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Final Words: Neelam Mukherjee Explains Why She Chose Biomedical Research

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Author: Neelam Mukherjee | Category: Final Words... | Cancer Biology | Cancer Biology | August 19, 2015

Congratulations Neelam Mukherjee, a graduate student in the Cancer Biology track, for finishing your dissertation on "Deregulation of NF-κB signaling by SETD6 in bladder cancer.”

Please tell me about yourself, why you picked UT Health Science Center, and your program.

I am from Kolkata, India. I completed both my bachelor's and master's in Microbiology from University of Calcutta and applied for the Integrated Multidisciplinary program (IMGP) now called the Integrated Biomedical Sciences program (IBMS) in UT Health Science Center in 2010. 

I liked the multidisciplinary format of the program and the fact that it offered a wide variety of research areas to choose from attracted me more to the program. I was inclined towards cancer biology and I found the work in the cancer labs in Health Science Center also very intriguing. 

I also found the recruitment committee and Dr. Blake and Dr. Pina very friendly and helpful during the interview and application process. They would answer any questions about the program and the university very promptly and were very encouraging whenever I emailed or talked to them from India. 

The interaction gave me a very positive feeling about the environment in the school and I found it very student friendly. This was important because international students like us cannot come for onsite interviews; our only interaction is via telephone and emails. Also, the advanced equipment and state of the art facilities for research in the university made it a very attractive place for doing my Ph.D.

Please provide a few sentences summarizing your dissertation. What was the experience like for you?

It was a very exciting experience for me to join Dr. Rita Ghosh’s lab and be a part of the work in her lab which I found really interesting. Her guidance really helped me in doing my research. 

I also had the pleasure of working with the most amazing set of lab mates which made the experience more fun. I worked in the field of bladder cancer epigenetics. 

The overall goal of my work was to delineate the biological role of a novel protein methyl transferase, SETD6 in modulation of survival and NF-κB signaling pathway in bladder cancer. 

I also identified the natural product Palmatine isolated from the Chinese cork tree Phellodendron amurense as a SETD6 inhibitor and a potential therapeutic agent in bladder cancer.

Why are you passionate about your research topic? How did you first become interested in it?

I have always been drawn to biology as a kid. Also, growing up in a country where health care is still a very big concern especially for the underprivileged sections motivated me to choose the field of biomedical research as my career path. 

I got attracted to cancer biology research when one of my high school friends passed away due to cancer. It was an extremely tragic and heart breaking incident and made me want to contribute in whatever little way possible to the research for cancer therapy. 

Bladder cancer is the second most common genito-urinary cancers. It has one of the highest recurrence rates of 45 to 70 percent with invasive bladder cancer having a very poor outcome in patients. Current therapies fail to prevent recurrence, highlighting the urgent need for a better understanding of the molecular mechanisms involved in bladder cancer development and progression.

This is especially critical since bladder cancer management is very expensive and produces a huge financial burden on patients. It has the highest cost among solid tumors in the United States with a wobbling three billion U.S. Dollars estimated annual cost to the healthcare system. This is why I became interested in the area of bladder carcinogenesis and therapy.

What was your best memory during graduate school or what did you learn?

There are a lot actually. If I have to choose maybe the day I passed my qualifiers and got admitted to Ph.D. candidacy. 

Getting a travel award from the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences to present my research findings in the American Association for Cancer Research meeting was also very exciting. 

I think every graduate student has felt the crazy happiness of finally making an experiment work after months of tireless troubleshooting. 

So, I too have a lot of such memories of almost dancing in the lab when some experiment finally worked and those are the little things which makes it all worth it.

What’s next?

I will be continuing in the field of bladder cancer research and will be joining the lab of Dr. Robert Svatek in the UT health center as a postdoc. I worked under him for a little while during my clinical course in grad school and thoroughly enjoyed it. I think sometimes being secluded in the lab we lose sight that our research has a direct significance in patient care. 

Dr. Svatek being both an urologist and research scientist will have a different perspective since he is involved both in the clinic and the lab and I think I have a lot to learn from him. I also find his research on immune therapy in bladder cancer very translational and exciting and I am thrilled to start working in his lab.

Any advice for your fellow graduate students?

I really can’t give advice since I feel all of our graduate students in UT health center are pretty awesome and focused. But I can share some of the things I experienced and learnt. I think perseverance is one of the things you need to have for graduate school. 

Not all days will be good and that’s why it’s very necessary to keep yourself grounded and realistic. I think initially most of us start off with “save the world “mentality and it’s easy to lose heart when things don’t go your way at first. So setting small goals really help and also keeping reminding yourself that you chose this path because you love what you do. Also, I feel it’s essential to give some time to your health, family and friends. 

If you are healthy and happy personally it shows in your research and professional life too. I personally would not have done it without the unconditional love and support of my parents and my friends specially my awesome partner in crime in lab and life, Heather Hambright. Lastly, don’t let the inquisitive “kid” in you ever die. 

This probably will be the last leg of your student life so enjoy it and try to have fun doing research. Then you will not realize how time flies and there you will be ready to graduate and looking back you will miss the crazy grad school days. I know I will immensely. 



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