Meet CLEO Hot Shot 2018: Nadia Rajaram

NADIA RAJARAM, 31, Research Associate at Cancer Research Malaysia

Trench coat, Hana Tajima for Uniqlo; dress and shoes, Nadia’s own.

Nadia Rajaram didn’t realise that working in the sciences involved way more than working in a lab—it’s a huge collaborative effort, and meant she had to wear all sorts of hats for just one role. It also taught her humility—that it matters to listen, acknowledge that you have as much to learn as you have to share, and to have respect for others. After embarking on an NGO journey, she is now a research associate at Cancer Research Malaysia, and is part of a global team that is working towards reducing the burden of cancer.

Briefly tell us about the journey to Cancer Research Malaysia.

After SPM, I already knew I wanted to do cancer research. I pursued a Bachelor’s degree in Biomedical Science, which is really quite a general degree in the sciences. It gave me a taste of all the possibilities for my career, from biochemistry to physics and even genetics. But I found that I was not suited for lab work, and was rethinking my career path. I was keen on epidemiology, the study of the distribution and determinants of disease.

So I went back to the US to pursue a Masters degree in Epidemiology at Michigan State University.  I had the opportunity to work with non-profit organization (The Asian-Pacific Resource and Research for Women, or ARROW for short) that advocated for women’s rights in the region. I got to be part of my many exciting yet humbling experiences. I got to hear about the struggles of women in the region in trying to fulfill their basic needs and rights. I also had the opportunity to be part of the team that brought these struggles to the global arena, such as at United Nations assemblies.

It was a great path to be on, but I missed the science. So I sought out opportunities where I could be a scientist and still work for a cause that I was passionate about. With some help, I found Cancer Research Malaysia. It was a leap of faith for both me and my current boss, as I didn’t have much research experience outside of university. However, once I started working on a couple of projects here, I knew that this was a good fit for me.

Is there something you can tell us about cancer that will enlighten our readers?

Breast cancer is a disease that affects up to 1 in 20 Malaysian women, and the number of women affected is increasing, and fast. Prevention studies of breast cancer have been difficult to do in the past as we did not have a way of measuring risk to the disease. Recently, research elsewhere has shown that mammographic density (which is a measure of the white or bright areas of the breast observed on a mammogram film) can be used to measure changes in risk. This means that we can now introduce a prevention method and evaluate if it works.

Previously, I led the work to show that mammographic density was a useful biomarker of breast cancer risk among Malaysian women after menopause, in collaboration with Prof Per Hall at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden. We also showed that the difference in mammographic density between Swedish and Malaysian women were due to differences in parity, height and weight between Swedish and Malaysian women, which are known risk factors of breast cancer. Now that we are confident that mammographic density is a useful biomarker of risk for Malaysian women, we are excited to embark on large scale research projects to look at breast cancer prevention.

What’s involved, when someone is in the sciences?

What I assumed a scientist does, back when I was studying, and what we actually do is quite different! I always assumed scientists are introverted people who work independently to accomplish their tasks, without needing much communication or social interaction skills.

What I’ve come to realise is that science is a collaborative effort, which involves being able to talk about your research to both experts and to a general audience. It involves working closely with colleagues as part of a team, and networking with other scientists who could be future collaborators. It means knowing how to pitch your idea to potential funders of your research. Cancer Research Malaysia is a non-profit research organization that is working to reverse the burden of Asian cancers. As such, part of being a scientist here also means being able to effectively engage with the public so that we receive enough public support to fund meaningful research projects that could benefit our society.

Who or what empowers you in life? Why?

My parents are really the reason I am who I am today. They didn’t hold me back from what I wanted to do. They encouraged (and funded!) my educational goals, no questions asked. We are not a very well-to-do family, so sending me to an American university was not easy. They never said they couldn’t afford it, but I knew it was not easy. Their trust in me is a very important part of my motivation to be the best I can be at what I do.

I also feel strongly about working towards a cause I believe in. You don’t go into science, academia or the public health field to make a lot of money, you do it because you know there is a problem there that you want to solve. Being able to say that I did what I could for something I believed in is quite important to me.

I would remove prejudice. I think that most of the problems we face as a society is our built-in perceptions about “other” people, which then dictates our behavior towards them. There is a really interesting social experiment in the US a long time ago in a classroom of kids, where the teacher created a sense of prejudice towards kids with a certain eye color. The discrimination that ensued from this small exercise (based on eye color!) was real. It goes to show that assuming someone is a certain way just because of their gender, race, spiritual inclinations, income level or the color of their skin, is baseless and unfair. We have to start thinking that we are all equals, only then will there be mutual respect for each other, and peace. This is the foundation of human rights.

If I could have two things removed, I’ll remove cigarettes, too. Smoking is one of the best established risk factors for lung cancer and many other respiratory illnesses, cardiovascular diseases and even breast cancer. What’s worse is that it not only affects the smoker, but the people around him or her, including children. This is something that always gets me riled up.

– Nadia on the things she would remove from society.

What is the most rewarding thing that you find in your work? Why?

It is rewarding for me to know that I’m part of a global team that is working towards reducing the burden of cancer, and that someday, our efforts collectively will help someone beat cancer or even prevent it.

What do you think is the most significant barrier to female leadership? Why?

Currently, I’m trying to figure out how to find the right balance between a family life and a successful career in the future. Now, with far fewer commitments, I’m able to dedicate more of my time to working on my career and achieving those goals, but I doubt I can keep up with the same momentum when I have more personal and family responsibilities, without compromising my physical and mental well-being. I believe this is great internal struggle for most women leaders. Being a leader in your career should not mean sacrificing your personal or family aspirations. Therefore, having a more conducive environment for women to grow as a leader at work and still have time for the family is the most important change we need to make as a society. This can include allowing more time for maternity leave, more work time flexibility and allowing work from home, having daycare services available, and respecting personal time after work hours. It also includes ensuring that men share the responsibilities of the household and the children, so that both partners have an equal chance at fulfilling their career and family goals.     

What’s one flaw of yours that you’ve embraced and turned into strength? Give us an example.

I am naturally shy and a bit of an introvert. It is extremely hard for me to go up to someone and start a conversation, especially if they are someone of authority or are senior in their field. To overcome this, I have to force myself to start conversations and ask questions, or at the very least, introduce myself. This started as an exercise by my ex-boss at ARROW, who told me I had to exchange at least 10 business cards at a meeting she wanted me to attend. I was annoyed at the time, but it’s an exercise I continue to do because it is helping me become more comfortable talking about myself and my work.

how do you keep yourself centered?

I’m not very religious, but I do believe in some higher power (aka the universe). I feel that I am exactly where I am meant to be, and that I am here for a reason. The universe provides but you must be open to recognizing an opportunity and be brave to seize it.

If you could take away one thing from your industry before walking away from it, what would it be? Why?

The one thing that I have learned (and I’m still learning) from being a scientist at a non-profit research organization is the ability to wear multiple hats. Sometimes you have to be a scientist, a finance officer, a procurement officer, and a negotiator all in the same day. Some days you will mentor others, and other days you will be mentored. You have to learn to talk science and facts to other scientists, as well as how to interpret the science for people outside the field. You learn to deal with both numbers and words, because you need one to explain the other. I believe this experience teaches you to be humble, to acknowledge that you have as much to learn as you have to share, and to have respect for others.

What are you most curious about in life? Why?

It fascinates me to know that your response to stimuli is a product of your past experiences, and that everyone has a different thought process or reaction. So I enjoy reading biographies of people, just to get a small glimpse of what it was like to be them and think the way they did. I think if we could all do that for every person we meet, to put ourselves in their shoes, we would be a more peaceful, happy society.

What is progress to you?

I’m still very much a young scientist, and my role now is to conduct rigorous research and generate good quality evidence that can add to what we know about breast cancer and how we can protect ourselves and our loved ones from the disease. Progress, for me, is being able to empower women to have control over their body and their health.

Imagine yourself in five years, Tell us where you would like to be and your accomplished achievements.

I would (hopefully) be done with my PhD (which I am currently pursuing at the University of Nottingham, thanks to a scholarship by the Ong Hin Tiang & Ong Sek Pek Foundation and Cancer Research Malaysia). I hope to be doing important research on practical and adoptable behavioral change that could significantly reduce risk to disease. Eventually, I would like to teach at universities. I do enjoy teaching and coaching; that too gives me a good sense of purpose. I also hope to find the secret formula to a sustainable work-life balance, so that I can be successful both in my career and in life.

Special thanks to Alila Bangsar for venue assistance during the whole production.
Official sponsors: Wet n Wild Malaysia and Sasa Malaysia.