Skip to main content

Research and Rackets

September 15, 2023

For Wistar’s Pratik Bhojnagarwala, the game of squash keeps him focused on his research.

During most days of the week, you can find post-doctoral trainee Pratik Bhojnagarwala in the Weiner lab, performing research projects at the bench or scouring results to determine where his findings may lead. Or, as the Vice President of Fundraising and Partnerships for Wistar’s Trainee Association, he might be coordinating activities and events for Wistar’s training programs, helping students get the most out of their experience at Wistar.

The work can be intense, with countless hours spent reviewing data, designing experiments, or reading up on the latest papers to track findings by other scientists.

“There might be weeks after I’ve finished 10 experiments, then I need to analyze all the data. The next steps are to figure out what I need to do to move the project forward. Some days I’m heavily focused at the bench, and other days I’m at my desk analyzing data.”

But if you’re hoping to find Pratik Monday or Thursday evenings, don’t bother looking in any Wistar lab. He’ll be farther afield, focused not on cancer cells but on the path of a small, rubber ball.

He’ll be sweating it out on a squash court.

“It’s almost religious for me. I arrange my schedule trying to make sure I can play each week,” Bhojnagarwala says of his squash routine. “I have a group of people that I’ve been playing with for over 10 years at this point. It’s not just physical exercise, it’s also a social gathering. I really try and make it mandatory.”

For those in the know, Philadelphia is a squash mecca. The sport’s overseeing body, U.S. Squash, was founded in the city in 1904. Then, in 2020, the city converted an old armory on Market St, adjacent to Drexel’s campus, turning it into the Arlen Specter U.S. Squash Center, a 40,000 square foot facility that further elevated Philadelphia’s prestige in the squash world.

These days, Pratik meets up with friends at the nearby Drexel University squash courts for his weekly sessions.

Pratik’s path to squash started during graduate studies at Penn, when a few classmates invited him to join their matches. Over time he, too, picked up the sport, and it became an integral part of his weekly routine.

The court offers a much-needed respite from his day job, burning off energy and clearing his head. “I try not to miss anything that helps with my physical fitness, relaxation and gets me out of the lab,” Pratik explains. “I play with a group of people from very different walks of life — not everybody is in science. So just getting to talk to those people and learning from them — it’s a good way to disconnect. And it’s been very rewarding.”

In some ways, squash offers a parallel to what Pratik does in the lab. He might follow a path, take it wherever it leads, and then pivot based on what he finds. There’s a cadence to both, and a need to think on your feet and react to unexpected results: in squash, a strange bounce can suddenly send the ball straight at your head, while in the lab a set of results may change the trajectory of your research plan.

For Pratik, this is all part of the journey.

After receiving his master’s degree, he spent several years as a research technician at Penn before moving on to his Ph.D. work. “It was not the most traditional career path because I got into grad school later on,” he explains. “I … spent almost six years as a research technician at Penn before I had to go to grad school.”

The experience, however, is something that he values and would recommend to others. “I would definitely advise people to take a year or two after their undergrad or masters, work in a lab and … figure out if that is something they even want to do.”

In fact, Pratik recently defended his thesis and attributes that lab experience, in part, to the successful outcome. “Leading up to where I got on the stage was nerve wracking, but once I was there it felt very natural. I think it was because of the five years that spent in the lab, especially in the Wistar lab. We make full presentations during lab meetings, so it helped my confidence.”

But behind all his academic success and commitment is a simple rule: Pratik firmly believes in outside activities to clear your head and rejuvenate your soul. “It’s very important to find time … to disconnect and switch off, just go out there and do other things.”