A discussion with Netra Unni Rajesh, a recent University of Toronto Engineering Science - Biomedical Engineering graduate and incoming Ph.D. student at Stanford University
Netra is from Toronto, Ontario, and will begin pursuing a Ph.D. in Bioengineering at Stanford University as a Knight-Hennessy Scholar. She is also a 3M National Student Fellow. She has a strong interest in pursuing cancer research and has interned in labs at institutions such as the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research, Caltech, and MIT. Netra shared insights about her experiences in cancer research as an undergraduate with BioTEC Outreach Leads Jaya Gupta and Molly Lu.
BioTEC: What sparked your interest in cancer research?
Netra: A lot of my research projects are related to cancer technology. Back in Grade 10, I was chatting with a volunteer at the CIBC Run for a Cure about a science fair experiment I performed to investigate the link between WiFi and cancer. The volunteer was a cancer patient, who told me she would be willing to volunteer as a human subject in my future clinical studies if I ever decided to pursue cancer research. I was deeply moved by her words: if you think about it, she was telling a 15-year-old she would be willing to participate in her studies because she was desperate to find a cure and be free of arduous side effects from existing treatments. From that moment, I was eager to contribute to the field of cancer research and to get us one step closer to more effective therapies. One focus I am especially interested in is the involvement of the immune system in cancer - I would love to develop new and improved cancer immunotherapies.
BioTEC: What motivated you to keep pursuing cancer research after you got that initial spark of interest?
Netra: I would say every research experience I’ve had has solidified my interest.Cancer as a disease is becoming more prevalent and there are many underpinnings we don’t yet fully understand. After my Grade 9 science fair project, I explored research on different approaches to developing cancer treatments such as nanomaterial design and radiotherapy. It was like a domino effect for me - each experience only made me more interested in the field.
BioTEC: What did you enjoy most while studying biomedical engineering at the University of Toronto?
Netra: I would definitely say I enjoyed being able to pursue a variety of research opportunities at many international institutions. I think as a student, it is important to take advantage of the connections your university has. At the University of Toronto, I was lucky enough to be exposed to research on a global scale through internships. For younger students, I would recommend spending a semester abroad to study, as spending time in other environments will give you many new experiences and learning opportunities.
BioTEC: You were heavily involved in the University of Toronto’s CUBE (Club for Undergraduate Biomedical Engineering) group. How has that experience helped you grow as a student?
Netra: CUBE always holds a special place in my heart. I got involved in my second year as Vice President and eventually became the President. CUBE allowed me to apply learnings from my internships and in general, it provides hands-on learning to undergrads interested in getting into research. It's very important to be exposed to wet and dry lab skills, however, not all degrees provide this exposure. As a result, we implemented many workshops on wet and dry lab skills. At the same time, the club was able to attract attention from many professors and biotechnology organizations. A lot of my key mentors came from CUBE and the club’s connections.
BioTEC: As a recent graduate, what kinds of roles excite you within your field? What kinds of opportunities are you seeking out?
Netra: My interests have morphed throughout my journey, but currently I'm leaning towards immunotherapy. We already know that some patients don’t respond to certain immunotherapies, but there are a lot of mechanisms we still don’t understand. Aside from research, I’d love to be a teaching assistant as I really love helping others and providing mentorship.
BioTEC: Could you tell us more about some of the internships you had throughout your undergrad?
Netra: Throughout the first year, I was a part-time research assistant at the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research. During the summer after the first year, I went to the Micro Tissue Engineering lab at the National University of Singapore where I studied primary cancer cells in microfluidic systems under radiation to evaluate treatment response. Like immunotherapy, some patients are inherently resistant to radiotherapy. So if we had a method for identifying this resistance in advance, these patients could avoid receiving the treatment and enduring its side effects.
In the summer after the second year, I worked with Dr. Warren Chan. There, I designed gold nanoparticles to deliver chemotherapies. The summer after the third year, I went to Caltech, where I worked on designing and testing a novel bioreactor device for oncolytic vaccine production. The goal was to reduce bioreactor cost and volume and to decrease the amount of nutrients required to culture cells.
After the third year, I did a co-op term in Dr. Robert Langer’s lab at MIT, where I worked on four major projects centered around the design of nano-based systems to deliver cancer therapies. These included nanomaterial-based cancer vaccines and identifying methods to reduce the side effects of radiotherapy. I would say this was the most transformative experience of my undergraduate career, as the mentorship I received from Professor Langer and postdoctoral associates in the lab was instrumental for me.
BioTEC: What factors enabled you to find relevant research positions at institutions such as OICR, NUS, Caltech, and MIT?
Netra: I definitely can’t discount the help of my school’s engineering department. I utilized a lot of the connections the department had to reach out to different labs and institutions. I would highly recommend that students look at all the opportunities out there. Sometimes you don’t need to do all of the networking yourself as many mentors are willing to help you.
Finding the National University of Singapore internship was more self-driven. I had sent out around 50 or so emails and got around a 10% response rate, as is common. When I was starting out in the field, a lot of my initial experience was gained that way. You need to be resilient and let your passion shine to show others that you are worth investing in!
BioTEC: How did the skills you learned in school and extracurriculars help in your internships?
Netra: My courses have been very helpful, especially those in basic biology and immunology. Getting practical experience in teaching labs has been amazing as well. Through my internships, I realized that though some details in methodology may be different, the underpinning knowledge is the same. With lab skills, it takes practice to fully understand the process.
BioTEC: Based on your experience, where do you see cancer research going in the future? What are some developments you are expecting to see in this field?
Netra: I am definitely not an expert yet, but if I had to try to distill a general trend, I would say there seems to be a gradual trend toward personalized medicine. What that means is that physicians adjust the therapy they administer according to the individual patient’s needs. However, once you start tailoring the solution, the cost goes up. As well, you would need a lot of resources to implement the actual treatment. In my opinion, a more fruitful approach would be to develop a more general and widely applicable therapy. Although cancer is an incredibly heterogeneous disease, I do believe there are some universal underpinnings - we just need to find them.
BioTEC: What was the biggest takeaway from your research experiences?
Netra: I think my biggest takeaway is that if you want your project to be impactful and fruitful you need to ask the right questions. Ask questions that will push the research forward and ultimately bring it to the clinic. To do that, you need to read as much as you can to get a sense of the existing scientific landscape. Also, don’t be afraid to ask questions! Ask as many as you can, as one will lead to another, and gradually, you will get to the forefront of the field where the questions don’t yet have answers.
BioTEC: What are some suggestions you would give to the first years who want to get involved in biotech in this virtual learning environment? What about the fourth year who might be applying to graduate schools?
Netra: One suggestion for the first years would be to get as involved as you can without affecting your coursework. By getting involved in clubs, it helps you grow as a person and meet new people. You never know who in your network might be able to guide you in the future. I think with education being delivered online, there are two sides to the coin. It is definitely difficult to get involved with in-person research, but there is also more time for personal development. I would recommend using this time to explore resources and broaden their perspectives. There may also be opportunities to help biotech labs with computational and dry lab work, like literature reviews, which is just as important.
For students interested in graduate school, it is never too early to start finding the right programs. The application can definitely be daunting as there are so many options available. Definitely take the time to really think about which program best suits your long-term goals.
Feel inspired by Netra’s words?
Check out her TEDx talk on the importance of getting students involved in STEM here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yS26IEkzrfQ
And, connect with her on Twitter!