Nishtha Pandey Comes Full Circle

Going ‘back to school’ in your 30s requires a great deal of commitment and a certain je ne sais quoi. Juggling the demands of a student life along with those of a family can probably put a circus performer to shame. We caught up with a stellar student Nishtha Pandey who came back to campus after 7 years for a PhD in Bioinformatics. Read On.

In 2003, when the US Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated, leading to the untimely death of its crew members, a 17-year-old girl in Santaldih, located in Purulia district of West Bengal was keenly following the news. The daily newspapers which were delivered after 7 pm were her only source of information. And Nishtha Pandey devoured every bit of the inspirational tale of Kalpana Chawla, the first woman of Indian origin who was on board the ill-fated spacecraft. She had another gateway to the wide world – The Telegraph’s weekly supplement titled ‘KnowHow’ that typically focused on scientific discoveries and other technical advancements. With inspirational stories, the right exposure to scientific news, coupled with the influence of her own parents who were educators, it was little wonder that Nishtha chose to pursue a BTech in Biotechnology. “I wanted to pursue a field that contributed to healthcare. So I moved to Durgapur for my higher education. In fact, I was determined to study beyond a BTech”, she says, tracing her academic journey. Explaining how she was bitten by the Bioinformatics bug, Nishtha says that there was a visiting faculty member from Kolkata who used to come once a week to Durgapur to teach this course. “The complete timetable was adapted to his availability. This made me realize that Bioinformatics was a comparatively new field and few people had the required professional training,” she says. Since the prospects that this interdisciplinary field offered were enormous, Nishtha appeared for the GATE exam and applied for Masters degree in Bioinformatics. “That’s how my journey in IIITH began in 2007 as an M.Tech student in Bioinformatics.”

Staying Grounded

Terming acceptance into IIITH and being part of the community as a life changing experience, Nishtha finds that the institute provides a perfectly balanced training to lead a successful life not only as a professional but also as a human being. She also found out soon enough that academics is taken quite seriously here and unlike other institutes, IIITH has a continuous assessment system. “With the commencement of classes, indeed we started getting lots of programming assignments, surprise quizzes, presentations etc. with no extension in deadline (not even a minute) but then additional efforts were put in by the course instructor and TAs to help us improve with every passing day,” she reminisces. Apart from coursework and classroom-based learning, Nishtha speaks of experiences that taught her to be grounded and sensitive. “In the beginning, sometimes in the Yuktahar mess, I was amused when faculty members like Professor Sangal and Prof. Deva PriyaKumar used to stand in the queue with students, sit down to eat with them, and talk to them about their work”. She recounts another time when there was a staff shortage due to a conjuntivitis outbreak, leading to an unusually long line for hot chapatis. “Dr. Lini Thomas and Dr. Kirti Garg (PhD students at that time) moved out of the queue and volunteered to make chapatisfor others”. It’s this sense of ownership and selflessness that has stayed with Nishtha.

From MTech to an MS

Meanwhile, by the end of the first year at IIITH, Nishtha’s academic prowess steadily gained ground. “I had a CGPA of above 9 in both the semesters and was a topper.” Encouraged and strongly motivated by Prof. Mitra to convert to an MS programme, she signed up for an MS and received full tuition fee support. Among some of the accomplishments she lists is the opportunity given to her to conduct a lecture in her third semester. “I had given a presentation on Homology modeling in the Journal Club. Later that evening, I met Prof. Deva and he asked me to preserve the presentation and give a lecture on that topic in the course he was going to teach the next semester. The next semester I not only gave a lecture, but also set questions from that section and evaluated the students.”

Finding Her Calling

Strongly believing that knowledge is power, Nishtha always wanted to teach youngsters and help them reach their potential. “My wish of being a teacher was fulfilled when recruiters from Lovely Professional University (LPU), Phagwara, Punjab visited IIIT-H.” As an Assistant Professor there, she was instrumental in inspiring several BTech students who went on to study M.Tech in Bioinformatics at IIIT-H. Recounting an incident from her first year at IIITH, she says that the values acquired at IIITH have helped her in her teaching career. “When the Dean’s merit list was prepared by the Academic office at the end of my first year, my name didn’t figure…Probably because I had converted to an MS, my name didn’t appear in the list of M.Tech students. But within a few hours of writing an email to Prof. Kamal, an updated list (with my name!) was posted. Such experiences made me realize that in spite of their busy schedules, our professors always manage time to take care of students’ issues and concerns”, says Nishtha.

Second Innings

After seven years of a fulfilling teaching career, Nishtha decided to take a break to update her skills as a professional. “Prof. Nita Parekh and Dr. Savitha Govardhan (my MS Supervisor) encouraged me a lot through this transition process of becoming a student all over again”, she says reverently. Nishtha joined the PhD programme in December 2016 under Dr. Vinod P.K. Her research is on Computational Systems Biology. Currently in her 5th semester, she says this area of work was alien to her initially. But she’s grateful to her supervisor for supporting and guiding with a lot of patience. Getting ‘back to school’ has definitely not been easy. The passage of time, marriage, and consequent motherhood has only added to the challenge. But Nishtha insists that it has been “like coming back to my second home”. “It reminded me of the Margo (soap) commercial I loved as a kid, ‘Kuch bhi to nahi badla!’”. Luckily for Nishtha, her ‘second innings’ at IIIT-H has also been an equally enriching experience. When asked what she plans next, she says, “Right now I am just focused on my PhD research and raising my 6-year-old well. Next, let us see…Sitaron ke aage jahaan aur bhi hai,” with a smile.

Sarita Chebbi is a minimalist runner, practising yogi and baker of all things whole-wheat, and sugar-free. Currently re-learning her ABC’s…the one that goes: A for algorithm, B for Bayesian, C for convolutional (neural network)….

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