B.TECH, CHEMICAL ENGINEERING, 1989
SENIOR ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR FOR THE CATALYST PROGRAM AND INNOVATION VENTURES (INVENT) PHILANTHROPY FUND AT UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, SAN FRANCISCO
I grew up mostly in Mumbai. My father, who was in the IAS and had a Math/ Statistics education, inspired me both with a love of learning and hard work. My mother was more into being compassionate, being caring for others. So it was a really good balance. We always had a lot of books at home including popular science books, fiction, and biographies. That was the one thing my father always indulged in. My brother is nine years younger and much smarter than me (he stood second all India in the IIT JEE in his year). Most of the things he’d ask, I would say, I don’t know. So that pushed me to find out, for example, ‘why is the sky blue’? I was a good student and got selected as a National Talent Search Exam scholar. But I didn’t have a clear idea of what to pursue as a career. I remember, just after my 10th grade, I was sitting on the lawn having snacks with my classmate Johara Shahabuddin. She mentioned that her brother was in IIT and that she would like to study there too. So I was like - “Oh, maybe I can go to IIT too”. Also, I hated frog dissection so I knew I had no future in medicine. Engineering was a better bet but I almost didn’t give JEE, thinking it’s too tough. Dad persuaded me. “What’s the worst that can happen?”, he said. My JEE rank was 594 so I just missed the cut-off for Engineering Physics. However, Professor Kudchadkar convinced my father and me to go for ChemE.
285 guys and 14 girls - that was my batch at IITB. That can be overwhelming, right? In class, when you are one of only three girls, you hesitate to ask a question. What if it’s a dumb question? People will remember. So I would instead go after class and speak to the professor. It’s a habit that’s stuck with me till today when I prefer approaching a speaker after the talk. In my first year, honestly, I was involved in too many activities. I acted in three plays, took part in basketball and what not. So my GPA was only 7.1. In the second year, I was like, I really need to focus and my GPA jumped to 9.0. I did not give up on extracurricular activities but balanced it out, away from semester crunch time. I remember in Physics-1, I got nervous during the exam and got an E. I had to retake the exam to get a D. But then I managed a 990 in AGRE engineering which was the highest score in my year among non-CS people who do not take AGRE engineering. That gave me a lot of confidence, that I can compete with anyone. Later, I got 2340 in GRE, second highest in my batch. I also stood second in my ChemE class at IITB. Other high points at IITB were the lifelong friendships developed in H10. And taking part in two ‘Himankans’. I went on two wonderful Himalayan treks, one to the Garhwal region and the other one to Kashmir. And in my final year, I organised the first-ever Aqua Games at Mood Indigo.
Initially, I thought I wanted to be a professor and so I decided to pursue a PhD. Being second in my class with my strong GRE and AGRE scores I got into all the top universities, including Stanford, MIT, University of Wisconsin, Princeton, Carnegie Mellon, and Caltech, with full fellowships or graduate research assistantships. I chose Caltech due to an eminent professor in biochemical engineering being there. Also, coming from India, the warm weather was attractive. While being a strong school with many Nobel laureates, Caltech is also a small school, where I thought I would feel more at home. However, in those days Caltech had a very poor ratio of women to men in the undergrad and graduate programs. My PhD in biochemical engineering at Caltech was challenging because my advisor moved to Switzerland after three years. I had to find a new advisor and switch my topic. So, effectively, after doing that, I finished my thesis in just two years. Then I did a couple of postdocs, one at University of Washington and another at MIT. The hardest part at MIT was getting used to the Boston winters! Initially, I wanted to be a professor. But then I came to Berkeley because my husband was there and I went into pharma. I worked with Bayer, where I got exposed to how one really develops products. I was part of a three-woman team that did the viral validation work for a protein therapeutic that went into clinical trials. After I went through a difficult divorce, I was looking for work that was meaningful. As Associate Director for partnering and scientific affairs at Bio Ventures for Global Health, I put together collaborations between leading academic universities, nonprofits and pharmaceutical companies to accelerate the development of drugs, vaccines and diagnostics for neglected tropical diseases like TB and malaria. I actually put together more than 90 collaborations, some of which are advancing. I felt a real sense of purpose that I’m making a difference for people who are marginalized. I not only interacted with leading scientists in the pharma sector, whether at AstraZeneca, GSK, Sanofi, Novartis, but also with researchers from Cameroon, Nigeria, Kenya, India, China, Brazil, etc. So it was really being part of a global community that was very enriching .
What I do now is help UCSF faculty move discoveries forward, whether it’s therapeutics, medical devices, diagnostics, digital health or bio tools. I am managing the therapeutics and medical device tracks at the UCSF Catalyst program. The goal is to allow a longer incubation period for projects within UCSF, so they get greater value both for the investigators as well as the university when they are spun out into Venture Capital backed companies or licensed out. I work with the principal investigators and understand what are the bottlenecks. So it’s a lot of combining project management - delving into the science, looking at new ideas and howvthey can be translated towards products, and getting projects to apply for the Catalyst program and the Invent fund. It’s wonderful when they actually reach milestones and are able to be spun out or licensed. It’s also very satisfying to run the Catalyst Internship program. We’ve had over 200 Catalyst interns - grad students and postdocs, clinical fellows and residents, who get the opportunity to learn about what is involved in bringing products from the bench to the bedside. At Catalyst, I think of myself as an enabler, facilitating faculty members to advance their projects on the translational path. For example Prof. Hani Goodarzi got seed funding of 100k from Catalyst, which helped with critical experiments. His company Exai Bio just raised $67 million in a Series A to take forward a liquid biopsy platform that is focused on early detection of cancer. Another of my favorites - Prof. Julie Saba - she’s working on an ultra rare disease. It’s not a project that can go the venture capital route but she got a small grant from the Catalyst program. Now she’s getting $1.4 million from California Institute of Regenerative Medicine to do more of the preclinical work. That’s one step closer to real world impact for patients.
At IIT, I remember there were some worker guys at the machine shop hitting on girls during the workshop. I couldn’t go and work alone afterwards when I needed to do filing. A similar thing happened during my summer training at Hindustan Lever. At their factory in Andheri, there was a worker who was always drunk. My father had to ask for me to be transferred to the main office. These kind of things should have zero tolerance!
Very honestly, I’m still struggling after my divorce. I think I relied on over-achieving as a way to deal with it. I did my PMP certification exam just two months after my separation. I was inspired by another IIT woman who went through a divorce. She ran a marathon, so surely I can do an exam, I thought at that time. Soon after my separation, I wanted to do work that had a higher purpose and that is why I went into working in global health. I also started writing poetry - personal poems on topics like depression, anxiety, divorce and trying to rebuild my life - which has not been easy at all. It’s a very vulnerable form of emotional communication which I share with the world. I was a finalist for the National Poetry Series in 2011. I’ve also performed at San Francisco Public Library. My poetry, essays and short stories, have been in over 70 publications, including a number of anthologies and on Perspectives on NPR and in India Currents.
Girls in STEM, have confidence in yourself. Even if people pull you down and say you can’t do this or that. Be prepared to work hard and it’s what the cliche said. It’s not how many times you fall down, it’s how many times you get up.