Programming With Genes: Smruti Sudha Biswal's Internship At Tamkang University, Taiwan
The Coronavirus Pandemic has become a major roadblock for students who aspired to intern in reputed Companies and Universities this Summer. The unfortunate circumstances created by the pandemic led to the cancellation of her internship at National Chung Cheng University; even then, Smruti Sudha Biswal, a pre-final year student of the Life Science Department bagged the prestigious internship at Tamkang University, Taiwan. Team Monday Morning caught up with her to know more about the application procedure and her internship experience. Excerpts from the interview:
Monday Morning (MM): You were interning at the National Institute of Biomedical Genomics (NIBMG) in your second year. How did you come across this internship? What is the procedure to be followed for applying to a research internship like yours?
Smruti Biswal (SB): After my first internship at the end of the first year, I was looking for taking internships focusing on my area of interest at the end of 2nd year. My interest lies in the area of cancer biology. So I wanted to pursue my internship in this field. While searching for Institutes where I could intern, I came across the National Institute of Biomedical Research (NIBMG). NIBMG happens to be one of the autonomous institutes under the Department of Biotechnology, Government of India. So, I wrote a letter in March to pursue an internship under one of the professors in NIBMG. I directly wrote to the Controller Section of the HRD Ministry, which looked upon the internship process as I had missed the first way of applying for the internship. The first way was writing to one of the professors expressing your interest. If they agreed, request them to absorb you through the Indian Academy of Science Fellowship. The letter consisted of my C.V., SOP, and interest in the particular field.
MM: Can you briefly describe the work you did while you were interning at NIBMG, Kolkata?
SB: My project was guided at finding biomarkers for diagnosing breast cancer in female patients. My work was basically on characterizing exosomes, i.e., extracellular vesicles present in the bloodstream. We have to portray their contents as to how they could prove to be diagnostic markers for diagnosing breast cancer in female patients. My work was based on that, and it was a two-year-long project. Since I was there for only a couple of months, I couldn't do much of the work, and this characterization of the exosome part was kind of a high-level project for a sophomore. So they just gave me a small piece of it so that I could get a taste of what cancer research is and what all concepts or topics you need to clarify so that we can move on with that field. In the initial month, I worked on this project, which was the characterization of exosomes for potential biomarkers in breast cancer diagnosis. But due to some unavoidable circumstances, the post-doctoral guide had to leave due to some personal reasons. So I had to switch on to another project, and luckily that was an independent one. I had to work on my own. It was based on finding out genetic mutations for a complex disease, hyperbilirubinemia, which happens when bilirubin increases in your body. The last month of my internship was focused on this.
MM: Why did you choose a research internship? Who gave you an idea about it?
SB: I am enrolled in a pure Science course. I hail from the field where placement opportunities are meagre and are mostly confined to Educational Institutions or Coaching Institutes. I was particularly not interested in working in that sector. After my internship in the first year, I started developing an acumen for scientific research. In the second year, we also started reading our branch subjects, which increased my desire to pursue research.
In January 2019, I attended my first conference, Frontiers in Modern Biology (FIMB) at IISER, Kolkata. That is where I met my first guide, and from there, I dived deeper into the research domain. She helped me with every detail about how we should conduct experiments, write a research paper, and do a project. All her efforts resulted in my increased interest in the research domain. In my 2nd year, I read some papers about Cancer biology, and it increased my interest and ended up eventually interning at NIBMG.
MM: For your pre-final year, you have gotten an opportunity to intern at Tamkang University. How did you come across this internship? What is the procedure to be followed while applying for an internship like yours?
SB: In December, I had got an acceptance letter from another university in Taiwan, i.e., National Chung Cheng University (NCCU). They had their official application through which we had to fill in our details. I, along with Sanatan Panda from the Biotechnology and Medical Department and Rajat Panda from the Electrical Engineering Department, were selected, and everything was going as scheduled until March. At the end of March, I received an email from the university stating that the internship is cancelled, given the ongoing pandemic. That initially left me shattered because I had so many dreams which couldn't be fulfilled, not only because my internship was cancelled but also because it would have been my first international trip. It somehow lowered my morale. Until May, I had no clue what to do because we were perplexed about whether the end-semester will be conducted or not. So I was still in my studies related to the sixth-semester subjects because you never know when the authorities will come up with a notice that the exams will take place. At the same time, I was looking for some internship in LinkedIn because I didn't want my resume to be blank for the year 2020.
I wrote to the professor under whom I was supposed to work in NCCU. He works on bio-informatics or cancer systems biology. He asked a few questions related to that. At the same time, I mailed this professor from Tamkang University who works on computational systems biology. His work was based on neurodegenerative diseases. He replied to my mail after a couple of days, and he wanted to have an informal chat with me based on my previous projects. He took my interview, which lasted for around 35-40 minutes. He inquired about my shift of field from wet lab to dry lab.
Wet lab involves all the practical techniques which we do like DNA or RNA isolation. On the other hand, a dry lab is entirely done on a computer, based on programming. We get huge databases, and we have to analyze gene expression and related things. I felt this was the need of the hour, and hence I shifted my field.
Once we tell the scientists about things happening at the atomic and molecular levels, they can exploit the mechanisms and work. Experimental results might not be correct in a few cases, so letting them know about the molecular level work through computation will allow them to optimize their lab experiments accordingly, giving very small room for any error to occur. When I explained all these, the professor seemed to be satisfied. Then he gave me a couple of papers that ranged from DNA Protein interaction, neurodegenerative diseases, and chromatin remodelling. I chose the neurodegenerative project from there. The internship started in June. We have a meeting every fortnight, and I keep on updating what all I have been doing related to the project.
MM: What was the preparation strategy like before going for the internship? What courses did you take to prepare for the internship?
SB: My previous internship offer was cancelled. So, we have to adjust our aims according to the situation. I decided to explore a new domain which is Computational Biology. It was a new thing for me, and I never imagined the extensive use of programming languages in biological sciences.
At first, I started learning the Python programming language. But due to some unavoidable reasons in between, my learning process was halted. I also enrolled myself in a course named Introduction to Systems Biology. In Systems Biology, users use mathematical models, programming languages, and few concepts from Chemistry like Molecular Dynamic Simulation. This thing is a complete interdisciplinary course where different parts of Biology, Physics, Chemistry, and Computer Science have been used to find out results in Biology. These are the courses I learned before going for the internship. I had left Python in the middle, but my professor has said to learn it as well as we will use it very soon in my projects.
MM: What has fascinated you the most about this internship?
SB: In NIBMG, I had met this friend of mine who had an interest in programming. Till then, I had no clue that programming can be used in biology. I asked her how she used R (a programming language) in her project, and she briefly described it to me. So I started taking a course on Coursera as our institute had received a free subscription. I utilized the month of May to learn R. This whole idea of combining biology and programming has fascinated me a lot. As an example, you can determine the set of genes expressed in a cell by using network regulatory circuits.
Bio-informatics is indeed a very new topic because it hasn't been much explored, and it is a continuously evolving field. Using the programming or computational programs for solving problems in biology isn't something that the world has looked upon in more than two decades.
MM: How would you describe your Internship experience at Tamkang University?
SB: I must say it has been excellent. My guide is such a sober hearted person. He never lets me feel that I am very naïve in this field, and my knowledge in this field is at an infant stage. He has helped me in every possible way and helped me to learn things. He was quite impressed by the interest I showed to him during the interview process and during the tasks which he gave me to perform. His support and words of motivation have helped me sail through these tough times. So, the experience has been amazing, and I would like to visit him and complete my project soon if the coronavirus pandemic is under control.
MM: What is your area of focus in this internship?
SB: My project is about developing a network model that will help us find the causative agents for a neurodegenerative disease like Alzheimer's disease, which occurs mostly to people in the age group of 60-65. There have been many hypotheses that regarded the onset of disease and disease progression, but nothing has claimed to be the exact reason. Also, most of the disease remains elusive. We are trying to develop a model in the form of a gene regulatory network that would help us pinning the essential genes that help in the disease's progression. It is a mathematical model, so I had to revise all the mathematical concepts like ordinary differential equations from the second semester. My professor has invited me to visit the university in December if the pandemic is in control by then. If not, then we will keep on the work online until we find the results.
MM: What long term effect do you expect from this internship?
SB: I am thinking of doing a PhD abroad and returning to India to fulfil my primary aim. My tenure in the field of research is very short as I wish to don the bureaucratic suit one day by cracking the Civil Services. Yet the thought of doing something for the society in every possible way taking Science as my bait, constantly pushes me through my boundaries and I am definetely considering the option of pursuing a PhD after my MS. It will be a stepping stone for me as it will make a positive impact on my C.V. and will help me immensely during the PhD admission process.
MM: What challenges have you faced while working from home? Do you feel it had advantages?
SB: It would have been much better if I could work on-site. But now I'm living at a particular location where I face a lot of network issues. Communicating face to face and sharing your ideas and views in person has a different and better feeling than doing the same over skype or any other platform. Apart from that, there wasn't any major problem.
MM: How did your internship at NIBMG help you to get an internship at Tamkang University?
SB: My guide was quite impressed with the projects I had done in NIBMG during my sophomore year. The internship at NIBMG gave me an insight into what research is. In my first year, I couldn't understand any of the research papers that I encountered. All those numbers, terms, definitions, references seemed alien to me. So in April before the inception of the internship at NIBMG, my guide for this internship gave me five papers to read so that I could have an idea about what I will work upon. Even though I faced problems in reading, but my knowledge was much better than the previous one. It was enhanced a lot. I also got an idea of how to write a research paper, use citations and references. So when he asked me to narrate my experience, I did it flawlessly. So I can say that my previous internship had a very positive impact on this internship and my resume.
MM: According to you, what was the USP in your CV when you applied for Tamkang University?
SB: My grades were never my USP because I never have 8 CGPA till now. But the two internships(in 1st year and 2nd year) were my USP which helped me to bag the present internship. Till now, I have not met a single professor from abroad asking me about my grades. They asked me about my past research internship. The other thing which was positive for me was that I had prior knowledge of Java and C++ programming languages from my school days. So, these two things went in favour of me for bagging my internship at Tamkang University.
MM: A lot of internships were cancelled or delayed due to the unforeseen circumstances of the pandemic. What was your feeling when this was happening?
SB: The decision to cancel or delay internships was right, in my opinion, because risking anyone's life at this point won't be wise. We can't even do anything because this isn't under our control. But many students lost their internship opportunities, which is bad. I believe that you can always search for alternatives or try to get a better chance.
MM: Students are often confused about whether they should go for core, non-core, or the academic section. What is your take on it?
SB: I belong to the science background. As far as I know, my branch batchmates and juniors are inclined to go into the academic field. To be frank, I don't have much knowledge about jobs in the core and non-core sectors. I cannot comment much on it.
MM: There is a gap between the package offered by companies focused on research and industrial fields. What is your take on that?
SB: Yes, there is a difference because pursuing research demands a lot of dedication, commitment, and perseverance. You can't expect to get results immediately after you experimented. We used to have labs which started at 8 in the morning and ended at 5 pm. We used to get only the lunch breaks and then rush again to the labs. These things are common in all the disciplines of research. The industrial jobs might be confined to a window frame of 8 am to 5 pm, but in research-related jobs, it would depend upon you and your guide. All kinds of jobs need some amount of dedication, but research demands more commitment.
MM: What will be your final words of advice for students?
SB: As I said, these are unforeseen times; we don't know what is going to happen. So, we should exploit the time we are getting now. We have time to nurture our talents or learn a new course or develop a new skill. So, if you want to do something in the future, this is the best time to incubate those skills of yours so that it will help you in the longer term.
At the same time, you have to relax a bit from the humdrum of life, which you have experienced in the past 20 years. I insist everyone should clear their mind and go for self-introspection as well.
Strength and Growth come only through continuous efforts and struggle. Team MM hopes that Smruti Biswal's journey is an inspiration for all, and she gets more success in the days to come by.