Campus & Community

Protein trafficker

5 min read

Jadhav maneuvers science, medicine, and the drums

A search for balance in his life has led Ashutosh Jadhav from a house with a leaky roof in rural India toward Ph.D. and M.D. degrees from Harvard.

Jadhav spent many evenings in his father’s chemistry lab: ‘The experience hooked me on the mysteries of science.’ (Staff photo Rose Lincoln/Harvard News Office)

His father showed him the way. Because there was no secondary school in the small village where they lived, his father had to bike to a nearby town to finish high school. He paid for college by harvesting and selling wheat from the family farm. His perseverance was rewarded with a postdoctoral fellowship in chemistry at Purdue University in Indiana. That’s when he brought his family, including 4-year-old Ashu and his brother and sister, to the United States.

“My father worked long hours,” Jadhav, now 29, recalls. “I spent many evenings with him in the laboratory, fascinated by the different smells and reactions bubbling in the glassware. The experience hooked me on the mysteries of science. Added to this was a deep respect for nature, imbued in me by my mother and her love of plants and gardening.”

The Jadhavs moved to Wilmington, Del., from Indiana. While in high school there, Ashu volunteered to work at a local hospital. That gave him his first exposure to the health care profession, and prompted him to consider a career in medicine. And there is another side to his life. He received his first drum at age 10 and has been playing ever since, including some gigs at The Squealing Pig near Harvard Medical School.

Besides beating the drums for the high school marching band, Jadhav wrote for the school newspaper, and was class president during his junior and senior year. He is definitely an overachiever.

Satisfying broad interests

When it came time to go to college, Jadhav applied for and was accepted at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. However, courses there were not as broad as his interests. “Although I enjoyed my experience there,” he says, “I wished for a broader, more liberal education.” After his sophomore year, in 1996, he transferred to Harvard College. “It’s the only place that I was willing to trade for Hopkins,” Jadhav notes. “At Harvard, I enjoyed terrific courses on abstract art, existentialism, world cinema, and contemporary fiction.”

None of this dulled his interest in science, particularly biology. In pursuit of a senior thesis project, Jadhav wound up in the laboratory of Tomas Kirchhausen, a professor of cell biology at the Medical School. He studied the problem of protein trafficking, or how human cells get things like nutrients through the membranes that surround them, and are able to release or reject molecules that they don’t want.

“He’s a fantastic kid, very bright,” Kirchhausen says of Jadhav. “Ashu fit into our lab extremely well. He was very productive, even co-authored two published scientific papers. Everyone liked him.”

As a Harvard undergraduate, Jadhav also developed a strong interest in teaching and tutoring in grade school and adult education programs. He is most proud of his idea to teach middle school students computer programming. “I had to break down all I knew and teach it in nontechnical terms.” he remembers. “But the idea worked. It was a great experience both for the kids and me.”

Jadhav’s nonstop passion for science and his experience teaching and working in a hospital led him to apply to the Medical School after he graduated magna cum laude from the College in 1998. He enrolled in the Harvard-MIT Division of Health, Science and Technology where he could combine a career in medicine and basic research.

In the eye of science

His first steps in this direction led back to Kirchhausen’s lab where he used video microscopy to actually film proteins carrying nutrients and wastes to and from cells. But Jadhav also wanted to branch out into other areas of science. He was fortunate enough to find Constance Cepko, a professor of genetics. “My interest in basic research truly flourished in her lab,” Jadhav says happily. “Dr. Cepko is an incredibly intelligent and creative person who balances a successful career in science with a dedication to her family. She is optimistic, supportive, and patient, all qualities necessary for a good scientist and teacher.”

Cepko calls Jadvav “an extremely nice guy. A student who shows great curiosity combined with intellectual rigor and depth of thinking. He’s very likeable.”

In Cepko’s lab, Jadhav worked on the mystery of how different cell types develop in the retina, a thin screen of nervous tissue at the back of the eye that detects light. “The first step in vision,” Jadhav calls it. “Understanding how these cells develop normally is also the first step in determining how we can rescue or replace these cells in visual disorders like macular degeneration or glaucoma.”

When not in the lab or classroom, Jadhav relaxes with his drums. “When I graduated from college, my parents gave me a set of drums, which I dragged around with me in medical school,” he says. “I still play them, although not as much as I’d like to. It’s a great way to meet new people, people with interests outside of medicine and science.”

After he receives his Ph.D. in genetics today, Jadhav will go back to the Medical School for two more years to earn an M.D. “Following that, I would like to combine research, teaching, and caring for patients,” he notes. “I don’t know how I’ll balance all three. But there are many people around Harvard who do this and do it well. They will be my role models.”