Next Gen Driven to Succeed

As the son of a farmer and a homemaker from a village in southwest India, Raj Giraddi could not have imagined the path his life would take, far from the family’s fields of chilies, peanuts, sunflowers, lentils and onions.

From once being a schoolboy sitting on the floor of a rural classroom with no electricity, to now being a breast cancer researcher in the laboratory of Geoffrey Wahl, Raj Giraddi’s deep and abiding interest in biological research has always driven him forward.

You could say it was onions that started him down that path.

In a general biology course at Bangalore University, Giraddi did a simple lab assignment that required him to grind up the roots of an onion to view the stages of cell division through a microscope—he was transfixed.

“When I started looking at the cells and saw the chromosomes, I was stunned,” he recalls. “Those pictures were fascinating and, for some reason, even though I was studying math, chemistry and physics at the same time, those images stuck in my head.”

Bangalore, a metropolis of millions, is also India’s research capital. While Giraddi was getting his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, he would ride his bicycle around the campuses of various biotech institutes, sneaking into departments to read notice boards with posters describing how research was done. He wanted to be involved in scientific research, but it wasn’t an option at his university. For that, he figured he would have to be at the elite Indian Institute of Science (IISc), nearby. But every ambitious student in the country wanted to be accepted to IISc. For someone with no formal research training, it was challenging to get in.

Instead, Giraddi began working at a local hospital that was developing a new research program in triple-negative breast cancer. Although his mother had been diagnosed with an aggressive brain cancer a decade earlier, Giraddi didn’t consciously notice the cancer coincidence. Over time, his team got excellent data from their breast cancer project; so when his supervisor transferred the project to IISc, she convinced the new lab to take Giraddi, too. Giraddi hit the ground running as a project assistant. During this early research, he won his first award, for a conference poster presentation in which he described his research with stem cells. The judge was a woman named Connie Eaves, one of the world’s foremost authorities on breast cancer.

The following year, Giraddi, who was deeply interested in different cell types and the relationship between normal breast tissue and tumor tissue, decided he wanted to get his doctorate. He applied to a competitive program at Cancer Research UK making it through the first two rounds against stiff competition from people with Ivy League educations. For the third round of 120 applicants, Giraddi had a personal interview with the prospective investigator, John Stingl, who, it turned out, had just completed his postdoctoral training with none other than Connie Eaves.

The shared connection helped Giraddi land the position in Stingl’s lab at the University of Cambridge.

“It was a very challenging experience to begin with because I was so overwhelmed,” he says. “You’re surrounded by brilliant scientists, and everyone wants to do something important, so it’s a competitive environment. But those interactions helped me understand what scientists’ work means for society. It was really motivating.”

He recalls walking in Cambridge on a bike path that had been painted with the actual DNA sequence of the BRCA2 gene. It occurred to him that it was the discovery of the BRCA1/2 genes that had transformed breast cancer biology and helped to prevent aggressive breast cancer in millions of women. For the first time, he realized that research interests must go beyond personal curiosity, to productive science that contributes to our understanding of diseases and enables successful therapies.

Giraddi next decided on a lab in Belgium for his postdoctoral training, but that was a more difficult experience. Although he had been contributing to an ongoing project to identify the cell of origin in breast cancer, the project Giraddi had chosen for himself was a very risky, ambitious experiment, which failed after three years. He decided to return to India and take stock of his next research project. During the hiatus, Giraddi read a paper by the Wahl lab.

“It was one of the milestone papers published in our field,” he says. “The comparison of embryonic cells versus malignant breast cancer cells fascinated me.”

He contacted Wahl about working in the lab, proposing a project to follow the development of a cell from its earliest embryonic state through its entire life, and expressed interest in improving our understanding of static cell types and cell states. Wahl laughed, saying, “We’re already working on it.” A series of conversations led Wahl to believe he and Giraddi were very much on the same page scientifically, so, even though they hadn’t yet met in person, Wahl offered Giraddi a research associate position.

Giraddi has thrived at Salk, working to push cancer research to the next level. He was the first author on a recent landmark paper in Cell Reports detailing the lab’s cutting-edge techniques to generate an atlas of the genes expressed in each breast cell from very early in development until adulthood, which the team compared with genes expressed in human breast cancers, identifying similarities that could be used for new diagnostic tests or treatments.

Giraddi’s mother, who survived for 25 years after her cancer diagnosis, is now in a hospice and hasn’t been aware of his recent successes. But Giraddi is keenly aware of the potential impact of his work for people with cancer, and it drives him onward.

As for onions? Giraddi now just cooks with them.

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