As the first person in his family to attend college, Digbijay (Jay) Mahat had the enthusiastic support of his father, who wanted his firstborn to receive the education he had not. Mahat vowed to seek the highest degree possible in what he considered the most prestigious discipline—science—to stay true to his father’s dreams as well as his own.
Today, Mahat is a new father and an accomplished cancer researcher who considers humanity and public service to be every bit as important as education and science. “Science without the overarching purpose to improve society for future generations is inconsequential,” he says. Guided by advisors such as MIT Institute Professor and Nobel laureate Phillip Sharp and molecular biologist John Lis at Cornell University, where he earned his PhD in molecular biology and genetics, Mahat became a mentor with the belief that education can shape not only students’ professional trajectories but also the people they become.
“The soft skills of working in a group, the culture of sharing resources, and compassion towards each other mold us into better citizens,” says Mahat, a 2021 recipient of the Peter Karches Mentorship Prize at the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT. The annual prize recognizes outstanding mentors of high school and undergraduate students working in the Koch Institute’s laboratories.
A postdoc in the Sharp lab since 2017, Mahat has hired and mentored five research support associates and six undergraduates at MIT, helping them plan, execute, and troubleshoot bench and computational work. He also participates in MIT’s PDA Buddy Program, which pairs new postdocs with more experienced colleagues who can offer advice and support.
“My mentoring goal is to help students succeed when they move on to the next phase of their life,” Mahat says. “I never take them as just an extra pair of hands on a project. As a mentor, I aspire to help them characterize areas that need improvement and partner with them to bridge that gap.”
Mahat wants his mentees to become independent, think creatively, and carve out a niche where they excel. He emphasizes the value of failure. “Science is a brutal discipline. Most of the things we try fail,” he observes. “Sometimes it forces you to think in a different way than you otherwise would have. It could lead to a groundbreaking discovery.” In his own research, Mahat focuses on pancreatic cancer, seeking to understand “how the vast majority of our genome that does not make proteins, but provides instructions for making proteins, contributes towards health and diseases.”
Nathan Han ’21, MNG ’23 was supervised by Mahat during an undergraduate research project in the Sharp lab and now works as a computational biologist. “Jay gives very knowledgeable guidance but also allows his mentees to be creative,” he says. “Only the best mentors are able to perfectly strike such a balance between guidance and intellectual latitude.”
Shayla Nguyen ’24, a computer science major, had never worked in a biology lab before her experience with Mahat. She says he guided her every step of the way. “The best piece of advice he gave me was to ask more questions,” Nguyen says. “He created a safe space for me to learn while contributing to a meaningful project.”
An advocate for diversity and equity in academia, Mahat mentors many scientists and researchers from underrepresented groups. He also hears from students in his home country, where he is recognized for connecting Nepali government officials to Covid-19 vaccine and test manufacturers during the pandemic.
“I come from a region of Nepal where the most physically gifted join the British Army, the next best group joins the Indian Army, and most of the rest head to the Middle East or Malaysia for migrant labor,” says Mahat. “The freedom to choose a scientific direction, and in close proximity to the best scientists of the world, is immensely gratifying. Not only am I able to advance my career as a scientist, but I am fortunate enough to help others from underprivileged backgrounds who dream of being a scientist, like I did many years ago.”