Dr Shilpee Dutt, winner of this year’s Janaki Ammal – National Woman Bioscientist Award for the young category, is a Principal Investigator at Advanced Centre for Treatment, Research and Education in Cancer (ACTREC), Mumbai. In this interview, she briefly discusses the research by Shilpee Lab and her journey so far.
The National Women Bioscientist Award is conferred by the Department of Biotechnology, Government of India, in recognition of the contribution of women scientists in the country who are working in biology and biotechnology. The young category award is given to women scientists below 45 years of age who have contributed significantly towards unravelling challenges in various areas of biosciences and biotechnology.
Dr Shilpee Dutt and her lab at ACTREC, Mumbai
1. How do you feel winning the Janaki Ammal – National Woman Bioscientist award?
I feel really happy that our research at ACTREC, Navi Mumbai, has been recognized at a national level. It is a teamwork and I am privileged to have students who have made this work possible. This achievement gives a lot of confidence and boost to strive for better.
2. Could you please explain your research?
Resistance to therapy is a longstanding problem in cancer therapeutics and is the major cause of cancer-related deaths. In our lab, we are trying to understand the molecular basis of therapy resistance in cancer with a focus on Glioblastoma (Brain tumours) and Leukemia (Blood cancer). Over the last 8 years, using genetic, molecular biology, biochemical approaches and mouse-xenograft models combined with studies in human patient samples, we have identified that tumour cells are very heterogeneous. We have shown that more than 95% of tumour cells die upon radiation and chemotherapy, but a small set of cells that we call ‘residual resistant’ cells survive and give rise to relapse tumour. We have also identified certain molecules that are responsible for the survival of residual cells thus providing critical information necessary for therapeutic interventions in Glioblastoma and Leukemia.
3. When was the first time you got interested in science?
Although I was always interested in science, it was my research experience at Dr Subrata Sinha’s lab (AIIMS, Delhi) for my M.Sc dissertation that I first realized research was so interesting and something I would want to pursue for the rest of my life.
4. What were the challenges you faced growing up as a girl interested in pursuing science?
There were no challenges growing up as a girl interested in pursuing science. My parents always encouraged me to do what I wanted to do. In fact, I was given a lot of freedom to think on my own and make my own decisions. The way I was brought up has moulded my personality into how it is today.
5. What was the happiest moment in your career so far?
I think the happiest moment was when I started my own lab at ACTREC. This provided me with the opportunity to ask and answer the scientific questions that I was interested in. Setting up your own lab has a lot of challenges and is quite an experience, but I must say I enjoyed every bit of it. I think there cannot be anything better than having your own lab.
6. What was the toughest or saddest moment in your career?
As a researcher, there are always moments when one feels disappointed with the experiments not working, but these are short-lived and they actually provide you with a challenge to start over again, learn from the mistakes and do better.
7. What were the struggles you faced as a woman in science?
Fortunately, I have not faced any gender bias in my scientific career. However, I know everyone is not as privileged. We know that there are fewer women in leadership positions in science as compared to men. It is important that female scientists are promoted to leadership positions. That would provide role models for young researchers and inspire them to take the same path. Providing support systems like campus child-care facilities would help women scientists to balance work and family.
8. Did you find yourself at an advantage anytime being a woman in science?
9. What is your favourite thing to do when not in the lab?
Reading (fiction), listening to music and watching movies
10. Any advice for those aspiring to pursue a career in scientific research?
Having a research experience like summer training/internship before you apply for a PhD program would help you realize how much you love doing research. Research could be slow and demanding at times, so unless you are passionate about your science you can easily give up. I would suggest pursuing scientific research only if you enjoy both the ups and downs of it.