Sovon Acharya was only 12 years old when the word ‘cancer’ first entered his lexicon.
“My aunt had succumbed to blood cancer just three months after she was first diagnosed. I thought ‘how can a disease snuff out life in such a short span of time?’. I was too little to understand all these things back then. But it did consume my thoughts,” says Sovon, in a conversation with The Better India.
Despite his desire to find out more about this mysterious disease, there was scant information available in his school textbooks.
For the Class VII student studying at the Bengali-medium Khalisa Bhanga High School in his village, which is 150 km away from Kolkata, the wait would extend a few more years.
Today, he is a senior research fellow at the National Institute of Biomedical Genomics in Kalyani in Nadia district, West Bengal. Sovon, however, comes from very humble beginnings. His father was a poor farmer, who would take up work as a daily wager in a cashew factory in the offseasons.
As a young child, Sovon would help his father work their land and milk the few cows they owned.
Despite his innate curiosity in learning about human physiology and the biology of cancer, Sovon couldn’t apply to college after finishing high school. His family was strapped for cash, and due to various “problems in the family”, Sovon had to take up a job.
“Back then, I thought if I join a hospital in whatever capacity, I will get a chance to learn about subjects like human physiology and the biology of cancer by interacting with doctors and patients. That’s why I applied for a job as an usher at AMRI Hospital—a multi-speciality hospital—in the Mukundapura area of Kolkata. Thankfully, I got the job,” he says.
At the hospital, his job involved guiding patients to their specific departments and help them fill up and arranging their documents.
“There, I interacted with more than 60 patients daily, learnt the name of diseases they were suffering from, and jotted them down in my diary. After my duty would get over, I would look up these diseases on the internet. That’s where I started gaining real knowledge. Doctors there helped me understand the basic facts and encouraged my curiosity. For further reading, however, I would go to the famous second-hand book market at College Street. I would visit there frequently and bought books on human physiology, while also working on my English.” he says.
Unfortunately, in the early morning of December 2011, the AMRI Hospital’s Dhakuria unit caught fire, killing nearly 100 people. Realising that times might get hard at the hospital, Sovon put down his papers and applied to the Tata Medical Centre Cancer Hospital in the New Town area of Kolkata.
“My thinking was that ‘if I get a job here, I will get a chance to interact with cancer patients and experts in the field’. There, I applied for the post of a telephone operator. During the interview, they asked me whether I knew anything about cancer. In response, I listed out all the classifications of cancer. This later helped me decide which doctor’s appointment to book for a patient,” he says.
“After that, they asked ‘if we put you on the appointments desk, will you be able to able to give patients their appointment to the right doctor since there are more than 20 doctors in our hospital who specialise in different forms of cancer’. When I answered in the affirmative, they gave me the job. This was a real turning point in my life,” he says.
What Sovon found at the Tata Medical Centre was a real opportunity to feed his curiosity. He would read up prescriptions to understand the line of treatment required for a particular cancer patient.
Doctors and researchers would share their expertise with him. Sometimes they would get irritated by his constant questions, but they were accommodating for the most part.
“I came into contact with very good scientists and experts who were working on cancer. They realised I was very interested in understanding the biology of cancer. They soon allowed me to see how they do research, their diagnostic processes and even allowed me to see how a cancer cell looks like under a microscope. After my duties, I would visit the pathology and microbiology lab at the cancer hospital. Unofficially, they gave me a chance to be an observer. Constantly visiting these labs, I soon learnt the technique of how doctors diagnose cancer. I spent a lot of time with scientists, doctors and other officers and they helped me a lot,” he tells The Better India.
Two doctors at the hospital—Professor Manas Roy, a surgeon, and Dr Sanjay Bhattacharya, a microbiologist—really encouraged him to go for higher studies, says Sovon.
“Seeing my curiosity, they believed I was capable of doing something worthwhile in this field,” he adds.
“There is only one life, and I have the chance to do something special with it. I was so desperate at the time. I looked up colleges from Sikkim Manipal University to Calicut University, AIIMS to Kanpur University. During the time I also applied to Calcutta University,” he says.
However, there was a small problem with his application to Calcutta University. The varsity only admits those students who apply less than three years after they finish their Class XII Board Exams. Sovon had finished his boards in 2009, and this was 2012.
He tried everything—spoke to heads of various departments and even senior officials at the State education department. But nothing came of those meetings, and in certain cases he was even derided for his requests for leniency.
However, hope came, when someone told him about the Bachelor’s programme in Kanpur University, where no such rule existed. “I have the knowledge, but no degree. Without one, I wouldn’t have been able to do anything,” he says.
One fine day in June 2013, when Sovon was waiting for a bus after his shift at the hospital, an idea came flashing before him. “I don’t know if it was out of madness, but I decided to take the bus to Howrah Station, booked a ticket for Kanpur on Kalka Mail and just took off with some clothes and Rs 300 in my pocket,” he says.
He took the bull by its horns.
When he arrived, the entrance test for BSc in Medical Microbiology at Kanpur University had just gotten over, but there were seats available for those with high board exam aggregate scores.
Sovon qualified for a seat, picked up the form and with the help of a batchmate – Saurabh Sachan – filled up the form in Hindi.
Sovon had met Saurabh, whose father had been posted in West Bengal, on campus. Finding out that Sovon was from Bengal, and that he had no one in Kanpur, Saurabh gave him a place to stay at home.
However, there was the question of the Rs 54,000 he needed to pay for his admission. That’s when Sovon reached out to his father.
“My father was planning to build a pucca hut with his savings. But he pledged to sell off our small plot of land and give me that money instead,” Sovon told The Telegraph in a separate interview.
“Now, I had a platform to understand things that I’ve always wanted to learn. After a few months, I found my own place. For my daily sustenance, I joined a coaching centre as a teacher, teaching third-year students microbiology, basic developmental biology, etc, even though I was just in my first year. It helped me earn some money,” says Sovon.
At the end of his second year, he wrote to Professor Pradip Sinha, who was working on cancer genetics at IIT Kanpur, expressing an interest in his research. At the time, Professor Sinha was working on a cancer drug. “He soon offered me a position of lab attendant,” says Sovon.
What you’ll notice through the course of Sovon’s life is the enormous sacrifice his low-income family made for his education. It’s truly remarkable.
For example, for the second-year tuition fees, Sovon’s mother mortgaged her jewellery, while his brother studied at a local Industrial Training Institute.
Another remarkable feature of his life is the incredible kindness of strangers. When the family had nothing to offer for his BSc final year tuition fees, Dr Varsha Gupta, a professor at the Biotechnology Department paid up entirely.
He recalls his time as a part-time lab attendant at IIT-Kanpur with great fondness.
“It was an amazing time. I had access to free high-speed internet. Received a lot of help from PhD students, who taught me a lot and encouraged me, and I would sit in through lectures on Biotechnology. Of course, none of these lectures mattered for the BSc course, but it fed my appetite to learn.”
In his final year, he topped the entrance exams for Master’s in Medical Biotechnology in AIIMS, Delhi, and thanks to a fellowship from the Central government, he could afford a seat there.
During his time at AIIMS Delhi, Sovon found the opportunity to conduct research in his chosen field—metastasis, the process by which cancer spreads from the place at which it first arose as a primary tumour to distant locations in the body.
At the varsity, he came across Dr Subhradip Karmakar, who was conducting extensive research on blood cancer. After working with him for two years in his laboratory, Sovon finished his Masters in June 2017.
A few months later, he received a fellowship from the Japanese government for cancer research at the at the Yamaguchi University School of Medicine in Ube.
Despite the language barrier, Sovon remembers his six-month stint there with great fondness. Upon his return to India, he joined the National Institute of Biomedical Genomics (NIBG), a national level research institute for genomic medicine. In fact, Sovon’s association with NIBG extends to his days as an undergraduate student. He had first written to Dr Sandeep Singh, his current supervisor at NIBG, in his first year of college expressing his interest cancer stem cell research.
For Sovon, there are three key objectives that drive his passion for research into cancer.
“Millions of researchers and billions of dollars are spent on cancer research. But if a person gets cancer, we are unable to remove it completely. My first objective is to develop a medicine for cancer that patients can buy off the drugstore like those for fever or indigestion. Yes, this may not happen in my lifetime, but I want to contribute through my research for a day when this becomes possible.
Secondly, I want to devise a way whereby we can detect cancer early. If we can find cancer at an early stage, we can treat it. Before metastasis, we must find a way to detect cancer.
And finally, affordable chemotherapy for poor patients. Cancer is not just a medical disease, it is also a disease of economy. Most poor folks with cancer have to sell everything to treat themselves, and even then, they succumb to the disease,” says Sovon.
The intense drive that Sovon possesses for research comes from his parents.
“My father always hoped that my education and knowledge would be for the upliftment of the people. I always keep his words in my mind. My parents sacrificed a lot for me just so that I could help people suffering from cancer. I have come a long way, but this is only the beginning,” he says.
(Edited by Vinayak Hegde)