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Service drives M.D./Ph.D. student

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2016 - Winter


The idea of “seva,” a word that in several Indian languages means “selfless service,” underlies everything that Durga Thakral, an M.D./Ph.D. candidate at the Yale School of Medicine, does. Thakral inherited that devotion to service from her parents, who emigrated from India to the Chicago area to pursue graduate studies before she was born.

“I’ve always seen them working tirelessly to support their own family, and the people around them,” she recalled. “That is something essential that they brought with them to America in their old cultural values.”

Thakral is one of 2016’s 30 winners of the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans, awarded to students who are immigrants or the children of immigrants to the United States. Chosen from a pool of more than 1,400 applicants, Soros Fellows receive tuition and stipend assistance of up to $90,000 in support of graduate education in any field.

From a young age, Thakral learned from her parents that, along with seva, “education, hard work, integrity, and compassion are the highest forms of wealth, a wealth that’s permanent and empowering,” she said. “They created this really loving and supportive environment for my sister and me to do anything we wanted. That included exploring nature in our backyard, as well as enjoying and doing well in school.”

Another influence was a biology teacher at her high school in Glen Ellyn, Ill. “By the time I got to my junior year I had actually run out of AP science courses,” she said. To keep her engaged, her teacher appointed Thakral her first-ever student aide. Thakral set up labs and helped her fellow students understand complex concepts. “I got to teach my peers about science, and make them just as enthusiastic as I was.”

Upon graduating, Thakral received the prestigious Franklin Award and Scholarship from Fermilab, the U.S. Department of Energy’s particle physics and accelerator laboratory in Illinois. As she presented the award, her teacher leaned over and whispered, “Maybe someday this will be a Nobel.”

“I was really shocked and honored that people from Fermilab came to our little public high school,” Thakral said. “That really showed me that if you follow your passion, and you devote everything you are doing to society in some way, these doors just open up.”

As an undergraduate at Yale, one door that opened was the opportunity to lead her own project in the lab of Thomas A. Steitz, Ph.D., Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry, who shared in the 2009 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work elucidating the structure of the ribosome. She came to the Steitz lab through a course that took her to Ecuador, where students created a library of bioactive compounds derived from plants in the rainforest, and then brainstormed ways the compounds could be put to use. Her desire to find a way to solve the problem of antibiotic resistance in bacteria led to an assay in which she discovered a synthetic compound with antibacterial properties that she developed in Steitz’s lab. “As an undergrad it was unusual to have my own project that I had dreamed up from scratch.”

Thakral graduated from the combined B.S./M.S. program in molecular biophysics and biochemistry in 2012, and, encouraged by the “open-minded nature of the research community at Yale,” she said, applied to Yale’s M.D./Ph.D. program. Currently in the first year of the Ph.D. portion of the degree, she is in the lab of Richard P. Lifton, M.D., Ph.D., chair and Sterling Professor of Genetics where she is seeking new ways to screen for the genetic bases of various genetic diseases. “Durga is a brilliant student, passionate about science and medicine, and extremely dedicated to her lab work,” said Lifton. “She is making a terrific contribution to the understanding of congenital disorders of children.”

Upon completion of her degree, Thakral hopes to go on to a residency in dermatology, rheumatology, or immunology. She sees the translation of lab discoveries to patient care as a way of carrying the idea of “seva” into her medical career. “It’s such a blessing to see how science is translated into these incredible molecular innovations in the clinic,” she says. “So every day, I’m not only humbled by patient experiences, I’m also humbled by the vast power of molecular medicine to improve the human condition. More than anything, I want to contribute to that.”

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