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Balancing Dual Roles

Sidharth Mahapatra, MD ’09, PhD ’07, on Being a Physician, a Scientist and a Mentor — and How the Late Kenneth Neet Helped Him Become All Three

Following the example of a grandfather, two uncles and a much beloved pediatrician, Sidharth Mahapatra pursued his medical dreams while studying at Knox College in Galesburg, IL. Crafting a competitive application, Sid began a research project in the summer of 1998 in Dr. Mark Brodl’s lab that culminated in a platform presentation at the 2001 Illinois State Academy of Sciences where he took first place — and fell in love with the lab in the process. “My mind was stimulated by the academic discovery process: hypothesis-driven, logical, data-oriented, the synthesis of the question, investigation and conclusion, followed by subsequent inquiries — but I didn’t want to leave medicine!”

He found his solution in the combined MD/PhD program at SGPS, balancing his desire to personally treat and heal with the investigative process of scientific discovery. Under the tutelage of Dr. Kenneth Neet, Sid pursued the scientific process, constantly answering one question only to be faced with five more. Throughout his development, Dr. Neet always encouraged creativity: “When things don’t follow the plan, when the experiment fails — what do you do? That’s when creativity kicks in. You don’t feel fear of failure. You keep moving forward.” That principle has guided Sid through the rest of his career.

Now an assistant professor in the Division of Pediatric Critical Care Medicine at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, Sid is able to think differently about clinical problems. “I take care of children in life-threatening situations or with multiple illnesses. We monitor changes in the trajectories of their disease processes. When I am presented with any change, I attend to it in the moment, helping and healing the patient. But after, I step back and ask the question, ‘What is the root cause of this problem?’ I take it from the bedside to the bench and wholeheartedly apply the academic discovery process to flushing out the why.”

Sid’s current research is focused on medulloblastoma, the most common malignant CNS tumor of childhood. Balancing dual pursuits in clinical care and basic science is grueling, and would be unsustainable without the support of an excellent lab infrastructure under the mentorship of Dr. Surinder Batra. Sid is particularly grateful to his division chief, Dr. Mohan Mysore, and department chair, Dr. John Sparks, for designing a schedule with adequate protected time for his research; he is assisted in his work by two excellent postdocs, Ranjana Kanchan and Naveen Kumar Perumal, and his co-PI, Dr. Wasim Nasser. Deeply thankful for the dedication with which his postdocs sustain the work during his clinical hours, Sid hopes to give them the same generous attention and encouragement that he received from his own mentors. The laboratory is currently working to identify novel tumor suppressor and chemo-sensitizing genes, as well as testing targeted therapeutics.

With one foot in both worlds and a mind trained in compassionate creativity, Dr. Mahapatra’s dual roles truly allow him to be the healer he dreamed of being as a child.


SIDHARTH MAHAPATRA REMEMBERS KENNETH NEET

Sid has always been grateful for the example and encouragement of his mentor, the late Dr. Kenneth Neet. Dr. Neet was someone who fostered ideas rather than dictating or ordering. He often told Sid, “What’s the worst that can happen? You fail? You have a lab and infrastructure here that allows you to fail. Get right back up and try again.” Sid fondly remembers Dr. Neet’s focus on the primary success of his students rather than his own career advancement.

That is what Sid misses most now, and feels he took for granted in the past. “I cannot describe how impactful that was,” he explains. “It has absolutely colored the way I mentor my students and postdocs. If my mentees remember me the way I remember Dr. Neet, then that will be the highest success.”

Posted November 22, 2018
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