“I want to contribute to a breakthrough in the field of cancer research”

Sagarika Dawka was destined for a career in the medical field, as her family is full of doctors. In the Master’s Programme in Genetics and Molecular Biosciences, she has delved deeper into the cellular level of human disease and prepared herself for a career as a scientist conducting cancer research.

When your grandparents are doctors with four children who not only became doctors, but also are married to doctors, the medical field seems like an inevitable career choice. However, Sagarika Dawka forged her own path into healthcare by deciding to become a researcher.

“For a long time, I thought I would follow suit and pursue the profession of a practicing doctor. But in the end, the creativity included in a career in research enticed me more. For instance, being able to design your experiments or defining what problem to solve and how with the resources you have. There is room for flexibility and thus you get to follow your curiosity.”

Dawka was exposed to different fields of medicine and associated diseases from an early age. In the role of a researcher, she has decided to focus on the cellular mechanisms whose disruption can contribute to the onset and progression of various diseases.

“I was intrigued by what goes on at the deeper level. By studying genetics and molecular biosciences, you get an understanding of the mechanisms that are causing the disease.”

Gaining skills in scientific research from the get-go

Originally from India, Dawka moved to Finland in 2019 to study in the Master’s Programme in Genetics and Molecular Biosciences (GMB). She had heard praises for the Finnish education system when growing up, but the opportunity to gain hands-on experience already at the start of her studies was a big surprise.

“The pace of the programme exceeded my expectations. I had thought that you need more experience to be involved in actual research, but was pleasantly surprised by the quick progression to practical work.”

As the programme is tightly integrated with the experimental research carried out at the University of Helsinki in genetics, genomics, biochemistry, structural biology as well as cellular and developmental biology, the students get to be part of real-life cases.

“Our practical courses involve using model organisms, for instance from fruit flies and zebrafish to mice. I was not expecting that sort of exposure at such an early stage.”

Dawka appreciates the structure of the programme where students first acquire knowledge and skills in modern genetics and molecular biosciences before choosing their field of specialisation.

“Once I had first-hand knowledge of what the fields of studies entailed, I was able to make an informed decision when choosing to specialise in cellular and developmental biology.”

Students can take advantage of the university’s multidisciplinary approach even after choosing a study track to focus on. At the University of Helsinki, students are encouraged to take courses across academic disciplines.

“You can take courses according to your interest from various study tracks or choose to study something completely different. In addition to cellular and developmental biology, I have been able to study also genetics and genomics.”

Concentrating on cancer at the cellular level

Dawka’s research focus is cancer. Her master’s thesis examined cell state heterogeneity in Head and Neck Squamous Cell Carcinoma (HNSCC). The thesis project involved inspecting the differences that are present in patients with head and neck cancer.

HNSCC is a group of cancers recognized for diversity between tumors from separate patients as well as between cell types within individual tumours. Heterogeneity makes accurate diagnosis and selection of treatment options difficult. Dawka’s study aims to improve the precision of prognosis.

“I was looking at what appeared different or strange in a cohort of patients by analyzing images obtained from their tumour samples. Then I used experiments to see how particular cell states are affected in patient-derived cell lines.”

Dawka’s interest in stem cell biology and cancer research stems from the cellular parallels.

“Cancer cells and stem cells have certain similarities, for instance, the ability to proliferate extensively, which means to increase in number. Stem cells are undifferentiated cells that can turn into specific cells, whereas cancer cells were differentiated, but they then lose their differentiation.”

Research focuses on what factors affect cell fate decisions and where this goes wrong, in order to understand and develop efficient treatment methods for cancer.

Cancer is a group of diseases that involves abnormal cell growth, but within that definition, there is still plenty of uncertainty to be disclosed.

“There are mechanisms that cancer cells use to exploit normal conditions to propagate their own growth. By inspecting how the building blocks are arranged, we can uncover solutions.”

 “Even a small contribution is large enough to make an impact”

Dawka currently works as a research assistant at Systems Oncology (ONCOSYS), one of the research programmes of the University of Helsinki’s Faculty of Medicine. The objective of ONCOSYS is to understand the underlying causes of cancer progression or treatment resistance and to develop effective approaches.

“I work in a laboratory that studies immunological interactions in the tumor microenvironment, particularly in ovarian cancer. We collect ovarian cancer samples from patients and use them to grow 3D tumour organoids. The organoids are then subjected to different kinds of techniques, for instance, to test drug responses.”

Studies at the University of Helsinki have helped Dawka feel at home in a multidisciplinary work environment, where each researcher has their own set of skills from various scientific disciplines.

“I have learned that no two minds think alike. Many different paths can lead to the same conclusion. By working together, the routes are intertwined and more possibilities are taken into consideration.”

The next step in Dawka’s career is to pursue a doctoral degree. In the future, she wishes to contribute to a breakthrough in cancer research.

“The wonderful thing about research is that any information that you are able to produce or discover is something that other people in the field can then use to build upon. Even a small contribution is large enough to make an impact.”

Master’s Programme in Genetics and Molecular Biosciences

In the Master's Programme in Genetics and Molecular Biosciences (GMB), you will acquire knowledge and skills in modern genetics and molecular biosciences. You get a broad-based understanding of biological phenomena and of the molecules that have an effect on health, including their interactions and functions at the levels of cells, tissues and organisms.

You can specialise according to your interests in Biochemistry and Structural Biology, Cell and Developmental Biology, Genetics and Genomics or Molecular Analytical Health Biosciences.

The programme is based on basic scientific research and tightly integrated with the experimental research carried out at the University of Helsinki.