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Sharmila Banerjee-Basu

Dr. Sharmila Banerjee-Basu

This month, The NICHD Connection presents a conversation with Dr. Sharmila Banerjee-Basu, Founder, President, and Chief Scientific Officer of MindSpec Inc., a nonprofit organization that uses bioinformatics strategies to accelerate research on common neurodevelopmental disorders.

Dr. Banerjee-Basu served as a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Dr. Andres Buonanno within the Laboratory of Developmental Neurobiology during the period of fall 1991 until early spring 1994. Read below to learn how and why Dr. Banerjee-Basu moved from researching in a postdoctoral position to running her own nonprofit bioinformatics organization.

Can you please describe the career moves that led you to your current position and why you made those choices?

I have a long-term interest in understanding the molecular basis of human genetic disorders, although the first part of my research career (1991 – 1996) focused on promoter binding by transcription factors. From NICHD, I published several papers focusing on transcriptional regulation of slow- and fast- twitch muscle fibers. Later on at NHGRI, I worked on the structural basis of human disease causing mutations mostly involving transcription factors of the homeobox family and forkhead family.  Also, at NHGRI, I developed the Homeodomain database. It was good research but has limitations for practical applications.

During this time, trying to predict functional consequences of a disease mutation by structural modeling, I realized the need for a systems approach for understanding the complexity of human disorders. Also, I realized the power of large datasets and the potential of bioinformatics to mine that data. 

The sum of these individual realizations plus my personal experience with my son’s autism led me to move to do bioinformatics research on autism. I ended up building the first genetic database for autism and the research organization, MindSpec.

What is your typical day like?

Well, it starts with going through my emails and scanning the scientific papers from PubMed. We have an excellent team at MindSpec, scientists and IT professionals. I work closely with my team. Most of my time at work involves some type of meeting: either one-to-one going through scientific analysis, group meetings to discuss projects, or teleconferences on various collaboration projects. I do most of my writing at the end of the day and weekends. 

How do you plan for a career as a nonprofit leader?

It’s a hard question as I did not plan, per se. Rather, I was interested in a research question and I truly believed that state-of-the art informatics combined with in-depth biology of a disease is needed to address the complexity. As I pursued the questions and drilled deeper, it became an obvious path. Trying to build a nonprofit research organization, I asked a lot of questions of many scientists, even the very top ones. I think communication by conversation or email played a key role in building MindSpec. 

How did your training at the NICHD help prepare you for your current career?

I learned the fundamentals of neuroscience while at LDN, NICHD. Looking back, I benefited the most by going to seminars on far-out subjects that were not related to the exact work that I was doing there. I think the “neuro” environment at LDN shaped my thinking to a large extent. Additionally, I have friends and collaborators from NICHD with whom I interact on a regular basis even after all these years.

Do you have any advice for other NICHD fellows who are interested in going into the nonprofit sector?

Follow your research question. Communicate, communicate, and communicate. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. There is nothing called a “stupid” question as long as you know the basics.

Do you have any advice for other NICHD fellows who are interested in starting their own business?

You can run a business if you believe in it.

If NICHD Fellows have questions about a nonprofit career, may they contact you?

Yes, of course.