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The road to Chatterjee Lab in Dunedin, New Zealand

Aniruddha Chatterjee on epigenetics, New Zealand and his cooking skills

By Aniruddha Chatterjee

  • Published 15.01.20, 2:06 PM
  • Updated 15.01.20, 2:06 PM
Eventually, I came across a government-funded scholarship at the University of Otago in New Zealand. It was in the field of epigenetics.
Eventually, I came across a government-funded scholarship at the University of Otago in New Zealand. It was in the field of epigenetics. Sourced by The Telegraph

I was born in Berhampore, 200 kilometres from Calcutta, and studied in Krishnath College School. After studying science in high school, I wanted to pursue something interdisciplinary. I got a partial scholarship and went to Osmania University, Hyderabad, where I graduated with a triple major in biotechnology, biochemistry and chemistry. Later, I pursued a master’s in biotechnology from the Vellore Institute of Technology.

In 2008, we had our campus placements. I was hired by Cognizant but I wanted to study further. I thought I would enjoy research. Eventually, I came across a government-funded scholarship at the University of Otago in New Zealand. It was in the field of epigenetics. I also had other offers from Australia and Europe but I chose epigenetics.

Doctoral degrees in New Zealand are direct PhDs, which means you do not need to pursue a master’s degree again. Whereas in the US, you have to do a master’s again and the entire PhD takes five to six years. In New Zealand, if you show you have done enough research and your thesis is good, you can do a PhD in three years. During the final semester of my master’s degree, I had done an internship at the Indian Institute of Chemical Biology in Jadavpur, Calcutta, for seven to eight months and that proved beneficial.

I was always fascinated by cricket and had known of places in New Zealand by their cricket stadiums. When I applied for my PhD and spoke to my supervisor Ian Morison, a haematologist, my interest grew. I was very intrigued by the subject. I did not know much about epigenetics because it was new. It still is new. The most fascinating thing was that one is not changing the DNA sequence but the outcome of the same gene is so different in different cells. It is all very magical. And the most exciting bit was that the study was directly on humans.

In 2009, at the age of 25, I landed in Dunedin. I completed my PhD in 2013 and till 2017, I did postdoctoral research in the same subject. In the meantime, I went to Japan, China and Singapore on different fellowships. I wanted to obtain the best expertise and use it in my work. I went to Belgium too, as a visiting faculty to the University of Namur.

My trajectory changed when I was awarded the Rutherford Discovery Fellowship in 2017 by the Royal Society of New Zealand to study the epigenetics of metastasis or the way cancer spreads to other organs. It is one of the most prestigious fellowships in the world. I was also given funding to start my own lab, Chatterjee Lab, which is based in the department of pathology at the Dunedin School of Medicine .

There is a huge cultural difference between India and New Zealand and, initially, there was a bit of a culture shock. But if you are young and have the right attitude, then it isn’t very difficult to integrate. It is a very friendly and beautiful country. The people in New Zealand are very fond of Indian food and clothes. When I invite someone for dinner, I always cook Indian food. My chicken kosha and rogan josh are much appreciated. I have wonderful Kiwi friends who visited Calcutta with me. I have Indian friends too and we talk about rosogollas and Durga Puja.

If you want to pursue a career in New Zealand, keep in mind that the job market here is small. But, undoubtedly, the education here is world-class. Currently, I have been selected to work with New Zealand’s ministry of education as a biomedical expert to foster collaboration with India.

I love my life in New Zealand but I miss my family. When I moved here, my dad would have to ask someone to help switch on the computer so they could Skype me. Dunedin now feels like home. But for me, the definition of home will always be Berhampore.

As told to Manasi Shah

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