Cancer research scientist Dr Digbijay Raja Mahat's journey from Tanahun to MIT is an inspiration for many


From a curious teenager in Tanahun to ending up in Kathmandu with dreams of making it big in the music industry and failing, to obtaining his PhD from Cornell University, and to co-patenting the right of single cell cancer therapy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Dr Digbijay Raja Mahat's journey of trials, errors and eventual success is no less than a fictional saga.

At the Sharp Lab

Driven by sheer hard work, backed by diligence and constant perseverance, Mahat - who was at one point in time doing "odd-jobs" to support his education and his family back home - is now pursuing his Post-Doctoral Research in cancer-cell research at The Sharp Lab in MIT, USA.

He joined The Sharp Lab as part of almost mandatory post-doctoral scientist training, open-ended, to open up his own independent laboratory.

The 'bio-science scion' is not shy to express his excitement on being mentored by the renowned molecular biologist Dr Phillip Sharp - the co-discoverer of RNA, who was in turn mentored by one of the fathers of DNA, James Watson. Dr Sharp was also the mentor of Nobel laureate Andrew Fire.

"I am beyond thrilled to be working under the guidance of Dr Sharp at this lab which is considered to be the Mecca of bio-science of sorts," Mahat shares.

To add to his list of achievements, Mahat, along with Dr Sharp, have already registered a patent right of 'single-cell rna sequencing using click-chemistry' at the MIT.

It is a technique that will help detect the possibility of cancer in the body through a blood test. However, it might take a few years for the Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) of the USA to give approval for the same as it requires passing efficacy tests, Mahat informs.

Curious child, failed dream

Mahat had lots of trials, errors and experiences in life before making his way to the MIT. His life began in an affluent family in the western parts of Nepal who surfed between nine different schools before finally taking his SLC exams from Dipendra Police School in Tanahun.

Former principal at his school Rameshwar Shrestha and his science teacher Bishwaraj Paudel remember him as a bright and inquisitive student.

"He was fascinated by science and was always curious as to how things work the way they work," Paudel shares.

Mahat moved to Kathmandu after his SLC and following in the footsteps of his uncle Prem Raja Mahat, renowned folk singer, he too tried his hand at music.

With the help of his uncle, he released an album along with a friend, but turned out, in his own words, to be a "super flop".

Prem Raja shares he knew Digbijay would not make it big as a musician and that he was meant to do other things. "I knew it was not his cup of tea but I supported him to make him feel good and also so that he would give the same and focus to his studies."

Interest in cancer research

The events that unfolded in Digbijay's life gave him reason to join the field of cancer research.

Unsuccessful in music, he headed to the USA in 2005, and graduated in Molecular Biology, Bio-Chemistry and Bio-Informatics from the Towson University with support of his relatives. Eventually, he got into the reputed Cornell University and completed his PhD from there.

Photo Courtesy: Digbijay Raja Mahat
Photo Courtesy: Digbijay Raja Mahat

He worked under celebrated Molecular Biologist John Lis at National Academy of Sciences during his PhD studies, mandatory six years of training.

There were times that were very harsh and testing for Digbijay then. While continuing his studies, he did odd jobs. But he shares, "I didn't lose hope in my ambition even then. Instead I worked even harder, for over 104 hours delivering pizza, to support my mother's treatment and for the education of my siblings back home."

Amidst this, his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.

"Things happen for a reason," Digbijay says, referring to this diagnosis and him pursuing studies in cancer.

He recalls, "She was cured but what motivated me to take up research in the field was the passing away of renowned scientist Susan Lindquist to cancer."

Along with that, the Ecology and Evolution class taught by Professor Scott Johnson at Towson University which he attended raised the question on why cancer causing mutations were not selected against by evolution - and this compelled him to indulge in the research of one of the deadliest diseases despite having interest in ornithology.

Nepal plans

On completion of his fellowship after two years, this young scientist at 36, aims to establish a cancer research lab in Nepal.

He wants to test medicinal herbs for their anti-cancer properties in collaboration with MIT and other labs around the world, and produce Nepali human resources to run such labs in the country.

Talking about his future plans, he says he would like to return to Nepal, without a shadow of doubt, and support both the government and private sectors in the field of cancer research.

Likewise, talks are in an advanced stage with the Tribhuvan University Teaching Hospital (TUTH) for the establishment of Dr Suresh Wagle Cancer Research Laboratory at various institutions including TUTH, the National Laboratory in Teku, the under-construction Children's Cancer Hospital (initiated by Dr Bhagawan Koirala), and other private hospitals.

"Other international research centres of the South Asian region are also showing interest to collaborate to set up hightech cancer research centres," Digbijay shares.

Binod Aryal, one of the focal persons of the government formed the 'Brain Gain' team to attract highly skilled Nepali human resources working abroad, says preparations are being made to facilitate such accomplished individuals' return to Nepal.

Digbijay's mother Shanti too wants her son back. "I would be very happy if my son returns home to Nepal and contributes in the field of cancer research."

While the country looks forward to his return, the man himself says his wife Rupa Laxmi Shah, who is a post-production technician in Hollywood and currently works as Director of Philanthropy at Scratch Foundation, has a big role in him becoming who he is today. "She is my harshest critic and my loudest cheerleader," he quips.

Photo Courtesy: Digbijay Raja Mahat
Photo Courtesy: Digbijay Raja Mahat

He remembers Pankaj Bastola - who was the Manager of Seasons Pizza in the US - for supporting him by creating flexible working hours. He credits his cousin Madan Tandukar for playing the part of role model in his life.

Tandukar is presently the vice-president at Hoganas Environment Solutions, a US -based Swedish company.

Digbijay also credits Gerald Wilson, his professor at the University of Maryland where he did a three-month summer internship in breast cancer, worked for a year as an undergraduate researcher, and one more year as a research technician during his optional training period.

A version of this article appears in the print on March 29, 2021, of The Himalayan Times.