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Photographs by Leah Nash

Meet the four winners who’ve demonstrated dedication to the advancement against a rare or chronic disease either through research, patient advocacy, raising awareness, or community building. 

Simran Handa has watched her 16-year-old sister live with ulcerative colitis since she was 9 years old. Witnessing the complexity of diagnosis and treatment prompted Handa to get into medicine.

“Many autoimmune diseases are not well-studied or even if they are well-studied, it’s still unclear the mechanisms behind everything. So when my sister was first diagnosed, it was really frustrating for her and my family to be told by doctors that they didn’t know what’s going on,” the 21-year-old senior at Lewis & Clark College tells Healthline.

“That’s what got me interested in not only being a doctor, but actually trying to research the mechanisms behind these kinds of conditions.”

Handa, who is from Seattle, Washington, is working toward her degree in biochemistry and molecular biology.

We asked Handa about her studies, goals, and obstacles. Here’s what she had to say.

This interview has been edited for brevity, length, and clarity.

What prompted you to get into your field of study?

Besides the personal experience of seeing my sister live with ulcerative colitis, I think all autoimmune diseases are interesting.

You have to find a way to reprogram the immune system in a way that still allows it to protect itself from infections, while also stopping it from attacking the rest of your body. That is a really difficult thing to do.

This is why I like the physician-scientist path, where I’ll need two years of medical school, then get my PhD in four to six years. I’ll then go back to medical school to finish my last two years.

Most physician-scientists end up splitting their time between research and the clinic. They may work four days a week in the lab and one day in the clinic. I see myself eventually specializing in immunology, infectious diseases, or internal medicine.

As a physician-scientist, I’ll still be able to connect with patients — like my sister — on a weekly basis, but also work on understanding their disease on a molecular level.

What are your goals for the future?

I hope to study a disease that is complex and challenging, and that a lot of scientists don’t want to put their money and time into studying.

In the lab I currently work in, we’re not even close to a cure for the disease we’re studying. We’re back to the basic science of trying to figure out what’s actually happening. I like this work.

Another goal I have is mentoring and teaching, especially to students in areas of high-need. I am a first-generation college student and woman of color. It’s really important to me to be a mentor and role model.

The only reason I’m in science today is because my high school biology teacher noticed I was doing really well in class and suggested I apply for a cancer research internship at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research in Seattle. I applied and got it. That internship completely changed the trajectory of my life, as well as my confidence.

I’ve been doing research for about six years, which is a long time for people my age. I feel as though I’m much more confident in lab than my peers because I had the opportunity to be mentored at a young age. I want to pay it forward.

I also aim to improve mental health practices for people with immune disorders. When my sister was diagnosed, none of her doctors asked her how she was dealing with the diagnosis from a mental health perspective.

Getting a diagnosis like that, especially as a child, can be very difficult. As a clinician, one thing I will focus on is the mental health of the patient and how that interacts with their physical condition.

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Photographs by Leah Nash

What obstacles do you envision encountering, or have you encountered, as you move toward your research goals?

Because of how I was raised and being a person of color, the research world is intimidating. I want to choose a grad program that is welcoming and encourages diversity.

On that note, my parents migrated from India and we interact with many immigrant families. Many times, doctors don’t consider culture or family practices and traditions when making treatment plans. This can make immigrant families distrusting of medical professionals.

For example, the diet my sister is on was suggested by one of her doctors when she was 10. However, she said no because she wouldn’t have been able to participate in Indian food sharing practices, since a lot of Indian food is made of sugar and dairy.

As Indian immigrants, so many things from our Indian identity are lost when we come to the United States. We let go of our language, clothes, living situation, and more — but one thing we can hold onto is our food. At 10 years old, my sister did turn down this life-changing diet and her doctor had a difficult time understanding why.

While I understand his inability to comprehend this, one of the obstacles I hope to conquer as a clinician is to provide culturally-competent care and being empathetic toward people who come from different backgrounds.

Moreover, since I’m entering a 10-year grad program, it does make me think about family planning. Almost very few women who have won the Nobel prize in the sciences have children. That was shocking to find out and, as unfair as it is to women, it also shows that it will be difficult to have this career and a family.

What message would you like to give to those within the ulcerative colitis community?

I know it can be frustrating to be told by your doctors and healthcare team that they don’t know what’s going on with you, or that they only have a vague idea.

Know that there are people out there who love biochemistry and biology, and who are intrigued by the challenge of figuring out what’s going on instead of shying away from the challenge. The future is looking really hopeful.

Not only are there passionate and motivated people working in the field, but there are new and promising biotechnologies that will help aid research.

Cathy Cassata is a freelance writer who specializes in stories around health, mental health, and human behavior. She has a knack for writing with emotion and connecting with readers in an insightful and engaging way. Read more of her workhere.