Healthcare Research can be fascinating, because the journey leads us to more questions than answers, in the process, uncovering multiple layers , like a puzzle.
Priya Lakra, our next pathbreaker, conducts research on a unique disorder (Huntington’s disease), with a diverse range of symptoms, trying to elucidate the origin of metabolic defects occurring in this disorder, employing an animal model system.
Priya talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about always being inclined towards the human brain, and deciding to pursue a research career aligned with her interest and curiosity towards mental health disorders, spurred by her childhood experiences .
For students, we ask so many questions as children, but forget them when we grow up. Why not pursue a career trying to answer the same questions that we asked.
Priya, tell us about your background?
As far as I remember, I have always been fascinated by health sciences. Fortunately, few of my elder cousins are doctors, so I have always been encouraged to study biology and be a doctor and/or pursue research right from my childhood; and I gave first preference to research. I was born in the village of Mundka in Delhi in 1992 and grew up there. During my school days, I followed a very typical trend of taking up medical sciences in my high school and the rest of my story follows. My earliest interest in health sciences can be traced back to my school time when I visited a psychiatrist’s clinic at the tender age of 11. One of my loved ones suffered from major depression, and one day after school, I went with her to the psychiatrist. I was sitting outside, in the waiting room, when I noticed a picture of a human brain on that clinic’s wall. I still remember that picture. I was so fascinated that I decided then and there, to become a psychiatrist when I grow up, and treat people with depression. Eventually, in the 9th grade, I was introduced to human genetics. At the same time, I watched a program on the National Geographic channel about the four nucleotides in human DNA, I could only understand basic stuff back then, and those four letters ‘A T G C’ that make up the human DNA captured my significant attention. With all these little instances my interest in biology kept growing.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
I did my Bachelor of Science (B.Sc.) in Zoology (Honours) from Hans Raj College, University of Delhi, India; followed by a Master of Science (M.Sc.) in Zoology from the same University. It was established in 1922 and is one of the top-ranking universities in India. Zoology, right, but it is not exactly what comes to your mind! I consider myself fortunate because when I started my B.Sc., the curriculum for this course changed quite significantly and the semester system was introduced. I studied animals only for one year, and the next two years were focused on different fields of life sciences including molecular and cellular biology, immunology, genetics, and so on. I have majored in neuroendocrinology and reproduction in my M.Sc.; however, I was exposed to other fields like statistics, bioinformatics during the course as well. My M.Sc. research thesis was focused on understanding the genetic cause of a type of breast cancer. After my master’s degree, I pursued a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.).
What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and interesting career?
The strongest influencer that impacted my career choice was a psychiatrist’s clinic and patients in there. Although I was so young that I could not understand the literal meaning of mental health diseases, I was happy to see my loved one getting better. I have known about mental health issues since I was 11 years old. Too young? Yes. Ideally, at this age, you should not be sitting at a psychiatrist’s clinic and should not be in close surroundings of a depressed person. But I was purely blessed as it excited me. When I went to that clinic, I do not remember anything else, I just remember that picture of a human brain and candies which were given to me. That was probably the first time, I got excited about the human brain. My innocent heart fully trusted that doctor and the medications. Back then, I considered it only a disease that can be cured by medicines, and when those medicines worked, my trust in medical sciences grew much stronger. Besides, I have been fortunate to meet a few amazing teachers who have trusted me and encouraged me to do better throughout my academic journey. I have also met a few critics in my life who have challenged me to do better (Yes! Critics are important).
At the end of my master’s, I had to decide about the field for Ph.D. research. Despite my master’s thesis on cancer genetics, I chose to work in the field of neurodegenerative disorders, a category of mental health disorder. The prime reason for that was the lack of cure and good treatment regimes for the majority of mental health disorders, and the unfortunate social stigma which comes with a lot of mental health diseases. I was always inclined towards the human brain, so I can say I was pretty clear about my research interests after my M.Sc. However, one turning point came before starting my Ph.D. when I had to limit my options for a Ph.D. lab search. Perhaps, I can call it an essential turning point and a much needed challenge for the growth of not only my career, but also for my personality.
Tell us about your career path
I was clear that I wanted to pursue a Ph.D., but I wanted full fellowship for that. So I started looking for fellowship exams in India and abroad early on, i.e. during my M.Sc. In the second semester of my M.Sc., I appeared for the CSIR-UGC-NET (commonly called CSIR-NET), a national-level exam in India conducted by the National Testing Agency (NTA) to select candidates for the award of Junior Research Fellowship (JRF). This is the fellowship provided by two agencies UGC and CSIR in India to support Ph.D. students in pursuing their research. It is a highly competitive exam, but one can clear this easily through timely preparation. Through this fellowship, students get a monthly stipend of 28,000/- for two years and if further qualified, then 35,000/- per month for the next three years along with a certain contingent amount for supporting their research. Fortunately, I cleared this exam in the first attempt, so by the first year of M.Sc., I had my fellowship ready for doing a Ph.D. Some of my friends also appeared for other exams, like the ICMR-JRF exam, that provides fellowship for Ph.D. research. My next task was to identify my lab of interest. Due to some personal reasons, I dropped the idea of pursuing a Ph.D. outside Delhi or abroad, and never looked at labs outside India, so my options were fairly limited; which I would not recommend to other students during their lab search, and I recommend them to be as flexible as they can.
My first experience of research came from internships. During my masters, out of sheer interest in research as well as knowing the fact that internships and/or publications can greatly help in getting into good labs, much essential for those who wish to pursue a Ph.D. abroad, I pursued two internships; both during the final year of my M.Sc. One was a short duration summer internship, i.e. 2 months, in the Defence Institute of Physiology & Allied Sciences (DIPAS), India, and by now you can guess, that was a neurobiology lab. I was literally a neurobiology fan at that time. There I worked on hypoxia (lack of adequate oxygen supply) that can happen, for instance when you climb high mountain peaks (high altitudes), and analyzed its harmful effects on the brain. This was a very interesting lab and the ultimate goal was to help soldiers located at high altitude regions and eventually protect them from deleterious effects of hypoxia. The second internship was for a longer duration of one year in the Department of Zoology, University of Delhi itself, where I was pursuing my M.Sc., and it was the lab that I later chose for my Ph.D. During this internship, I studied the effects of phytochemical on Huntington’s disease pathology using an animal model system.
How did you get your first break?
You can call my internships my first break into research. During B.Sc. final year, while talking with my seniors, I got to know about summer internships, but I was not sure about the place and frankly, I wasn’t much serious about that. Then, after getting admission into M.Sc., I started to find studying boring and started to look out more seriously for internships. The idea of DIPAS came out of sheer luck. I asked my college Professor to suggest me options for internship in a neurobiology lab and she told me to apply for summer internship in DIPAS. She was very helping and guided me well with all applications and applying on time. One recommendation I have for students is to gather information and apply early for internships, and if possible, do it in your Bachelors.
What were the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
Here, I would like to mention challenges of my Ph.D. days,
In the year 2017, our research funds collapsed. There was one letter, and they were gone. We all had hopes that things will be better in the next academic year, but very limited funds came. So, we all suffered from this nightmare, ‘lack of funds’ for a pretty long time and that too in the crucial years of graduate research. Besides the usual crisis of chemicals, there were even days when we had no gloves and had to borrow from other labs. The funds crisis hit me hardest when after a tough journey of getting my paper accepted in a leading scientific peer-reviewed journal, the payment for the article processing charges became difficult. I tried to address these challenges by staying focused and positive throughout my Ph.D. journey. Importantly, my mentor and my team put in efforts to collaborate with other labs to arrange funds or at least resources for conducting our research, making me understand the value of collaboration and teamwork in research. Anyway, this ‘lack of funds’ is a real issue faced by different scientists across the world, so we were not the only ones and I would say it was crucial for me to understand and learn to fight through such circumstances.
Graduating during the times of pandemic, when the whole world is affected, is another major challenge. I guess everyone would agree with me on this that 2020 is a tricky year to graduate. With the dramatic economic downfall, lay-offs and hiring freezes across the globe, job opportunities are in their worst shape worldwide. This pandemic is difficult for every person working in any sector but graduating at this time point with the tag of a ‘fresher’ substantially adds to the existing difficulty. As the world got hit by this pandemic and conducting wet lab experiments was not possible during the major part of this year, the amazing world of the internet came to my rescue. I took up training in a bioinformatics start-up during the pre-lockdown times and continue to work remotely as much as I can. Moreover, I am trying to enhance my skills (for example programming skills) by taking up online courses that would upgrade my knowledge of my existing field as well as add substantially to my skill-sets.
Where do you work now? Tell us about your research
I am towards the end of my Ph.D. and would be submitting my thesis this month. My thesis work is focused on a unique disorder known as Huntington’s disease, which is a genetic disorder with a diverse range of symptoms. It is a devastating disorder for which there is no known cure. My research is focused on elucidating the origin of metabolic defects occurring in this disorder employing an animal model system. Throughout my Ph.D., I have gained extensive experience in cellular and molecular biology, metabolism, and neurobiology. Besides, I have worked on other different domains of biology, such as microbiology (tiny microbes residing in the human gut) and genomics. In my view, one key skill that is essential for pursuing research is to have a passion for research and mental flexibility. I guess that is the beauty of research, no matter how hard you try, you cannot pre-plan the outcome, and no one can tell you where your research can lead you. For instance, I started working with Huntington’s disease, traditionally known as a neurodegenerative disorder and I ended up saying ‘it may be a whole-body disease’.
My typical day is not so typical. I do not prefer monotonous routines and I am lucky that I am doing research, so that makes it highly unlikely to have a particular routine. For instance, there are months of experimentation where I work for more than twelve hours a day with about an hour break and no weekends off. On the other hand, there are days when I am analyzing my data, and I get more free time. And there are some days when I have to wait for my animals to attain a particular age, and that makes me free for a week or so. I would say your daily routine during your Ph.D. depends majorly on what type of research you are conducting and what stage of Ph.D. you are in!
I love the spontaneous and innovative nature of my job. As I mentioned earlier, I do not like monotony. I am a curious person, and this job always satisfies my hunger for knowledge and curiosity. In a Ph.D., there are multiple things one needs to do, such as writing, reading, thinking, analyzing, designing experiments, coordinating with different people, presenting one’s work to an audience that may not be specialized in one’s field of research. Science is always growing, so we have to grow with it, and there is always a scope for learning and trying new things. All this is very exciting for me, I can say one will never get bored during her/his Ph.D.
How does your work benefit society?
I work on understanding the basis of human disease, so I guess I do not need to state the importance of working on human diseases. Uncovering several aspects of a disease can ultimately help in paving the way towards the development of therapeutics and improve the quality of life of patients. I believe that a healthy society ultimately would benefit every sector of this world, and would create a better world to live in. Especially in the case of genetic disorders that can be passed onto future generations. We can save our upcoming generations from a disease that can be passed on to them through DNA and compromise their innocent lives.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
This is definitely my Ph.D. work. I started working with a very unique segment of Huntington’s disease, and it has been a challenging work. Throughout this journey, I realized how easy it is for the human brain to ignore important aspects of the field and how important is to expand one’s thinking and work in an interdisciplinary manner. During my Ph.D., I have interacted and worked with different people that made me understand the value of collaboration in research.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
I have a few pieces of advice based on my personal experience. One advice would be to follow your passion and choose your career path carefully. I understand it is easier said than done, but you should trust yourself and follow your heart. In my view, students should spend their time volunteering and doing internships in their field of interest as with real-world experience, you can relate well to the field and understand it better. Never compare your journey with others. Building a career is never a one-day event and nothing happens overnight. It’s a long beautiful journey which you should enjoy. Be ready for failures, everyone faces them, and experiencing failures is very natural.
I want to stay in the field of health sciences and use my skills to improvise and raise awareness about mental health as much as I can.