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Dr. Soma Ghosh has been a postdoctoral fellow in the group of Prof. Yosef Yarden, in the Weizmann Institute of Science’s Biological Regulation Department for the past three years, coming to the Institute from New Delhi. In the serene beauty of the Institute campus, she has been able to realize her dream of having the opportunity to focus totally on scientific research. To do so, she has had to be ready to work in the lab six days a week, far from her family and husband whom she left behind in New Delhi. She has found a large group of students from all over India who made her feel at home; she celebrates holidays with them and speaks her native Bengali and Hindi with them whenever she has the chance.
“My research here in the lab deals with immunotherapy, which has become one of the main treatments for certain types of cancer,” explains Soma. “We are working on a strategy for preventing the resistance that some lung cancers develop to the therapy, and my research focuses on a protein that is often overexpressed on cancer cells and that can make certain tumors resistant or even more aggressive.”
Soma received her doctorate, with honors, from Institute of Nuclear Medicine and Allied Sciences, New Delhi, having focused on radiology and oncology. She then joined a prominent pharmaceutical company as an oncology consultant, where she found herself working on strategies for drug development and marketing. “I was good at my job, but it wasn’t for me,” she says. “After two years in the company, I started searching for labs where I could do a postdoc. I wrote to a lot of professors working in my field of interest.
“One of the professors to whom I wrote was Prof. Yosef Yarden. I had not paid attention, at first, to the fact that he was in Israel. He answered fairly quickly and he suggested I first come to his lab for a visit.
“I found a great atmosphere in the lab; I met people from all over the world, including India; and the research very much interested me. Although I had been out of lab research for two years, the passion for scientific research had not left me. Yossi took a few days to discuss things with his lab members, and his answer was ‘yes’.
“I immediately wrote him back with a project proposal and I was soon awarded a grant through the Feinberg Graduate School. From writing the letter to finalizing the grant – all of this happened within few months. Three months later, I was unpacking my bags at the Institute. Answers from the other places I had written arrived in drips and drabs, but it was already too late.
Yossi took a few days to discuss things with his lab members, and his answer was ‘yes’
“I arrived on a Friday – the eve of Yom Kippur. I was shocked to find everything closed and deathly quiet. I ate food I had brought with me from home, as some friends here had suggested. Then, Saturday night, when the holiday ended, I got an email from Yossi saying we would meet on Sunday. That was strange too – I didn’t realize back then that Sunday is a work day here. But the reception in the lab was a warm one, and things have been great ever since. One of my lab member’s even took me to the open market in Rehovot, to show me where to buy ingredients for the food I love to cook.”
Soma’s husband’s patent-consulting job is based in New Delhi, but when she told him of her plans to conduct research in Israel, he was supportive. Though the separation has had its difficulties, they managed to meet several times a year.
Her father was supportive as well. A scientist who had worked for the Indian Ministry of Science, he’d had experience working with Weizmann Institute of Science researchers, and he told her: “If you have the opportunity to go there, it is an excellent place. Don’t hesitate.” Her mother was more doubtful, but she has since visited Israel and fallen in love with the place.
“Working with Prof. Yossi Yarden is a very special experience,” she says. “He starts his work day at 7:00 and ends it at 19:00 at night. We sometimes get emails from him at 23:00 as well, always with thoughtful, constructive comments. It might seem that he asks a lot from his students, but ultimately we attain higher achievement, better results and the opportunity to advance our scientific careers either here or in other prestigious institutes in the world. He creates a positive atmosphere, always speaking quietly and with reason. That doesn’t mean we don’t have fun ‒ we also laugh a lot. His research assistant Sara Lavi, is always ready to lend an ear or solve a problem. Our lab members are very friendly, supportive and helpful. I feel really lucky,” she adds.
In addition to the cooking she does in her occasional spare time, Soma loves Indian music and global cinema. She is an ardent fan of Marvel characters, and she is looking forward to driving again when she returns to India.
In between her ongoing research and writing a paper on the results of her three years of research in Yarden’s lab, Soma is thinking about her return to India and reuniting with her husband and family, planned for October. Whatever else awaits her, she says, scientific research will continue to play a central role in her life.