Madhulika Banerjee is a 24-year-old graduate student in Arizona, working on getting her Master of Science in Cellular and Molecular Medicine. I recently spoke with her about her degree, her research in working to solve colorectal cancer, her recent international experience in medical school in India, and how she stays motivated while maintaining her rigorous schedule.

locke_imgAditi: You’ve got two more years at the University of Arizona, and you’re also working on some research. What do you like about it and dislike about it?
Madhulika: It’s a small department, which is nice because it creates an intimate environment between not only my peers but professors as well. It’s definitely a difficult program though. It’s like mini-prep for med school. My program focuses on viewing what’s inside the human body at a cellular and molecular level and relating it back to the medical field. That might include relating things to different disease presentations, drug discovery, or experimental research, just to name a few.

A: What do you hope to accomplish after you graduate?
M: My end goal is to finish masters and get into med school. As I’ve gotten older I’ve definitely realized that it’s incredibly easy to fail at a goal but it doesn’t mean that you stop dead. My back up plan is to apply for a PhD, either in the same department at my school or maybe a different place, doing cancer research. I’m not sure yet what type of doctor I would want to be once I complete med school. Sometimes it’s easier to identify what you don’t want to do. I know I don’t want to be a surgeon or an OBGYN.

A: What type of research are you working on now?
M: I’m really excited about my research! I’ll be using it for my thesis to graduate from my masters program, which I’m proud of. We’re trying to find out if a mutation on the TGF beta gene leads to certain colorectal cancer patients not being able to properly metabolize 5-FU, a chemotherapeutic agent (cancer drug), which we have discovered works on some but not all of these patients.

A: What do you find interesting about your work?
M: I find cancer research really interesting and extremely enjoyable. And if you can discover something that’s novel and really works, you can impact millions of lives. At the same time, working as an oncologist, I think, would be difficult because you’re building a one on one relationship with your patients. The difference between oncology and most other medical specialties is that most of your patients get diagnosed with a terminal illness. I don’t know if I could handle all that sadness. One of my plans is to shadow an oncologist to experience those challenges firsthand. If I can handle that type of emotional turmoil, I think it would be an awesome profession to go into; I could continue my research and get patient interaction, which I love.

A: Do you think you’ll always want to stay on the West Coast?
M: I want to say yes because of the weather, but at the same time, there are a lot of notable research institutions on the East Coast. For med school, I’d go wherever. It’s such a competitive field that most people just go to the best school that they can get into. But ideally, I think I would pick the West Coast; it’s more laid back.

A: How do you handle your schedule and balance your life?
M: I don’t think what I want to do is really considered to be a “normal life”, but I’m okay with that. I look at what I’m doing now as my prep. This is basically a scaled down version of what will happen when I get to med school. It’s hard to balance things but my planner helps me out a lot. I have this small planner I carry around with me everywhere. I always schedule my days, to the hour, so that I can remember where I need to be and what I need to do. Sometimes I have so much going on and am so stressed out that if I didn’t have my planner, I’d definitely be forgetting things left and right!

A: What do you do in your free time?
M: In my free time, I’m involved with some organizations on campus. I’m a patient-advocate volunteer at the campus hospital, which means that I make sure the patients are comfortable and that they know what’s going on. You make sure that their requests are being met as best as possible by the hospital and the doctors and nurses. I’m also involved with a mentorship program called WISE – Women in Science & Engineering. It’s a mentorship program for females that are interested in the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math). It’s essentially an organization of women ranging from high school-age to graduate school-age. I’m at the higher end of the spectrum, so a lot of what I do is mentoring the younger kids. But at the same time, I get to meet up with lots of females at the same level of education as me and discuss challenges within our industry, and talk about our own experiences.

I’m also involved with an NGO called Pratham, which started in India, and is now wordwide. They hold events to raise money for children’s education in rural and urban India. They train teachers, buy books and work on other initiatives. They also have a 4 star NGO rating and give 94 cents to the dollar, which is a lot compared to many other organizations.

A: WISE sounds like an amazing organization, can you talk a little more about what you have learned from conversations with the other women in your field?
M: I don’t know if it’s that we, as women, are afraid or if we feel inadequate to our male counterparts but difference in self confidence seems to be a big issue. I read a statistic that said females at a young age are more likely to underestimate their science and math skills, as opposed to males who overestimate their abilities in science and math. This makes males more likely to try their hand at those fields and discover that they enjoy it. Females will shy away because of a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. This program is so important because we give and get advice, but we also build a community amongst ourselves for the future.

A: You recently studied medicine for a year in Mumbai India. As someone who has never lived there before, can you talk about that experience?
M: In general the environment of the school was very different. When the professors come in, you stand up and you don’t sit down until you’re told. You call them sir or ma’am, which is so weird to get used to because in my master’s program here in Arizona, we often call our professors (who are mostly all either MDs or PhDs) by their first name. At the beginning of the semester in India, I noticed that many of my female classmates wouldn’t stand up for themselves and would stand back and let the guys do everything, while I would volunteer as much as I could. I remember this one time a girl hadn’t dissected for almost a month, not because she wasn’t interested, but because the guys wouldn’t give her a turn! I had to nudge her to stand up for herself.

A: Was there an issue with getting along with the other girls?
M: On my first day, I walked into the classroom early and asked a group of guys sitting there if I was in the right place. Wanting to get to know people, I sat down, introduced myself and we all started talking. As the class began to fill up, I noticed that I was the only girl on my side of the room and that all the other girls were on the opposite side. At first I thought this was required, but I was surprised to discover that it’s just something the students naturally did. I think from that point, some of the girls were definitely apprehensive of me and they saw the classic “American” girl, the kind they saw in the movies. Eventually a couple of the girls started talking to me and I made great friends in the end.

A: What advice you would give to our readers about achieving goals while finding balance?
M: First and foremost, never give up. There have been times where I thought, “I can’t do it anymore”, and I stop making progress for months. But just because you can’t jump over the metaphorical “wall” doesn’t mean it’s impossible. You can get around it or dig under it or blast through it. You can find a way to achieve your goal. Finding a balance is always made easier when you have a support system whether that’s your family, friends or significant other. You need people who understand how important your goals are to you and support you as you pursue them. Finally and most importantly, work hard and play hard. If you just work all the time, you’re going to burn out. Find a couple hours a week to just unwind. My favorite ways to unwind are skateboarding and watching junky reality TV shows.