SCHOLARSHIP: This Student Found Success Researching and Fighting Malaria. Here’s Why He Wanted More.
June 20, 2016
Bharath Balu has completed a Ph.D. and two post-doctoral fellowships, led an antimalarial drug discovery team as a research scientist, authored 22 research publications and secured a U.S. government patent for an anti-malaria technique. He’s earned degrees from or been employed at six higher education institutions. And yet, despite these outstanding accomplishments, Balu felt something was missing.
That something was an M.D. And that’s what led him to his seventh school affiliation: Ross University School of Medicine, where he enrolled this May with a Chancellor’s Academic Achievement scholarship.
We caught up with Balu to learn more about his unique background and what he hopes to accomplish as a physician.
RUSM: How did you become interested in malaria?
Balu: Growing up in India, I had malaria three times. It’s endemic in India, but it can be hard for people outside of tropical areas to appreciate how serious these diseases can be. It’s estimated that more than 300,000 children died of malaria in 2015.
I was fortunate to have survived, but it takes a toll on you regardless. You lose 10-20 pounds within days, you become very weak, and it takes time to recover and continue a normal life.
Malaria is also very interesting scientifically. It’s a difficult disease to study, and I wanted a challenge. The malaria parasite is complicated because it changes form and completes the life cycle in two hosts—the mosquito and the human.
RUSM: You’ve come to RUSM with four degrees under your belt, not to mention an enormous amount of research experience. Can you describe your path?
Balu: I earned my bachelor’s degree in microbiology. I’ve been fascinated by microbes since high school. They’re devastating as infectious agents, but they’re also priceless tools for innovation, and provide the gateway for genetic engineering.
After completing my postgraduate degree in medical biotechnology, I was fortunate to get accepted to the University of Notre Dame Ph.D. program in infectious disease, which was renowned for malaria drug and vaccine research. That was where I and a few colleagues developed a method to manipulate the malaria parasite genome, which was patented.
RUSM: Tell us about this patent.
Balu: It’s an insertional mutagenesis technique to mutate the human malaria parasite. Essentially, it’s a way of transforming the genome to weaken the parasite and elicit information that can be used for drug or vaccine development. Many scientists had tried before, but had not succeeded.
RUSM: That’s quite an accomplishment.
Balu: It was very fulfilling. The process took about six years, with lots of hard work and persistence, and our work became well known in the malaria research community. But I didn’t feel like I was making a direct impact on human welfare. This invention is really a starting place to develop drugs and ways to inhibit the disease, all the way up to the pharmaceutical company to get it out to market. At that point, it’s very much out of my hands.
RUSM: Did you experience this same kind of frustration with your other research endeavors—feeling like you weren’t doing enough?
Balu: I really enjoyed the intellectual aspect of research as it’s directed towards helping others. But with science, it takes decades to make an impact on people. After my doctorate, I spent several years in research, and there were always roadblocks to the end result of helping people: competition for funding, logistics of long clinical trials, and the lack of public infrastructure in the tropical world to afford novel therapies. So I wanted to try clinical work in the hopes that it would be more satisfying.
RUSM: How did you go about finding clinical work?
Balu: I became a physician assistant, and I loved it. The patient interaction, going to work every day and really impacting people’s lives—it was such a huge difference for me. In science, I barely had any public interaction, but now patients were thanking me for the way I took care of them.
Still, I wanted a much deeper medical knowledge, and to become proficient in infectious disease medicine. And having had years of scientific research experience, I do miss that. I want to become a doctor so I can care for patients and do clinical research—have both the human interaction and the science. I would also love to teach and spread the knowledge.
RUSM: What made you choose RUSM?
Balu: I did well on my MCAT and applied to U.S. medical schools, but I didn’t get in. I was many years out of school and U.S. medical schools asked me to go back to school to finish the prerequisites again. So it seemed I had two choices: wait another year, reapply and hope I got in somewhere, or find a school that would appreciate my background and qualifications, and give me a chance to be an M.D. And I found that in Ross.
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