After graduating from the program in 2015, Abhijit Parolia currently studies at the University of Michigan as a Ph.D. student in Molecular and Cellular Pathology. During his undergraduate years, he held research student positions at the International Collaboration On Repair Discoveries (ICORD) at Vancouver General Hospital and at BC Cancer Research Centre (BCCRC). At BCCRC, Abhijit researched the role of non-coding genes in prostate cancer, which served as the topic of his Honors dissertation as well as his patent application for use in treatments and diagnostics. His undergraduate research at BCCRC has allowed him to become a published author of seven research papers. As a result of his accomplishments in research, academics, and community involvement, Abhijit completed his undergraduate career as a valedictorian at his UBC graduation.
How was your experience with writing your honours thesis? As a Ph.D. student now, how does working on your honours project compare to your current work?
Taking the Directed Studies course (MICB448) certainly requires more labor and commitment when compared to other courses that you can take to fulfil your Honors requirement in the Biotech program. However, I would argue it is definitely the most rewarding. The key is to find a great laboratory that studies something that really captures your scientific interest.
I opted for the 8 month Directed Studies course and worked in Dr. Yuzhuo Wang’s laboratory at the BC Cancer Research Center studying the pathogenesis of prostate cancer. Although challenging, writing and defending my Honors thesis was a great learning experience. Moreover, it served me very well when interviewing for graduate schools – I actually had my own research to talk about (a great morale booster)! My Honors project involved exploring the role of non-coding RNA genes in the initiation and progression of prostate cancer. This work really fuelled my interest in the field of non-coding cancer biology and still continues to influence the subject of my PhD project. Though still undefined, my PhD project would involve identification of novel long non-coding RNA genes underlying various aggressive characteristics of cancers (like invasion, metastasis etc.), likely via aberrant interactions with epigenetic regulators.
As an undergraduate, did you feel uncertain about what you wanted to do in the future for a career? If so, how did you cope with it?
It is very natural to have doubts in life; and even more so in your undergraduate life. Though I had a rough idea that I wanted to enter graduate school, I had absolutely no clue where to start. And when in such a situation, the key is to reach out to people who may have the answers and can guide you on the right track.
Beyond that, I think the integrated co-op program in our Biotech curriculum is its biggest strength. When I joined the Biotech program, I wanted to learn about stem cell-based organ regeneration. So, I reached out to many professors at UBC who were even remotely working in that field and inquired about any prospects of doing a co-op term in their laboratories. From these efforts, I did end up with my first co-op job in a lab at iCORD studying spinal cord regeneration. This was only to realize that de novo organ regeneration as a concept was still in the stages of infancy and may be wasn’t the right fit for me. Thus, instead of instinctively taking whatever jobs you can get, I would strongly encourage all of you to exploit these work-learn opportunities to identify what truly appeals your scientific self and help to clarify your career-related doubts.
How do you balance your personal life and academic career?
I may not be the best person to answer this question for two reasons: I am not very social and I was an international student at UBC. Meaning, I was miles away from family and had no social obligations making it a lot easier to mostly merge the two parts of my life. I truly enjoyed being submerged in my academic and work life and thus it naturally occupied a major portion of my daily schedule. However, under no circumstances, I would advise a similar work style for others. I believe that the ideal balance between the two slices of life is very subjective and every individual should honestly define it based on their personalities. There is no right or wrong tilt to this balance!
If you had a chance to tell your third-year-Biotech self (ie: 2nd year at BCIT) 1 thing, what would that be? It doesn’t have to be just one.
Not be overly stressed by the fact that you all have to soon find a co-op job. A large majority of you (if not all!) will end up with a job. But what is more essential is to find the right job rather than impulsively accepting anything you get offered. Use these work opportunities to explore disparate areas of research that interest you. Also, DO NOT rely only on the job postings by the Co-op Department. Write directly to the PIs you are interested in working with, in or outside of our university, and attached your resume. Some of them might actually reply and appreciate the independent initiative of you reaching out to them. So be smart in using your co-op work terms.
Do you like what you are studying? How do you keep that passion burning? In other words, is there a course of habitual actions which you take monthly/yearly to remind yourself of why you study Molecular and Cellular Pathology?
I enjoy every bit of what I am studying! And I think this profound interest in your subject is itself of paramount importance in retaining your motivation. The intricate molecular networks underlying cancers always fascinated me from the very beginning. It is bewildering to notice the genetic and phenotypic heterogeneity that exists both within and between tumors and yet, in essence, they are all just diseases of uncontrollably hyper-proliferating cells. In other words, cancers from two different patients can be drastically different in their genetic makeups even if they originate from the same organ. Given the rapid advancements in genetic technologies in the past decade, only now we have the right tools to make sense of this extensive heterogeneity and devise targeted and effective diagnostic and therapeutic strategies. Thus, these are exciting times to be in this field and precisely interrogate how different patterns of molecular aberrations impact the ensuing cancer characteristics. Simply put, studying what you genuinely enjoy is sufficient to ensure your enduring engagement with your research.
What was the most valuable lesson/thing that your years at BCIT have taught you?
Hands down, it has to be all the laboratory techniques I learnt and the hands-on practice I got while at BCIT. Not to speak badly of other programs, but I had some colleagues in their 4th year who had never done tissue culture before. So really pick up those wet lab skills as they will be extremely useful in your future research careers.
Were there any issues transitioning back to UBC from BCIT? Did the 2 year “transfer” to BCIT give you any issues with grad school apps or potential employers?
There were no issues as such in the transition back to UBC. The Biotech program even had a useful seminar to make the process smoother. However, I did face some issues while applying to graduate schools. Since the two institutes issue their own transcripts, it was a bit confusing to explain the joint part of the Biotech program. My graduate schools thought that I had actually transferred back andforth between the two schools which reflects a bit poorly on the candidate. So, I had to attach with all my applications a letter of clarification from the Dean’s Office explaining the entire joint degree arrangement. I did raise this point with the program heads at both BCIT and UBC; and I hope they will resolve this issue for you guys and classes to come – so have a single combined transcript.
What career would you like to pursue after your Ph.D.?
I am still actively thinking about this question. So far, I wish to continue on the academic track and hopefully start a laboratory of my own. However, I am interested in pursuing translational aspects of molecular pathology and thus would want to develop and commercialize new diagnostic and therapeutic strategies that can be adopted in the clinical management of cancers.
How did you decide where to pursue your Ph.D?
It is very easy to get caught up in the rankings of various universities while making this decision. However, I would strongly encourage that you make graduate school choices based on your topic(s)-of-interest and where the laboratories focused in that research area are housed. I applied to only four graduate schools, and picked University of Michigan because it has one of the most successful research groups exploring the non-coding aspects of cancer biology under the leadership of Dr. Arul Chinnaiyan. In fact, in your graduate application itself, it’ll ask you to list several laboratories in the university that match your area-of-interest and you would consider joining. It is generally believed that when doing your PhD, more than the institution, it is the reputation and credibility of your mentor that counts. So I would recommend, having some idea of the subject(s) that interests you, shortlist the leading laboratories in that field and then apply to the corresponding graduate schools. It is a major commitment that will take at least 5-6 years of your life, so do put in some honest upfront thought in to what subject and in which laboratory you would want to pursue your PhD.
How much control over your project did you get at the BCCRC?
When I initially joined the lab, I worked with a post-doc helping out on his project. I certainly had a good rapport with him and thus was able to learn tremendously and make some suggestions in course of that project. However, when I started working on my independently ideated project, I had complete intellectual autonomy and control on the project with prompt guidance when needed. In fact, I even had some co-op students assisting me in completing the project. However, these arrangements really depend on your PI and direct supervisor, and how they appraise your scientific capabilities. I was fortunate in having joined such an open and collaborative lab with an incredibly encouraging and supportive PI. I fear some labs can turn out to be completely the opposite and there things and the work atmosphere would be very different regardless of your capabilities.
Did you take initiative in your projects to write and get published, or were your supervisors very inclusive?
Undoubtedly, you have to meaningfully and intellectually contribute towards the project to be included as a co-author on the final manuscript. However, even if you meet that criterion, it depends on how fair and inclusive are your project leader and the PI. I would personally suggest not to bother about the authorship and sincerely work towards advancing the assigned project. Bring your own ideas to the table, suggest future experiments and highlight aspects of the project that are lacking. All of this will certainly earn you an authorship on the final manuscript in most of the cases.
Are you hiring any co-op students this year or next year?
Haha… great question! I will be applying for independent funding once I am a candidate (half way through my second year). If I do get the funds, I will certainly be hiring co-op students. Though, the university encourages to hire from the undergrads within the university, I will keep the Biotech program in mind and inquire if any of you might be interested to travel to the US and work with the ‘boring’ me.
Do you miss Vancouver?
I cannot tell you how much I miss Vancouver. It is undoubtedly the most beautiful city comprising of such diverse, polite and loving groups of people. And trust me, snow is much worse than rain so please stop complaining about it. Besides, I miss the delicious food and wide selection of cuisines that are readily available in Vancouver. So all you lucky folks, you better enjoy while you are there!
What is a nutritious yet delicious breakfast to start off the day?
Hmm… though I would prefer to conduct an extensive study using primates to unbiasedly assess the various breakfast diets, due to paucity of time and resources I would say its egg and toast with a cup of tea/coffee. And, at times, a muffin or doughnut doesn’t hurt or add to the adipose storages of your body.
Who is your favourite Biotech instructor?
I guess this is the only question you will not get a direct answer to. But seriously, all the instructors are there to help you learn and train you to be inquisitive about science. Thus, going beyond picking favorites, you’ll benefit the most by instead adapting to every instructor’s style-of-teaching and ask questions if there are doubts. In the end, it is up to you to make the most of every minute to spend at BCIT and UBC.
I wish you all the very best in your future endeavors and feel free to reach out to me if I can be of any help. Thank you for all these questions that I have tried to answer very honestly. I leave you with a quote from a famous microbiologist, Louis Pasteur. Work hard and good luck!
“Let me tell you the secret that has led me to my goal. My strength lies solely in my tenacity.” – by Louis Pasteur