As a kid growing up in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, Sidd Pratap was a self-proclaimed math and science geek who was always taking things apart and putting them back together. He was inspired by his father, a mechanical engineer. Sidd also collected comic books. In contemplating a possible career, Sidd saw himself as an inventor or a builder.
Sidd started college studying to become an electrical engineer—until he took his first biology class. Inspired by an amazing teacher, Sidd decided he wanted to study biology and be a teacher. He ended up majoring in microbiology at Indiana University and took part in research at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). This was a formative experience as Sidd got to spend time in a lab and learned to write grant applications.
During college Sidd had internships that allowed him to explore different possibilities. One was at a pharmaceutical company. Another involved an engineering project related to a drug delivery device, exposing him to biotech R&D. Also occurring during this time was the advancement of the Human Genome Project, which presented the exciting possibility of sequencing the entire human genome.
Among all of the possibilities, Sidd was most interested in research. He decided to pursue his PhD in biomedical sciences, with a focus on microbiology, at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee. Sidd was attracted to Meharry by the presence of several microbiology labs focused on parasitology, infectious diseases, and tropical diseases. These labs provided the opportunity to collaborate with people with similar interests.
Sidd’s PhD research was on Chagas disease, termed an orphan disease or a neglected tropical disease. About 300,000 people in the US have Chagas but it affects about eight million people in South America.
Towards the end of Sidd’s PhD, he used a technology that enabled profiling thousands of genes at the same time. This was Sidd’s first exposure to biomedical informatics, and it prompted him to want to learn more. He received advice to not just dabble in bioinformatics, but to do it with 100% of his time. At the time (around 2005), there were fewer than six postdoc programs in the country that combined research with a master’s in biomedical informatics (MBI). One program was nearby at Vanderbilt.
In pursuing an MBI, Sidd saw himself as a bench scientist with knowledge of how a parasite infects cells. He wanted to broaden his knowledge to understand what happens in patients. He also wanted to improve his coding, gain skills related to working with massive amounts of data, and use computers to do biology. For his MBI thesis, Sidd looked at mutations in a human genome.
“Being able to combine what I learned from engineering and also from infectious disease bench research into this informatics approach to make something that I think we would have called systems biology . . . was definitely part of the growth for me and my career.”
Upon completing his MBI, Sidd had the desire to build something. He went back to Meharry to participate in building a core laboratory to sequence genomes of local patients. He also saw the opportunity to teach. His faculty appointment at Meharry allows him to conduct research, build the core lab, and teach biomedical informatics.
“I think the [MBI] degree was like an entry way.”
Working in the core lab provides exposure to multiple projects. Sidd’s bioinformatics expertise enables scaling projects to analyze huge amounts of data, and applying learning in humans entails becoming involved in large-scale clinical trials. Connecting these previously separate research flows is now termed “translational medicine.” The hope of translational medicine is to create useful products much faster than in the past, which Sidd sees as rewarding.
Sidd loves getting to use smart tools desired by smart people, enjoys collaborating with others who have similar research interests, and likes seeing the results from research translated into real-world solutions. He views informatics as providing the ability to answering old questions much faster.
While at Meharry, Sidd has also been involved in the Meharry Rise Initiative, which is geared to educating and training minorities in the biomedical sciences and get more underrepresented minorities into research. As part of the Rise Initiative, biomedical informatics is being built into the curriculum for all Meharry students to enhance students’ ability to conduct research.
“Incorporating informatics lets us answer the same questions we had before but with such a wide array of approaches that you get a much more complete picture of what’s going on at the cellular level or patient level. That’s how it benefits my research, but its true for anyone applying these techniques.”