Researching Her Way Towards Triumph: Roshni Biswas
Ajita Shri | Sep 09, 2019
Sometimes taking risks opens hidden doors- imparting this mantra to the upcoming batches, Roshni Biswas continues to climb her ladder of success. Born in California and graduated in the year 2018 from NIT Rourkela, the brainy scholar from the Computer Science Department has acquired a wide range of experience after working in famed institutions such as Caltech and Harvard. Team MM gives its reader a glimpse of Roshni Biswas's journey to Harvard.
MM: After your B-tech, you have indulged almost entirely in research. At what point in time did you realise that research is your calling over a corporate job?
RB: There is something incredibly exciting about learning something new and discovering something that wasn’t known before. Of course, there are ups and downs, our findings are minor in the grand scheme of things and interesting only to a small group of people. That being said, I can’t think of anything more rewarding than realizing our knowledge about the universe increases by the smallest of our contributions in science. During my 2nd year of undergrad, I interned at NITK Surathkal and got a flavour for what it's like to work in an academic laboratory for the first time. My supervisor at that time was immensely supportive, guiding me through the nuances and life cycle of a research project: from ideation, scope definition, writing a scientific paper, publication as a 1st author and presentation at a conference. Subsequently at NASA, I held positions in a variety of teams: some of which were characteristic of strong academic influence, namely the Planetary Protection Center of Excellence at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (in Pasadena, California) and the Biospheric Sciences Group at NASA's Ames Research Center (in Mountain View, California). On the other hand, while working with the OCIO Data Science Team at NASA's Langley Research Center (in Hampton, Virginia) I got to work with a larger set of people leaning towards corporate development practices.
There is an obvious transfer of findings from laboratory research into practical application, followed by incorporation of subsequent experiences and knowledge gain back into further R&D. Mutual feedback from “bench to bedside to bench” is becoming increasingly important. Overall, I've enjoyed this balanced mix of cultures at the nexus of academia and industry within the realm of science and technology, and I wouldn't say I have a calling or bias of one over the other.
MM: You were a part of Team OneLife at GapSummit 2018 and a contestant for the Voices of Tomorrow bio-innovation contest at the University of Cambridge, UK. Tell us more about it and the Global Biotech Revolution.
RB: I was selected among the Top 100 Leaders of Tomorrow in Biotechnology by the Global Biotech Revolution and awarded a travel bursary to attend GapSummit 2018 at the University of Cambridge, UK. This prestigious annual summit is a unique platform for the Leaders of Today, i.e. current world leaders and pioneers from the biotech, pharmaceutical & healthcare industry to share challenges, experiences and project their vision on the next generation of leaders. Before the summit, we were coached for four months in various aspects of Entrepreneurship and How to build on a Startup Idea. As part of a bio-innovation contest at the summit, my team pitched on “OneLife: Blockchain Medical Record as a Service”.
My trip to Cambridge was nothing short of a fantasy, a short train ride escapes away from London through the idyllic countryside and home to England’s finest and richest universities. I was ecstatic to get to have a candid exchange of ideas over dinner with Nobel Laureate, Sir Gregory Winter at Trinity College, and casually ran into a few other revered pioneers at The Eagle, a historic pub where James Watson and Francis Crick announced the discovery of the DNA double-helix model!
MM: Congratulations on winning the Unite Ideas Open Climate Informatics Challenge. Your team has been selected to present your solution at the United Nations Climate Summit in New York next month. How did you accomplish this feat?
RB: This summer, Anurag Saha Roy (NITR alumnus, Electrical Engineering '17) and I participated in the Unite-Ideas Summer of Solutions 2019. The two of us worked together in developing ‘Wikilimo’, a platform that enables farmers in regions of little or no internet connectivity with actionable Agri & climate insights, P2P chat, business and planning services. Our solution won the Open Climate Informatics Challenge and the United Nations has recognized our contribution as a leading voice for Climate Action! We have also been invited to speak at the UN Youth Climate Summit at UN HQ in New York and our team will be receiving a travel sponsorship to participate in this unprecedented global climate mobilization.
MM: You have recently bagged a position at a Harvard affiliated research centre. Shed some light on your job search that led to this offer and how you navigated through the process.
RB: My job search was indeed a great learning experience. I aggressively applied to several positions at leading public and private research institutes, university labs, as well as a few R&D teams in industrial biotechnology and healthcare companies. #AcademicTwitter was very instrumental in my search for jobs, enabling me to locate openings and connect with researchers in specific domains. Over 6 months, I ended up interviewing with about 30 teams and received multiple offers from positions based out of Singapore, Paris and San Francisco before finally settling on the job at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, Massachusetts. The struggle to find a job to my liking, through rigorous coding tests and early morning skype interviews, taught me a lot about presenting myself professionally, tackling challenging problems under time constraints and leveraging my professional network. I also had to learn to request recommendations optimally, negotiate salaries and ask the right questions to make a sound decision.
MM: You have taken up a post as a Bioinformatics Software Engineer at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in July 2019. Tell us more about the application process your role at DFCI.
RB: The selection process initially consisted of 2 phone interviews, followed by a coding challenge. Upon clearing those initial rounds, I was invited for an on-site, where there were 7 more interviews and I got to tour the institute and campus. As a final step, I was required to submit contact details of two recommenders, who vouched for my capabilities on being contacted over the phone. The entire process took about 6 weeks, I accepted the offer soon after and am currently working as a Bioinformatics Software Engineer, in the Knowledge Systems Group, Dept of Data Sciences, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, a world-renowned leader in cancer care and research, and a teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School.
MM: What areas do your research specialize in and how is the work culture at Dana-Farber/Harvard?
RB: The Knowledge Systems Group (KSG) is an applied genomics software and data sciences group focused on enabling cancer genomics research and precision medicine, led by Dr Ethan Cerami at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. We are an interdisciplinary group of computational biologists, bioinformatics engineers, and software developers, all united in the fight against cancer, coexisting in an inspiring environment driven towards scientific and technological advancement. The group presently supports a large portfolio of projects in the areas of cancer genomics, immuno-oncology, clinical decision support, and data sharing. The people I work with are some of the most brilliant and hardworking bunch I’ve met and I couldn’t be happier!
There are very few places in the world where you can write code that has such a direct impact on real people, I am very excited to be contributing to some of the most widely used platforms for cancer genomics, being part of moonshot initiatives, and making an impact at the forefront of patient care and clinical decision making.
MM: At a very early stage in your career, you have managed to bag positions in renowned organizations like NASA, Caltech and are now at Harvard. How does it feel?
RB: Heck, it feels awesome! I was not the most diligent student back in my school days and was often reprimanded by my teachers for neglecting studies and getting way too involved in extracurricular activities. From there I’ve come a long way, and I wouldn’t have gotten where I am today had it not been for years of perseverance, hard work and a touch of luck. The motivation I have felt and the drive of wanting to achieve something more every day is fueled by the support of my mentors, friends and family who have looked out for me throughout every step and stumble in this amazing journey. I feel eternally grateful and I try my best to be a guiding force for my juniors sharing with them the advice that I wish I had when I was at their stage in my career.
MM: How different is the research culture in India from that in the US? How could NITR improve in research fronts?
RB: The research culture largely varies depending on your supervisor, team and institute. The guidance I have received in the US has been highly encouraging with lots of attention to detail. I’ve been fortunate to work with people that give constructive criticism without making you feel like you are being negatively judged. There is lots of flexibility given to identify your interests and an emphasis on maintaining the balance between the ability to work independently and taking just as much supervision as required. I have realized from my experience with foreign internship applications and jobs, that recommendations are highly valued. The letters I received from mentors I’ve had in the US were written carefully and reflected their true opinion regarding my capabilities and potential. That being said, it is truly commendable how NITR has earned a great reputation and is competing with global counterparts.
MM: What role did NITR play in your growth?
RB: I look back very fondly on my carefree undergrad days. Moving out of the comfort of home for the first time, venturing out to live an independent life at NIT Rourkela was a turning point in my life. Little did I know back then that I would go and grow through college so quickly, getting transformed along the way into a far more mature and well-rounded individual. Leveraging the institute’s high repute, I built my foundations in Computer Science and Engineering while discovering a passion for Computational Biology. My active involvement with the Leo Club of Rourkela as the VP and later the President gave me experiences very close to my heart. Leo helped me to evolve as a person in developing key life-skills including leadership, team-work, and dealing with conflict. I was able to broaden my horizon and use this platform to think of a vision for the core team, organization, and the larger community we serve. I also learnt to identify my strengths and weaknesses, get a clearer idea of my capabilities and how I want to align my goals in the future.
MM: What are your opinions on the alumni relations of NITR and the role played by them in the betterment of upcoming scholars?
RB: Significant measures have been undertaken in the last 5 years for improving and tapping into alumni relations. We now have a vibrant national and international community of NITRians connected through the common love for their alma mater. We must keep growing and leveraging this network further to ensure alumni from industry and academia can play an active role in the development of NITR into a world-class research centre and placing its graduates in the top echelons of institutes around the globe. While the annual conventions being organised by NITRAA and NITROAA have been great initiatives in bringing together generations of alumni, a lot of work remains to be done in streamlining various processes involved with alumni-supported grants and scholarships.
MM: What is the basic mantra that you apply in your professional as well as personal life?
RB: I try to be a good listener and keep an open mind. Having interfaced with various people from different walks of life, it has been incredibly useful to learn from not only my own mistakes but absorb as much as possible from others’ perspectives and opinions. I am super-ambitious about my dreams. Sometimes this means I can’t achieve everything that I wish for. But the 10x mentality boosts my morale and psyches me into giving my absolute best. I have always been one to go above and beyond, putting my heart and soul into both personal and professional pursuits.
Do what you love and love what you do. I think the most enjoyable and at the same time sustainably productive work environments can be achieved when you are deeply passionate about whatever it is that you are doing. There is a different level of energy and inspiration that flows when you truly care about your work. In moments of stress or frustration, love helps stick with it. Nothing in this world matters more than the satisfaction that comes with realising your dreams and doing what you enjoy for a living.
MM: Leave a message for the NITR Janata.
RB: Keep up with technological advances. Science is evolving at an incredible pace now and the textbook/classroom syllabus is often severely out of date. You only realize after facing the outside world that there’s so much more to know and do. Identify people who will mentor you, boost your confidence and enlighten you with opportunities to grow. Being surrounded by a supportive and engaging environment and getting involved in a wider community helps create a “safe space” for yourself where you can share experiences, provide a listening ear, offer guidance, or even just socialise casually. The ability to communicate effectively is an underrated skill, it would help to practice from an early stage.
Actively search for enriching opportunities and take them up as they come your way - think about presenting your work in conferences/competitions, do outreach, participate in hackathons, apply for travel awards to attend workshops, meet people from different places working on similar things, join professional societies, making the most out of everything you have. It does sound like a lot, and juggling multiple tasks can be challenging, but learning to prioritise by focusing your energy on things that actually matter in the long term, helps to overlook trivialities. Lastly, there is no regimented right or wrong way of going about things, find a way that suits you. Sometimes taking risks opens hidden doors by serendipity, you definitely don’t want to miss out on those chances early in your career while you can afford to take those chances. The earlier you distinguish yourself from the pack, the easier it gets going forward because guess what, compound interest works in every walk of life, and that is how you gradually rise.
Team MM wishes Roshni Biswas all the best for her upcoming ventures.