Meet Dr Neil Chatterjee: the first alumnus of the Harding Distinguished Postgraduate Scholars Programme

Meet Dr Neil Chatterjee: the first alumnus of the Harding Distinguished Postgraduate Scholars Programme

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    Dr Neil Chatterjee

The first alumnus of the Harding Distinguished Postgraduate Scholars Programme talks about his research in the Department of Medicine.

I couldn’t have done what I’m doing right now without being a Harding Scholar. The generous Harding scholarship, with the support it provides for international students in my situation, allowed me to carry out exactly what I wanted to do.

Dr Neil Chatterjee

“As we were learning about cancer and different disease conditions, and how some of them had been around for hundreds of years, I thought, why is there not a solution yet? We’ve been at this forever, what’s gone wrong,” he says, reflecting on his undergraduate degree.

“It led to that rabbit hole path of trying to work out what’s gone wrong and how it can be done better. That is what drove me to develop my project.”

A personable and captivating character, Neil is the first alumnus of the programme, having completed his PhD last spring, and has an enthralling manner in telling his academic story.

His area of research was in the Department of Medicine on a PhD thesis eventually titled Nucleic Acid Scaffold-dependent Proximity-mediated Enzyme Response (NASPER) — A Proof of Concept Study.

In lay terms, that meant looking at the development of a novel non-editing gene therapy to be initially applied to broad-spectrum cancer gene therapy. The trigger for the subject matter came from an undergraduate degree in biomedical science.

“At that point, research and coming up with new treatments was what I wanted to do in the future, so the rabbit hole is where I wanted to be at that point,” says the former Christ’s College student.

His undergraduate degree was medical but was also very research-based, and that provided the initial exposure to research, shaping the path to explore greater.

“As I went on, I think I became more interested in coming up with new treatments for things that already existed, or better treatments, but medicine was never completely out of my mind,” explains Neil, who is now studying medicine at St George’s, University of London.

“I think I went down the coming-up-with-new-treatments route first, and now the other route.”

That ‘route’, and the detail and complexity of it, is best surmised by looking at the abstract of Neil’s PhD thesis which sets out that “telomerase hTERT RNA is overexpressed in around 90% of all cancers but targeting it has been unsuccessful to date due to the inability of this approach to kill telomerase-expressing cells leading to the evolution of telomerase-independent cells."

“The approach proposed in the thesis (NASPER), aims to target cells overexpressing hTERT RNA and cause their apoptosis, preventing this evolution and debulking the tumour mass."

“NASPER involves bringing two fusion proteins, each of which comprises a custom-designed PUF (Pumilio and FBF) RNAbinding protein and a protease, onto the hTERT RNA into close proximity to activate the protease which should lead to cell death.”

Neil’s PhD and current studies are now working alongside each other to further understanding.

“I constantly use research experience and knowledge that I’ve gained from the PhD and the Harding programme in my day-to-day and what I do as a medical student. Also, I try to push research onto other people because how important is it today? You can’t do medicine without it.

“Longer term, I want to be involved in taking a lot of new and interesting research, creative things, potentially what Harding people come up with, and try to take that to the bedside.

“I think that is where real change will come from, being creative. Everyone can be linear and normal, not many people can be creative, and I think that is where the fun lies.”

It is a theme that links back to that area of academic curiosity, and the power of interdisciplinarity that underpins the Harding Scholars programme — the fundamental belief that there is great value in combining research areas.

You can tell how much it meant to Neil to be part of the programme as the infectious enthusiasm when talking about his studies switches, momentarily, to a reflective mood when considering what being a Harding Scholar means.

“A lot,” he says, thoughtfully.

“I couldn’t have done what I’m doing right now without being a Harding Scholar. The generous Harding Scholarship, with the support it provides for international students in my situation, allowed me to carry out exactly what I wanted to do."

“My project was completely new, rather than having been established for some time, and being in receipt of a Harding award was a significant reason for my supervisor to accept me and take me on."

“Without that, this project would never have come into existence. I guess it is the reason the research exists. I’m very grateful for that.”

Neil completed his PhD in just under three years and admits that it is quite formidable being the first alumnus of the programme, with the expectations that come with it.

“It is kind of nerve-wracking, actually, because I feel like there are expectations placed on me, and I guess I’ve become someone people look up to now and what they want to achieve, which is quite daunting, you have to be a good role model for that,” he explains.

“I think it also creates that opportunity for me to carry on the Harding tradition and the Harding mentality into the future so that we don’t lose each other."

“Essentially, what we’ve created is a massive pool of very fancy and very cool knowledge and I think it allows me to act as a leader, in a sense, which is what I want to do – to distribute our knowledge base wider and increase our awareness about research and interdisciplinarity.”

Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education Professor Bhaskar Vira is delighted to see Neil’s progress, both through the Harding Scholars programme and on his continuing academic journey.

Reflecting on the Harding Distinguished Postgraduate Scholars Programme, Professor Bhaskar Vira said: “There is the generosity of secured funding, but also the real emphasis on curiosity-driven research and across a wide range of subjects."

“The fact that the programme is not constrained, in terms of the disciplines that it focuses on, enables students to develop their projects at the intellectual frontier.”

He added: “It shows how the way the programme has been designed actually enables the students to achieve what they are trying to do.”

Find out more

For more information about the Harding Distinguished Postgraduate Scholars Programme visit the University website.

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