Reeti Behera, Ph.D., a talented postdoctoral fellow who has worked in the Weeraratna lab at Wistar since 2014, successfully made the career transition from hands-on bench scientist to a scientific program administrator for the American Association of Cancer Research (AACR). Though she misses being at the bench, she enjoys being part of a grants review team that decides and awards funding for two program branches: Stand Up to Cancer and the AACR’s grant funding committee. Her career path, like many others, has been influenced by important and meaningful mentors, experiences and connections.
At Wistar, Behera immersed herself in cancer biology, focusing on how aging influences melanoma progression. Under Ashani Weeraratna, Ph.D., associate professor and program leader in Wistar’s Tumor Microenvironment and Metastasis Program, Behera studied how melanoma cells act in the tumor microenvironment and how age-related changes drive melanoma progression and therapy resistance. She specifically looked at Klotho—a protein that degrades with aging and whose absence has been linked to cancer.
A pivotal point in her professional life came when she wondered if she would work in the lab for the rest of her scientific career or look for alternative career options. Research is a competitive field and demands time and focus. Postdoctoral fellows typically stay in one lab for five years and learn as much as they can in a research field before moving on to a new lab. This apprenticeship-style of research pushes young scientists to think about what’s next in their career. Because of this, it is important to have a supportive mentor. Behera has always valued performing experiments and bench work, so she reached out to her advisor Weeraratna for advice.
“Ashi is an incredibly creative and supportive boss and mentor, who understands the competitive nature of research” said Behera. “Right away, she told me to reach out to Heather Steinman, Ph.D., MBA, Wistar vice president for Business Development and executive director of Technology Transfer, for advice on the multiple career tracks budding scientists can pursue.”
In 2015, Behera became a Wi-Stars intern in the Business Development office where she learned about how different aspects of academic research can be translated into valuable products for the benefit of society. She gleaned an understanding of how the complex patent process is navigated to move research from bench to bedside.
“Every Friday, Wi-Stars met to discuss the complexities of how academic institutes protect and pursue valuable discoveries that can save lives,” said Behera. “I learned from Heather how her Business Development team supports the researchers at the Wistar Institute by providing a hands-on service to help get their discoveries to patients.”
It’s common for postdocs to stay in the confines of a lab, but Behera was able to transition because, thanks to a supportive mentor in Dr. Weeraratna, she possessed experience both inside and outside of the lab.
“Through exploration, work ethic and excellent scientific and interpersonal skills, Reeti developed a cross-disciplinary understanding that lets her thrive, and I have full confidence she will excel in her new position,” said Dr. Weeraratna. “I believe that encouraging trainees to search for opportunities in multiple arenas allows them to apply their considerable talents to several facets of cancer research, thereby enriching the entire scientific enterprise.”
The AACR position in grants administration gives Behera the opportunity to see the most recent advances in other areas of research.
“I’m very lucky—I get to see breakthrough research before it happens,” Behera said.