Welcome to another Docscopy session. MedBound Times brings to you an inspiring story of a strategic public health researcher through the conversation among Dr. Archisman Mohapatra, Executive Director of The Grid Council cell (2020-present), Dr. Aarti Nehra (Senior Editor), and Dr. Purnoor Kaur from MedBound Times.
Let us see what he has to say about developing the research rigor, the recipe of a successful public health expert, and his own unconventional journey.
Dr. Purnoor: Sir, please tell us someone about your life and your professional journey.
Dr. Archisman: I don’t think that I’m at a judgment point at this moment. But then still, it’s an evolution. I’m 41, right, so now I am observing the patterns in my life. Previously, things were happening and I was not sure if I could generalize those patterns, now I have at least 30 years of very active memory to reflect on patterns, discounting the initial 10 years of my life, where I might have taken any decisions. So when things kept happening, I realized perhaps these are my strengths and these are my weaknesses, whatever.
I was interested in becoming a medical doctor, but I took this decision without having a full understanding of the subject. And I think most of us take such decisions when we are in school and when we start writing entrance examinations. I think youngsters these days are more oriented because of YouTube and other platforms.
When I was in school, I had always thought that, OK, doctors treat patients. They see patients, they heal them, and people respect them a lot. And you have to study really hard to get into one medical school. I come from Odisha, where we have this way of thinking that you can either become a doctor, or an engineer or an IAS officer. There are not many alternative career choices. I decided to become a doctor. I wrote medical entrance examinations. I didn’t write engineering entrance examinations. I couldn't get through in the first or in second attempt. I thought I would not take any coaching and I could get through. I cracked both the State exam and the All India PMT. In those days, we were not cracking All India exams that much from Odisha, since human biology was not part of our curriculum. Only 16 students had qualified and I was one of them.
When I was in school, I had always thought that, OK, doctors treat patients. They see patients, they heal them, and people respect them a lot. And you have to study really hard to get into one medical school. I come from Odisha, where we have this way of thinking that you have to become a doctor, or an engineer or an IAS officer. There are not many alternative career choices. I decided to become a doctor. I wrote medical entrance examinations. I didn’t write engineering entrance examinations. I couldn't get through in the first and in the second attempt. I thought I would not take any coaching and I could get through. I cracked both the State exam and All India PMT. In those days, we were not cracking All India exams that much from Odisha, since human biology was not part of our curriculum. Only 16 students had qualified and I was one of them. I am just trying to circle back to the journey. So, I went into medical school.
Dr. Aarti: That is really great. How was your school life?
Dr. Archisman: Till my 12th, I was a very shy guy. I was not talking enough. I was doing well in academics. I was absolutely too good to be anything bad, very courteous, very disciplined, and very sincere.
Initial college interactions exposed me to a new life, and suddenly, I befriended five seniors and five juniors. I could see that I was very sociable. And I participated very actively in all co-curriculars. So, I was into cultural events, drama, stage sports, and in strikes, I was leading from the front there. So, I found that I was able to connect with people.
And meanwhile, I was scoring average, like I was in the top 20s in my class, but never the top one. I was a very, very slow reader. I come from ICSE school. We had all objective answers. My way of approaching things was more logical. I had to have a reason I couldn’t mug up things. It was always last minute. I could actually knock off three-night outs in one stretch and quickly remember things. So that was magic for me.
Dr. Archisman: I discovered this other skill. After my MBBS, I could not get into my MD directly. I took two years to get into my M.D. and to get into a seat of choice. I moved to Hyderabad because of my father, without realizing that Andhrites would not write All India Examinations.
My dad was in Reserve Bank. I stayed at his quarters.
When you are in MBBS, everyone says, "What a spectacular student! studying medicine!" The day you complete your MBBS and you have not gone into MD, everyone is like, "What kind of a doctor he is, sitting at home!"
First year of my unemployment, I decided this is not going to work, let's get into some library. I landed up in the library as an outsider. They wouldn't allow me. Even the outsiders who were living in Andhra Pradesh couldn't write All India Examinations. I blackmailed the librarian. I was the only outsider.
And as soon as I sat down, I started attracting all outsiders, like all the people who were not from that medical college, but had sneaked into.
Suddenly, I discovered that all of them were outsiders. Networking could be a skill that I have, right? I was doing well in college, and I was doing well now, in this foreign land, by cross cultural networking.
Dr. Aarti: Did you appear for entrance exams that year?
Dr. Archisman: Yeah, and I cracked the AIIMS examination after one year of preparation. Suddenly, I became the stalwart of that group. (laughs)
But I was only getting preclinical subjects. So I had to prepare for one more year. (2008) What do I do? So one of my friends, who used to study with me, connected me to a trial team. So I joined there as a trial coordinator. It was a trial for it was a drug trial. It was Phase 3, randomized control trial.
The madam who was leading this trial was MD from PGI and DM from AIIMS, who was very much into research. Then, I got initiated into research.
Dr. Aarti: What was the research culture around you?
Dr. Archisman: At that point, no one was doing it, everyone was a clinician in Odisha. Yet I got initiated. I started enjoying it. Using statistics and publishing papers. Then, I got a rank as well. So my madam suggested two specializations as per my interest. Either it was pharmacology where most trials were done or community medicine which had some component of research.
So I joined community medicine, and by putting initiative, I went to Banaras where I could see rural UP, absolutely for 1 and a half years, managing a team of 20 people and programs and everything.
Dr. Aarti: What did you pursue immediately after your MD?
Dr. Archisman: I came to Delhi, and I joined INCLEN, the International Clinical Network of Epidemiology. I got to do hands-on cohorts and hands-on multi-site trials. It was clicking very effortlessly everywhere. Wherever I went, I never got rejected. Interview - selected! Maybe people were noticing some quality. I stayed at INCLEN for five years. Later, I joined Save the Children and got hands-on experience in Implementation Research.
Then, I got selected for the Institute of Liver and Biliary Sciences. They advertised for a faculty in epidemiology and I started the epidemiology department there. I activated all the unfinished projects that were there.
When I was in INCLEN, the research papers that were stuck got published with ease. If I was writing proposals, grants came easily. In Save the Children, I submitted a proposal, and a grant amounting to 5 crores had landed. When I left to join ILBS, my team in Save the Children was visiting the UK on account of that proposal acceptance. I was a little jealous. (chuckles) In ILBS, I could generate 40 crores.
Dr. Aarti: Wow. Amazing, that is. Did you anticipate this?
Dr. Archisman: Even I was shocked, by what was happening. That was a skill in writing good proposals, which could convince people not only to publish my work as a journal article but also to fund it. Right? I was discovering that.
So, I was in ILBS for only one year, ILBS is only about the liver. For a public health professional, it can get boring. Then I went back to The INCLEN Trust as its Deputy Director of Research. Yet again, I cracked another grant from The Wellcome Trust.
I was realizing, am I a genius or something? Whatever I touch becomes Gold.
In 2020, I resigned from INCLEN and thought of starting something on my own. So, I started GRID with full enthusiasm.
Dr. Aarti: So all the hospital, all these grants, they acted as a fuel to generate the energy that you have to start your own thing, right?
Dr. Archisman: To some extent, yes.
But all through, I got very good mentors. They all were contributors for my success: my guide from BHU, Dr. PC Mohapatra, in INCLEN Dr. NK Arora, and then, Dr. Shiv Sarin in ILBS. I became a henchman everywhere.
Then, in 2020, I started my own thing, I was just looking for an office in February 2020, but a lockdown was declared. Now it is just running fine, survived three years with no major grants.
But the pattern I recognized is that I can actually work under stress, and I can quickly assimilate things across disciplines. I can connect with people. I can speak with some humor, or at least I have a storytelling capacity to some extent. And I write well, verbally, and nonverbally. Now I know how to write a grant proposal or from where we can mobilize funds to do some research. There are some limitations that I have identified too. I still feel that the world is driven by logic, but that is wrong. The world is not driven by logic, many things can be attributed to chance.
Dr. Aarti: What other factors contributed to your success?
Dr. Archisman: It’s about teamwork. You can’t really do it alone. It’s a system. When I started a company, I was asked 'a company of whom'? It has to have someone, it takes two to form a company and that is why it is a company.
See, all through my life, I was always salaried but when I got into business and entrepreneurship, you have to open your mouth and ask for money. Asking for money is a big challenge for someone who is driven by social entrepreneurship philosophies, or purely passion-driven. It is very difficult. And I am learning that and training, slowly and steadily.
Dr. Aarti: Reflecting back, what do you think about your own unconventional journey?
Dr. Archisman: What I’m realizing is, if you keep on trying many things. Now and then you would suddenly see that certain things are working for you and certain things are not working for you.
Well the story isn't over for us yet. Stay tuned to MedBound Times for Part-2 of this interview series.