A day in the life: Translational biologist edition

One up-and-coming scientist’s formula for success.

June 17, 2019     

Bijal Kakrecha, a translational biologist at Bristol Myers Squibb, relocated to the Cambridge office to work on the site’s central mission of better understanding Immuno-Oncology (I-O) resistance.

What is a translational biologist and what does it take to be a top-performer in the field? Translational medicine is a rapidly growing discipline in today’s competitive scientific environment. At BMS' recently opened Cambridge (Mass.) site, built in the heart of a biotech hub, the offices are designed to encourage collaboration to tackle some of the hardest medical questions. 

Bijal Kakrecha, a research scientist in translational medicine, relocated to Cambridge from New Jersey to work on better understanding cancer resistance. The entire Cambridge team focuses on discovering innovative targets and pathways for tumors that have not traditionally responded to Immuno-Oncology (I-O) therapies. She quickly found this central mission made her colleagues feel like a “close-knit family” in which collaboration comes naturally. 

Watch Bijal working to help patients.

Bijal attributes her success as a researcher in translational medicine to “excellent time management skills, resiliency and flexibility,” adding that “no two days are ever the same.” With the same amount of trial and error as in her experiments, Bijal finds ways to optimize her actions daily. Recently, while running two simultaneous experiments, she took time to share her formula for a balanced and successful day.

Bijal attributes her success to planning ahead and time management, but knows that remaining flexible is also key.

Q: What does your morning routine look like? 

Bijal Kakrecha: After snoozing my alarm more times than I’d like to admit, I check the weather and news on my phone as soon as I open my eyes. I’m not a coffee person, so I don’t need anything besides a shower to get going.  

Living in Cambridge, I have the perk of walking to work. Fresh air in the morning is an invigorating way to start the day. I often pick up breakfast from my favorite café on my walk. When I get into work, I check my emails and schedule for the day while eating breakfast. I’ve found that indulging in a breakfast burrito often helps make my morning easier. 

Q: What are the greatest challenges you face? 

B.K.  I’m trying to understand the immune system through human blood samples. I process blood when it arrives and characterize immune cells to understand resistance to I-O therapies. There are times when a patient blood sample is scheduled to arrive, but never does. That may be because a patient was too sick to give blood. If I planned my day around being in the lab to process the patient blood sample, I have to remain flexible and find something else to work on. 

Since the Cambridge office is relatively new, I knew I’d be setting up the lab from scratch. I’ve faced challenges with getting the lab up and running, but they’re all growing pains I was expecting. It’s a rare opportunity in the pharmaceutical industry to be a part of something from the ground up, so setting up a new lab is rewarding. 

Bijal spends much of her time brainstorming with colleagues and running experiments in the lab.

Q: How do you overcome these challenges? 

B.K. Collaboration and resilience are key. I’ve learned not to be afraid to ask a lot of questions. There’s a great group of people here willing to help; we’re a close-knit family. I’m grateful when a colleague helps me; we’re always looking for ways to work together to solve problems. 

Q: What does a successful day look like for you? 

B.K. A successful day means getting an experiment done and then sitting down to look closely and carefully at the data I’ve generated to make sense of it. When conducting an experiment, it’s common to run it several times. So, I set it up and do it again. That’s how I learn. It’s all about trial and error and staying flexible; it’s part of the process. Time management and planning ahead are also skills that set me up for success. 

Q: What personal attributes contribute to your success? 

B.K. A few attributes that contribute to my success are: 

  • Confident yet humble, 
  • Personable and approachable, 
  • Helpful and collaborative, 
  • Patient and flexible. 

A successful day for Bijal means getting an experiment done and then sitting down to look closely and carefully at the data she’s generated.

Q: What do you like most about being a scientist? 

B.K. We’re a patient-focused group. We learn from the patient by using patient blood samples to understand their biology, specifically the immune system. We’re trying to find new ways to look at patient samples in order to drive the work being done here. No two days are ever the same, but on any given day, I know that I’m doing work that will make a change for our patients. It might not be today or tomorrow, but my work is going to help patients in the future. 

Q: What makes working at BMS’ Cambridge site so special?  

B.K. Cambridge is a small community where you know people from all different groups. We have one central mission, which is to focus on cancer resistance. That’s a site-wide focus, not for just one particular group. All the groups are finding ways to come together to work on projects. In the process, you get to learn about other aspects of the company. 

We’re also like a small family; we hang out at work and outside of work. We truly enjoy each other’s company. It’s very social here after work. We try to go out to dinner or drinks with our coworkers once or twice a week. 

Q: What advice do you have for scientists early in their career?  

B.K. Be willing to learn and don’t be afraid to try something new. You need to know the fundamentals and you’ll learn the nuances of the work.  

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