Finding your research interest in Rheumatology

Amita Aggarwal MD, DM (Clinical Immunology and Rheumatology)
Professor & Head, Department of Clinical Immunology & Rheumatology, Sanjay Gandhi Postgraduate Institute of Medical Sciences, Lucknow

1. What initially sparked your interest in pursuing research?

My interest in research started very early in my training when we used to participate as volunteers in studies at AIIMS, New Delhi. Later at PGI Chandigarh and SGPGI, Lucknow my exposure to research during training further reinforced my interest in research. I have an inquisitive mind and always have many questions in my mind. Research is nothing but asking a question and trying to find an answer systematically. 

2. Why is it important to narrow down to a particular disease to advance research?

Science is fascinating and initially every area looks exciting but for proper execution, it is important to find a niche area for yourself. The choice could be based on your clinical observation like we found in 1991 that enthesitis-related arthritis/pauci JRA was the most common category of JIA in India. So I decided to work on that as it was a local problem. I have been working on ERA for the last 30 years.

Having a narrow area helps in easier execution, the same patients can be part of multiple studies, good communication with patients about your research, national and international recognition, easier to find collaborators and improved chance of funding.

3. What are the three most critical aspects which helped in deciding an area of interest?

1. Locally relevant problems of our patients
2. Less competitive area [as in India getting funds and execution is still affected by bureaucratic hassles]
3. Access to good clinical material

4. How do you handle the evolution of your research interests over time?

On the way in my career, I found that patients with SLE in India did poorly and had very different issues. I felt that we had no idea about the real outcome of SLE in India since most studies were retrospective and thus biased by patients who followed up in tertiary care hospitals. I thus decide to build a pan-India cohort of SLE to understand its diversity across our country as well as to see its outcome in low to middle-income countries. In addition, we made a biobank for future use.

Though now I am working in two areas, I have kept a balance with 2 PhD students working on SLE and 2 on ERA. The evolution of research interest is natural and it could mean more areas in the same disease or a different disease. However, Science has no boundaries and each interest helps the other area.