Ranjini Bhattacharya Summer 2019 Blog

A utopia where everyone can achieve their highest possible aspirations-  the American dream.

My American Dreams took wings with the mail from IUSSTF informing me about my selection in the Khorana Program. As a recent transfer from a Physics to Biotechnology major, I knew my chances were slim. Never, in my wildest dreams did I think that I will get in. It was my professor Dr. Anindita Chakrabarty who encouraged me to give it a shot. She said that novel ideas always stand out…. I am grateful that she did. As I sit in my flight back to India, waiting for it to take-off, glimpses from the past three months, flash by me.

I am a second-year student from Shiv Nadar University who got the opportunity to undertake research under Dr. David Basanta and Dr. Andriy Marusyk in the Integrated Mathematical Oncology department in Moffitt Cancer Center, Tampa, Florida. My project focused on deciphering the evolutionary dynamics between producer, sensitive, and resistant cells in non-small cell lung cancer microenvironment.

The tumor microenvironment plays both a stochastic and deterministic role in determining how the tumor will progress and hence looking at its evolutionary origins becomes important. I chose to do so, using evolutionary game theory- a theory that mimics Darwin’s theory of evolution without requiring the players to be rational decision makers. By comparing the fitness of each player, we can determine which is the fitter strategy and which population will proliferate. Over a span of three months I learnt how to bridge the gap between experiments and theory. I now understand what a data analyst needs from the experiment and I also understand what logistic constraints an experimentalist faces…

Moffitt is the best possible hub for math oncologists to translate biology to clinically relevant solutions using math models. It was also a humbling experience. Every time I had and encounter with a random person on the way to work, who recognized me as a Moffitt employee, the greeted me with immense warmth, some shared stories about their battle with cancer, and some shared how a loved one was saved by the hard-working staff at Moffitt. It reminded me of the reason why I was there in the first place- to contribute to the battle against cancer- a disease that plagues my family. It seems like all stars had aligned in my favor to ensure that I had the smoothest and most thrilling experience ever. The Sunshine State of Florida, has just the kind of weather I like, and I could finally experience being near beaches all the time.

I fit right in with the PhD and Post-Doc candidates and other fellow interns at Moffitt. I have found friendships that will last a lifetime with my fellow interns, Jack Edwards and Mark Laurie. Every time I got stuck with my project, my seniors- Maxi, Etienne, Rafael, Anna, Audrey, Bina, Robert, Daria, and Ibrahim, helped me out effortlessly. I also got involved with intra- Moffitt beach Volleyball every Tuesday and swing dancing with Moffitt folks every Sunday. David and Andriy were kind and patient enough with me and my questions related to my project. They provided me enough freedom and just the right amount of push to achieve what I had hoped for. I also got to interact with Dr. Artem Kaznatcheev, Oxford over Skype for discussing ideas related to my project. With each passing day, I fell more and more in love with Moffitt- I honestly wish I could stay there all day and turn it into home!

Since this was the first time my parents’ much pampered daughter (i.e. yours one and only!) was going abroad, their nerves were more of a wreck than mine. They managed to find an old friend whose nephew, Harsh Patel, happened to be living two buildings down the apartment I had rented. Through him I met several other Indians that assured me that someone’s got my back! My ideas about getting PhD also gained clarity by knowing several PhD students- one of them being Urvish Trivedi who helped me every time I pestered him with stupid questions that were completely unrelated to his field of expertise!  I also got the opportunity to stay in touch with my own Bengali culture, by participating in the Rabindra Jayanti celebrations in Tampa- where I presented a brief dance performance.

A month into the internship, I was joined by a fellow Khorana Scholar, Bhuvaneshwari Gehi who is interning at University of South Florida. Together, we explored downtown Tampa, went partying in Miami, and had several sleep overs together. The American dream comes with a fitness cost (note: game theory pun), the cost of independence. For an only child, this cost was quite high! I had to learn a lot of new things- cooking, banking, time management etc. I made several mistakes- losing my apartment keys, forgetting my debit card pin, getting lost on my way to work, getting kicked out of a club- you name it, I have done it. I pretty much got my ass handed to me in America! These mistakes are now fond memories, and also a learning experience. I am glad that I had someone to help me at each step.

My internship culminated with a 1 hour 40 minutes long presentation to the IMO department where I gained very important insight from possibly the best minds in the field. I plan to continue working on this project in India and bring it to fruitful completion. The same week I had quite possibly the best farewell party ever! Three months ago, I was looking forward to the “place” America. Three months later, I realize, it is more about the “people” that make the “place. It is now that I find it necessary to mention Mohit Patel and Vatsal Gandhi- my roommates, who I would very happily wake up in the middle of the night to sit, gossip, and cry! The people that I have mentioned in this post, probably do not realize how big a role they’ve played in my life. If you are one of those people, and if you’ve read this far, I hope you realize that you are loved and you will be missed. (I have made peace with all my antics during my stay – I am leaving with zero regrets – and I hope you guys do too) I have been asked numerous times by you guys what I will do once I am back home. As of now, planning a trip back to Moffitt and continuing my project next year, is at the top of my list!

As I observe the twilight outside while sitting on the window seat, looking forward to meeting my friends and family, back home, I feel brimmed with nostalgia- nostalgia that stems from leaving a family away from home. It was a dream come true to be able to travel to the States, and having earned it on my own. None of this would have been possible without the support of my family, friends, and professors who believed in me and supported me. I am grateful to the Department of Biotechnology, Govt. of India, IUSSTF, and WINstep Forward for considering me deserving enough for this opportunity.

This is Ranjini Bhattacharya, signing off for now, in order to binge watch through Grey’s Anatomy for the rest of my journey back home!

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