures. In the MD Anderson Graduate School portal, there was no space for entering the score, so I did not enter mine. But it is always recommended to appear for GRE as it will give you an upper hand in your applications. MDACC basically focused on the technical skills and research profile of the applicants. I am unaware of the procedure that involved the period between my application and information about my interview. They notified me for either an on-site interview or a Skype interview. So I chose the latter option and was informed that there could be around 4 Skype interviews. The Skype interviews were scheduled after all the on-site interviews were over. It was apparently wrapped up in the 2nd weekend of March that is from 7-9th March. I was then notified that my interview would take place from 12th March. Alongside I was also given a form which required me to fill the slot details and the professors I would like to talk to. MDACC has a good amount of big shots. I had bleak hopes of making through. So I made it up that even if I go till the interview round, I ensured that I interacted well with them.

INTERVIEWS:

The first professor I had enlisted was Dr. Ronald DePinho, former president of MDACC and a distinguished professor from Harvard University. Along with him, the other professors with whom I had opted to interact with were George A Calin, Robert C Bast and V Craig Jordan. The faculties went through all of our profiles. I got a mail from the assistant to Ronald DePinho. Preparation for the interview basically revolved around going through the past research experience and the techniques I had learned. MDACC and Baylor College of Medicine are located in the Texas Medical Centre, Houston. MDACC is one of the largest medical centres in the world. As both of them are located in the same place, a recommendation from my previous supervisor also helped. He was interested in the part of the research which I carried out at Baylor and why I was applying at MDACC. The interview slot was intended for 30 minutes but it was extended till around 47 minutes. He was very impressed with my interview and he appreciated by giving really good compliments.

I then received an email from the assistant of Dr. V Craig Jordan regarding the finalization of the slot for my second interview which was supposed to be held on 12th March. But it did not take place due to some technical issues on their side. I was notified about the rescheduling of the interview sometime later. After that, I received an email from George A Calin for an interview on 14th March. The interview was quite serious! (Chuckles). He asked more of technical questions based on my research projects and I explained them to him. It was a perfect 30 minutes interview. He had a really good impression on Indian students as one of his former students was from University of Mumbai. She completed her Ph.D. in 4 years and had bagged a prestigious scholarship to her credit. Moreover, she had also published a good amount of papers.

Usually, the deadline for submission of applications is the first week of January, but it is always safe to submit the applications by the first week of December because they start reviewing your applications by then. If you are among the shortlisted candidates then you will be called upon for the interview. The interview could be an on-site one (often called as a Visitation weekend) or a Skype one. On 18th March I received a mail containing the offer of admission and also notification of the acceptance at the earliest or by 15th April.

Basically, the deadline for accepting offers for Graduate schools is 15th April in the US. It is quite risky to accept an offer immediately (before 15 April) because if you are accepted by a better university later, you will have to write a resignation letter citing valid reasons why you rejected the offer. But in my case of all the universities I had applied to, MDACC was one of my dream colleges. So I accepted the offer the next day itself without a second thought. 

MM: What do you think is important to fetch a Ph.D. in reputed foreign universities?

SM: Research experience in my point of view is a major factor deciding your fate in fetching a position at reputed universities with regards to higher studies. Gaining a command over all the technical skills you learn in the due course of your internship will definitely help. Try to understand why you are using that particular technique and why not the others. Try to inspect from various dimensions so as to clarify what would happen this experiment went the other way around. Moreover having a good CGPA always is a plus point. Generally, US Grad schools prefer students who have a CG of more than 3.5 on a 4-grade scale. When you convert that on a 10-grade scale, it comes around a little more than 8.5. I had received the academic excellence awards as a branch topper consecutively for 3 years 2016, 2017 and 2018. This was one of the plus points I had got. If you have perfection in all the categories they deem important, the chances of your application increases drastically. Publications are also much important.  If you are given an option between going to another university and doing an internship for 2 months or staying back and working on the project which would fetch you a publication, I would suggest the latter option is more viable.

MM: What all places you had applied for a graduate position? If not MDACC, what else had you planned to do?

SM: After returning from my internship at Baylor, I was very overwhelmed. I started applying for all the places I knew. Since there were not many branch seniors to guide through, I gathered information from all the resources that I had. I hadn’t planned anything initially in July after coming back from my summer internship at Baylor. But later I decided that if I desire to achieve what I dream, I have to put in my best efforts. I dedicated those 3-4 months. Had I not done that, I wouldn't have achieved this big. I applied to selected graduate schools in the top 500 universities in the world. I went through the profiles of the professors whose research interests synergized with mine or all those who are involved in cutting edged research work. I applied to all of them.

 I would have as such pursued Ph.D. anyway. I had planned to begin from abroad and then come to India. I had applied to many places in Europe. I got 2 interview calls onsite in Germany out of which I had attended one. I would have got a position in the 1st interview in June itself. If not that I would have opted for option 2. Coming to options in India, I am an INSPIRE Scholarship awardee and have also have qualified GATE. If I would not have fetched any Ph.D. abroad then I would have extended my fellowship and joined a good lab here in India.

MM: Where do you aim to bring about a change through your research work? Where do you see yourself after 10 years?

SM: My short term goal is to work with a passionate group and learn how an independent researcher works in terms of writing papers and publications, proposing unique projects vested in the larger interests of the health care sector, among others. My long term goal anyway is to be an independent researcher having my own lab, motivating young minds. At this point, I cannot definitely ascertain my contribution in the coming 10 years but yes I wish to be well trained, focused and determined as I am at this point of time and also dedicated to my field of interest. After my PhD, I will be pursuing one or more Postdoctoral research. If not, I will start applying to positions in institutes that would be floated at that time. But yes I will come back to India as I have no intentions of settling abroad. 

One of the primary goals that I hold in life is to change the existing mentality of people around who are highly educated yet mock at you for opting for a pure science career in Biological Sciences. I have faced situations where I have been demeaned and questioned as to what I would be doing after completing my graduation or getting an Integrated MSc degree in Life Sciences. Now that I have an offer, I hope people won't fire me with questions anymore. To make sure that people don't opt for such measures of lowering your morale, it becomes highly impertinent that research scenario in Biological Sciences should be improved. More exposure and opportunities should be given to students desirous of pursuing pure science careers.

One thing which I observed in Baylor was that even high school students get exposure by doing summer internships. They get exposure to all those basic technical skills in their higher secondary courses, about which we come across in the sophomore year or junior year of our under graduation. Maybe we can implement that here in our education system but it seems that this goal cannot be reached due to the fund issues which we have. The thing is if students get exposure at such a prime age then students will find it easy to opt for a career option they are really interested in. It is always better to invest your time and efforts to chase various options and then find where you enjoy the most.

MM: Research in India is not up to the mark. There have been countrywide protests pertaining to various issues concerning those involved in this field. What according to you can be done to improve the standards of research in India?

SM: Research in India, especially in biological sciences, is in a developing stage. It will take some time to reach the standards of developed countries. At this point, the changes that would work are motivating the students by paying them a good stipend and providing them with state-of-art research facilities. Many deserving students don't pursue higher studies because the stipend paid is quite meager and quite difficult to meet the financial needs of a family. There are many other factors governing this scenario apart from the stipend issue. When it comes to research in Biological Sciences or Biomedical engineering, the lab facilities must be well equipped. The research scholars should have complete access to all instruments and they should be able to carry out their experiments as they plan. Experiments often get delayed due to lack of adequate amount of chemicals and instruments.

MM: Whom would you like to give credit for this achievement of yours?

SM: First of all, I would like to thank my parents and my family for believing in me and being constant support throughout the tough times. I would also specially thank my brother who is currently working as a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Connecticut for boosting my confidence and my close friends for their moral support. Professors in my department have been quite generous and helpful to me. I would especially credit for my success to Prof. Bibekanand Mallick, Prof. R Jayabalan, and Prof. Mohammed Saleem. In the first year, I had no idea about the DST-INSPIRE scholarship. My faculty advisor, Dr. Jayabalan took me through all the procedures which ultimately helped me to bag this prestigious scholarship. Bibek sir has been the constant source of motivation since day one. From the time of my failures in bagging internships to getting demotivated from numerous rejections while applying for Ph.D. positions, he has ensured that I never let my morale go down. He always said that I should keep on trying and I will achieve all my dreams one day. The department has played quite an important role in helping me achieve this, I would say.

MM: What message would you like to give it to our readers?

SM: Five years back, I had no idea what I would achieve. You should always keep looking for opportunities and should put all your soul and energy into what you care for. You should be persistent and optimistic. Because what you dream of is ultimately going to be yours, if you have put your sincere efforts in it. You might have to wait for a year or two while looking for a PhD in a prestigious university, but yes success will be yours if you have truly dedicated your heart and soul for it. There is a different level of happiness in realizing your dreams and pursuing what you would have loved to do for a living. Self-satisfaction is the most important thing to survive and excel in any field. Every process, that may be a success or a failure, it counts.

In the field of research, smart work applauds more. If you are dedicated, hardworking and passionate about something, eventually you will get that. You should be strong enough to do away will all kinds of frustration that might try to hinder your confidence, especially for students who take admission into Integrated MSc Life Science and often end up getting demotivating comments from different factions of the institute. If you are truly motivated to do something, turn deaf ears to all such comments which hold the capacity to demoralize you.

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