“When I was in Grad School…” with Arshad Desai

Biomedical Sciences Chair Dr. Arshad Desai is known for pushing students to think. I mean, really, really, think. Ask any UCSD Biomedical Sciences student and they’ll tell you how much it paid off to have Arshad in the classroom, helping students develop into more thoughtful readers and problem solvers. As a student, you gradually stop taking scientific findings at their face value and instead start challenging research designs, considering what you would do differently. Arshad pushes graduate students to be better scientists.

That being said, Arshad always seems to give off a true sense of calm that, in my opinion, not many scientists have mastered. In true fashion, when I met Arshad for our interview he was cool as a cucumber.

Once Upon a Time in Ahmedabad, India

Arshad grew up in Ahmedabad, India. “A small village of 3 to 4 million people,” he jokes. Arshad’s general interest in science began when he was young. He attended an English speaking school run by Spanish Jesuit Priests. “An amazing teacher I had in middle school taught us about genetics and DNA and this was back in the ‘80s!” Although understanding basic scientific questions was at the forefront of Arshad’s mind, both of his parents were medical doctors. “In India, you were supposed to follow in the footsteps of your parents,” he recalls, “My destiny was written out for me.”

Arshad was accepted into medical school and would have started immediately following high school (as is dictated by the British school system there), but teenage rebellion coupled with a love of science drove Arshad to research.

“I bailed thanks to the support of my mother, especially, who was a quite adventurous lady,” he says, with a smile.
At age 17, Arshad left India to attend California State University East Bay (then known as CSU Hayward) for his undergraduate studies. A major turning point in his undergraduate career came in the form of the Undergraduate Research Program (URP) at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, a highly regarded summer research course with distinguished alumni such as Nobel laureate David Baltimore. Arshad worked in a small research lab throughout most of undergrad, but since he did not attend a research- centric university, URP was his first experience in a prominent scientific environment. “I really, really, enjoyed it and came out of it knowing that this was what I wanted to do,” he says.

Ironically, he learned about URP by chance. “I was waiting, early for a class, which was rare” he laughs, “and I saw a notice on a board about this program that I never heard of.

I applied and got in. It was truly transformative.” He thanks this program, and the amazing faculty he met there, with giving him the chance to pursue a PhD at a top research facility.

Even Future PIs Struggled in Grad School

Arshad headed to UC San Francisco for his PhD. There he worked in Dr. Tim Mitchison’s lab, studying microtubule dynamics. His most notable work during his thesis led to the discovery of the mechanism by which microtubules are broken down and recycled by by two members of the (Kin I) kinesin subfamily of proteins.

Although Arshad now looks back on graduate school fondly, it was not without a shaky start. Shortly after Arshad joined a thesis lab, his original PI debated moving his lab to Harvard for over a year, ultimately moving to Boston. This prompted Arshad to switch labs and so, heading into his third year of graduate school, he began his thesis work in Tim Mitchison’s lab. Thankfully, it was an excellent fit.

“I always tell students that a rocky beginning does not signify the end,” he says.

Arshad describes it as “a dismal start to graduate school,” as after switching labs it still took over a year and a half for Arshad to feel that he was making any experimental progress.

For Arshad, his peer group was essential for getting him through the hardest years of graduate school. “A lot of us were in our 4th years and didn’t have anything to show for it. We would commiserate and just have a good time with each other.” He pauses, “It was pretty special.” Eventually, they all successfully graduated, and many of them have remained close friends.

There’s something to be said for things not always going your way. “Honestly, you learn way more from the failures,” says Arshad, “For your long term development, you need successes but you also need the failures to teach you how to approach things.”

Arshad was apparently fated to travel to Boston, as the Mitchison lab moved to Harvard in the final year of Arshad’s PhD. Following his brief time on the East Coast, Arshad moved to Germany for his postdoc. He spent the first two years of his postdoc at EMBL Heidelberg, but yet again, the lab he joined there moved. “It’s kind of a theme” he jokes. Arshad spent the next two years at the Max Planck Institute in Dresden.

Grad School Wisdom for the New Generation

Arshad firmly believes that, to be a successful graduate student, fully engaging in what you do is essential. “Curiosity and a thirst for discovering something that advances knowledge have to be the real drivers, because if they are, people inevitably do well.”

Arshad sees graduate school as a protected time to do science at a high level, and that the training students receive allows them to independently pursue and solve problems both during and after graduate school, serving them well in any career trajectory. “Looking back at my own graduate school peer group, more than half of us are not in academia, and are doing very different, but impressive, work,” he says.

Exceptional mentorship has been a major driving force that Arshad credits for helping him to happily stay in science research. “You need mentorship at every stage of your career. It’s critical,” he says.

Life In and Out of the Lab

Arshad has been a leading researcher at UCSD for over a decade, focused on understanding how cells acquire the correct genomes after cell division. His laboratory’s work addresses a common cancer phenotype, often seen in solid tumors, which gain and lose chromosomes at a high frequency when they divide. As he explains, “We work to understand how cells normally get the right chromosomal complement and try to relate that to this common phenotype in cancer.”

It’s hard for Arshad to imagine what he would do outside of science research. When I ask him if he could see himself in another career, he counters with, “What would I do? I honestly have no good answer for that. I always tell people that I haven’t had a real job since I was 17—I’ve only worked in labs.” After giving it some further thought, Arshad concludes: “film director. I love movies, and I’ve always wanted to make them.”

In terms of life outside of lab, Arshad finds that free time can be hard to come by.

“Children destroy all hobbies,” he laughs, “You can quote me on that.”

Arshad and his wife, fellow PI and UCSF graduate Karen Oegema, have two children together: a girl and a boy ages 8 and 12, respectively. When he does have some free time, Arshad reads non-science writing, spends time outdoors, and watches the occasional film. I ask him if his kids will be scientists one day, following in the footsteps of their parents. “I have no idea, it’s too early to tell. They mostly like to tell us how our work is boring,” he chuckles.

Arshad on the Current State of Science Research

Arshad looks to the future with cautious optimism. “My hope is that there will be more of an emphasis on discovery-based research. Many of us [scientists] perceive that there is too much emphasis on the idea that we know everything already and just need to translate it, something I strongly disagree with.” Pursuing science research in current times is exciting, with technology and analysis tools rapidly expanding, yet deficits in science literacy, an unfortunate funding situation, and poorly orchestrated state and national government control over research, have left many scientists questioning what types of research will be awarded grant money in the future. Discovery and the ability to

“translate” or apply those discoveries to a field like human medicine, are both important. In Arshad’s opinion, “One does not need to come at the cost of another, yet it feels that way.”

Arshad is undoubtedly a scientist through and through. “I love science as a profession. It’s tough, but it’s rewarding, and one of the best parts is that every day is different. You’re never bored.”

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