February 10, 2017

Devika Bagchi: Chasing a cure

Personal experience with a devastating disease can lead to a career searching for answers

The Michigan Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP) offers students the opportunity to combine an M.D. and Ph.D. in any field related to medicine. About 10-12 fellows are admitted each year to this competitive program. They choose research areas ranging from traditional biomedical sciences to other less conventional fields like anthropology and philosophy.

Devika Bagchi is in her second year of the Molecular & Integrative Physiology Ph.D. program. She works in the laboratory of Dr. Ormond MacDougald exploring the mechanisms underlying adipose tissue development and maintenance under normal and pathophysiological conditions in order to understand obesity and its secondary metabolic consequences.

What preparation and research experience did you have before applying to the Michigan MSTP?

During my undergrad years at Washington University in St. Louis, I worked in a lab where my project centered around looking for novel markers of Alzheimer’s disease, which struck a deeply personal chord. My maternal grandfather suffered from Alzheimer’s, and throughout much of my childhood, I experienced firsthand the devastation that this disease wreaks on an individual and his loved ones. Researching potential markers that would allow for early detection of this fatal disease gave me a sense of purpose that I had sorely missed while watching my grandfather fight for his mind and his life.

During my time in the lab, I was mentored by an M.D./Ph.D. student in the graduate phase of his degree. He was the one who first encouraged me to consider applying to a dual degree program. I learned a lot from my undergraduate research experience, and began to seriously consider an MSTP program. As graduation approached, however, I wanted to be absolutely sure that I would be happy and successful in full-time, independent research before deciding whether to pursue an M.D./Ph.D. or an M.D..

Following graduation, I worked for two years in another lab and was able to really grow as an independent researcher. I attended the clinic where my mentor worked and saw firsthand the importance of early diagnosis and symptom management for patient quality of life. These patient encounters were eye-opening and demonstrated to me how basic and clinical research truly go hand-in-hand with patient care.

Both of these research experiences really drove home for me that the MSTP was the right career path for me, and would provide me with the training and opportunities to be a successful physician-scientist.

What attracted you to the Michigan MSTP?

From the minute I stepped onto the University of Michigan Medical School campus, I was impressed by the interdisciplinary and collaborative environment, the supportive faculty members, and the infectious school spirit and love for Michigan that all the students exude. Four years later, my time and experiences here at Michigan have convinced me further that I absolutely made the right choice.

What do you like about being a physician scientist?

Throughout my undergraduate and post-graduate years, I was really fortunate to receive many opportunities to explore health and medicine on a variety of levels. In addition to pursuing coursework in physiology, psychology, and public health, I dove into the trenches of research with the hope that I would gain a deeper understanding of the molecular basis of disease.

A determination to understand patients and their needs on a personal level also led to my extensive involvement in global and public health causes. From all of these experiences, I learned that I would be most fulfilled in a career that allowed me to understand the complexities of patients and their illnesses on molecular, individual, and community health levels.

Did you rotate in labs related to this area of research or did you explore other options?

I rotated in three labs in very different research areas before choosing to join the lab of Dr. Ormond MacDougald. In medical school, I found a lot of clinical topics to be really interesting, so I pursued rotations in pediatric neuroscience, reproduction, and finally in endocrinology and metabolism. When entering the MSTP, many people gave me some key advice: don’t chase the right topic. Instead, chase the right lab fit and mentorship style. Looking back, this piece of advice could not be more true.

I was drawn to the MacDougald lab initially because I wanted to pursue research in an area that had public and global health applications. Ultimately, I chose the MacDougald lab because I felt that I just clicked with the lab and with Dr. MacDougald’s mentorship style. I truly believe that while it is important to be interested in your research topic, what will help you get through the inevitably tough moments during a PhD are the people around you. Even when my experiments don’t go as planned, I can honestly say that I enjoy going to lab every single day. I am so grateful for that.

What has the transition been like between the M.D. and Ph.D. phases of the MSTP curriculum?

My transition between the M.D. and Ph.D. phases of the MSTP curriculum was much easier than I anticipated. I absolutely loved my M1 and M2 years, both from an academic and a social perspective. I chose to do a few M3 rotations after M2 year before transitioning to graduate school and enjoyed every single moment of those clinical months. When it came time to start my Ph.D. phase, I was worried that I would miss the clinical training and would feel isolated from my classmates. Instead, I’ve found a supportive lab and new friends, gotten involved in meaningful experiences in graduate school, and continued to keep up with clinical experiences. Most importantly for me, I have been able to stay involved with my friends and in many of the activities I loved during my M1 and M2 years.

Have you had any ‘a-ha’ moments?

During this past semester, I served as a Graduate Student Instructor for Human Physiology (Physiology 201) and found that I really love teaching! The weekly discussion sections and office hours with my students were some of the most rewarding parts of my weeks. I am really looking forward to actively pursuing teaching as a part of my future career.

I have also had the incredible opportunity to found and lead a community outreach effort through the Department of Molecular & Integrative Physiology. This semester, I worked with more than 15 other MIP graduate students to teach 4th grade students at Wiley Elementary School about the various human body systems. Community outreach has long been a passion of mine, and I was really blown away by the support and encouragement from MIP faculty and students who did everything they could to make our vision a reality. I definitely had an “a-ha” moment while organizing this program: here at Michigan “if you can dream it, you can do it” is not just an ideal, it’s a reality.

What are you looking forward to next?

The first year and a half of graduate school is definitely an exercise in time management and wearing many different hats. Between classes, full-time lab work, preparing for and passing the preliminary exam, and teaching, it can often feel like you’re constantly going, going, going… without actually going anywhere. During this upcoming semester, I am looking forward to having more dedicated time to advance my research projects.

How does the structure of Michigan’s MSTP support your research efforts?

First and foremost, the camaraderie within and across the medical school classes, and specifically among the MSTP itself, has provided me with a wonderful social network and lifelong friends. With monthly seminars, social events, and our yearly retreat, the MSTP works hard to make sure students feel supported as they move through the various phases of the program.

MSTP students receive rigorous training not only in research, but also in teaching, leadership, and communication skills. I strongly believe that the development of these other skills are key for a future career in academic medicine. Finally, there are significant opportunities for support and mentorship within and across departments. I am funded by the Center for Organogenesis Training Grant, and the co-mentors for my project are in the Department of Molecular and Integrative Physiology and the Department of Chemistry. Through this training grant, I’ve met so many faculty members and graduate students across the University, allowing me to develop new skills and form interdisciplinary collaborations.

What do you like to do outside of the lab/classroom?

I love all kinds of dance, kickboxing, and all things active in the outdoors. I also absolutely love traveling and exploring new places. The quality of life for Michigan MSTP students is incredible. The curriculum is fairly flexible, catering to all kinds of learning styles and allowing students time to pursue outside interests. The graduate years are great, with significant scheduling flexibility. I find that I have time to pursue all my outside interests, including traveling internationally, while advancing my research.