BEYOND LAB BENCH: A PhD plantswoman, Shefali Thakur 🌱

Hello people! Before I begin with today’s blog interview, I have to share something with you all. This is my last blog interview in this series ‘BEYOND LAB BENCH’ for now, umm.. let’s call this an end to season 1? (Haha!) Jokes apart, that does mean that I’ll be back with more fun STEM stories after some time. Till then, have fun reading this one ! 🙂

My guest today is a PhD student at the International Agency of Research on Cancer (IARC), World Health Organization (WHO) in Lyon, France. Her research focuses on the role of chromatin remodelling and DNA repair in Cancer. I know her since my bachelors in the University of Delhi, she was my senior in the Department of Microbiology. A woman who loves plants as much as she love her work, I fondly call her ‘plantswoman’. Always wanting to be a scientist since childhood, she moved from India to Europe to pursue research. Here, we talk about her life in cancer research, her favorite science communicator (Carl Sagan, Of course!), her love for plants and Dexter’s laboratory (In case, you’re wondering why? Keep reading!).

So, let me introduce to you my last guest on this interview blog series: Beyond Lab Bench, Shefali Thakur.

Hey Shefali! I am so excited, thanks for taking out time for this interview. 😀

First of all, you must tell me about your plants? I follow you on Instagram, and I cannot help but notice you have so many beautiful plants. I love them all!

Shefali: Haha, thank you, that’s sweet! Actually it’s a hobby I developed last summers (so rather new). It started with me finding out that a beautiful plant I fancied (Euphorbia millis), which one of my colleagues had for some years was propagated as a small stem cutting. During my masters diploma we propagated tobacco plants in vitro and it was quite fun. The most fun part for me is propagating and I spent an entire summer trying to see which plants I could propagate, some were easy, some were challenging but overall quite rewarding as an experience. This summer I’m growing a lot of basil, mint, coriander and some cucumbers in addition to the ornamental plants. 

There is nothing as too many plants, right? That’s all her plants 💚

Presently, where are you working? What is your research work about?

Shefali: I’m currently in Lyon, France working for International Agency of Research on Cancer, World Health Organization as a part of my PhD. My focus is on Chromatin remodelling, DNA repair and Cancer. My research focuses on role of chromatin remodelling and DNA repair in Cancer. I work with mouse embryonic cell lines that are conditional knockouts for essential chromatin remodelling genes and then interrogate changes in chromatin landscape, mutation rates and epigenetic changes, in turn linking them to a cell’s fate – i.e transformation/ immortalization vs senescence. This lets me directly weigh the contribution of chromatin remodelling to carcinogenesis.

That’s interesting. Tell me about your background, What is your STEM story? Did you always wanted to be in research?

Shefali: Ah, I always get a little happy when I’m asked this question; it’s an unassuming reminiscent of my childhood dreams. As far as I can go down my memory lane I recall always wanting to be a scientist. I grew up watching Dexter’s Laboratory and wanted to have a lab like Dexter. Well I don’t have a colossal secret lab concealed behind my bookshelf (or do I? Haha), but who doesn’t make compromises, right!? Jokes aside, my story is quite straightforward, I realized very early on that I really enjoy biology and have continually pursued the field since.

I did my bachelors and a post-graduate diploma from University of Delhi and then moved to Sweden to do my masters in Molecular genetics from Lunds Universitat. I did my master thesis of ‘Karyotype evolution of sex chromosomes of spiders with holokinetic chromosomes’ at Faculty of Science, Charles University in Prague. And finally, I am in Lyon working towards my PhD.

You have an impeccable fashion sense 😀 How do you manage to look so glam and stylish, even when working in lab? (Spill the secret!)

Shefali: Haha, you’re a sweet little flatterer, aren’t you! There’s no secret really, there’s a number of small things that can make one happy –aesthetics being one. Some days I like to draw the aesthetic pleasure from garments; on other days from others.

Looking back at your research journey, from India to Europe. What are some advice or tips you would give to someone starting out fresh?

Shefali: Coming from India, I’d say it’s important to find a balance between competition and self-growth, the two are often muddled, especially in societies like ours. You lose on meaningful relationships among peers owing to the unwarranted and constant competition. Looking back at all of my friends from school and university, it is evident that none of us had the same journey or even same goals, I guess doing the same thing at one point can create this illusion. We have all carved our own unique paths. It’s also important to take your time to reach the goals you’ve set for yourself and most importantly there’s nothing wrong with changing shoes, if the current ones don’t fit your feet anymore.

What do you think of science communication? Have you been involved in any scicomm activities?

Shefali: I concur with Mark Walport in that ‘Science isn’t finished until it’s communicated’. One of my biggest inspirations in science (and probably the best science communicator to date) is Carl Sagan, who revolutionized the field by acquainting laypeople with the scientific method and encouraging scientific scepticism. I happened to be involved in scicomm a little as well, back when I was in India. I participated twice as a lead mentor in ‘INSPIRE’ science camps, wherein high school students are encouraged to pursue natural sciences as a career option and it was extremely rewarding. I also routinely participate in open days, Pint of Science and the like.

Okay, what if I ask you to describe your research in one fun and simple sentence. Would you like to give it a try?

Shefali: Sure, that sounds fun. I study immortality in cells (cancer) to find out how it leads to mortality in humans (inspired by the line ‘The ultimate irony is that cancer is about a cell’s attempt to become immortal’ from the book ‘The Miracle Strain’ by Michael Cordy.) Or you can say that, I give cancer to cells, so that hopefully one day humans don’t have to have it.

Do you ever feel like an imposter in research academia?

Shefali: So far, not really. Possibly because I always thought this is what I’m meant to do (even if very badly!). I do, however, feel utterly incompetent at times, which is an ambivalent feeling in an ever-evolving field like ours. It’s a good feeling because that means there’s a scope for improvement and learning.

How this pandemic has affected you? How are you spending your time in lockdown?

Shefali: I probably shouldn’t say this, but personally this pandemic has affected me positively. I’ve had a lot of time to do things I enjoy. I’ve been experimenting and cooking a lot of new things. I’ve also been brushing up on my Molecular Biology and Genetics basics all over again. I do wish we have a vaccine soon enough and I can visit my family in India.

Oh, I agree. Personally, this pandemic has given me a different perspective to look at things. Anyway, last question. If you could be a lab instrument. What it would be and why?

Shefali: That’s a very fun question, I’ll have to think about that one. Hmmm… I’d say I would like to be a vortex, because it feels that the vortex is the life of the party just like a working day in the lab is!  

And we end here. In case you want to get in touch with her, find her on Twitter, LinkedIn or Instagram here!

That’s a wrap guys! I thank each one of you who read the interviews on this blog series and supported me to keep going. It’s been more than two months and I interviewed nine researchers who agreed to share their STEM stories with me, what a fun experience this has been. 😀

Hope you’re safe and doing well. Hang in there, till I see you next! 🙂

BEYOND LAB BENCH: A foodie cancer biologist, Alpashree 🍽

I’ll be introducing my eighth guest in this Interview blog series today. Wow! We have come a long way, I want to thank each one of you who’s been an avid reader of this series. 🙂

My next guest is a PhD student at Cancer Biology Lab in the Toxicology department of Jamia Hamdard University, New Delhi. Her research focuses on understanding the alleviation of colon cancer using plant extracts. We were batchmates during our masters degree in Toxicology. With larger than life attitude, she faces problems and struggles in life and research with a smile. For her, whether it is a failed experiment in a lab or a lost argument at home, there’s nothing which an extra-large pepperoni pizza or a stuffed aaloo parantha toppled with butter can’t solve. That’s how she rolls? 😛

I am thrilled to introduce to you my next guest on this interview blog series: Beyond Lab Bench, Alpashree.

Hey Alpa, I am super excited for this! Thanks for agreeing for this interview.

Was research your calling? If no, then why did you choose to do a Ph.D.?

Alpa: As a kid if you asked me if I wanted to do a Ph.D., I would have called you crazy for sure. A Ph.D. degree or career in research was never the plan. I wanted to be a doctor, the stethoscope and than grin on their faces did look glamorous in the TV as a kid. But destiny had different plans for me. I did bachelors in Microbiology from University of Delhi and masters in Toxicology from Jamia Hamdard University. During this time, I got interested in physiology of living system and the mechanism associated with various toxicants and diseases. There was no looking back then, and that’s how I hopped on this journey of getting a ‘Dr.’ at the front of my name.

Haha yes, Dr. Alpashree soon! Tell me, what is your Ph.D. in? What exactly is your research about?

Alpa: Hopefully, fingers crossed. I am a Ph.D student in Toxicology division in Jamia Hamdard University. Our lab works on different type of cancers, their mechanism, targeted pathways, and its chemo prevention via dietary supplements or natural plant products. My work focuses on plant extract with potential biological activity and its preventive potential on the possible early/late markers of colon cancer and the underlying molecular mechanism. To put it simply, I study the potential of plant extract to prevent colon cancer using rats.

What is the most interesting fact about cancer according to you?

Alpa: Cancer is not just a disease, it spreads like a wildfire if not controlled at an earlier stage, its fascinating. What extremely fascinates me is the resistance capacity of the ‘naked mole rat’ to cancer due to the presence of hyaluronan.

Haha, ‘naked mole rat’ reminds me of Rachel’s inside out cat in ‘Friends’- just in smaller size. 😛 Do you name the animals you do experiments on? If yes, what is it? (Do NOT lie!) 😀

Alpa: LOL. Not really. But, we call them white monsters sometimes when they create ruckus and delay our experiments. I work on wistar rats, that is why white monsters.

What is the most common misconception you face about being a Ph.D. student by your friends and family outside science?

Alpa: The most common is if you’re doing a Ph.D., you are boring. People who think so are ignorant and have no idea what they are missing on. You are aware about what a fun person I am to be around. Right? 😉

I shouldn’t be the one to spill the beans here, as you’re my guest. But, yes not denying that. 😀 Anyway, tell me what do you think about science communication and if you have been involved in any scicomm activities?

Alpa: Communicating science is a part of research and gives us an opportunity to present our work and exchange new updates, novel approaches in science community. I have presented my research work at national conferences as a mandatory process of research. Other that that, I love teaching. I started teaching biology to school and college students since my under graduation days. Something which started as a part time job has become an integral part of my life now. I love breaking down complex biological concepts into easy to understand information for my students. This has helped me to be an effective science communicator.

One thing you hate and love about doing a Ph.D. and being in research academia?

Alpa: Definitely hate my current situation, when all the the data and research findings needs to be compiled for thesis writing. It’s bit overwhelming, I have to figure out the head and tail. It is like being all over the place 😀 What I have started to love about my work is the patience and resilience I have nurtured after all the scientific failures through out the years.

So, when you’re not in a lab doing experiments, planning, or writing a paper, where would we find you?

Alpa: Hahaha, you know where you would find me. I would definitely be at some cafe or restaurant hogging on my favorite food with my favorite people. Food is life, amen!

If I ask you what are you grateful for due to the present situation of the pandemic, what it would be?

Alpa: I feel this quarantine has made me realize Panda is my spirit animal 😛 I never had time to pause and reflect before the present situation of pandemic. Presently, I am taking full advantage of the lockdown by honing my cooking skills, spending time with family and some self-care. Binge sleeping my self care routine, ever heard of that?

Haha, Of course Alpa!

That’s a wrap for today guys. Hope to see you soon with another interview! 🙂

BEYOND LAB BENCH: A PhD traveler, Himadri Shekhar Roy 🌏

Today, we have a nanoscientist who is bitten by a wanderlust bug. He is a PhD student at Institute of Nano Science and Technology (INST), Mohali, Punjab. His research looks into understanding cartilaginous regeneration and therapeutic approach for osteoarthritis. I have known him from bachelors when we took a Bioinformatics course together and we even worked together at INST (in different labs, of course!). He has been my go-to person in Mohali for impromptu travel plans, research queries, good restaurant hunts and brownie points for the delicious non-vegetarian food that he cooks. It’s been amazing to know him. I am super excited for you to read what he has to say.

Let’s welcome, Himadri Shekhar Roy as my next guest on this interview blog series: Beyond Lab Bench.

To start with, tell me your ‘Why’?  Why did you choose to do Ph.D. or a career in research?

Himadri: I have read your interviews blogs, I wish I had something exciting to tell you but I landed up in research because I couldn’t get into medical field. I am glad I didn’t, I am happy the way life has turned out. After doing bachelors in Biomedical Science, I wanted to switch to management or work with a travel organization. But my interest in biology didn’t allow me to do so and I ended up doing masters in Marine Biotechnology from Goa University. This was turning point for me as I developed interest in research while working for my dissertation project. I decided to pursue Ph.D. and ‘Dr’ at the front of my name is a dream for me and my parents.

What is your PhD in? What exactly is your research about?

Himadri: I am a Ph.D. student at Institute of Nano Science and Technology, Mohali in collaboration with IISER, Mohali, Punjab. My research work is in the field of Osteoarthritis, it is the most common form of arthritis where flexible tissue at the end of the bones wears down. In my project, I am working to stop the factors which degrades this flexible tissue (cartilage) in osteoarthritis. At present, I am using molecular docking studies which can help by targeting one of the mechanism involved in Osteoarthritis and thus, help to stop further progression of Osteoarthritis.

Any struggle you faced as someone starting out fresh in research academia as a PhD student?

Himadri: Well, I have struggled to settle on one research field due to my conflicting interests. 😀 I did bachelors in Biomedical Sciences and masters in Marine Biotechnology. And took another jump into a total new research field of Chemical Biology at IISER, Tirupati. I worked for an year in Aptamer research there, but due to some family problems shifted back to north India. I came across Ph.D. program at IISER-INST, Mohali and got through the admission process. What I have realized is, there is no dearth of learning. It has been an amazing journey of experiences and knowledge I picked along the way.

So, when you’re not in lab doing experiments, planning or writing a paper, where would we find you?

Himadri: Haha, you would definitely find me in kitchen experimenting with food. I love cooking and food. Oh, come on Ankita! you have to agree I cooked egg curry for you in Mohali. How can you not remember? Other than that, I love travelling and exploring new places as well. Whenever I find time away from lab, I am either in woods or beaches. I love both.

Lol, yes I do remember that. You should be a chef! 😀 Okay, so tell me one thing you hate and love about doing a PhD and being in research academia?

Himadri: For days, when every experiment goes wrong my go to motivational quote is, ‘When one door closes, another opens’. I believe in this philosophy, it helps me on days when I feel like quitting and heading to mountains. 😛 The thing I love about research is also the same. There are various ways to approach and solve the problems. I like that.

What would be a piece of advice to your younger self in college working towards earning your first degree?

Himadri: For any one who wants to enter research field, I would say two things. First, be in research if you have genuine interest. Second, instead of going by the face value of the research institute, choose the mentor who can actually guide you and a research field which interests you. Also, patience is a necessary skill to sail through the five years of a PhD degree.

Tell me about the Scicomm activities you have been involved in? If any?

Himadri: I have been an active participant of the science outreach activities of my research institute. We have an annual Roadshow event where we setup our scientific stall and head to streets to share our work and engage public in science, it is somewhat like ‘soapbox’ event. Recently, I even attended ‘India International Science Festival (IISF) 2019’ at Kolkata along with my team members to talk about the research activities of our institute. Also, I participated in Nano-Exhibition Bangalore 2020. I feel science communication is really important to make people interested in science.

If I ask you what are you grateful for due to the present situation of pandemic, what it would be?

Himadri: I am grateful for all the little things. After a long span of time I am getting to spend time with my family. I am going to spend my birthday this year with my parents, I am really excited. Also, I am making use of this time to catch up on my writing work. Hopefully, everything will be fine soon, and I can go back to lab again.

Most embarrassing or stupid thing you did or assumed when being a newcomer in a research lab? And why? :D

Hahahaha I have one in mind. As a new Ph.D. student in IISER lab, I was still learning things. Once a Post-Doc in my lab asked me to put the cover and insert cable terminals after he loaded samples for a RNA-PAGE gel electrophoresis. I did and we went for a meeting. He was expecting good results but to our dismay, the gel was empty. Later, I realized I set up the reverse terminals so instead of samples coming down they went upwards out of the well. That was the first and the very last time, he asked me for help to run gel electrophoresis. 🙈 😛

BEYOND LAB BENCH: A PhD sleep expert, Annu Kala 🧠

Today, I have a sleep expert with me and not in a way you think. 😀 She is a graduate student at Laboratory of Experimental Neurophysiology at Charles University, Plzeň, Czech Republic. Her research looks into understanding the dynamics of sleep stages on sepsis mediated memory impairments. She was my junior during my bachelors in Biomedical Science and we share a common excitement for Neuroscience and Animal studies. My most fond memory of her is when we worked together in the Film and Photography club of our college. Let me tell you, other than being an exceptional researcher, she is a good actor as well. You will often find her travelling, dancing in woods (literally :P), modelling or dreaming about neurons. She transitioned and found her way from the world of western blotting to place cells and local field potential, her story is inspiring.

So, let me introduce to you my next guest on this interview blog series: Beyond Lab Bench, Annu Kala.

Hey Annu. Thanks for agreeing for this interview. Shall we begin?

Annu: Yes, absolutely. Thanks for having me. I am excited 😀

Tell me about your background, what is your STEM story? Was research always the plan?

NO. My story is pretty conventional in terms of not getting into medical college and then choosing one of the closest subjects (Biomedical Science) as my specialization for my bachelor studies. And that’s when I fell in love with research, it was more like a process that happened gradually for me. And the funny part is that my dad was certain that I’d land up in the research field before I knew it. I did my masters in Life Sciences. Post that, I worked in the field of immunology at IISER, Mohali for a couple of months only to realize it wasn’t the right fit for me. And luckily, I landed up in Neuroscience. Presently, I am doing my Ph.D. in the field of experimental neurophysiology at Charles University, Plzeň.

That’s interesting! How did you find your way from immunology to neuroscience?

I remember reading about place cells and grid cells, and the idea of having an internal GPS system in brain fascinated me. I was excited when I came across the current position I am working at, but wasn’t sure as I come from a pure biology background with almost no experience in neurophysiology techniques. I must say the transition from pipettes and cell culture to furry little rats and hippocampus has been super thrilling, mostly because of my supervisor Dr. Karel Jezek who always encourages me to do better. In my present project, I am getting to use my immunology knowledge to do something that I love. That’s Neuroscience, by the way. 😀

A blend of Immunology and Neuroscience, I am intrigued. Tell me more about it?

My present project is about the effect of inflammation on memory. I study the effects of sepsis on sleep stages in rodents during acute and chronic phase of infection and its link to memory impairments. So, studying the dynamics of sleep stages (REM and NREM) during septic shock can be really helpful as it plays an important role in the memory processing of septic shock survivors later in life. Do you want to know how we do it?

Hahahaha, absolutely. I was coming on that. Please continue.

First of all, we implant tetrodes (comprising of tungsten wires) in the hippocampal region (CA3 to be pricise) of the brain of rats. Then, rats are anaesthetised and brain activity is recorded for the baseline period. After recording for few hours, septic shock is induced and brain activity (sleep) is recorded. Hippocampus is the region of the brain responsible for learning, emotions and formation of new memories. And the brain activity is measured using Open Electrophysiology Recording System, it is an open-source, cheap and very handy instrument. I’ll show you the one I work with.

Okay. I am definitely visiting your lab when I visit you. What is your motivation behind doing a PhD? Tell me something about your research which fascinates you the most?

The biggest motivation behind doing a Ph.D. is the idea of contributing something novel to the pre-existing knowledge and it is a field wherein you somehow have to deliver results to yourself. And then there is something super exciting about the continuous background noise, by noise I mean the wild scientific ideas pouring in and not the unwanted 50-Hz noise (pun intended, only for electrophysiologists🙈). Sleep is a mystery of all time. However, what fascinates me the most is the state-specific altered dynamics of sleep during severe infections which are linked to memory consolidation in the hippocampal and cortical circuits.

Being a graduate student in Europe. Is it as fancy as it sounds or living away from your family is difficult? How do you take care of your mental health, especially now due to present scenario?

It sure is fancy, but a little difficult to be away from family and friends. It’s different in terms of work culture and lifestyle. People here are very well aware of the concept of ‘work-life balance’ which I think is great. And since I am in the central Europe, its pretty easy to travel around more frequently. To be honest, keeping up with the mental health was never a thing in my life until I experienced an emotional turmoil a while ago. One thing that helped me the most is talking it out as much as I could to my dear ones. Also, I am going to the nature for running and dancing and it works like magic for me. (As lockdown measure are less strict now. Also, yes with social distancing precautions!)

Have you been involved in doing any SciComm?

I was secretly waiting for this question. Haha! 🤩 I am the kind of person who likes to be vocal about her research, I love communicating my research work. Recently, I applied for ‘FameLab 2020’, which is organized by the British Council wherein we had to explain our topic of research to general public in just three minutes and fortunately, I’ve been selected as one of the finalists in our respective country. The next step is to attend the master classes in order to get trained by the winners of FameLab and other professionals. Back in 2018, I attended a mentoring program for women researchers (CERGE-EI) which supports the Ph.D. students and helps them shape their career goals. I remember discussing my entire timeline along with the goals for 2019 and I am pretty much satisfied with my plans. In future, I am looking forward to participate in ‘Dance your Ph.D.’!

So, when you’re not in lab doing experiments, planning or writing a paper, where would we find you?

If I am not in the lab then you’d find me near the ‘Bolevecka lake’ running/dancing around with friends. Occasionally, you may also find me in the malls as I love to shop.

A piece of advice to your younger self in college working towards earning your first degree?

I’d tell my younger self to ‘Stop over-thinking and planning too much’! I’ve always been a stressed kid in general so I’d like my mini version to know that ‘many a pickle makes a mickle’. It is about taking the small steps, one at a time without too much of stress.

If I ask you what are you grateful for, due to the present situation of pandemic. what it would be?

The COVID-19 pandemic 2020 has made me realize the importance of all the little things that we tend to take for granted like a normal work-life routine. I am sure all of us will start appreciating these little things more once this is over. The situation is not that bad in Czech Republic as it’s one of the first EU countries to close the international borders and take some preventive measures which helped to flatten the curve of COVID-19 infections effectively.

Do you have any book/movie suggestion for me?

At the moment, I am reading ‘writing your journal article in twelve weeks’ by Wendy Laura Belcher. It’s an amazing guide for writing journal articles and a good recommendation for a broader spectrum of audiences. Try that, you might like it.

Most embarrassing or stupid thing you did or assumed when being a newcomer in a research lab?

Hahaha! There’s this really funny moment, not exactly as a newcomer but it was when I had to present a poster at a conference for the first time. The presentation was in a week’s time and during the lab meeting, just like a sweet summer child I told that I’d make the poster in a day. And trust me, I still cannot forget the expressions on my colleagues’ faces.

That’s all for today. In case you want to get in touch with her, find her on LinkedIn or Instagram here!

BEYOND LAB BENCH: A Labcode girl, Arushi Batra 👩🏽‍💻

A bit late, but I managed to put together another blog interview. My guest today is a first year PhD student at CSIR- Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology (CSIR-IGIB), New Delhi. Her research looks into understanding the Genomics of Intellectual Disability. She was my junior during graduation at University of Delhi. My most exciting memories with her are from the time we worked together in an Innovation project, ‘Understanding the burden of vitamin B12 and folic acid in young indians’ in collaboration with CSIR-IGIB as under- graduates. With this six month project, we earned our first real money together. Haha! From attending the conferences mainly for good food, being terribly scared and excited at the same time to visit research labs and having all the fun at outreach events, it’s been great to know her. Also, she tells amazing science jokes! (Read till the end of interview to see the science PJ she told me here 😂)

So, I am thrilled to introduce to you my next guest on this interview blog series: Beyond Lab Bench, Arushi Batra.

Hey Arushi, I am super excited for this! Thanks for agreeing for this interview.

Did you imagine ever to be working in the field of research? Tell me your journey about how you reached here? 

Arushi: A BIG No! I had no idea that I’ll end up in research. As a child I was fond of white coat and stethoscope and wished to be a doctor. As I grew up, I realized front line medicine is not for me. But I loved Biology too much to switch my field to anything else. So, I did my Bachelor of Science in Biomedical Science from University of Delhi and went ahead for Master of Science in Biotechnology from The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda. I couldn’t clear the usual NET exams we have in India, but that did not deter me from pursuing my dream of doing a PhD. I landed up at CSIR-IGIB working as a Project Assistant with Dr. Vinod Scaria for over a year and now joined as a PhD student recently.

Reminds me of our time during under graduation. IGIB was the first research institute we set our foot into, So happy for you. 🙂 Tell me more about about your research?

Arushi: Our lab works on a variety of aspects in the field of Genome Informatics. We have a programme called GUaRDIAN that is a consortium of over 280 clinicians and researchers from over 60 medical and research centers making it one of the largest clinical genomics research networks in India. I particularly work with patients suffering from Developmental Disorders/ Intellectual Disability. In the lab, I carry out  systematic genomic analysis of the samples using microarrays and then further through whole exome and whole genome analysis. We are using global population-scale genomes (recently we did the IndiGen project which completed ~1000 genomes from self declared healthy Indians) to get useful insights into the genetic epidemiology of  genetic causes of Intellectual Disability.

I have to say I am intrigued and I have few questions. What do you mean by Development Disorders or Intellectual Disability? You said, you work with them. I mean, how do you collect samples/data?

Arushi: If a child is supposed to walk by the age of one year and he/she doesn’t, then we call this as a development delay. There are variety of levels for such Intellectual Disabilities or Development Delays. Such delays are checked through adaptive behaviour and IQ test. Normal IQ level is 100 for kids above six years of age, anything less than 70 is considered as mild Intellectual Disability and so on. We work closely with clinicians across the country through GUaRDIAN programme. There is a detailed criteria to know that which patient are to be considered for the study. We get blood samples along with the clinical details of the patients which qualify the set protocol. We do not meet the patients directly but are in touch with the clinicians.

Tell me something about your research which fascinates you the most?

Arushi: Brain is the boss organ of the human body and I get to work on that. Everything is exciting about the brain!! Working with a complex disorder like Intellectual Disability is difficult due to the complexity involved but that is the fun part. Also, I get to work closely with patients and the feeling that my research efforts can help in faster diagnosis and management is extremely satisfying.

As someone who is just starting out in research, how is your experience? Is it overwhelming at times or just too much excitement in things you get to learn? 

Arushi: I have shifted from being a complete wet lab experimental biologist to a bioinformatician, it’s very exciting to learn new things. Currently, solving errors to get the code running is something that I am enjoying! The feeling of finding that one problematic line and doing it at least 20 times on an average to get it right is quite exciting!  

You work in the field of bioinformatics. Does that mean no wet lab work at all? Do you miss the lab bench? 

Arushi: I did wet lab for over a year at IGIB and then shifted to dry lab analysis. I generally use the data generated through Next Generation Sequencing/ Arrays for my analysis. So I am mostly not doing any wet lab except running a few array experiments once in a while to stay in touch with pipettes! I juggle between my computer system and  lab bench, trust me it’s the best.

Have you been involved in doing any SciComm?

Arushi: Yes I have been involved in science communication in the institute. We have school students visit and tour on National Science Days and Open Days. I feel science that we do in labs should be communicated outside the science fraternity. I have recently started an IG handle (not.a.stigma) wherein I am trying to put up content that can help people become aware about genomics and also break the stigma around Mental Health and Intellectual Disability. I am not proactive on it yet but I plan to become regular soon.

One thing you hate about doing a PhD and if given a chance would like to change?

Arushi: I really feel that it does get lonely sometimes. Hence having a very good supervisor, good fiends and a strong family support is extremely important. Also, on a side note, we get paid very less! 😛 So yes I would for sure want to change that!

So, when you’re not in the lab doing experiments, planning or writing a paper, where would we find you?

Arushi: I am a CHAI lover. So if I am not on my computer system or in the lab,  I will probably be strolling in the campus with a cup of chai. If not, I usually come back home and binge watch Grey’s Anatomy! Netflix and Chill, but with chai ☕

A piece of advice to your younger self in college working towards earning your first degree?

Arushi: Believe in yourself. Also, I feel I should have been way less afraid of becoming older! Life is too short for worrying all of this!  😀

If I ask you what are you grateful for due to the present situation of pandemic, what it would be?

Arushi: It feels great to surrender along with the whole world. Being restricted physically in our homes right now is the only solution. It’s about how we respond to the situation. I am glad I am able to put aside my ready to go reason ‘I am busy with work’ and spend some quality time with my family. It’s only been possible due to quarantine.

It’s been years, I would love to hear a science PJ from you Arushi. What say?  😛

Arushi: Hahahaha. You still remember my PJs! I have one in mind and it is very apt for the current situation, “No matter how popular they get, antibiotics will never go viral”. I know you loved it! xD

Thanks Arushi. This was so much fun. 🙂 To know more about her work or to get in touch with her, find her here on Instagram and LinkedIn.

BEYOND LAB BENCH: Preeti Jindal, the best PJ 🤭

Another week and another guest for my interview blog series. She is a PhD student at Jawaharlal Nehru Centre For Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR), Bengaluru, India. Her research looks into understanding the epithelial mesenchymal transition. She is an amazing friend since my graduation days in University of Delhi, New Delhi. She is a girl next door and ready to help even at an odd hour. She is the best person to hangout with, she’ll share loads of stories and anecdotes from her research life along with the delicious home cooked food. If you’re lucky, you might even get a custom designed artwork from her 😀

Let’s welcome, Preeti Jindal as my next guest on this interview blog series: Beyond Lab Bench.

Hey, thanks for agreeing for this interview. I am excited to know what you do.

What is your STEM story? If not here, what could be your alternate career?

Preeti: Similar to the stories of other graduate students, I also wanted to be a doctor. In my childhood I liked the advertisements of toothpaste, soaps etc with doctors wearing stethoscope and white coats. As a child I didn’t realize, they were actors portraying scientists and not doctors. But as silly as it might sound, my initial inspiration came from actors playing scientists on television 😛 Things fell in place and I got admission in a PhD program in Jawaharlal Nehru Centre For Advanced Scientific Research, Bengaluru. It was only after few years in research I realized that my dream was to be a scientist and not a doctor.

My alternate career would be a chef. I love cooking, it is a stress buster for me. I love decorating and art as well. But you know what they say? Your hobbies should never be your profession because then you need to find new hobbies.

Haha! I am pretty sure the author of that saying is you. 😀 Anyway, tell me more about your research work for your PhD?

Preeti: Yes, I am the author. Sorry 😂 Are you going to write this as well in the interview?

I work on understating how does a non-motile cell start migrating. As we all are aware of cancer and its ability to spread to different body organs, so my work partly includes understanding the mechanism behind this switch from a stable tumor to highly invasive tumor type. My research is to understand the molecular mechanism behind induced cell migration.

What is the most interesting part of your research?

Preeti: What interests me the most is that you can reprogram a cell by just adding couple of factors, sometimes just one, which can accelerates its speed from zero to some microns/hour. And this can be controlled or regulated in our body. For an example, if you have a cut what would happen to the wound in the next couple of days? The healthy cells surrounding that cut will start moving to close the wound. Isn’t that wonderful?

Also, I get to see some interesting things like a 10.5 DPC mouse embryo in a yolk sac!

Wow! That’s a beautiful image. How did you take that? Also, what do you mean by 10.5 DPC mouse embryo?

Preeti: I took the image in a stereo microscope. DPC means days post coitum. So, 10.5 DPC means 10.5 days old embryo. Mice are nocturnal animal, so we take 0 day as 0.5 day considering fertilization at midnight. We dissect 10.5 DPC pregnant mouse and take out the whole sac and individually clean the outer layers of each sacs. We can keep these embryo for years in cold storage like -80 degrees, but after fixing the tissue of course.

You reminded me of animal handling and dissections. I loved that part of research. Do you like it as well? Aren’t you afraid of animal experiments?

Preeti: I love animals, observing them is of my favorite activities. So animal handling isn’t something I am scared of. But yes, initially, dissecting a pregnant mice gave me terrors. But gradually, you learn and respect that this is greater purpose of research. One incident that I particularly remember from my initial days was being really scared of an aggressive pregnant female mice who didn’t let me touch her to check for vaginal plug to keep a track of DPC. I looked at her, pleaded her, got angry at her, even begged her and then lastly, I waited for the help of lab assistant. 😛

What motivates you to do what you do everyday, even when your experiments fail?

Preeti: Every day there are thousands of people dying because of lack of medicine and information on spread of cancer to cure. I will be extremely happy if I can contribute even a little information to help in discovery of best treatment possible for metastatic cancer. And that is what keeps me going eveyday.

Do you think it is important to communicate the research you do in lab? If yes, how do you do that?

Preeti: Communication is extremely important in science. Everybody thinks differently and if we combine different opinions that can be better. So there are some clubs based on various research fields like the one in which I am involved focuses on developmental biology. Various institutions in Bangalore take part and graduate students get an opportunity to present their work. It is a wonderful opportunity to get feedback and new ideas/opinions from the audience. In JNCASR, we also have student-buddy program which gives school/graduate students an opportunity to spend one day with a PhD student, getting exposed to research lab, PhD student’s life and work style.

How are you taking care of yourself during the current pandemic situation? Anything you want to say to the fellow researchers stranded in houses away from lab?

Preeti: I am focusing on writing part of my research and re-planning few experiments which are delayed due to present situation. I am trying to focus on things I am grateful for. I got lucky and came back home before lock down, so I am spending time with my family.

To my fellow researchers, this is a good time to complete your old ignored to-do-list. I know it is hard to be away from lab for that much long time, but we all know it will get over soon. So we should take this time to focus on ourselves while we can. Take time to recharge, once this is over we’ll be on our heels again.

Any advice that you would give to your younger self starting a scientific journey in research?

Preeti: As a first year PhD student, you always are very enthusiastic about every research project going on around you. I just want to say that it is better to think in a direction and focus more on theory than the outcomes initially. If you have a strong theoretical platform in the beginning, it will be easier for you in your later years.

When you’re not in lab doing experiments or writing research paper, where we would find you?

Preeti: You would find me in my room, cooking, decorating or just binge watching Netflix. If not this, then I mostly hang out with my dinner gang at ‘Utility’ canteen in the campus. we cook together or play board games. I even have two cats visiting me all the time.

If you could be any lab instrument, what would you be and Why? 😛

Preeti: That’s an interesting question! I would like to be a PCR machine. Oh Man! I don’t have to move even an inch, just sitting in a corner under the AC. That would be the life. Imagine not moving at all and still most of the research depends on you. Even in the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, the first method for detection is PCR based. PCR machine is a wonderful invention. Thanks to Kary Mullis.

That’s all. This was an interesting one, loved all the stories she shared with me. To get in touch with her, find her on Instagram and Facebook!

BEYOND LAB BENCH: A PhD fashionista, Shivangi Shukla 👩‍🔬

Today, I have another guest on my interview blog series. She is a PhD student at the Biosciences and Bioengineering Department, Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, India. Her research looks into understanding the centromere biology through NMR and biophysics. I first met her at the Summer Training Program we attended together during our post graduation time at Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Hyderabad. She will laugh with you at science meme while wearing a perfect curated outfit underneath the lab coat, a beauty with brains. A feminist with large heart and larger wardrobe. A conversation with her will definitely have GG (Gossip Girl or Gilmore Girls) reference, science or coffee. ☕

So, I am thrilled to introduce to you my next guest on this interview blog series: Beyond Lab Bench, Shivangi Shukla.

Hey, thanks for agreeing for this interview.

Did you always wanted to do be in research? If not research, What do you think would have been your alternate career?

Shivangi: Well, I am in research and doing my PhD because I honestly could not wrap my mind around opting any other career path after my Masters. Not only because I had a good academic record or cleared most entrances but because I love the idea of being in a lab setting, framing my own hypothesis and failing even, but boy(!) in love with the experience and the learning process. Yes, I think I have always wanted to be in research and if not research, my alternate career would be probably something creative like interior designing.

I must tell you I am not shocked, I can totally imagine you doing interior designing. 😀 Anyway, tell me about your research work for your PhD?

Shivangi: I study centromere biology. The centromere in higher eukaryotes (like us) is not defined by a DNA sequence but by the presence of a histone H3 variant called CENP-A i.e. epigenetically. I am trying to characterize this variant protein and its interactions mainly through NMR and biophysics.

What motivates you or what is the most interesting thing about your research?

Shivangi: The drive to contribute something meaningful to the beautiful centromere field is my motivation. Every paper I read is so well structured and articulated, it kind of keeps you going. Apart from that, my family and friends especially my labmates are a major support system who keep me motivated. The most interesting and at the same time the most annoying thing about my thesis work is my protein system. Very unstable and unfriendly to work with and whenever I get results, they aren’t the straightforward textbook interpretations and it really gets me brainstorming which is both interesting and exasperating.

People always talk about success but I believe it is failure which guides us to success. What do you think? Do you have any failure stories you are absolutely proud of?

Shivangi: Yes, many during the course of my thesis work. But one in particular was the turning point of my research career. In the second year of my PhD, I was pretty frustrated and struggling with my project to the point that I wanted to leave, that’s when I started communicating with fellow researchers and realized its a whole new world out there. Every PhD story is so different and unique and there’s so much to learn. I would only regret quitting and since then I have taken everything positively because I get to learn. I make my own mistakes and keep learning. It is a wonderful experience.

Do you think it is important to communicate the research you do in lab? If yes, how do you do that?

Shivangi: Yes, absolutely. The tax-payers have a right to know where their money is being invested and generally too, one’s research is only a success when the common mass accepts it and it impacts them. This is where science communication becomes important and it is quite easy in this digital age! I mainly educate or communicate my field of research or science generally through social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram. Recently joined ‘Academic Twitter’ and its so much fun. Apart from these, I talk to high school students who visit IIT or KV IIT students and motivate them to pursue a career in STEM. 

What is the best and worst part about doing a PhD?

Shivangi: The best part is learning and growth, not only academically but as a person too. It teaches you patience, hard-work and the ability to function even in a stressful environment. It makes you fall in love with science and challenges you both intellectually and physically. The worst part is the slow progress in spite of putting in a lot of efforts. “You reap what you sow” doesn’t really work here unfortunately.

Any advice that you would give to your younger self starting a scientific journey in research?

Shivangi: I want to tell that girl to be more confident, express herself more and question more because she is right most of the times.

When you’re not in lab doing experiments or writing research paper, where we would find you?

Shivangi: You’d find me having fancy brunch with my girl gang in a well-curated brunch outfit (lol)! Or probably ranting on my WordPress blog about the most random topics or creating content for my feminist Instagram page or reading or Bollywood dancing on a Saturday night or decorating or travelling!

How are you taking care of yourself during the current pandemic situation? Anything you want to say to the fellow researchers stranded in houses away from lab?

Shivangi: I try to maintain a routine but honestly, I am struggling with sleep patterns. To take care of my mental health, I try to be away from politics majorly but I am not completely ignorant. I invest my time in reading both leisure and scientific and not necessarily related to my field. Currently, I am reading ‘And then there were None’ by Agatha Christie. I keep my Sundays free like it would be during any other week and on weekdays, I dedicate 2-5 pm for lab-related work. Post 5 pm, I watch movies or documentaries and read COVID-19 related research. To my fellow researchers, it’s okay if you are not your best or most productive self right now because this is not not a vacation, we are going through testing times and our health and mental well-being should be our priority.

Imagine, If you could be any lab instrument, what would you be and Why? 😛

Shivangi: I’d be the -20 freezer because I’m pretty cool (hahahaha) 😂

That’s a wrap! To know more about her, find her on Twitter, LinkedIn or Instagram here! Next week we’ll have another scientist in making with another inspiring story. Stay tuned! 🙂

BEYOND LAB BENCH: A Dancing Toxicologist, Gayatri Bagree!

So let me introduce you to my second guest on my Interview Blog series: BEYOND LAB BENCH, Gayatri Bagree or as I fondly call her ‘A dancing Toxicologist’. We were classmates in post-graduation and let me tell you she earned two Masters degrees that year, one in Toxicology and other in Bharatanatyam. Currently, she is a graduate student at the Indian Institute of Toxicology Research (IITR), Lucknow, India. Her research looks into protein misfolding in neurodegenerative disorders. Other than being an exceptional researcher, she is an amazing dancer, orator, wine partner and silently judges your grammar on the street. 😀

Hey, Thanks for agreeing for this interview. I am really excited. To begin with, How did you reach where you are? Was being in research always the plan?

Gayatri: From a young age, I always pictured myself as a doctor, performing surgeries to help people. But when I couldn’t get through those entrance exams, I changed my course and contemplated on choosing between Psychology or Biology. I ended up getting a BSc (Bachelor of Science) degree in Zoology. I realized I wanted to pursue higher studies and contribute to the scientific research community. I have always been inclined towards Forensic Science and for this reason, I chose Toxicology for my post graduation. Been interested in research and subject Toxicology, the next obvious step for me was a graduate program. So, I joined the PhD program at Indian Institute of Toxicology Research (IITR), Lucknow, India.

So, you are doing PhD in Toxicology. What exactly is your research about?

Gayatri: My work has a basic science as well as a translational aspect to it. As for the former, I am studying the effect of aggregates of a protein named alpha-synuclein on the folding of other proteins. Alpha-synuclein is a protein whose aggregates are seen in neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson’s Disease. The second part of my research involves attempting to develop a sensing system to detect these protein aggregates.

Tell us something about your research which fascinates you the most?

Gayatri: Proteins are widely known to be chains of amino acids folding into complex structures to perform their functions. However, there is a whole class of proteins known as “intrinsically disordered proteins (IDPs)” that in-fact lack a fixed 3D structure. Alpha-synuclein is one such IDP which can be found in several structural conformations in both physiological and disease conditions and therefore extremely sensitive and challenging to work with.

You know I absolutely love Toxicology. My favourite drug/toxicant to talk about is MDMA, what is yours?

Gayatri: I’d have to say dihydrogen monoxide, which is just a “fancy” name for water 😉 You can imagine why it is interesting to call it a “drug” as well as a “toxicant”.

Who is your inspiration or mentor in your scientific journey? Why?

Gayatri: The first time ever that ‘Science’ made an impact on me was in the fifth grade. And for that I shall always be thankful to my teacher Mrs. Vijayalakshmi. Her lessons bringing out the simple complexities of the world around and within us was what I call the beginning of my scientific journey.

Have you been involved in doing any Scicomm?  

Gayatri: I have been a part of several community outreach programs representing my institute on various platforms including the IISF, FSSAI Eat Right India Campaign, National Science Day Exhibitions etc. We have conducted numerous displays of the translational work that we do in our institute to educate the general public about the technologies being developed for their use. We also host school students every year on a number of occasions to give them a glimpse of the kind of work that goes on in the research institutions and instill in them an interest in science.

Most interesting question you have been asked after any of your talk for general public if there is any?

Gayatri: When I talk about my work about my attempts to detect the protein aggregates, people tend to imagine a scenario that I am coming out with a diagnostic test for Parkinson’s. As fascinating and hopeful as that sounds, I hate to disappoint them with the reality, so I try to explain my work in a way that this question does not arise.

The students that we host at our institute have asked me numerous times another question which is actually not related to my work. When I conclude my talk with them, the first question they ask is “What did you study and do to get here?”. It seems like an easy question with an easy answer but it makes me think that I may be helping them become interested in doing what we do, in science, in research. This is a happy feeling, kind of overwhelming sometimes, to know that we are making a difference and inspiring the next set of potential science mongers.

How do you spend most of your time when you’re not working in lab?

Gayatri: I like to walk around the city whenever I get some time off, or sit by the beach observing the nature, clouds, birds being unapologetically themselves, take some photographs. But most often, I practice my dance at home because nothing makes me happier than doing what I’ve done since I was 4.

How are you taking care of yourself during the current pandemic situation? Anything you want to say to the fellow researchers stranded in houses away from lab?

Gayatri: Well, this is certainly a very difficult period for everyone. I think we can work through this by looking at the bright side of it in terms of the abundance of time that we now have to catch up on all the reading and writing tasks that get pushed in the hindsight when we are in that “working in the lab” mode. Apart from the reading related to work, these days I’m putting my time into reading about new subject/ topics that I otherwise don’t get time for. And off course, there has to be dancing in my quarantine routine. So, I’m learning new dance forms through some online dance classes. According to me, using this time at home for self-care is as important as utilizing it for work.

Most embarrassing or stupid thing you did or assumed when being a newcomer in a research lab?

Gayatri: Well, I am the kind of person who takes their time in planning the work so that everything goes well even the first time. I used to think that if I plan perfectly, there would be less chances of errors and I wouldn’t have to repeat the experiments n number of times. I realized I was wrong the first day I started doing my experiments, but I still believe this might happen every time I start my work. Guess I haven’t ceased being the stupid newcomer even after all these years. But I guess, that’s how you learn! 😀

That’s it for today. Thanks to Gayatri for this interview. If you wish to get in touch with her, find her on LinkedIn and Twitter.

If you have any questions or feedback, please leave a comment. Another interview next week, stay tuned! 🙂

BEYOND LAB BENCH: Sravanthi Nadiminti

The present scenario of a pandemic is unfortunate and something we cannot control. What we can control is using the extra time we have in hand. So, to learn about the story and work of my friends in scientific research and an attempt to being seriously committed to writing my science blog, I am starting an interview blog series: BEYOND LAB BENCH. Through this series, I will bring to you the story of researchers in the different scientific field and what inspires them to do what they do.

Today, I have a story of a future scientist who is also a great singer. She is a graduate student at the Department of Biological Sciences, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai, India. Her research looks into understanding the synaptic vesicle biogenesis. She is also my longest stable friend, grown up in Delhi and shifted to Mumbai to pursue her dream of getting a PhD, the debate about Delhi vs Mumbai is forever. Other than being really ambitious and hard-working in the lab, she also likes to sing, play frisbee and party! Although you cannot see here how she gets really excited and her eyes lit up when she talks about her research, her story is really inspiring.

So, I am thrilled to introduce to you my very first guest on this interview blog series: Beyond Lab Bench, Sravanthi Nadiminti.

Hey, Thanks for agreeing for this interview. Lets begin, What is your STEM story? Did you always want to be in research?

Sravan: I wanted to become a doctor or a scientist, so I had appeared for the standard medical entrance exams while also applying to University of Delhi for a bachelor’s degree in any field of biology. My medical entrance exam results weren’t what I’d expected them to be. The places I had gotten into sent me a call letter a few months into my first year at University of Delhi. Since I already had taken a liking to my bachelor’s program, I decided to continue with it. Lucky for me, I also wanted to be a scientist and I’m very glad it worked out this way

What exactly is your research about?

Sravan: I study how synaptic vesicles are formed in a neuron. Our brain cells (neurons) communicate with each other and with other cells around them. This communication is made possible by chemicals released from the neurons. Those chemicals are formed at one region of the neuron and are carried to their site of action/release in packages called synaptic vesicles. Improper formation of these vesicles can result in improper communication from the neurons, affecting any organism’s behaviour and function.

Tell us something about your research which fascinates you most ?

Sravan: Compartments within cells, such as synaptic vesicles, have to maintain their composition. A lot of neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases upset the composition of these compartments, thereby affecting their function. We are working to understand what kinds of compartments and how they are affected in situations that mimic neurodegenerative disorders. This might open up avenues for novel therapeutics for these disorders. The fact that I get to contribute to understanding a process so fundamental to a cell’s function is what keeps me going day after day.

How is working with C. elegans as a model organism like?

Sravan: As someone who is terrified of animals, I think C. elegans is wonderful. They’re tiny and transparent, so you don’t need to cut them open or worry that they’ll bite you. These worms don’t even need males to mate because they are hermaphroditic so one worm produces both eggs and sperms, so they reproduce by themselves. Aren’t they low maintenance?

If you can go back, would you switch from fundamental research to translational research? If not, why?

Sravan: Before joining TIFR, I wanted to do translational research because I thought that would benefit the society more. I soon realised that fundamental research lays the foundation for translational research and that I can contribute to our understanding of diseases through fundamental research as well. In fact, I’ve grown to appreciate the contributions from fundamental research. So, if I can go back to making a choice again, I would pick fundamental research all over again.

As someone who is entering into the last leg of her PhD, any top tips or advice to new PhD students entering research?

Sravan: I would advise anyone wanting to pursue a PhD to do so out of an interest and passion for science and not because it is the next obvious step. Starting your PhD with a knowledge of what it entails helps students stay motivated and happier through their PhD. It is not an easy endeavour if one isn’t passionate about it.

Have you been involved in doing any Scicomm?

Sravan: TIFR is a place that encourages science communication. Being here has instilled in me a liking for science communication. I’ve participated in several events organised by TIFR. Every year, we play host to 9th and 10th grade students all over Mumbai, where we set up demonstrations and talks showcasing the work that is done at TIFR, to enthuse these children about science and to encourage them to pursue careers in science. I have also given two talks as a part of a public outreach initiative by the TIFR outreach committee, Chai and Why? and one talk at the National Science Day celebration. In the recent times of this pandemic, I’ve also been a part of an initiative by TIFR where we simplified the article on Washington Post by Harry Stevens on the importance of social distancing, and translated them to several Indian languages to share it all over India. I helped with translation and recording the video in my mother tongue, Telugu. I am currently working with an initiative called COVIDGyan, by TIFR, IISc and NCBS, to share facts and other information about COVID-19 in the form of articles and infographics.

Most interesting question asked to you from audience after talk for general public if there is any?

Sravan: Whenever I give a general talk to the public explaining either my work or principles, most people are interested in knowing how transgenic worms are generated and how reporter lines are made. Use of fluorescence in biology interests and fascinates a lot of people. Most people are also interested in knowing if my work takes me closer to finding a cure for Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease. I hate to disappoint them so I structure my talks such that those questions don’t arise in the audience’s minds.

So, when you’re not in the lab, or writing your paper/thesis, where would we find you?

Sravan: When I’m not working or in the lab, I can usually be found in my room watching anime or practising singing or reading, or on the ground playing Ultimate Frisbee.

How are you taking care of yourself during the current pandemic situation? Anything you want to say to the fellow researchers staying at houses away from the lab?

Sravan: I spend a lot of time catching up on pending analysis and writing work. Besides these, I have volunteered to help with any outreach activities that happen at TIFR to spread awareness about COVID-19 and the SARS-CoV-2.

I think it is very important to utilise this time away from the lab to our benefit. It is the best time to be thinking about our science, organising our thoughts and data so that once work resumes, we have much more clarity on where to start. Additionally, it is equally important to utilise this situation to spend quality time with our families and everyone beloved to us.

Most embarrassing or stupid thing you did or assumed when you were a newcomer in a research lab?

Sravan: I had a beaker full of ethanol kept next to my bunsen burner. Accidentally, I put a flaming hot spatula, that I heated using the burner, into the beaker and the alcohol caught fire. Panicked, I poured the burning alcohol out of the beaker onto the lab’s floor, thinking that if it spreads, it’ll burn out sooner. To date, I’m thankful nothing caught fire.

That’s a wrap. Thanks to Sravanthi for taking out time for being the first guest on my ‘Beyond Lab Bench: Interview Blog series’ and answering all my questions patiently. If you need to get in touch with her, follow her on Twitter and LinkedIn here!

Next week we’ll have another scientist in making with another inspiring story. Stay tuned! 🙂

Little Magnetic Microorganisms treating Deadly Brain Tumor: A Nano targeted Therapy

In nature, there are these tiny bacterial dudes with a magnetic personality like no other. These magnetotactic bacteria are nothing less than magic as they have built in compasses which they use to keep track of the earth’s magnetic field in order to survive at appropriate depth in their watery homes. These magnetic bacteria have also attracted a lot of attention from researchers, paving way for exploration and interesting discoveries. I mean this could be THE NEXT BIG THING! Why you say? Well, they have a wide range of application in the field of biomedicine to treat diseases.

Magnetotactic Bacteria, Magnetosomes & their magnetic personality

The history of these magnetotactic bacteria goes back to the 1960s, when Richard Blakemore discovered them. So, what’s the secret of the magnetic personality of these bacteria?? These bacteria take in iron salts from the surroundings and biomineralize them into magnetite (Iron Oxide) or greigite (Iron Sulphide) crystals in special compartments known as Magnetosomes. In each compartment, there is perfect growth of magnetite crystal acting as a nano magnet. Individually, these magnetosomes do not have enough strength so they form chains acting as long strong magnet responding according to the earth’s magnetic field.

Artwork from ‘Supermicrobes’ by Eloi Parlade

These nano-crystals of size around ~50 nm provide the magnetotactic bacteria their natural magnetism. However, these bacteria are unable to survive in aerobic (too much oxygen) or anaerobic (no oxygen) conditions and only thrive in ‘micro-aerophilic’ (a perfect oxygen controlled) environment in sediment or water bodies. Perhaps in the quest for an ideal oxygen environment, they have evolved a magnetic process called ‘magnetic-aerotaxis’ to adequately utilize the earth’s magnetic field. With the help of this, intracellular nanocrystal chains of magnetite or greigite in magnetosomes align themselves according to the earth’s natural magnetic field acting as a long strong magnet.  

The discovery of these magnetotactic bacteria evoked  great scientific interest in magnetosomes and their potential applications in the field of medicine, which include medical imaging (MRI), targeted drug delivery, gene research and tumor hyperthermia. The most fascinating of them all is hyperthermia in which there is controlled heating of magnetic nanoparticles (magnetosomes) on exposure to alternating magnetic field (AMF) to promote necrosis of tumor cells. These magnetosomes are used as magnetic nanoparticles in Magnetic hyperthermia-mediated cancer therapy (MCHT) for treatment of Glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), a deadly brain tumor.

Magnetotactic Bacteria under TEM (Transmission Electron Microscope)

Glioblastoma Multiforme: the deadly brain tumor

Glioblastoma multiforme or GBM is the most aggressive of all the gliomas, the kind which inspires fear due its infiltrative and invasive malignant nature. Imagine if brain tumors were sharks, can you guess what would Glioblastoma multiforme or GBM be? Probably, bull sharks or Great Whites!

So, what is Glioblastoma multiforme? This deadly tumor or glioma is a Grade IV tumor, which means most malignant of all arising de novo without any grade precursor. It is a common form of CNS tumor constituting 15% of the total brain tumors. This tumor arises from brain cells called glial cells, mainly astrocytes or oligodendrocytes which supports the health of neurons. These tumors have received significant attention in the scientific world as the survival rate of patients suffering from Glioblastoma is less than a year. The global incidence of Glioblastoma multiforme is less than 10 per 100,000 people making this a rare tumor but it’s poor prognosis with survival rate of approximately a year after diagnosis makes it a crucial public health issue. It is more common in males than females and also occur mostly in adults when compared to children. GBM is diagnosed at old age with median age to be 64 at the time of diagnosis.

There is no foolproof preventive method to treat this tumor. The traditional treatment of such tumors involve surgery in combination with radiation therapy and chemotherapy. For chemotherapy, temozolomide is the common drug used because it crosses the blood brain barrier (BBB) to reach the target area. Moreover, this notorious tumor has evaded the several attempts of innovative therapies due to its recurrent and malignant nature. However, scientists have explored microRNA, gene therapy, virotherapy and intranasal therapy to find a treatment for GBM. For targeted drug delivery, nanoparticles are considered as extensively studied treatment measure for GBM. The current area of research interest which is the talk of the town is nano targeted drug delivery using magnetosomes which can cross the blood brain barrier (BBB) to reach this notorious tumor.  

Tale of hyperthermia mediated nano targeted therapy

These magnetotactic bacteria are gram negative and are motile due to the presence of flagella. The most commonly studied magnetotactic bacteria are Magnetospirillum magneticum or Magnetospirillum gryphiswaldense. The natural magnetic nanoparticles extracted from these magnetotactic bacteria are known as magnetosomes. These magnetosomes have been widely accepted in the scientific community for their magnetic properties, low toxicity during interaction with living tissue and thermal efficiency. These impressive qualities of magnetosomes have also led to their usage in Magnetic Fluid Hyperthermia (MFH). Hyperthermia is an application where malignant diseases are treated by administration of heat, whereas Magnetic Fluid Hyperthermia (MFH) delivers thermal energy to the target tumor cells by exposing the magnetosomes to alternating magnetic field (AMF). You must be wondering how it is done? This is done by injecting the magnetosomes into the tumor cells and applying alternating magnetic field leading to rise in tumor temperature, which result in selective omission of tumor cells due to the heat provided by hyperthermia without harming or killing the neighboring healthy cells.

Many successful studies have been done where chains of magnetosomes were used to treat experimental models of breast cancer. A recent shift is observed in research world towards the use of chains of magnetosomes to treat experimental models of glioma and it’s theranostic properties. With advances in science, the future of this notorious Glioblastoma multiforme (GBM) is bleak. However, neither GBM nor magnetosomes are easy to work with. But I guess that’s where the beauty lies, isn’t it? I think the bunch of scientists across the globe are doing an amazing job unravelling the secrets of these tiny magnetic dudes dancing in the magnetic dizziness to kill the most dangerous tumor of all time – Glioblastoma multiforme.

Watch this fun Magnetotactic Bacteria and Magnetosome video by SciShow! 😀