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VAI Voice

The official blog of Van Andel Institute
8 Jan 2019

Graduate student spotlight: Developing a better understanding of pediatric brain cancer

Every other month, we highlight one of Van Andel Institute Graduate School’s doctoral students. This month features Dr. Aditi Bagchi, a board-certified pediatrician and pediatric oncologist who is working toward her Ph.D. Her research focuses on medulloblastoma, a pediatric brain cancer for which new, improved therapies are desperately needed.   

Aditi Bagchi, M.D.

How would you describe your area of study to your family?

Medulloblastoma is the most common brain tumor in children — around 500 kids are diagnosed with medulloblastoma in the U.S. every year. The tumor is treated using high doses of chemotherapy and radiation, which cures about 6 out of 10 patients. Unfortunately, 4 out of 10 kids relapse even after undergoing such aggressive treatment for months. There is no known cure for recurrent or relapsed medulloblastoma. My work at the Institute centers on understanding the basic biological processes involved in the recurrence of medulloblastoma, which will aid in the design of novel therapeutic approaches and, hopefully, a better cure rate for recurrent medulloblastoma.

What is your primary motivation for persevering through graduate school?

During my years as a pediatric oncology fellow, I treated and managed numerous patients with medulloblastoma and other cancers. Those years were transformative.

We often don’t talk about cancer in context of childhood because, thankfully, childhood cancer is rare. However, I realized that when a child suffers from a life-threatening disease, it shakes the foundation of the whole family. The grief is deep and often life-changing. When a child dies of the disease, families can fall apart. I saw my innocent patients and their families go through the process more than once and, sadly, as a pediatric oncologist I will likely see it again.

To not do something about improving the current cure rate of childhood cancer is unacceptable to me. This is my driving force and my motivation! I believe that my graduate degree will help me design novel therapeutic strategies in the field of pediatric neuro-oncology and other cancers. With an additional doctorate, I will gain the expertise to design and run informative and effective clinical trials. It is a long, hard road but I am determined to make an impact — even a small impact goes a long way! Saving even one life is worth it.

Did you take time off before starting your Ph.D. degree or come directly from an undergraduate or Master’s degree program?

I have never taken any time off in my career. I would not know what to do with myself with “time off!”

I completed medical school in India in 2007, worked as a medical intern there for some time and then came to the U.S. in July 2009 to start my residency in pediatrics at Brooklyn Hospital Center, New York. I lost a few months during my transition between countries, but did not really take a break.

I moved to Grand Rapids in July 2012 to start my pediatric oncology fellowship at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. In 2013, I joined Van Andel Institute Graduate School to complete my fellowship research and to get a head start with required graduate courses. It has been a whirlwind of a journey so far, and I have learned something new every day.

How do you think earning an advanced degree will change your role in society?

I have often heard from my advisors and mentors that a Ph.D. is a “thinking degree” because it equips you to think through problems, obstacles and road blocks. I have observed my “thinking ability” develop over the past few years, which helps me navigate challenges both scientifically and personally.

My approach to problems of family, community and friends also has changed significantly as I have progressed through my years as a graduate student.  I have come to realize that nothing in life needs to be feared but rather should be understood with a calm mind. It is something I was forced to do during early years of graduate school when 100 percent of my experiments in the lab failed or did not have the desired results.

I feel this ability makes me a more responsible and active member of society as there is a drive to do better constantly and never to be let down by difficulties.

What is your favorite stress-reduction technique?

I work out to work hard. I spend at least four to five hours a week in the gym or doing yoga.

My husband and I also take exciting, adventurous vacations at least once a year. The planning of those vacations is a great stress buster for me.

Lastly, I am an avid follower of Bhagwat Gita. I read it or listen to it as an audiobook when I am extremely anxious. The core concept in it is simple — “To perform the work at hand with honesty, integrity and dedication is most important; in a given day that is what we should focus on.” Success and failure associated with that work is never in our control. Fretting over results only distracts us from the task at hand; it is useless and often emotionally tiring. Whenever I am too worried or too anxious, I go back to some marked pages of the book and read. It clears the cobwebs and redirects me to work hard and to keep working with clear intentions.

What accomplishment (academic or other) are you most proud?

I am satisfied with what I have been able to do so far in my professional life, but “proud” is not the word I would use. I have a long time before I get there.

If you had not been admitted to graduate school, what do you think you would be doing right now?

There are fellowships and other three-year postgraduate programs for training in clinical trial design. I would have probably taken that route.

Is there anything else you would like us to know about your doctoral education experience?

The program at VAIGS is indeed unique. They take training in translational medicine to the next level.

The modules during the first two semesters integrate the concept of bench-to-bedside research for various disease types. When I was taking these modules, I often thought “why do I need to learn about other diseases when I am focused on pediatric brain tumors?” I have realized the importance of the exercise now.

We learn concepts from other disease models that can be applied to our research interests, which saves time and effort. It also saves us from “re-inventing the wheel” and helps us collaborate with experts in other fields. It is all about the concepts that you learn and not the disease type. For example, I am currently using concepts from the fields of colon cancer and breast cancer for my research in recurrent medulloblastoma. If I could go back in time, I would be a little more focused in these classes.

My advice to incoming students? For the first part of your training, focus on concepts that need to be learned and mastered, before you start working on your thesis. Consider the time you are spending on it as an investment and not a waste (I have had the feeling more than once). This is the foundation and, if you can master this, the completion of your thesis will become easier.