Columns Journey of a YI

Patients to pipettes: A journey towards lab research

Sahadev Shankarappa

Sahadev Shankarappa is an Assistant Professor at Amrita Center for Nanoscience and Molecular Medicine, in Kochi, Kerala. He attended YIM 2017 as a YI. In this invited post, he talks about his journey from being a medical doctor to a full-time researcher.

Sahadev Shankarappa
Sahadev Shankarappa 

I always wanted you to be an engineer” my father reminded me again as we walked around the large room on the first floor of our house in Bangalore, where he wanted me to set up a clinic and examine patients. With an exceptionally gifted ability to screw-up math problems in school, I was actually quite happy when I had to disappoint my father 25 years ago, by choosing to go to a medical school instead. The world of medicine fascinated me. Even though I found sitting in classes, going through labs, and cramming for medical exams mind numbing at that time, the concepts of human physiology and the biochemical intricacies of cellular life were starting to make an impression on my then 19-year-old brain. Before I knew it, the clinical part of my medical education was almost complete, I was an intern seeing patients, and people were calling me doctor’!! I recall sitting down with patients asking their history, and praying that I don’t miss, or, worse, do anything that would harm them. Each patient interaction was fascinating and exciting in its own way. The clinical history, the subtle cues, the diagnostic tests, and finally putting them all together to form a diagnosis and suitable treatment plant was gratifying. 

As my internship progressed, I began to realise that medical training in India was designed for just one thing – serve patients. Each time a patient left my examination cubicle, I would wonder about the beautiful biochemistry behind the malady, the fancy pharmacology, the magnificent molecular biology of the disease, and all the why’s and how’s of the condition. But sadly, before I could get into my cloud of biology-appreciation, the next patient would walk in. I had started to feel that I may not be cut-out for the pace and pressures of a clinical practice, but more suited to intellectually dissect problems, ponder and raise questions. 

So, one fine day, without much of background or awareness about lab research, I naively travelled to the United States trying to find a professional niche that allowed me to raise questions and propose solutions. An unexpected, but fortunate opportunity at the University of North Carolina, to work as a part-time research assistant in a molecular biology laboratory, exposed me to bench research and, my first pipette! In the lab, there was no one waiting for me to finish or rush. I had all the time to think and to do all sorts of mental biology exercises that I could not do before. This experience opened up a whole new alternative reality, where I witnessed other like-minded physicians actively doing biomedical research. I had found my calling. I finished my masters, got myself a Ph.D., completed my post-doc, and jumped over to a faculty position in India and I haven’t looked back since.

Now when I teach my students, many of whom are engineers and doctors, I am constantly reminded of how my quest to buy a bit of time to think about the biology behind the disease has taken me down this wonderful journey from medicine to research. My father has come to terms with his son neither being an engineer, nor being able to use the first-floor room for his son’s clinic, but he still cannot figure out what his son actually does!