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The story of Dipen Shah

Dipen Shah had always been attracted to the little stuff: the tiny pill that miraculously helped his sister’s patients recover back in India. Nowadays he works on an even smaller level: by identifying proteins that cause illnesses and creating the building blocks for the drugs to cure them.

Karen de Man from NL alumni network

Dipen Shah

“I’m involved in drug discovery”, Dipen Shah explains, “Our company ZoBio focuses on developing innovative methods to accelerate pre-clinical drug discovery programs. Take for instance the corona virus: at some point the big pharmaceutical companies will involve researchers like us in making the proteins that are needed for the medicine. What we call a ‘drug’ is not something that you can buy in the pharmacy. We develop the components for future drugs.” 


50,000 proteins in one human cell

Dipen is currently Head of Protein Engineering & Production at ZoBio BV, leading a team of PhD-researchers and master students. He works on proteins that are involved in many illnesses: Alzheimer’s disease, rheumatism, various forms of cancer to name a few. Dipen tries to explain his complicated work in layman’s terms: “One of our clients comes to ZoBio with a protein malfunction that is linked to for instance cancer. What we then do, is identify and produce proteins in bacteria and try to figure out how we can manipulate the function of the protein using small molecules. It is quite complicated”, he admits.

Dipen: “Just think of it: there are more than 50,000 proteins in a human cell and there are more than a trillion cells in the human body. Out of 50,000 proteins, we are trying to regulate the activity of a single protein – the one that is linked to the cause of a disease – by discovering novel synthetic small molecules that hopefully one day will be develop into medicines improving lives of patients.”


Too scared of blood

“When I grew up my sister was a doctor and I used to go to her practice a lot. I was amazed that sometimes all the patient needed was a tiny pill.” Dipen Shah grew up in a small town, three hours away from Mumbai. He loved medicine but didn’t fancy becoming a surgeon. “I’m too scared of blood”, he laughs. “The easiest way to follow my passion was to study pharmaceutics, and in a way that is still my field, although I have taken the research path.”

After his initial pharmaceutical studies at Mumbai University Institute of Chemical Technology, Dipen first moved to Scotland for a master’s degree in biomedical research. “I really wanted to develop as a researcher, and the possibilities for this were less obvious at the time in India.” In Scotland Dipen fell in love with proteins. “My supervisor had previously worked in the Leiden University and told me that Leiden was a well-known university in the field of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy. This is one of the techniques used to study the nature and the characteristics of molecules with an atomic level precision at ZoBio. So when I came across a PhD position in Leiden, I immediately took that chance.” Dipen never left Leiden afterwards. 


11 perspectives to every problem

Dipen not only loves his proteins, he is also fond of his international work environment. “During my PhD I was already collaborating with ZoBio and I loved the team. At present we work with 26 people from 11 different nationalities: every problem is approached from 11 different angles.” A degree in Business Management and Leadership at the Rotterdam School of Management (Erasmus University) helped the protein-researcher with his management skills. Dipen: “The basic thing in handling an intercultural team is to be an active listener. If someone is not contributing in a meeting, you need to actively involve that person. Ask for their contribution.”

He values his new home country for many reasons (apart from the weather): “The Netherlands is quite an open country with many internationals. Communication-wise, it’s always clear what people expect from you. There’s equality among people and the Dutch value their personal lives. After work I play badminton, I even coach a badminton team.” 

Although he didn’t become a medical doctor like his sister, Dipen prides himself on the idea that he helps in the process leading to new medicines. “At a conference I met someone who told me that had he not had this particular medicine, he wouldn’t have survived a terminal illness. Without this medicine, he would not have been able to see his grandchild graduate.” Although the pharmaceutical industry has its flaws and not all medicines are available to the large population, Dipen still feels blessed to be part of the medical solution. “Saving patients’ lives, that has always moved me.”


Dipen in short

Dipen was born in India and came to the Netherlands in 2007 for a PhD study at Leiden University. After his PhD he had the opportunity to stay in the Netherlands to start a career at ZoBio where he is currently Group and Project Lead.

His study in Leiden was instrumental for him to enter the world of drug discovery processes. ZoBio was a start-up from Leiden University and therefore he had the ability to interact with the company during his studies which paved his desired career path.  

An important takeaway from his period was to work hard and that studying for exams is not the only thing that matters in a Dutch study programme. What matters equally is the relation with people who come your way, even appreciate things that have not worked - at least in a research project -  and most importantly to have patience and belief that you are a ‘good’ architect of your career path.

Dipen's tip for students the world over is: “Explore new things, places and don’t be afraid to talk to the person next to you. If it works out, then he or she maybe your future mentor, close friend, colleague or customer and if it doesn’t work out, you tried it anyway!” .