Please tell us about yourself

This week on #MeetAScientist, get to know Dr. Aayushi Uberoi, a microbiologist and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Medicine. We chatted with her passion for science and how it led her to her research on the skin microbiome, as well as what she wishes people knew about microbes!

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Dr. Aayushi Uberoi is a postdoctoral fellow at University of Pennsylvania studying the skin microbiome and how it contributes towards skin diseases. Aayushi is originally from India where she completed her B.E. in Biotechnology at SRM College. She came to the U.S. as a summer research scholar under the Khorana Program and went on to complete her PhD in cancer biology studying skin cancers caused by papillomaviruses at University of Wisconsin-Madison.

When did you first identify as a scientist? How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

I have absolutely loved science and particularly biology since high school, so I guess I have always known that I was going to pursue a scientific career. I seriously identified myself as a scientist sometime during the middle of graduate school. At that point I was considering what I should be doing next. By virtue of being part of several organizations and fellowships, I was fortunate to get a taste of several scientific careers such as outreach, teaching, as well as policy making. And truth be told, I enjoy anything to do with science. But, it was during one really long and possibly the worst lab day that I found my answer! Nothing had gone per schedule; I even managed to break a glass beaker and my big experiment failed. At the time I was mentoring an undergraduate student who was running an agarose gel to see if he had successfully isolated plasmid DNA. So, I was helping him visualize the gel on the scanner and I remember that as soon as we saw the DNA bands, I felt truly content and happy. Right then, that horrible day no longer mattered. That was the day I realized that this is what gave me most joy—conducting scientific experiments, analyzing data, and talking about it all day long!

You are originally from India. How did you come to the U.S. and how has your experience been?

Coming to the U.S. has been an extremely rewarding experience for me, both scientifically and personally. I first came to the U.S. as an undergraduate student (in 2010) through the Khorana Program which is an Indo-US scientific exchange program and is flourishing today as well. The Khorana Program provided me with the opportunity to conduct summer research at University of Wisconsin-Madison. I worked at the McArdle Laboratory for Cancer Research and I felt like I was the kid who had been let out in a candy store! McArdle has a very closely-knit community and I felt very comfortable talking to anyone about science and got to learn from so many people. So I decided to pursue my PhD in cancer biology in Dr. Paul Lambert’s lab. Through this environment, I was able to have a wholesome graduate school experience. I was able to find several scientific role models who have inspired me; but more importantly I have been able to have the experience of working with the American community and learning about culture here through outreach and teaching efforts. Now, I feel I am a part of a global community of scientists and I feel very humble.

What does your work center on today?

During my PhD I worked on Papillomaviruses. Specifically, I focused on a subset of understudied papillomaviruses that contribute to skin diseases such as warts and sometimes even cancer. This work allowed me to study skin and impact of viruses on host biology using host models. During this time, the ability to study the microbiome had reinvigorated the entire field of microbiology and genomics. I was reading all these papers on skin microbiome, which is still largely unexplored, and I got super excited! I was studying how a single virus causes skin disease, and now I could study all the microbes involved. My current research in Dr. Elizabeth Grice’s lab focuses on how the skin microbiome impacts host biology and leads to skin conditions. As a postdoctoral researcher, I hope to be able to develop skills in study skin microbiome and eventually find my way back to skin diseases caused by viruses.

There’s a lot of hype around the microbiome these days. What is one myth about the microbiome you’d like to debunk? And what’s one true thing you wish more people knew?

The one thing I’d like people to understand is that not all microbes are bad for us. I think this leads to unnecessary fear and excessive use of antibacterials. Some of the microbes in the built environment are likely to have beneficial effects on humans, including helping us build robust immune systems. However, scientists are still working to understand these things and it will take some time. Understanding this one thing—that microbes aren’t all bad for us—is really important for general public to know. Sometimes when a new technology or field is uncovered, far-fetched theories are propagated. While imagination is the source for scientific creativity, it takes rigorous research to uncover mechanisms and causality. So, for the skin microbiome, I can say that we are on an exciting path that will give fruitful results, but we have to wait a little.