Antibiotic resistance is a global healthcare problem which has been affecting millions globally, and is getting worse every year.

Snehal Kadam, our next pathbreaker, PhD candidate in Biomedical Sciences at the Hull York Medical School, United Kingdom, researches skin wound infections by studying the communities of microorganisms that infect skin wounds, in order to characterize their antibiotic resistance.

Snehal talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about her own journey and experiences, as well as co-running a science outreach initiative, Talk To A Scientist, a platform to showcase the fun and interesting aspects of scientific research.

For students, while you will meet many people who inspire you, it’s important to remember that everyone has their own journey and your experiences will be unique to you.

Snehal, how were your growing up years?

I grew up in Pune, India, but moved to the United States with my parents at the age of four. We lived in the USA for five years, and I spent my initial years in school there. As I look back, this is really where my love for science began. In my school in the USA, we didn’t learn about scientific concepts just from books, but by doing activities in the class as well. I learnt about the life cycle of a butterfly by rearing caterpillars and watching them turn into butterflies over a few weeks. To learn about volcanoes, we built a model. 

I moved back to India and carried this love of science with me throughout school. I enjoyed learning biology specifically, about different diseases and was amazed by how the human body worked! 

When I wasn’t participating in school activities, I was either dancing or reading a book. Throughout my childhood, I was a multitasker. This has been a core skill that has really helped me balance my career with other ventures in science outreach, science communication and more. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I did my bachelors and masters degrees in science from the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) Pune. My education at IISER Pune was truly interdisciplinary, with a basic background in biology, chemistry, physics and mathematics in my first two years. In my third and fourth years, I chose to focus more on my main interests in biology, and did various short research projects throughout my time at IISER Pune. I went on to carry out my master’s thesis at the National University of Singapore in the field of microbiology. I am currently pursuing my PhD at the Hull York Medical School, University of Hull, United Kingdom, studying skin wound infections.

Tell us, what were the influences that led you to such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

I knew of my interests in science right from my childhood, though I was unsure of what that would mean in terms of a career. When I was 17, I met a professor from IISER Pune. Learning about the interesting course structure at IISER and having the ability to choose your own courses and tailor your education to your interests was what attracted me the most. 

After visiting the IISER Pune campus as a 17-year-old, I knew I wanted to follow my interests in biology and pursue a research degree. I started reading more about biology research and open research questions. That’s when I first came across the antibiotic resistance crisis and how extensive research was needed to address this global healthcare issue. This really opened my eyes to how research could help address global issues, and encouraged me to pursue my undergraduate degree in science at a research institute. And that’s where it all began!

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path.

Growing up, I did not know anyone in the field of research, and the first time I met a scientist was only when I decided to pursue a research degree itself. I really had no idea what to expect going into this field, and learned about possible steps only as I went along this journey and spoke to more people in research. 

I was fortunate to receive research experience right from my undergraduate degree, in the form of short internships and research projects in laboratories. I received the Scholarship for Higher Education (SHE), given under the Innovation in Science Pursuit for Inspired Research (INSPIRE) program by the Department of Science and Technology (DST), Govt. of India during my BS and MS degrees at IISER Pune. This scholarship played an important role in providing financial support through the research internships I did.

I also learnt the importance of networking and reaching out to people. Whenever I was interested in someone’s research, I reached out to them to discuss potential opportunities. While this did not always result in a positive outcome, it showed me that it was important to put yourself out there. Eventually this skill has played an important role in all the opportunities I have received.

In my first ever research project, I worked as part of a team for the international Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition in 2015. This was the first time I worked in a research laboratory. While we did not achieve all our goals for the project, it introduced me to the excitement of working on something completely novel. The process of using what was known in the field to develop your own idea or hypothesis and then actually testing it in the laboratory was exhilarating!

I carried out a summer internship as well as my final year thesis project at the National University of Singapore (NUS). This was possible due to funding from NUS as well as the INSPIRE scholarship. These projects were also in the field of microbiology.

I have always been fascinated by microbiology and infections, especially when we think of tiny microbes that we can’t even see, having such devastating effects on our body. While I did research internships and projects in different labs and institutes, microbiology and its relevance to disease in humans has always remained a broad theme.

At IISER Pune, I studied a synthetic genetic circuit that worked like an AND logic gate to characterize gene expression in Escherichia coli. At NUS, my project focussed on understanding the genetic regulatory network of an important protein in Salmonella.

After I graduated with a Master of Science degree from IISER Pune, I started my first job as a research assistant with Dr. Karishma S Kaushik in Savitribai Phule Pune University. As the first member of her group, I gained experience not only in terms of laboratory skills, but also in setting up a new research group, writing grants and papers, mentorship and teaching. I led numerous research projects in Karishma’s lab, where we explored ways to develop more human-relevant platforms to study infections. I worked to understand how bacteria form biofilms (communities/aggregates of bacteria) and the role they play in infection. Our team developed an artificial wound fluid to better mimic the biochemical conditions of wounds in the laboratory, and we used this to study planktonic (free-floating) and biofilms lifestyles of two important wound pathogens (Staphylococcus aureus and Pseudomonas aeruginosa). I also tested the ability of few traditional remedies made from plant extracts to act as antimicrobials against biofilms in the laboratory. These varied projects have since then been shared publicly in the form of numerous publications, conference presentations and feature articles. Working with Karishma really gave me the space to grow and become a more well-rounded researcher. I also contributed to the science ecosystem in India in various ways – conducting webinars on relevant topics in research and academia, writing feature articles and more. 

In my journey till now, I think the most important skill that has helped me has been reaching out to people, talking about my research interests and widely sharing my work online whenever possible. Networking online through social media platforms like Twitter and LinkedIn has been useful in connecting to researchers across the world. 

I have also been really lucky to have found supportive mentors throughout my journey. These have been seniors from my undergraduate days, faculty I have met and even my peers. I believe that we have the opportunity to learn from the people around us, and in turn, pay this forward by being mentors ourselves!

How did you get your first break?

I met Dr. Karishma Kaushik through a professor at IISER Pune. I still remember – we went to a cafe on the IISER campus and spent the next hour discussing science over coffee. I talked to her about my research interests in microbiology, infections and finding better ways of studying them in the laboratory without the use of animal models. It turned out that she had just returned from the USA to start her own research group, and had received a grant to develop a human-relevant laboratory model to study wound infections. I knew immediately that this was an opportunity I could not lose! I expressed my interest to work on the project with her, and she said she was looking to hire someone. That’s how I landed my first job as a research assistant.

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

Being in academia and research do come with significant challenges. My experiences throughout my journey have shown me what I struggle with, and I have also found ways to overcome these.

Dealing with failure: Research is something that definitely requires a lot of patience. In the field of biology, there are so many variables, complex systems, phenomena, organisms, and diseases that we study. The first idea you get is most likely going to fail. And then, you reevaluate, troubleshoot and start again. Research is more than just the final question you are trying to answer. It is also about the whole journey to get there, all the times you failed, and kept trying with slight tweaks, major changes or completely new ideas! Once I realized this, I started looking at setbacks as opportunities to improve my hypothesis and skills, and become a better researcher. 

Having a good work-life balance: Research is frequently perceived as working in a lab coat, spending all the time in the laboratory working on experiments, and never stopping untill you get the ‘Eureka’ moment. This mindset can in fact be very toxic to your mental health and even to your research. For me, finding a good-work life balance has been very crucial. I try my best to ensure I take breaks, don’t work on weekends, and take holidays. This actually has been very useful in my research and I come back to work with a fresh perspective!

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?

I am currently pursuing my PhD in Biomedical Sciences at the Hull York Medical School, United Kingdom, studying skin wound infections. I work with bacteria, which are really tiny organisms (hence the name “micro-organisms”). There are bacteria that can be good or bad for our health. Different bacteria can infect and live in communities in wounds. This makes it difficult for wounds to heal, even more so for patients with existing underlying conditions such as diabetes. The bacteria that infect these skin wounds can also be resistant to antibiotics, making treatment difficult. I am studying these communities of microorganisms that infect skin wounds and characterizing their antibiotic resistance.  A typical day in my life can be highly dynamic and that’s what I love about it. No two days are the same! 

What are the skills required in your role?

The one skill I find most useful is the ability to plan things well. Being a multitasker since childhood, planning is second nature to me. I am jokingly called the ‘planner’ in my friends circle. All jokes aside, this skill is what helps me to navigate the different aspects of my work. I spend the first hour of my Mondays planning out what I am going to do in the week. This includes the experiments I will do, ordering materials needed for upcoming experiments, reading research papers, finding techniques to help me answer a particular research question and many other things. 

Typically, I begin with a research question in mind – something that interests me and is relevant to the field I work in. Then I will usually read published research papers to find out the existing knowledge related to this question. I then identify information we don’t know, or something that isn’t well studied, or gaps in the knowledge. I then formulate more refined research questions that I can ask to fill these gaps. The next step is to identify what I would need to do to answer these questions (identify what data needs to be collected). I then plan, design and execute experiments to obtain that data, which I then analyze. This data will then provide some new information, and understanding it in the context of existing knowledge is crucial. This may then lead to further research questions and the cycle starts again! There are numerous places where one might get stuck, and has to navigate around it. This could involve troubleshooting some failed experiment, finding the right collaborators to help you, or just filling out lots of forms and paperwork! 

Every day may present a new challenge. While that may seem daunting, for me, it brings great joy when I am able to overcome these challenges and find a new way or angle to proceed with my research. While I am pursuing a PhD, and have acquired various skills from my previous research experiences, I am still learning every day. And that’s what I love the most!

How does your work benefit society? 

Antibiotic resistance is a global healthcare problem. It affects millions already, and is getting worse every year. Think of the numerous times you have had an infection and have relied on antibiotics to make you get better. As antibiotic resistance in infection-causing pathogens increases, it makes treatment of these infections more difficult. In order to develop alternative treatments or find ways of dealing with this healthcare problem, we need to understand the bacteria that cause these infections, how they live in communities and the antibiotic resistance associated with this. I hope my research is a step in this direction, along with the numerous scientists across the globe working on tackling this crisis.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

When I was a research assistant with Karishma, I was working with our team to develop a biomimetic wound fluid in the laboratory. We wanted to make an artificial wound fluid that replicated the biochemical conditions in the wound and use this to study bacterial characteristics rather than traditional synthetic lab broth. Studying bacteria in this fluid could then give us a more human-relevant view of their growth, ability to form communities (also called ‘biofilms’) and resistance to antibiotics. 

I remember we were struggling to visualize biofilms for this study using confocal microscopy. We wanted to use this specific technique because it gave us a much clearer picture and the ability to visualize the whole biofilm rather than just a part of it. I worked on troubleshooting and optimizing our method for months. Just as I was getting closer to an answer, we were hit by the first wave of COVID-19 in India. When I finally got back into the laboratory after many months, I immediately got back to the confocal microscope. After having optimized different growth conditions (such as time and temperature), different microscope settings, light wavelengths and more, I was finally ready to test again. I finally had my ‘Eureka’ moment that day, after almost one year since I first tried it. That day, I couldn’t stop smiling! 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

While you will meet many people who inspire you, it’s important to remember that everyone has their own journey and your experiences will be unique to you. Having a diverse network within your field of interest, and even beyond, can be very helpful, not only in gaining opportunities, but as a source of support and mentorship. 

Future Plans?

While I enjoy being in academia and conducting research, I also want to explore other science related areas in the future such as science editing, science communication and outreach. 

Apart from my research, I co-run a science outreach initiative, called Talk To A Scientist. We host weekly live webinars where young minds (ages 6-16) get to interact with and learn from scientists. Through this platform, I want to showcase that science is fun and interesting. I also want to build modern-day role models in science for these young minds in India. I aim to continue working toward these goals!