Getting to know the views of researchers invloved in the various fields of Science can help one experience research life and the actual happenings in the fields vicariously. In this exciting interview, we have with us Hema Preethi Subas Satish, an Indian student pursuing her PhD in the field of cancer biology from the University of Melbourne, Australia. Do read on to know more about research and life in the beautiful continent that houses the world’s largest coral reef system!
What was the impetus for you to choose a career in STEM?
Discovery channel and Nat Geo! Almost all 90s kids would agree, I guess. I was in high school when I first came across a documentary on how nanobots could be used for cancer therapy in the future and that was the moment I realized I wanted to pursue a career in science.
Can you briefly explain your current area of research on “Cancer and tumor biology” and how did you zero in on it?
I work on engineering antibodies to trigger cell death in cancer. Our group recently identified a first-in-class antibody that can directly bind to a cell death protein called BAK that’s found inside cells (intracellular) and initiate cell death. However, the major challenge in developing an intracellular protein binding antibody is the inability of antibodies to enter cells by themselves. My project hence involves using various “delivery” strategies that could potentially enable the uptake of our “antibody cargo” specifically into cancer cells and provide proof-of-concept that once inside, the antibody can trigger cell death. Since my research is translational in nature, the research question had already been framed by my PhD supervisor and I only had to get on board.
Cancer is one of the greatest enemies that humanity is fighting against. Can you explain why despite a large number of researchers working on cancer, there has been no long lasting solution?
One, a single cancerous cell (cancer stem cell) left behind after treatment could give rise to a full-blown cancer all over again. Two, one person for example, say with brain tumour can have two or more different subclones of the tumour type. While a treatment could destroy one subclone, it might not be effective against the others, thereby leaving behind the other subclones to thrive. Three, we need better tumour models in labs to understand the complex nature of cancer in patients. Although we have come this far in cancer research with patient-derived cells grown in labs, they aren’t as complex as natural tumours – thereby limiting the number of successful drugs in clinical trials. Personalized medicine as well as organoid models for research, I think are promising steps moving forward.
Could you tell us a bit on how you searched and applied for positions abroad? How did you end up choosing Australia?
I got to know about University of Queensland (UQ) through one of my friends who did her undergraduate internship there. They have an attractive Master’s program that involves a year of coursework and for the second year we can either opt for a year of lab-based or an industry-based research. Hence the Master’s program at UQ was appealing to me. During my second year of Master’s, I did a year-long project in antibody engineering and that was my stimulus to do a PhD in the same research area. I started looking for openings in Australia itself as research here is more collaborative than competitive. By chance, I came across an interview given by my current PhD supervisor on the novel antibody that was identified by the group. I contacted her and joined the lab after being assessed in two interviews. Here in Australia, the PhD admission process is rather simple. One has to first approach a potential supervisor and then directly apply to the University with good grades, at least a year’s worth of research experience and a research paper to gain entry as well as scholarship.
Do you think aiming for a Master’s and/or PhD abroad gives us a better foundation in research than one within our country?
Pursuing higher education outside our country will help build a wider scientific network and help get first-hand experience in cutting-edge technologies. Also, being a part of the research community in Australia has made me aware of other exciting career options available apart from those in academia.
Can you give a glimpse of life in the University campus as well as Australia in general?
In general, life in Australia is very laid-back. People here are welcoming, respectful and always ready to help. While Brisbane is known for its proximity to beaches such as the Gold Coast, Melbourne is more about music, art and culture. University campuses are extremely beautiful and almost always buzzing with life. The contact hours for Master’s are generally less and courses require a lot of independent study and assignment-based learning which I actually found exciting.
What is your opinion on pursuing a Master’s and then going for a PhD?
For me, pursuing a Master’s before going on to do a PhD gave me the opportunity to keep my options open. If you are certain about pursuing a PhD then probably Master’s is not necessary as long as you can get enough research experience, maybe through a research internship, before applying for a PhD program.
Research involves many trials and tribulations. You have probably encountered times when getting the desired results were tiresome. How do you deal with the frustration that often accompanies long-term research?
“Every negative result is also a good result” – This was one of the best advices I received from my PhD committee. The key is to consider every negative result as one step forward rather than backwards. With every negative result, you get to reassess your experimental design and that only enables you to get closer to the desired outcome. It’s part of the learning process.
Can you recall one euphoric moment and one dark moment in your scientific journey till now?
Once during my Master’s my antibody-imaging dye conjugate finally worked in a xenograft model after months of troubleshooting. This was so far the most euphoric moment I experienced in my scientific journey. I don’t think I have had any particular dark moment in research. Like I said earlier, every negative result is only a step forward in the right direction.
Did you experience cultural shock as a student migrating into a new country? Do you have any tips for students to tackle cultural shock while migrating to study in foreign countries?
Not a lot really. I think it’s important to learn a little about your new country before you migrate – make yourself familiar with a few cultural cues. Make some local friends. Spend your first few weeks exploring your new city and experiment with a few things local. Sign up for different clubs at university through which you can continue to do what you enjoy. Most importantly, stay in touch with friends and family back home.
This is an offbeat question! Where can one find you when you are not working in the lab or writing your research work?
Currently, I am just at home! But usually I go out and about exploring different nature trails in Melbourne. Just a few minutes amidst nature can do wonders! I make sure to have a work-life balance and highly recommend all PhD students to do so – we all need a breather.
Are you engaged in Science communication activities? How important do you think is “Science communication”?
Not at the moment, but science communication is definitely a must. In a world where misinformation can spread faster than the speed of light (exaggeration of course) and given that we are in the midst of a pandemic, it’s important now more than ever, to make sure that we as scientists convey reliable information effectively.
Finally, any words of advice you would like to give to your younger self aiming to start a journey in scientific research?
Try to get exposure in different research areas of life science as much as possible and aim to learn new skills each time – ideally during your undergrad. Experiment more!
Some important pointers regarding pursuing a PhD in Australia!
Average salary in INR for students pursuing a PhD in Australia
Scholarship money on an average is INR 15,00,000 per annum with small annual increments. Some research institutes give a top-up of INR 1,00,000 per annum.
Money that can be saved after spending on essentials
Half of the stipend.
Money to be carried by students aiming to start a PhD in Austaralia
For PhD students, usually scholarships include an additional INR 1,50,000 to help with settling into life in Australia.
Good Universities/Institutes to start a PhD in life sciences in Australia.
Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, hands down! Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology in Brisbane is great as well 😀
We have come to the end of this interview. You can follow Hema Preethi Subas Satish at