From Osmania to Otago: How I left a comfortable IT career to pursue my passion for cancer research

27 Nov

Dr. Aniruddha Chatterjee’s is an inspiring story. From Berhampore to Dunedin, his meteoric rise in the world of cancer research has been propelled by a strong drive and insatiable intellectual curiosity. Today he heads the Epigenetics, Disease and Phenotype Laboratory in Dunedin, New Zealand. Read his story in his own words here.

Dr Aniruddha Chatterjee

I’m from Berhampur, which is a small town in West Bengal. It’s four and a half hours away from Kolkata. I was born, and grew up, there. I did my schooling and then went to Osmania University in Hyderabad for a bachelor’s and then to VIT Vellore for master’s. At that point, I thought that research is something that I really want to do. I did an interim job in an IT company; it was fine, but I had this call to research. [It was] what I strongly wanted to do.

And I was 25; [life] was pretty good. So, actually quitting the job, and going into research with a scholarship and not knowing what happens after that . . . [was a big decision to make]. I still don’t know, when my Fellowship is over in 5 years, what’s going to happen to me! Maybe I will get a job.

So, I got some offers from Europe, and I was exploring a lot of opportunities. Then this opportunity came out of New Zealand (NZ). The Ph.D. project was really interesting, and my supervisor, Prof. Ian Morrison was really interesting person. I got a scholarship and came here, did my Ph.D., and I stayed because I really liked NZ – the University of Otago, and my department of pathology was a fantastic department with wonderful people and a lot of support.

As a junior researcher, it is quite challenging. The role of a mentor is quite important. One should seek out a mentor because there are people out there with a lot of experience – they have been through the journey. Instead of thinking [in] egoistic and individualistic [ways], if you seek out information and mentoring then I think you are on the right path.

On top of that, the support and mentoring of a lot of people: I’ve mentioned Ian Morrison, Mike Eccles, Peter Stockwell, Evan Roger and many others. [These people have] over time, helped in many different ways to encourage [me], but also in drawing the pathway. A lot of support and help from family is [also] a very important factor.

My parents have been incredibly supportive of this, particularly my dad. Dad always said that what you are working on can make a difference to society. You are asking new questions – that’s fantastic! [He] said no matter what – I am behind you, mentally and economically. I will do whatever I can to help you make your way. It made a huge difference!

He still asks about things, [for example], something comes in the newspaper, he cuts articles and he keeps it. And as they explain things simply in the newspapers to make people understand, he discusses these clippings with me.

All this motivates you of course.

During my Ph.D., I was able to work in mapping the epigenetics of the human genome, and the zebrafish, which is a model organism in many different diseases. That gave me a lead into a lot of new areas of research. And subsequently, I worked with Prof. Mike Eccles, who is a professor in cancer pathology and [I] built up a program in cancer with him.

Last year, I got discovery fellowship from Royal Society of New Zealand, and they allowed me to setup my own lab [for research] in cancer and epigenetics. Now, officially from the next month, I will be heading this laboratory. [We will work] in the field of cancer biology, and the metastasis of cancer.

When it comes to motivation, there are a lot of things, but if I have to pick one – it’s my interest in, and passion for, science. You know every day in research we ask new questions. Not a single day is boring! Every day you learn something new.

It’s the best job in the world, because I have questions that I want to ask, and I try to find answers… not only me but my lab group together … And we still get paid for answering questions!

 As told to Skendha Singh

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