Oxford Univ vaccine on COVID-19 is a humanitarian cause: Indian-origin scientist

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London: An Indian-origin scientist, who is part of a team of Oxford University professionals on a project to find a vaccine to protect against the coronavirus, says she feels honoured to be a part of a humanitarian cause, with the world’s hopes attached to the outcome.

Chandrabali Datta, who was born in Kolkata, works in the Clinical Biomanufacturing Facility at the university’s Jenner Institute where Phase II and III of human trials of the vaccine named ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 are being conducted as a possible tool to fight the deadly virus.

The 34-year-old’s role as a Quality Assurance Manager means it is her task to ensure all levels of compliance are met before the vaccine could progress to the trial stage.

“We are all hoping that it works in the next stage; the whole world is looking to this vaccine,” said Datta.

“It’s like a humanitarian cause to be a part of this project. We are a non-profit organisation, putting in extra hours everyday just to make this vaccine successful, so that human lives can be saved. It is a massive team effort and everyone has worked around the clock towards its success.

“I feel honoured to be a part of this project,” she said.

While her own “close knit” team of 25 experts on the production side of the vaccine is extremely gender balanced, Datta is keen to encourage young girls in India to challenge a perceived male dominance in the field of bioscience.

“If you are motivated and up for a challenge, then this is your field. Nowadays, biotech and pharma are getting an equal male-female ratio so there are lots of opportunities,” she said.

“The scientific field is not highly paid, so you have to get rid of your materialistic desires if you want to be successful in this field.

“But if your motivation is really high and you are up for the struggle, then this is a very rewarding area of work. There is lots of recognition for your hard work because at the end of the day you are improving human lives,” she says, as a message for young girls considering a career in bioscience.

Datta, who studied engineering and biotechnology in Kolkata, was drawn to biology and mathematics in childhood.

She went on to study computer science and even worked as an Associate Software Engineer with Accenture in India but was pulled back to biotech because of its “evolving and inventive” potential.

“My childhood friend was studying in Nottingham, who inspired me, and the UK is known for equal rights, women rights. So, I chose to do my Masters in biotech from the University of Leeds,” she recalls.

“It has been a real struggle, leaving India and coming here. My mother wasn’t too happy about her only child moving countries to study.

“But my father has always been ambitious for me and said I should chase my dreams and not compromise,” she said.

During this time, Datta balanced shifts at the supermarket and pizza restaurants with her laboratory experiments in order to cover living costs.

After her degree, came more hardships in the form of a job hunt, which proved extremely challenging and involved drafting hundreds of applications a day.

She recalls, “I remember I would finish my lab project and quickly run to Tesco to do evening shifts from 6.30pm to midnight. And, by the time I would get home, I didn’t even have time to eat, I would just fall asleep. I would sleep only three hours a day.

“Getting a job wasn’t easy without industry experience. Many of my peers went the PhD route but I wanted to be in the industry. A lot of my friends gave up and returned to India. But I refused to give up,” she said.

Her persistence paid off when she got a job at pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline as an R&D scientist developing inhalers.

Her hard work and diligence saw her move up the ranks quickly until her current job at Oxford University about a year ago, where she finds herself a part of one of the world’s most-talked-about vaccine projects.

“I have to make sure that all our departments are compliant, everyone is trained in whatever they are doing and following all standard operating procedures (SOPs).

Particularly in this project, my contribution was to check that everything is compliant, SOPs are “followed, no mistakes were made,” she explains.

But working through the lockdown as a key worker on the frontlines of the pandemic meant her parents back in Kolkata being constantly worried for her safety.

“My parents were really worried and paranoid about me going in to work during this crisis. But I had to help my team. Everyone is under stress, given the pandemic, and we supported each other through this crisis period.

“Whenever someone was struggling, there were people around to help,” she said.

While she manages to stay in touch with family and friends back in India through regular WhatsApp calls, Datta is hoping she can be with her parents for her annual Christmas trip by the end of the year.

“We have never seen a pandemic like this in our lives. We used to read in history but never imagined that in the 21st century we will actually see such a pandemic which will mean we have to be locked in our houses for months.

“The main focus is to bring human life back to normal and to save lives,” she said.

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