The Low Down: How Lung Cancer Made Things Personal

I very nearly quit my Ph.D. Twice.

The first time I attempted to quit (Year 1), I suffered through the typical causes you might suspect: a serious case of imposter syndrome, and the inability to find a good project/advisor. The second time (Year 2), I felt that I needed to move back home to support my family and to spend time with my aunt, an ever-smiling and dynamic force who instead of looking forward to a term as city mayor, was dealing with the somber reality of Stage IV lung cancer.

Year 3 of grad school loomed closer. My research had not progressed and my aunt’s condition had deteriorated. I celebrated Mother’s Day with her, knowing that deep down this was the last time we would likely meet. As I weakly attempted to adjust the pillows to mitigate the back pain she felt from her spinal metastases, I asked: “What else can I do for you, Chithi (aunt in Tamil)?”

She smiled gently to reassure me. “Adeeti, you don’t need to do anything. You’ve made me happy and I know you will be OK.”

By the time she passed away, four days later, I was already back in Boston, and in the lab. Now was the first time quitting seemed like an appropriate, even socially acceptable option. But instead I felt like doing just the opposite. I had finally found a professor who was willing to give me free reign to work on cancer treatment. He seemed to have more confidence in my abilities than I did myself.

I was on a mission; this was personal. My eyes were on a prize: a thesis dedicated to my aunt. I said yes to every new and exciting project. I kept odd hours so I could do the most number of experiments during the hours the machines were free. Late night solo dance parties included pipettes, data analysis, and perfecting figures for publication. I was on a quest to produce high-impact research that would not only publish well, but could also go from bench to bedside and maybe become a product. And I was lucky enough to be surrounded by colleagues and classmates who seemed to have the same passion. Everyone had their own story. Their own mission. Their enthusiasm, intellect and camaraderie carried me forward.

Shortly after defending my Ph.D. thesis, my starry-eyed optimism rapidly descended into gloom. I was burned out and couldn’t imagine forging ahead on the grueling path to professorship after surviving the sometimes harrowing, often unpaved trail to a Ph.D. Industry research for those with no experience seemed to be of narrow scope with little freedom. I felt there was nowhere to go but down.

Ultimately I took a leap of faith and made the move from molecular diagnostics in biotech to wearables in tech. This was a world with no pipettes (a bonus), but plenty of algorithms, C++, and Agile processes. I soaked it all in, learning rapidly from a new set of accomplished colleagues. Still, there were times where I felt like an imposter. There were times I couldn’t find the right mentor/project. And most of all, one nagging question remained: “How can I have the same sense of purpose and energy that accompanied my research days?”

It’s finally clear to me that the answer has resided within me this whole time. I’m making this personal again.

I made the jump to tech with the hopes of being able to bring the speed of iteration and innovation in tech to the biomedical world (including cancer). I wanted to see if the quantitative large-scale data approaches in computer science and engineering could be applied to biology. I feel sure that patient support for diseases like lung cancer can be improved not only by research advancements but simple health care improvements with technology. For example, breast cancer patients at M.D. Anderson are being given Apple Watches to track their activity levels and increase their mindfulness as they undergo chemotherapy. Biosensing wearables also include patches and tattoos that can measure your glucose levels, and smart pills that track whether a patient is taking his or her medication. The possibilities are endless.

Crossing disciplines is never easy. My work may not tie in together today, or even tomorrow. But in three years from now, I promise it will.

Because I’m on a mission.

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I’m inspired when I hear about others’ ambitions, the causes and people they dedicate their work to, and how they took the leap to cross disciplines. Share your craziest dreams and aspirations with me at adeeti.ullal@gmail.com.

You can also check out a panel of young adults who are on a mission to Beat Lung Cancer at https://www.lungcancerfoundation.org/about-us/jills-legacy/.