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For GSBS class speaker Sumeet Nayak science brings hope

By Susan E.W. Spencer and Bryan Goodchild

UMass Medical School Communications

June 02, 2021

Sumeet Nayak is driven by his passion for science. Now, building on his doctoral studies at UMass Medical School’s Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, he is working as a senior scientist in oncology at KSQ Therapeutics, Inc., in Cambridge. Each day, his passion grows as he fights cancer, a “gruesome disease” that killed his uncle right at the onset of his PhD journey and has touched millions of families worldwide.

“I think the realization that my passion now has a real purpose makes it even more interesting to me,” said Nayak, who was selected to be the class speaker for the GSBS at UMass Medical School’s 48th Commencement on June 6. “I realize how important it is to be pro-active and to do your part rather than just worrying about it.”

Nayak grew up in Mumbai, India, born into a family of doctors and doctorates. After finishing his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biotechnology, he worked as a researcher in India for a few years, “to see if I had the knowledge and the courage to do a PhD,” he said.

In 2014, Nayak was drawn to the GSBS because it offered him an program through which he could explore the different scientific disciplines during his lab rotations before he decided on his PhD lab.

He joined the laboratory of Sharon B. Cantor, PhD, professor of molecular, cell & cancer biology, and studied cellular transformation in BRCA-FA genes or expression of oncogenes and how chemotherapy resistance eventually develops. His doctoral work has led to a renewed understanding of how cancer develops and has opened up avenues to effectively advance anticancer therapies.

Nayak credits UMass Medical School for shaping his overall development as a scientist, as a researcher and as a human being.

“I consider science to be like a river and we, the grad students, like pebbles along its way,” he said. “Basically, we just went with the flow of this river (science), exploring new possibilities along the way and in return it shaped us in such a way that today we are all able to think critically, rationally and have become more resilient.”

“UMass Medical School doesn’t just provide you with the scientific acumen and resources to do your science, but it also teaches you about a lot of other things,” Nayak said. “The most important being empathy; empathy towards others and the importance of having and respecting the cultural diversity that you see around you.”

Nayak described the feeling when he learned he was chosen to be class speaker as “surreal.” The first thing he did was call his parents back home in India. And then the weight of the moment—and the fact that he would have to prepare a speech—sunk in. “It was important for me to share this news with my family and friends in India because I felt it was my way of putting a smile on their faces amidst the grim situation that India is currently facing due to COVID-19,” he said.

“I’ve this deepest sense of gratitude to be able to be walking alongside my class, my peers, my friends from UMass Medical School, and also that the Commencement is happening in person—we are all very grateful for that,” Nayak said. “We know it has been a tough year for everyone, so to be able to enjoy and celebrate our achievements with our family and friends means a lot to us.”

The 2020-21 academic year will be indelibly colored by the COVID-19 pandemic, which Nayak said only added to the usual graduate student stress. Being an international student, the struggle to stay in the United States post-PhD for work, job search during COVID-19, and delays in getting the necessary work-related approvals and visa, compounded the stress.

“But the best part was, we quickly adapted to the new normal and went virtual,” said Nayak. “I think through our journey as PhD graduates, we learn to overcome roadblocks. Our networking happened through Zoom, Skype and different available online platforms, and while we couldn’t necessarily meet people in person or visit companies, what we could do virtually was connect with more people from all around the globe.”

Nayak said, “Science teaches you to have that hope and you know that there is light at the end of the tunnel, and you learn to hold on to that hope. And that is what we pretty much did.”

Nayak received the GSBS Community Service Award in 2019 and the GSBS Student Mentorship Award from UMass Medical School in 2016.