He won a reality TV show to do stem cell research
Caezaan Keshvani is currently enrolled in university in New York, USA. Before he began his PhD programme at SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, he studied at University of Sheffield, UK. What made this all possible for this bright young man who had all but given up hope of ever studying abroad? Winning a reality television show.
Raised in Mumbai, Caezaan's story is a little different from the thousands of Indian students who head abroad each year. After completing his CIE A levels, he planned to head abroad to study. As he planned his next step, tragedy struck. His father, a doctor, was seriously injured in the train bomb blasts in Mumbai in 2006 and most of the family savings were used up for the multiple surgeries he had to undergo. As his study abroad hopes gradually dwindled, Caezaan learned of a reality show that offered the winner a 100-per cent scholarship to the University of Sheffield to study Biomedical Sciences.
He decided to participate, won and the rest, as they say, is history. He graduated from Sheffield in July 2010 with a first-class degree in Functional Genomics and Stem Cell Science and is just beginning his studies in the US. Here he speaks with rediff.com about his journey...
You won the Airtel Scholar Hunt: Destination UK show three years ago, which enabled you to study at the University of Sheffield. How did you come to participate in the competition?
After my A-levels in India I wanted to undertake graduate studies in the UK. I had applied to the University of Sheffield to study Genetics & Molecular Biology. I had received a conditional offer from Sheffield but raising the finances was proving to be difficult. So my hopes of studying in the UK began dwindling.
Then one day I received an e-mail from Sheffield about the Airtel Scholar Hunt: Destination UK show which was going to be held for the first time in India. I was informed that the University of Sheffield had sponsored a seat in Biomedical Sciences. I realised that this was a god-sent opportunity and decided to put in all my efforts.
I applied for the initial round for the scholarship and got selected. The show had five rounds -- from an online test to subject test to interview and then the quiz round -- all of which lasted from early March till mid August. Around 10,000 participants from across India had applied and only the final four faced the final test.
In the final test we were asked to perform three experiments. We were judged on the approach we adopted in performing the experiment. Finally, I managed to win the scholarship.
Image: Caezaan Keshvani
Studies, mountain-climbing and holding down 2 jobs
What were you doing before you left for Sheffield?
The competition lasted from April till August so there wasn't much time left for me to do much except start packing for my trip. I had been preparing for the MHCET and other CETs for medicine in India along with the scholarship test preparation.
In the end I chose going to Sheffield over studying medicine in India since it gave me the opportunity to broaden my horizons and pursue research in field of stem cell study.
What did you study at Sheffield?
I studied Biomedical Sciences at Sheffield. Here we have the option of selecting from six different areas of study for the final year. I opted for and graduated in Functional Genomics and Stem Cell Science.
Moreover, I was among the seven students out of 160 who were given an opportunity to undertake lab research in the final year. So I was able to get good hands-on experience to work on various animal models (including drosophila, zebrafish and mice) as well as cell culture.
You took up a research project in your final year. Tell us about it and what it's about.
I did my final year project working with human embryonic stem cells. My project revolved around identifying if there were subsets in early and late passage embryonic stem cells. This was to examine if the stem cells grown in culture for short periods (early passage) and longer periods (late passage) of time had different characteristics and whether they were biased towards a particular type of embryonic lineage (ectoderm, mesoderm or endoderm) once certain time had passed. Along with working on the cell cultures in the lab I also had to do extensive literature reviews and finally present the results I had obtained in form of a poster presentation.
Tell us about your experiences at Sheffield.
My time in Sheffield was extremely memorable. It allowed me not only to experience a different culture and a new world but also allowed me to develop as an independent individual. I was able to come out of my introvert nature of always being behind the books to someone who could excel in his studies as well as be involved with the community I was living in. I made a lot of very good friends who were understood my personality and were always there in times of any difficulties. Also I thoroughly enjoyed the academic studies which I was pursuing at the university which was crucial for achieving one of my dreams of pursuing further research.
I did take part in various extracurricular activities that included trekking, mountain climbing, learning new dance forms from waltz to break-dance as well as swimming. I was actively involved in various committees and clubs in Sheffield union that included the International Student's committee, among others.
I had two part-time jobs, one was the Union link for Biomedical Science department and the other was being a residential mentor for incoming students for two years. I was also involved with volunteering projects done by the Sheffield volunteering.
Image: Caezaan (sitting second from left) at SUNY Upstate
A love for learning
What are you studying currently and why did you choose this particular university and course?
I am currently pursuing my PhD in the area of cancer research at SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, New York. I applied to SUNY as it was one of the universities that had the research areas I was interested in pursuing viz cancer biology and stem cells. After my first year I will be also trying for the MD-PhD Medical Scientist Training Program. SUNY Upstate offers this programme to their PhD students.
What are your plans for the future, academically and career-wise?
I have wanted to pursue medicine right since school but I also wanted to pursue research in the medical field, trying to answer some of the many puzzling questions. I chose research in stem cells at the university since I had learnt about them in my A-levels and learning in more detail at the university about the current research allowed me to do so. I plan on doing a dual degree programme that will allow me to be a competent medical researcher as well as a physician who can translate the knowledge from research to bedside medicine.
Tell us about your family.
I have a younger brother who is currently studying BE in Biomaterial Science and Tissue engineering at University of Sheffield. He is currently in University of Illinois for his study abroad year. My mum and dad are in India. My father is a doctor from whom I have inherited the passion for medicine and my mother is a commercial artist and is into advertising and graphic designing.
What do you do when you're not studying? What do you do for fun?
When I am not studying I relax by watching cartoons or anime, go for a swim, go to the gym or find something else to read besides my study material since I always have a lot of other things I wish to pursue including learning my piano and learning new languages.
I have only been in Syracuse for a few months so haven't completely discovered the city yet but I will probably find some new activity once I settle down in the new environment.
Image: Caezaan Keshvani at his graduation ceremony.