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Husband and Wife Team Exemplify Graduate Education at Penn State

Husband and Wife Team Exemplify Graduate Education at Penn State

Recent graduates Varun Prabhu and Ushma Doshi are two outstanding alumni of the Graduate School at Penn State. The husband and wife team came to study molecular medicine at the College of Medicine at the Penn State Hershey campus. When their doctoral degree dissertation work came to an end, they chose separate professional paths, firmly rooted in the research enterprise but outside of academia.

Doshi now works for Amgen, a global pharmaceutical company, as a competitive intelligence analyst in the Business Analytics and Insights function. She monitors competitor companies, the development of competitor products, and tracks clinical and commercial development of new drugs that might pose as a potential threat to Amgen brands and the clinical pipeline. She uses her graduate education and experience to understand the scientific rationale behind clinical development of products, and provides clinical or commercial recommendations to her organization’s team for strategic decision making.   

At Penn State, Doshi was part of Dr. Mark Kester's lab. Dr. Kester is now a professor of pharmacology and the co-director of the NanoSTAR Institute of the University of Virginia. Doshi researched sphingolipid--based therapeutics for leukemia. Specifically, her work focused on a sphingolipid known as ceramide that has been shown to selectively kill cancer cells, while sparing normal cells. Since delivery of lipids is difficult, Dr. Kester's lab has created and commercialized ceramide nanoliposomes that deliver ceramide to cells and have the potential to kill cancer cells. For her thesis project, she researched the molecular signaling pathways that are engaged by ceramide to induce cancer cell death. The safety profile of this therapeutic intervention is better than traditional chemotherapies. 

While Doshi and Prabhu’s research fields overlap, their academic experiences were distinct. In addition to receiving her doctorate degree from Penn State, Doshi also completed an MBA degree at Penn State Harrisburg According to Doshi, it is a relatively new trend for research doctorate students in biomedical sciences to pursue a concurrent MBA degree*. She also noted that in addition to academic research laboratories, pharmaceutical companies and management consulting firms have a high regard for the critical thinking and analytical skills that doctoral students have to offer, especially those with interdisciplinary degrees like Doshi. 

This spring, Prabhu was honored with the Penn State Alumni Association Dissertation Award and Distinguished Scholar Medal at the inaugural Graduate Student Awards Luncheon, in recognition of his academic excellence and outstanding achievements. Prabhu focused his academic studies on an emerging area of cancer research: the therapeutic targeting of cancer stem cells which are responsible for cancer therapy resistance and disease relapse. Prabhu’s research characterized small molecule therapies that restore tumor suppressive pathways to prevent mechanisms that drive cancer stem cells. Early in his graduate career, Prabhu found his motivation when he did a clinical rotation with his dissertation advisor, Dr. Wafik S. El-Deiry. Prabhu saw that patients with advanced cancer have narrow treatment options once they develop resistance to chemotherapy. 

Prabhu came to Penn State after earning a master’s degree in biotechnology from the University at Buffalo, State University of New York. According to Prabhu, he has “…always been interested in doing research and helping to translate results from the bench to the clinic. Impacting the lives of patients has always been an important motivation.” He felt that the Graduate School’s molecular medicine program was a good fit for his type of research, and most importantly, the University offered the flexibility to choose from a wide range of programs and departments. Ultimately, the decision to come to Penn State was made even easier when his wife was also accepted into the same program. 

Prabhu also worked as a summer intern at Oncomed Pharmaceuticals when he was a graduate student, and was part of the target validation group engaged in proof-of-concept preclinical testing of novel approaches for cancer immunotherapy and cancer stem cell targeting. In the final year of his doctoral studies, he moved with Dr. Wafik El-Deiry to the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia to complete his dissertation research. Prabhu is now an Associate Research Scientist at Oncoceutics Inc., a biopharmaceutical company pursing therapeutic cancer treatments. Prabhu is helping with research and clinical development of small molecule anti-cancer agent ONC201 that he worked on as part of his dissertation. “It is extremely fulfilling and satisfying to see that the drug I worked on [at the bench] is now being tested in clinical trials and is able to provide clinical benefit to some of the initial patients who have exhausted all other treatment options,” says Prabhu.

Prabhu and Doshi may have picked different career paths, but they offer similar advice to current graduate students about career exploration. “Early on [in your graduate school experience] you need to take your time to explore which field and which questions are the ones that you are really excited about,” said Prabhu. As a researcher, you need to have that passion that motivates you to go to the lab every day. It is important to start planning early for what you want to do in your future career because it is a very competitive job market. You have to understand whether you want to be in research, end up in academia or industry, or move out of research into management or marketing, etc."

Doshi emphasized the benefit of reaching out to fellow graduate students, alumni, and other professionals in various sectors of the biomedical science ecosystem to explore opportunities and potential career paths available for doctoral degree graduates. At first, Doshi had inhibitions to approach others for career advice. But to her surprise, professionals actually responded very kindly and positively to career-related questions and were always open to provide guidance. “When you are in a graduate program, you put all your heart into your research project,” said Doshi. You spend a lot of time in your own project. But when it is time to look for jobs, the general perception is that other professionals outside academia are not very approachable for career advice and guidance. Don’t feel shy about reaching out to people, talking to them about their career journey and seeking their mentorship. It opens up a lot of opportunities that you never knew existed.

Photo provided by Ushma Doshi and Varun Prabhu

*[Editor’s Note: While this is a new trend at many schools, the Penn State College of Medicine has offered concurrent PhD and MBA degrees for over 20 years.]

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