Erin: How were you involved in the Global Health Program as an undergrad?
Tejas: I was pre-med and studying Mol-Bio [Molecular Biology] and knew I was going to become a doctor, but I had an interest in the policy side as well. I really wanted to have science be the foundation of what I did but the GHP was a way to get exposure to the policy side and to apply and use the scientific foundation and in a policy context.
Erin: How did you become interested in the policy side?
Tejas: At the end of my freshman year the ACA [Affordable Care Act] was passed, and the summer after my sophomore year I interned in the US Senate. The job itself was not so related to healthcare—the bulk was on the admin and constituent services side. We cataloged calls and opinions and at the end of the week, we would compile a cumulative list of what constituents were interested in. But we also got free blocks to explore subjects we were interested in, and I would use that time to sit in on meetings if people were debating a health bill or to do research if someone needed research for a health policy initiative. One issue that they were debating when I was there was whether special helmets could help prevent traumatic injuries in contact sports.
Erin: What were some of the more memorable classes or professors you had in the GHP?
Tejas: I took the intro classes the junior year; Professor Biehl was an amazing teacher. I also took several other classes that were positive contributions. The global health and health policy forum that was co-taught by Professors Adel Mahmoud, Thomas Shenk, and Bryan Grenfell, was my favorite class at Princeton. The class material was engaging and the science was interesting, but more than that, we had access to the faculty who had so much relevant experience to working in global health. In one particular class I remember discussing whether to publish methods on how to artificially transmit influenza virus from animals to humans in order to learn more about how flu transfer works in nature, but on the flip side, if this were published, that knowledge would be an international security risk as it could be weaponized—and our professors had sat on the ethics committee that made the real-life policy.
I also took a really cool class that was not a part of the GHP program but was an opportunity to develop ventures that address social challenges in the Keller Center. The challenge was to come up with business ideas to help the world’s poorest people—many of whom make less than one dollar per day. For example, how might we produce and distribute soap in order to stop the spread of cholera after the earthquake in Haiti? Although it was an entrepreneurship class, it was one of the classes I thought about global health challenges the most—in such a practical, informative, and experiential way.
Another favorite class was Professor Grenfell’s environmental health class where we learned to mathematically model disease epidemics. This was extremely useful in building the skills I needed to write my thesis where I modeled how an HIV vaccine would be a way to control the HIV epidemic in the long term.
Erin: Can you tell me more about your thesis research on HIV vaccines?
Tejas: The main part of my thesis was concerned with HIV vaccine design. I had read books early in my college career and became aware of the scale of the epidemic and believe developing a vaccine is one of the unanswered scientific questions of our time. I was inspired to learn more. Through both my GHP and Biology courses, it became clear that HIV is an incredibly complex entity to control and it is much more difficult to create a vaccine for HIV than other viruses. Professor Mahmoud helped connect me with Dennis Burton and Devin Sok at Scripps Research Institute for my GHP summer internship and I worked in the lab in San Diego.
Many approaches have been attempted in the development of an HIV vaccine. One such approach involves the study of broadly neutralizing antibodies—antibodies isolated from HIV-positive patients that are able to neutralize many different strains of HIV. Unfortunately for many of the patients who naturally produce these antibodies, these antibodies developed late in the course of disease and infection has been established. The goal of this research was to develop a vaccine that could elicit these broad and powerful antibodies before an infection occurred and thus have preventative benefit. My specific project was to generate variants of the HIV viral envelope and assess which mutations prevented binding by broadly neutralizing antibodies—reverse mapping the relevant epitopes.
Erin: As an undergrad, what did you value most (or what was most unique) about the GHP experience?
Tejas: GHP allowed me to explore some of my interest in a context that supported and enriched my main area of study. It allowed me to explore my interest in health policy in a way that connects to my interest in biology and helped add more context to biology. I highly valued the discussion-based classes, and the faculty were really rockstar faculty. Professor Biehl’s GHP 350 was a fascinating and eye-opening course. Investigating health issues from an anthropological perspective was a different way of thinking than I was used to with my biological science background.
Erin: Can you tell me what you’ve been up to since graduation?
Tejas: Right after graduating I worked as a consultant at IBM for a year and also was applying to medical school. I worked on some healthcare related projects and worked with pharma companies to develop products and services that would expand their portfolios, and projects that would make the health care delivery system better for patients. At this point in my career, I didn’t have much exposure to patient care, but some of the things I learned in the GHP enabled me to think realistically about barriers and potential areas for intervention.
After IBM, I began medical school and currently, I’m a third year at Yale. I’m doing one year of research before beginning my fourth year and applying to residency.
Erin: How have your health-related interests and perspectives changed or stayed the same since leaving Princeton?—Have the perspectives you gained through the GHP program influenced what you’ve done since graduation?
Tejas: Some of my interests have stayed the same and some have changed. Reading The Emperor of Maladies got me interested in studying cancer. Currently, I want to go into surgery and specialize in care that helps cancer patients in an academic medical center where I can also be involved in research. For my research year, I’m studying HPV-positive head and neck squamous cell carcinoma. Currently, the doses of radiation associated with standard therapy are associated with significant morbidity. Our research is trying to find specific biomarkers that may help identify HPV-positive head and neck cancer patients with better prognosis who may benefit from lower doses of radiation. We are also trying to better understand whether HPV causes head and neck cancer through pathways different than in cervical cancer—where HPV-driven carcinogenesis has been more extensively studied. Although I’m doing research with an ENT surgery program, it also incorporates virology which is an interest I’ve had since Princeton and the skills and techniques I’ve learned are applicable.
The number one thing that the GHP gave me was an excitement for looking for the biggest challenges out there and studying and trying to do something about them. When I heard about the scale of the HIV epidemic I was excited to do something about that. When I came to medical school, I learned that although there is so much cutting-edge technology to treat cancer there are some cancers we haven’t made much progress on. This is a big challenge with so much uncertainty. The GHP program got me excited about the big challenges so I’m excited to put my efforts toward improving cancer treatment.
Erin: What do you love about your work now?
Tejas: With research, it's always tough because there are although there are many interesting ideas, getting them implemented is a lot of trial and error. The tweaking can be frustrating at times, but I do really find the material very exciting whether it's cancer, or HIV, or the interplay of viruses and cancer. While often times, errors are made and experiments have to be repeated, I fundamentally find the work enjoyable and the subject matter interesting.
Erin: Any thoughts, advice, words of wisdom for current GHP students?
Tejas: Use the flexibility of the course to find something that really excites you and that you will feel excited to work on. One of the big benefits of GHP is to be around the faculty and the other students—there is a social aspect where you get to be in the same room with people that are excited about global health and there is a huge benefit to that.