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Lab Notes on: Dr. Arundhati Soman, MD on Oncology Research

Article by Anika Ajgaonkar

Art by Nina Cao

Art: Nina Cao

Dr. Arundhati Soman is a senior medical director in oncology at the company Parexel in New Jersey. She is educated as a medical doctor, having completed her bachelor’s degree in Medicine and Surgery at the University of Mumbai in India, where she also earned an MD with a specialization in Pharmacology. She received an MBA in Health Center Management from Arizona State University. Dr. Soman has been working in the pharmaceutical industry for almost fifteen years in the Research & Development of new medicines for cancer patients. She has been the medical lead for the development of various medicines for lung cancer, breast cancer, and gastrointestinal cancer, among other types, designed by companies like Pfizer, Novartis, Sanofi Aventis, etc.


Dr. Soman deviated from the path of becoming a traditional physician by opting to go into pharmaceuticals instead, and she says this choice was inspired by internship experiences she had while earning her bachelor’s degree. She was able to rotate with a physician in all the available specialties at the hospital, experiencing the life of that specialist and imagining what her life would be like if she chose that role. Her pharmacology professor outlined the general roles and responsibilities of a pharmaceutical physician, which were quite similar to a corporate job, but also involved offering experimental therapies to patients and working on the development of new medicines.

​For context, the MD Pharmacology Degree in India offers training in all medical specialities because it falls under internal medicine. Therefore, it would be considered an internal medicine degree with a specialization in pharmacology.

During her residency at Mumbai’s King Edward Memorial Hospital, she was able to work on experiments on various medicines. Dr. Soman recalls experiencing an eye-opening moment while she served patients in a rural setting for a period of time (as part of a requirement for doctors stipulated by the Indian government). While helping these individuals, she realized that as a traditional physician, she would only be able to impact the lives of patients she was examining directly, but as a pharmaceutical physician, she would be able to help patients around the world. This desire for a broader impact on patients’ lives is what ultimately shaped her goal to pursue a career as a pharmaceutical physician and venture into the more intricate processes of medicine development.


Now, the essential nature of her work is to offer new medicines on an experimental basis to patients globally. She works with various specialists to make the medicines, but for the last fifteen years she has worked exclusively with oncologists in the US, Europe, and most major countries, reshifting the focus of her work towards cancer treatments.


On an everyday level, she:

  • Ensures that the patients receiving the new medicines are safe

  • Assesses whether the medicines are providing benefits, and if not, takes the decision of whether to proceed with further treatment or stop it at each patient level

  • Decides which patient should receive which therapy based on their type of cancer, stage of the disease, and the regulatory requirements in their country

  • Follows/tracks patients over a period of time, ranging from a few months to a few years


Currently, she says her and her team’s aim is to “convert” cancer from a fatal condition to a chronic one, and they are slowly working towards that. In the past, patients had much fewer options when confronted with a cancer diagnosis. Due to large advancements in current research, many more opportunities are available for them now. Despite this, Dr. Soman still notes that reaching out to patients in developing countries or where there is a lack of infrastructure and heavy regulatory requirements is particularly challenging. Even a patient’s mindset can be a barrier to delivering proper care. Patients in developed nations with advanced infrastructure and good healthcare systems are at an advantage to accessing effective treatment, but Dr. Soman says she dreams of a day where all cancer patients will have access to the full range of commercialized and experimental medications available for their disease, no matter where they live.


As a woman, Dr. Soman says she relates to the plight that nearly all working women face of juggling the roles of being a good wife and mother alongside their careers, and acknowledges that it comes with a great deal of multitasking. She advises other women to continue working hard to pursue their goals, but also to be sure to set aside enough personal time for themselves and their hobbies. Dr. Soman shared how her passion is music and dance, which she has pursued for many years now alongside her career through singing and dance lessons and performing for charitable causes in various US states and India. Managing a career and your hobbies is tough, she admits, and sometimes it feels like the 24 hours in a day aren’t enough. Still, she urges working women to keep working hard and pursuing their dreams.


The moments from Dr. Soman’s career that stand out to her most clearly, she says, are the times when patients reached out to show their appreciation. Because she works in a remote setting and monitors thousands of patients at once, she doesn’t get to see patients in person and her work is almost entirely anonymous. But she recalls when she received a thank-you note from a patient who had been diagnosed with a lethal form of cancer and was told he had only a few months to live, whose health later improved dramatically while taking an experimental drug. He shared with her how he was able to attend his daughter’s wedding a few years after his treatment ended thanks to her work. In another instance, while making small talk with the couple seated next to her and her husband at a Broadway show, upon discovering Dr. Soman’s profession, the man held her hand to express his deep thanks, as his own wife was a cancer survivor and found a ray of hope through experimental trials performed by pharmaceutical physicians like herself. Dr. Soman says that feedback like this makes her day, and she gets emotional knowing she has touched someone’s life and feels even more satisfaction with the work she does.


Her advice for those who want to follow a similar career path is to work hard, and to keep their dedication and passion for medicine alive in their heart when times get tough. She says her training and education in medicine, oncology, and business administration is the unique combination that helped her reach where she is in her career today, but she is also indebted to the organizations and institutions she worked at where she was able to learn so much. She is also grateful to her family for always supporting her in her endeavors, and expressed her gratitude for the millions of patients she has worked with directly and indirectly for the past twenty years who provided valuable time and participated in research on new medications for their respective conditions.


Her most profound recollection from her career, she says, is the realization that “success does not come overnight, but is built on failures.” In a trial where hundreds of drug compounds are being tested, more compounds are bound to be unsuccessful. As successful ones are eventually found and they progress to the next trial, ultimately, “the success of one final compound relies on the failure of all the others.” She advises all students not to be discouraged by failure, as success will come gradually if they don’t give up and continue working hard.

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