Student Spotlight​​

samarth hegde.jpgSamarth Hegde 

Molecular Cell Biology, incoming class 2014
Lab of Dr. David DeNardo

What is your educational/professional background?
I got my undergraduate degree in Biological Sciences in India, at BITS Pilani. I conducted post-baccalaureate research at the Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine (inStem) in Bangalore, India. During this time, I worked in the lab of Dr. Srikala Raghavan on epithelial cell biology.

Why did you choose to attend Washington University DBBS?
What is your favorite part about pursuing your PhD training here?
I was attracted to WashU and DBBS specifically for its umbrella program and its close ties to Siteman Cancer Center. I knew my interests in translational oncology would need a graduate program that was wide in its breadth of cancer research but also extensive enough in each arm to allow for focused professional development. I was very impressed by the genuineness and candid nature of DBBS faculty and students. The environment doesn't feel cut-throat at all, but don't get me wrong -- the expectations from you as a graduate student at WashU are always very high.

Slightly off the beaten path, the favorite part of my PhD 'training' has been the weekly student-run seminars (SRS), which are not only a great way to learn how to present without the perceived pressure from faculty, but also a very important way to learn how to give or receive scientific feedback.

What research are you currently working on? What is a fun fact about your current research?
I am conducting research in the tumor immunology lab of Dr. David DeNardo. Our lab focuses on the immune microenvironment of pancreatic cancer, which is a dismal disease with very poor outcomes and high recalcitrance to treatment.

My research revolves around understanding the key physiological barriers to CD8 T cell surveillance in pancreatic cancer. I use a combination of genetic/orthotopic mouse models, tissue imaging and ex vivo T cell-tumor interaction studies to determine why these cytotoxic T cells are ineffective in controlling tumors despite the presence of sufficient cues (tumor antigens). We have a unique model that enables us to study the basic biology of antigen-specific T cell interactions in naturally progressing disease, and presents opportunity to develop combinational therapies that can reawaken the poor T cell response. Results from my research will better our current immunological understanding of pancreatic cancer progression.

Fun fact: As part of my dissertation research, I am slowly learning really cool techniques such as second-harmonic deep tissue imaging to visualize immune cell interactions in the tumor microenvironment.

Are you involved in any student groups, volunteer work or other ventures outside of the lab?
I am closely involved with the BioEntrepreneurship Core (BEC), a student educational group through which students and post-graduates can learn about entrepreneurial skills and opportunities in St. Louis or beyond. This experience has greatly enhanced my understanding of translating graduate research and the 'businessy' aspect of bringing an idea to fruition. 

What is your favorite part about living in St. Louis?
St. Louis never feels like a big city despite being one. I can decide the pace or energy for my day, and not have the city decide that for me. Best of all, the city always surprises me with its hidden treasures; whether it be interesting food places, new bars or fun events. Often it's free or ridiculously affordable, which is never a bad thing on a graduate stipend.

What hobbies do you enjoy?
I enjoy reading literary fiction and collecting graphic novels; I am also into street photography but have been slacking off recently. Having become a craft beer snob, I have picked up home-brewing with some of my graduate school friends and that's been great!

What is your favorite quote?
"Quis custodiet ipsos custodes" - not from 'Satires', but from the graphic novel 'Watchmen'.

Is a hot dog a sandwich?
I would rather not wade into this trap...

Who is your biggest role model?
I really can't think of one person having that big of an influence, but one of the notable people I look up to is my previous mentor Dr. Srikala Raghavan. During my formative stage in science, I was deeply inspired by her collaborative achievements, unending enthusiasm for scientific discovery, and selfless interest in graduate training. I have seen these traits recurrent in so many successful academics including my current mentor Dr. DeNardo, and hope to follow in their footsteps.

What career would you like to pursue after completing your PhD training?
I plan to pursue academic research in my field of tumor immunology. I will apply for postdoctoral research opportunities in this field to prepare myself for eventual tenure-track research. The NCIF99 fellowship I have received will go a long way in enabling such a transition. I'm cognizant of the current dearth of academic careers, but feel I'm preparing myself well to be a competitive candidate for the research track.

What advice would you give to prospective graduate students?
I'll limit this to three: 

1) Don't join labs/graduate programs just because the Investigator is a big name or the lab's research is the buzzword of that year. It's your research interest foremost, followed by lab environment. You'll be a part of that lab for a large chunk of your life, pick a lab you would enjoy coming in on each day (or most days).

2) There will be a lot of times you will feel inadequate in comparison to peers or other people in lab. Imposter syndrome is very real and very draining. Don't feel ashamed to acknowledge it; having a strong peer support system (helpful mentors, friends inside and outside science) is key. Don't let go of that favorite hobby of yours too!

3) Pick up a valuable skill or technique in your graduate career that makes you marketable or competitive. The earlier you identify that and start working on it, the better.

Please list any grants, awards, publications, or other honors you have received during your time at DBBS.
I am the 2017 recipient of the NCI F99/K00 Predoctoral-to-Postdoctoral Fellow transition award for Washington University. The purpose of the award is to encourage students recognized for their potential and strong interest in pursuing careers as independent cancer researchers. The F99 phase supports 2 years of predoctoral research, and the K00 phase supports up to 4 years of mentored postdoc research. This award can facilitate my seamless transition into a successful postdoctoral appointment in cancer biology, while providing me with opportunities for career development relevant to my long-term academic goals.

I have contributed to two publications in the DeNardo lab:
-Jiang, H., Hegde, S., Knolhoff, B. L., Zhu, Y., Herndon, J. M., Meyer, M. A., et al. (2016). Targeting focal adhesion kinase renders pancreatic cancers responsive to checkpoint immunotherapy. Nature Medicine, 22(8), 851-860.-Jiang, H., Hegde, S., and DeNardo, D.G. (2017) Tumor-associated fibrosis as a regulator of tumor immunity and response toimmunotherapy. Cancer Immunology Immunotherapy, 1-12.

Please list any other information you would like to share for your spotlight.
For more information on the F99 funding mechanism, check out

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