Meet Debyani Chakravarty.

Assistant Attending Molecular Geneticist and Lead Scientist, OncoKB

New York, NY



What inspired you to enter and pursue this field?

My beloved grandmother had always wanted to enter medicine and even got into med school. However, due to the times she was in, her father didn't allow her to go and instead got her married to my grandfather. She died from a chronic and incurable lung disease just as I was starting graduate school for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. One of her last pieces of advice for me was that whatever research I do, make sure that it is directly related to helping people in pain and finding a cure. This edict led to me pursue cancer biology with my research first starting at a very basic science level and becoming increasingly translational as I went from grad school to my postdocs. Now my role is guiding patient cancer treatment based on the genetics of their tumors.

How did you come to be in this position?

My journey was circuitous, non-traditional and lengthy by current standards. My PhD was very tough, I switched labs and by the time I was going to graduate I was in a very toxic environment and ready to leave the STEM altogether. My good friend advised me that at the very least, I ought to complete my training by doing a postdoctoral fellowship. I was fortunate to receive an opportunity in a translational cancer biology program (HOPP), led by Dr. Charles Sawyers, a towering figure in precision oncology, at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK) . I regained my love for science and decided to do a second fellowship also in HOPP which led me to an incredible mentor, Dr. Cameron Brennan, and my current position as Lead Scientist of OncoKB. OncoKB is a precision oncology knowledge base that I co-created together with 2 other scientists, Drs. Schultz and Gao at MSK. As I was increasingly providing clinical support to oncologists I transitioned to a faculty position in the hospital's Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine as an Assistant Attending Molecular Geneticist. Now I have the opportunity to do my own research and am focusing my efforts on leveraging cancer genomic sequencing to address cancer disparities. I love both my position and my journey to get here. I feel like I have come full circle with what my grandmother wanted for herself and for me.

What advice would you give young women looking to enter your current line of work?

1) Do the work, put the effort into both what you're doing AND how you're presenting it to others - these are two sides of the same coin. Nothing, not networking, etc., will be a substitute for that.

2) If you find yourself in a toxic environment - get out. Nothing is worth your sense of self-worth and emotional wellbeing, there will always be better and more fitting opportunities out there for you.

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