Interview: Think Differently. Think Big. Stay Positive. And Dream. The World Beckons!

Interview: Think Differently. Think Big. Stay Positive. And Dream. The World Beckons!
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Director of Center for Stem Cell Therapeutics, Harvard University, Dr. Khalid Shah’s Advice to Kashmiri Students

In an exclusive interview to Kashmir Reader, Dr. Khalid Shah,  Director of Center for Stem Cell Therapeutics and Imaging at BWH/ Harvard Medical School and Vice Chairman of Research for Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Co-Director for joint Center of Excellence in Biomedicine at BWH Harvard Medical School talks about his stupendous  success(es), journey of life till now, and offers invaluable advice to Kashmiri students.

(Dr. Shah and his team have pioneered major developments in the stem cell therapy field, successfully developing experimental models to understand basic cancer biology and therapeutic stem cells for cancer. These studies have been published in a number of very high impact journals like Nature Neuroscience, Science, PNAS, Nature Reviews Cancer, JNCI, Stem Cells and Lancet Oncology. Dr. Shah’s work has caught the attention in the public domain and as such it has been highlighted in the media world-wide including features on BBC, Fox news and CNN. Dr. Shah has alsoreceived numerous awards and accolades for his work which include the young investigator award from Alliance for cancer gene therapy, Research fellow award from American Cancer Society, Distinguished research award from Academy of Radiology and Innovation awards from James McDonnell Foundation, American Brain Tumor Association and Goldhirsh foundation. Additionally, Dr. Shah has participated in the training of numerous undergraduate, graduate students and medical residents at MGH and the potential of his mentoring has been recognized by Harvard Medical School and awarded him the Harvard Young Mentor Award)

  • Khalid, please tell us how your journey started?

Well, like most Kashmiris, my aspiration was to study medicine. I made two attempts at cracking the exam but I could not make it[laughs]. But, I had a dream and I was lucky to have a mentor who encouraged me to aspire for bigger things.  As a nineteen year old, this was a tough thing to swallow. However, this was when the seed was planted. I , subsequently, applied for a program in the Netherlands, in the field of genetic engineering.

  • What did you do in the Netherlands?

I enrolled in a genetic engineering program which opened multiple avenues and career choices. I chose to do a Phd in genetic engineering.

  • What was significant about it?

It was a new, exciting and challenging domain. You could clone DNA’s, genetically engineer cells and you could apply it to any facet of medcine.

  • How did the experience in Netherlands help you?

Well, it , all in all enriched me. Generally speaking, these kinds of experiences help you start looking out of the box, enriches you and opens up new vistas.

  • What would you consider to be your greatest achievement?

Being able to significantly contribute in developing next generation of innovative therapeutics/drugs for cancer could be held to a significant achievement.

  • If you were to attribute your success to one factor, what would be it?

These would be the twin prongs of self-belief and faith. I have also met some amazing people who have helped me in my journey. I owe it to them as well.

  • Tell us about your journey from the Netherlands to Harvard Medical School?

During the 3rd year of my graduate study in Netherlands, I wondered what I was going to apply my know how of genetic engineering, cell signaling and neurobiology. I had to stop my studies for a month or so and do quite a bit of soul searching. I also read about different world-renowned personalities to find a defined purpose in life. Once, I had clarity of mind and a defined purpose of finding a cure for cancer, I applied for a fellowship at HMS and was accepted. I was amazed by the openness, mentorship and support I got from my mentors at HMS early on in my career and owe my success to them.

  • What next for you?

Finding cure for cancer in my lifetime and helping the next generation of people worldwide to advance Medical field.

  • What would be your suggestion(s) and advice to students of Kashmir?

Positive thinking and believing in themselves would be my answer. It is also important thing have clarity of mind. We tend to do too many things, without realizing what it is that we can do best. As a result, at the end of the day, we are unable to make big things happen. I suggest them to acquire wealth of knowledge and be fair and just when  they are disseminating the knowledge they have acquired.

  • You are advising the Saudi Government’s stem cell initiative. Tell us a little about it.

As my Cell Therapy Center continues to develop new therapies for Cancer under my direction, I am deeply interested influencing education in third world and developing countries. As such I have recently started a joint Center of Excellence in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. This Center trains young Saudis in Science and Technology and hopefully will breed a next generation of Scientists in Saudi Arabia. I am also advising Saudi’s Vision 2030 and their Stem Cell Initiative since last 2 years.

  • Tell us your philosophy on success and failure

I strongly believe that different people have different strengths and most of the times, people don’t go into the fields/areas that they are actually good in. If they would, there would be very few unsuccessful people in world. It is  absolutely important to realize your own strengths and weaknesses and pursue one thing, one strength and one goal. This will be attained by being open to new things and by being fearless in exploring new avenues. I believe two of the most important things that have contributed to my success, if any are patience and my openness to learn. There was never a doubt in my mind that I wanted to contribute to the field of medicine and the best thing I could do was to cultivate new ideas and innovate.

  • Students in Kashmir are constrained by many factors, which includes restrictive career choices. What’s your take on this?

You are right, we only give few career track opportunities to our students from a very young age. This builds a very restrictive mindset that doesn’t allow them to be open to new ideas and different career choices. I believe that both parents and teachers have the responsibility to be open minded and expose children at a very young age to different avenues. Once that is done, students from different walks of life will figure out themselves how to attain their goals.

  • Generally speaking, what’s your take on life?

Life is full of ups and downs but very exciting at the same time. As everything happens for a reason, it is worthwhile to enjoy every experience life takes you through.  It is important that we live in present, be fair and just and not waste our present by thinking too much about the future. We should also not wait for obtaining life’s big prizes but enjoy it’s small delights; I believe that they are in abundance for all of us.

What and who has been the greatest influence on you?

I have always looked up to personalities who have shown patience and perseverance. I have been deeply influenced by Prophet Muhammad (SAW) for the way he lived his life and have read “  The Life of  the Prophet” by Haykal A number of times. I believe that his book is an excellent guide to live a very complete life.

The world out there is big and huge. When you ventured out of Kashmir, did it intimidate you? How did you cope up?

I agree! However, I think I inherently have a positive attitude and self-belief. These were the two things that helped me a lot when I went from Kashmir to Europe and then to USA.  Over the years, I have also learnt to be open minded and tolerant. This has helped me to adapt to different situations and to build collaborative multi-disciplinary teams that break the cultural divide.

  • What keeps you motivated and going?

Purpose in life and gratitude. I strongly believe that we will find a cure for cancer one day and I want to contribute my bit towards this cause.

You want to contribute to Kashmir. How?

There are a number of brilliant people here in Kashmir. We need to have a vision for the overall development of Kashmir and for that we will have to pick right people very early on in their careers. I have mentored a number of young individuals at Harvard Medical School and will be happy to provide my expertise. For my contribution in the medical field, it would be great if we can build a Stem Cell Therapeutic Center in Kashmir and I have already offered my services to the SKIMS.


The interview was carried out partly in Srinagar and partly over email. Dr. Shah tweets at: @khalidshahs