Human Genetics is fascinating because while all of our DNA is 99.99% identical, it is that miniscule 0.01% that distinguishes us from one another.

Nikita Telkar, our next pathbreaker, PhD Candidate in Medical Genetics at The University of British Columbia (Vancouver, Canada), analyses large-scale human genomic (big) data (RNA Sequencing) in the field of human developmental genetics.

Nikita talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about her current research in reproductive sciences through computational techniques and data analysis.

For students, when you pursue a career that you not only enjoy but also lets you thrive on the challenges it has to offer, the journey is incredibly rewarding !

Nikita, Your background?

Having completed my nursery in Dubai and preschool in Dubai and California, my parents moved us back to Pune in the middle of my final year of pre-primary school (Senior KG, at age 5), where I was enrolled in a Maharashtra-board English school. In primary school, I remember liking studying History and English in school, and was good at Science, okay at Geography and Marathi, and despised studying Mathematics. I was quite a shy child in school, and had a very small, tight-knit group of friends. Being a quiet-natured individual, it was easy to win the “Best Behaviour Award” for all of my 7 consecutive years of primary school. I used to love getting involved in as many extra-curricular activities as possible throughout school, be it social or academic – I always participated in our annual school show and science exhibition, in any competition that that the school put up (singing, story-telling, extempore, drawing) as well as competitive exams such as the National Science Olympiad, International Informatics Olympiad (I placed 2nd in my school in Grade 6), International Olympiad of English Language (I placed 3rd in school and 66th worldwide in Grade 7). My mom thought that I might like chess, and so she enrolled me in chess classes in Grade 6 – for which I won a few awards and qualified till district level. At the same time, I became very interested in our school’s Girls’ Marching Band, and after a year of watching the side/snare drummers practice and learning all the tunes on my own, I was the youngest drummer ever selected to join the band in Grade 7, the year after which I became Lead Drummer. While team sports didn’t interest me terribly, I did attend the after school physical activities session, roller-skated and played squash for a while. 

In high school (Grade 8 – 10), I ranked 1st in Computer Studies for all 3 years across all 4 divisions of our grade, 1st in class in History in Grade 9, and was always within the top 5 in English and German in our class. Still, even at this point, Science was not a subject that I had any particular liking towards. All in all, I was an above-average student, but not really a topper in the subjects that were deemed important in India (meaning Science or Maths). Preference and opportunities were given to the ‘smartest’ students in class (the ones who scored the most in exams – doing well in an exam, of course, is not a measure of intellect), and as such, the rest of the students felt overlooked, me included. It wasn’t until we started on the absolute last chapter in my Grade 10 Science textbook before our final exam of high school (10th Board Exams) on Genetics and Inheritance which described the basic concepts of genetics using Gregor Mendel’s pea plants as an example, that I felt a strong interest for a specific topic. That chapter changed my life quite literally, and has shaped me to become who I am professionally today. I distinctly remember the students in class talking about how difficult it was to study that chapter, when for me, it seemed so straightforward and easy to understand – that’s when I started to read more about what genetics as a subject entailed.

Choosing the Science Stream for my Junior College (Grade 11 and 12), I took a full course load of Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics, Biology, English, and German. Those 2 years were spent learning more about genetics as a subject and thinking about my options for my undergraduate degree.

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

When I was in school, the goal was to complete my undergraduate BSc degree in India, and then go abroad for my Masters. However, as I progressed in Junior College and was looking at the biology degrees available in India, absolutely none of them included genetics – the only options I had were Microbiology, Botany or Zoology, and I wasn’t interested in Biotechnology at that stage. I had resigned myself to the fact that I would have to spend the 3 years of my undergraduate journey not liking what I studied, and studying subjects that I was not interested in, due to no other options being available. 

However, towards the end of Grade 11, it just so happened that I saw an advertisement for an Education Fair that was being held by Edwise International in the city. I talked about it with my mom, and how we might get some information about Master’s degrees in Genetics offered at universities outside India. And it was at the fair, after hearing about several universities in the UK offering Genetics as a Bachelor’s degree, did my parents and I start talking about how going abroad for my BSc itself might be a good choice. After several long discussions, I applied to the University of Sheffield at Leeds, Exeter, Nottingham and Queen Mary, but chose Newcastle University (UK) for my Bachelor’s in Biomedical Genetics in the end. 

I had a fantastic 3 years at Newcastle, and my undergraduate study only made it clearer that a career in the field of genetics is what I wanted to pursue. On graduating from Newcastle, I was accepted at several UK universities for my Master’s, but chose to study Genetics of Human Disease at University College London (UCL) – ranked within the top 10 universities worldwide.

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?

As mentioned above, my interest in genetics started because of that one chapter in my Grade 10 Science textbook. While Junior College was spent in attending college and tuition classes, I believe my real education began at Newcastle University during my Bachelor’s. All my professors were highly ranked researchers within their fields, and I enjoyed every module that I studied. 

The reason I chose my degree, was because it was different from all the ones offered at other UK Universities. Very comprehensive, not only did it include building a solid foundation in biomedical science, but also allowed specialization within the biomedical field of our choice. For the first half of the 3-year degree (1st Year and the first half of my 2nd Year), all students were required to take mandatory courses in Biochemistry, Cell Biology, Genetics, Pharmacology, Physiology, and Microbiology and Immunology, and Practical Laboratory Skills. This ensured that before I began my specialization in Biomedical Genetics staring from the second half of my 2nd Year, I had acquired the necessary and fundamental knowledge required in how all branches of biomedical science overlapped and were tightly integrated. Because even through the rest of my degree, several of my modules had cross-talk with the mandatory modules that I had studied – given that all medicine is interconnected.

The highlight during those 3 years was the Genes and Development Summer Studentship 2016 Award that I was awarded by The Genetics Society UK to conduct my own independent research project in the summer after my 2nd Year. For my project, I investigated the presence of the WNT5A protein which is involved in cell-cell communication in human embryonic samples (in a 50 days-post-conception human embryo). No one had mapped this protein in the human gut (the esophagus to the anus, as this one long tube that runs throughout the body, and grows rapidly during development), and I observed that not only was the protein expressed in the embryonic gut, but also in the embryonic heart and the kidneys – something that we didn’t know before. As human embryonic samples are very difficult to obtain, and hence to study, we still don’t fully know the specifics of human development, and my results contributed towards that knowledge.

I was one of the 30 applicants (of ~200) accepted for this award from all around the UK, and I presented my project at the annual Studentship Workshop in Edinburgh, while I also won an award for my research poster at Newcastle University’s annual Research Exhibition. The report of my project was also selected to be published in The Genetics Society Newsletter. It was at this stage where I realised that not only did I like genetics as a subject, but that I was also good at it.

For my Master’s at UCL, I specifically chose my supervisor and dissertation project, because I wanted to learn more about the practical applications of genetic data. Given that I had developed my wet-lab skills during my Bachelor’s, I wanted to learn the computational skills associated with genetic data (it’s imperative to know how to analyze genomic data, as the field has progressed towards generating tons of data) – and so I chose the project that was investigating whether cholesterol genetic variants had a strong correlation with measured blood cholesterol biomarkers (HDL, LDL). Simply put, I was looking at whether knowing either your genetics or your blood cholesterol levels, could you predict the measured blood cholesterol biomarkers (HDL, LDL) – and how strong was that correlation. I performed this analysis in individuals from diverse populations of varying ancestry (European, Greek, Japanese, Chinese, African) and wanted to know whether the results of one population could be replicated in the other, that is, at the genetic level, were these genetic markers showing similar correlation with the blood biomarkers for all populations. And not surprisingly, the European and Greek populations showed high similarity in their results, the Japanese with the Chinese, but the African population showed very low similarity with the 4 other populations (this was expected, as the African population is the oldest and most diverse of all populations). This was a first-of-its-kind study, because no one had compared cholesterol variants across different populations before. And without understanding the differences that exist in the responses in each individual, we cannot effectively provide the best treatment and care options that would be possible for a particular patient. This research was published in Nature Communications (a top-tier research journal) with me as second-author, an event that has and will define my entire career. 

My supervisor supported me throughout my project, understanding that I had zero prior knowledge of coding (in R), and was always available when I needed her help. It was because of my supervisor that I firmly decided that I wanted to do a PhD after graduation, and continue on my academic journey as a geneticist. She is one of the major reasons that I have been able to progress so far and well in my early career.

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

Being in Academia in a country abroad, I knew that I had to do my absolute best to be considered for scholarships. And if I want to have a rewarding career in my field, then the impact of my work is what would get me these awards and fellowships. And so, while I did have my fair share of fun during my Bachelor’s, I also studied consistently and thoroughly. I never missed a class, I always handed in assignments before deadlines, and I had a strict exam study-revision schedule. I put in a lot of late hours at the library, studying to either complete assignments or for exams. And not only that, I also knew how important knowing people (i.e., networking) was. So, I made it a point to answer questions in class and stay behind after the lectures to talk more with the professors, to build a better relationship with them. I volunteered as much as I could and took part in several extra-curricular activities (I was on the Student-Staff Committee, a peer mentor, the Vice President of the Newcastle South Asian Society, part of the Model United Nations and many more roles) – activities that showed that not only was I a dedicated and sincere student but also a person who actively developed other skills on my CV. 

I followed the same approach throughout my Master’s, to ensure that I would be able to get into a reputed PhD program. And now, pursuing my PhD in Medical Genetics at the University of British Columbia, I still follow the same approach. Along with dedicatedly doing my research project, I seek out academic collaborations, initiate connections with relevant individuals via LinkedIn, while also enjoying a good work-life balance. The more you expose yourself to what’s happening in the world and its people, the more you gain.

How did you get your first break? 

My first real independent research project is what shot up my career trajectory. At Newcastle University, you are encouraged to secure a summer research project in the summer between your 2nd and 3rd Year. In order to do a research project, you require funding. I remember emailing several professors based at different institutes within the university, talking about who I am, my experience, and why I wanted to do a project with them and in their lab. Finally, after weeks of emails, one professor (who turned out to be the head of one of my courses in 3rd Year), agreed to meet with me and discuss a potential project. I applied to 3 funding bodies, 2 within the university, and 1 UK-wide, and the research proposal was accepted by 2 – 1 university award and the UK-wide award. I won awards for my research poster and my research report was published in the newsletter. 

I think, given the limited number of students that obtain a summer research project due to limited funding options, as well as being an international student and having secured UK-wide funding, was the jump that I needed to really distinguish myself as a capable student and future scientist. 

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

Securing funding when you are an undergraduate student is very difficult, more so when you’re an international student. A local student (a student from the UK) has the opportunities to build up their experience with relevant subjects and extracurriculars throughout school, whereas in India, you are exposed to limited options. As such, my entire goal once I started at university was to ensure that I had a credible CV which included relevant and diverse experiences (as I talk about in another section of this interview), and to make sure I secured the best marks I could in all the assignments and exams (given that these were subjects that I genuinely wanted to study, this part wasn’t that difficult). Because, while in India, all that matters are the marks you secure, everywhere else in the world, your extracurriculars matter equally. Anywhere you go, people want to see a well-rounded person, not a person who just knows how to do well in exams (which is also a skill of its kind, and not one that everyone is great at). And so, right from the start of my degree, I actively worked towards improving myself as a person with a wholesome skillset. 

For the summer research project in particular, I had to first find supervisors whose research focused on areas that I was also interested in. I had to then email several professors – for each of which I had to read about their research area, know about their current projects and publications, and basically as much as I could find out about them online and by talking to my fellow peers. Once I had all the information, formatting the right email is crucial because supervisors/professors are busy individuals, and sending a succinct yet informative email is a skill that I had to develop. And once the emails were sent, all I could do was wait for their reply. The majority of supervisors didn’t email back, a few of them said that they didn’t have any projects suited for an undergraduate at the time or that they didn’t have any other senior student to supervise me. When the supervisor with whom I would do the project finally accepted, it was the culmination of multiple weeks of research, stress, and waiting. Being patient, hopeful, and having faith in myself (my achievements and potential) and the process as a whole was necessary – as well as getting used to, and comfortable with, rejection.

Where do you work now?

Currently, I’m in my 3rd Year of my PhD in Medical Genetics at The University of British Columbia (Vancouver, Canada), where my project is in human developmental genetics. I work at the British Columbia Children’s Hospital Research Institute and at the British Columbia Cancer Research Centre. I’m investigating novel small RNA species in the human placenta, and how they correlate with inherent biological traits (such as stage of pregnancy, sex, and ancestry), and developing a catalogue of these small RNA species in the first instance worldwide. As such, my project involves a good amount of lab experiments and data analysis.

What problems do you address in Medical Genetics?

The long-term clinical output of this project is that if we are able to identify specific RNAs that show significant differences in expression by the traits above, and we see altered expression of these RNAs in pregnant women, we might be able to use them as pregnancy-specific biomarkers to provide for better informed care of both the mother and baby, during pregnancy. Research in reproductive sciences is sorely lacking and is one of the most underfunded fields within research, and hence, there is a lot of work still to be done. Given that a healthy pregnancy is absolutely crucial to ensure a healthy baby leading to a healthy childhood and healthy adulthood (babies with problems during pregnancy have lifelong impacts on their health, even as adults), it is essential for us to know how to provide the best possible care right at the start of the baby’s life, and through it’s development.

What are the skills needed in your role? How did you acquire them?

I use R Programming for all of my analyses, for which I self-taught myself R as well as the analysis steps – I’m the first one in my lab to work with this kind of data. I had to actively practice programming in R, searching and working through several tutorials and reading numerous publications on different methods, along with learning my specific type of expression analysis, RNA sequencing (RNA-seq) data.

Being a PhD student, it is up to you to plan and do your work – no one is responsible for doing your work, and hence you have to set your goals and deadlines yourself. Alongside my technical and computational skills, my PhD is teaching me the qualities of self-reliance, self-motivation, discipline, determination, and handling interpersonal relationships. 

My typical day varies quite a lot – sometimes I’m in the lab doing experiments the whole day, or I’ll work on my analyses from home, all the while with weekly meetings and heading bioinformatic support sessions for other graduate students. I published a photo essay A Week in the Life of a Geneticist’ where you can view a little bit more about my first year of my PhD.

The premier reason I love my chosen path – my PhD for now – is the professional freedom that you have. While working on my project, I also have the opportunities to network, develop collaborations and to improve my skill set for the future – and I make sure to involve myself in activities that further my knowledge as well as my technical know-how

How does your work benefit society? 

As a geneticist, I am driven by wanting to find how the genomic alterations can affect people differently. While all of us share our DNA to a 99.99% similarity, that miniscule 0.01% is what can sometimes make the difference between life and death. Taking this article from the BBC as an example, which talks about how certain people have a genetic variant that causes severe skin rashes when given a certain epilepsy drug, only goes to show how the differences in our DNA need to be better studied in order to administer the right drug and disease treatment that will benefit all individuals. Furthermore, your ancestry (e.g., South Asian) and the population you come from (e.g., the Indian subcontinent) also play a major role in your gene expression profile – the expression profile of a person of South Asian ancestry born and brought up in India is different from the profile of a person of South Asian ancestry born and brought up in Europe due to varying factors as your environment, your diet, and your peer group. And that’s why genetics as a subject fascinates me, because elucidating these differences that exist between individuals from different populations is crucial in our understanding of how best to provide for better disease treatment.

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

Being the Co-Chair of a bioinformatics and data analysis support group called the Trainee ‘Omics Group at the British Columbia Children’s Hospital Research Institute, I was approached for a collaboration, where the main authors of the study wanted me to analyse genomic expression data due to my expertise in that area. Both the supervisor and the PhD student who were leading the project are some of the nicest and generous people I have ever met. Even though I was quite junior to them in terms of years of training and expertise (the supervisor trained at Harvard Medical School, and the PhD student is now a Postdoctoral Fellow at Stanford University), they always encouraged and appreciated my work on the project, making the collaboration an amazing experience for me. When it was time to publish the manuscript, they made me second-author on the publication – something I had not asked for, or expected (the order of names on a publication reflects the amount of work and ownership of the project, and is deemed quite important in academia). This just went to show how much they really valued me and my input on the project – and knowing that just made me do my best work because my efforts were acknowledged and celebrated.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

As long as you’re clear on what it is that you want out of your professional and personal life, and you make the decisions that will support that vision actively every day, despite your current situation (which might not be what you want it to be), you will achieve what you set out to do, and most probably even further than what you thought you wanted. However, you need to be unwavering in your vision, and have to put in the necessary time and effort – just thinking about your goals without dedicated action does not work. And, as long as you are pure in your intentions about achieving your goals, help the people who ask for your advice without your ego getting in our way, and don’t resort to jealousy and malice when the people around you succeed – you will find your way.

Future Plans?

My aim upon graduating is to work with a company that incorporates ancestry and underrepresented populations in genetic studies. Building a reference genome for the population that I belong to, the South-Asian population, is my ultimate goal. You can read more about me and my experience on my website!