Indiscriminate use of marine resources (including sponges) is one of the biggest challenges faced by our country. We need to understand the ecology of sponges in greater detail for sustainability and bioprospecting.

Anshika Singh, our next pathbreaker, Research Associate III at NCBS-TIFR, works on the problem of marine microplastics to understand their impact on intertidal sponges and sponge-associated microbial communities. 

Anshika talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about taking tough career decisions in order to follow her childhood dream of being close to oceans and exploring the fascinating world of marine life sciences. 

For students, don’t hesitate to take risks in life. But also, don’t get disheartened by your failures. It would be best never to lose hope and always have contingency plans.

Anshika, your background?

I was born in the landlocked city of Varanasi, in Northern India, far from the sea. I was just seven years old when I went to Chennai and saw the ocean for the first time in the form of -the world’s second-longest beach, “Marina Beach”. It was a memorable experience of my life, and I was interested in the small sea creatures while walking on the marina drive and the wave actions at the beach. 

What did you do for graduation / post-graduation?

I did my bachelors (BTech) from VIT Vellore in Biotechnology. Since the oceans have significantly impacted my life since childhood, I wanted to pursue higher studies in marine-related fields. However, after my post-graduation, I did not accept the job offer at one of India’s top Pharma companies; instead, I followed my dream of becoming a mermaid- a girl ready to transition from land to water. This metamorphosis helped me to become a marine scientist at last. 

What were some of the influences that led you to such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?

The key influencers in my life are my family. My grandfather and father always believed in me and taught me good moral values, keeping me focused on my career goals despite all the hurdles. My mother encouraged me to be independent and follow my dreams. I am lucky to be born into a broad-minded family where I did not face any discrimination. I received all the support at every stage of my career. Despite being the only child and from a simple family,  I got full support from them to pursue higher education in a place far away from my hometown. 

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Tell us about your career path.

During my last year of MTech, I decided to prepare for competitive exams to secure my fellowship and register for PhD in a marine institute. I took the tough decision of not going straight for campus placements, and instead followed my childhood dream of being close to oceans and exploring the fascinating world of marine life sciences. 

What was the problem statement of your PhD, and can you talk about your research? A little about your Postdoc?

My PhD guide Dr Narinsh Thakur, CSIR-NIO, is the main reason for my passion for marine biotechnology, notably marine sponges. I have about 11 years of experience working on various aspects of marine sponge biology. I still remember our first interaction during the AcSIR-PhD coursework, when he taught about the exceptional potential of simple multicellular living animals, “sponges”.  Marine sponges belong to the phylum “Porifera”, which means pore bearers. They have numerous pores over their body, which they use to filter the seawater and obtain nutrients from it.  Sponges have numerous ecological (such as micro-habitats, food sources, cycling of nutrients and DOM) and biotechnological benefits (such as novel therapeutic drugs, anti-fouling agents, natural loofah, biomimetic research, and designing optical fibres and self-cleaning surfaces).

During the coursework,  it was explained how indiscriminate use of marine resources (including sponges) is one of the biggest challenges faced by our country, and we need to find ways to understand the ecology of sponges in greater detail for sustainability and bioprospecting.  Dr Thakur’s far-sightedness and expertise in this area facilitated my strong desire to work under his supervision. I started to look carefully at the problem of chemical ecology and novel drug discovery in the context of Indian marine sponges. For my PhD,  I worked on the chemical ecology of intertidal marine sponges at Anjuna beach in Goa. I conducted monthly field and laboratory-based experiments for three consecutive years to understand the growth, reproduction and defence of the commonly occurring golf ball sponges.  We found that the aggressive neighbouring soft corals affected these sponges’ development, reproduction, and production of secondary metabolites (allelochemicals). Comprehensive studies on the biotic and abiotic factors affecting their growth and reproduction provided the data to regulate the aquarium conditions for culturing these sponges and solving the problem of biomass for bioprospecting.

I started my post-doctoral work at Prof. Sudhir Krishna’s lab in NCBS, where I set up the sponge primmorph culture (3D cell culture) and used the transcriptomics approach (transcriptomics= study of all expressed genes, RNA) to study the cellular and molecular responses of sponges to the naturally occurring pathogen. This work was carried out to understand how the basal metazoan react to a natural pathogen as they lack organs and they do not have an advanced immune system like ours; our results (manuscript in the communication) have shown that the pathways and immune responses are highly conserved in these basal metazoans and showed high similarity with higher animals. Phagocytosis (Cell eating) and apoptosis (self-eating) were the most crucial processes sponges use to attract natural pathogens and destroy the infected cells. 

How did you get your first break?  

I qualified for the national level AcSIR exam to get myself registered for the PhD degree in oceanography at CSIR-NIO, Goa. This allowed me to undergo one and a half years of comprehensive coursework to fully grasp the field and develop novel ideas to work on for my PhD. 

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

Challenge 1: biotechnology to oceanography

I chose to register in the AcSIR-NIO PhD program rather than any state-level program. This allowed me to undergo extensive coursework of 1.5 years on oceanography. I got enough time to understand the subject, interact with all the scientists (AcSIR faculty) at NIO, and explore my interests before confirming the PhD topic. 

Challenge 2:  finishing PhD on time

For this, I want to give full credit to my mentor (Dr Thakur, NIO Goa), who gave a positive and supportive atmosphere for my growth as a good scientist and human being. I still remember that during my PhD interview, he mentioned that the most important thing in science is ‘Trust’, which should be both ways. Mentors and PhD students should trust each other to work as a team and achieve their goals on time. 

Challenge 3: Postdoc fellowships and grants

I thank my PhD mentor for training me to be independent in my scientific thinking and experimental designs. This helped me to secure my independent fellowships, which bridged my Postdoc fellowship and DST-WoS-A during my Postdoc. It is also essential to find right-minded mentors and collaborators. I am genuinely grateful to Sudhir Krishna for providing me with all the financial assistance and space in his laboratory to set up a marine aquaculture system at TIFR-NCBS-Bangalore, which is again a landlocked area. This was quite challenging, but my previous experience working on “the factors that regulate the growth and survival of marine sponges in vivo and in vitro” helped me overcome the hurdles in establishing the aquaculture and cell culture of marine sponges in his laboratory. I also want to mention Prof. Shannon Olsson, my current supervisor, who taught me how to write a grant proposal. With her guidance and mentorship, I have secured most of the grants (research funds and travel grants) I have applied for. She taught me that the most important thing while writing a grant is writing in a way that even your grandmother can understand. 

Where do you work now? 

Currently, I am working as Research Associate three on the problem of marine microplastic (MP) pollution in a SERB-funded project of Prof. Shannon Olsson and Prof. Mukund Thattai at NCBS-TIFR. 

What problems do you solve? 

I am working on the problem of marine microplastics to understand their impact on intertidal sponges and sponge-associated microbial communities. We aim to establish these sponges as the bio-indicator of microplastics.  

What skills are needed for the job? How did you acquire the skills? 

MP analysis and omics studies. I acquired these skills through the training I received at NCBS-TIFR.  

Omics is the study which allows analysis of the structure and function of the whole makeup of a given biological process at different levels.  When it is studied at the DNA level, it is called “genomics”; at the RNA level, it is called “transcriptomics”; at the protein level, it is called “proteomics”; and at the metabolic level, it is called “metabolomics”.

This project is quite interdisciplinary in nature. Therefore, sound knowledge of analytical techniques such as FTIR-ATR, Raman Imaging, SEM-EDX, molecular methods (DNA, RNA isolation, cDNA lib preparation), bioinformatics and biostatistics (R programming, modelling) are needed for this work. Besides that, being skilful in marine sponges’ morphological and molecular identification is essential. 

Though I acquired some of these techniques during my college and PhD studies, I am learning most of the omics work and programming at NCBS-TIFR. Besides that, I have established a strong collaborative network with the experts in my field in India and abroad to get their suggestions and assistance as and when required. 

What’s a typical day like?

Being a mother and a scientist, one must balance personal and professional life. I try to maintain that, but not every day is perfect, and we should remember it is okay not to be perfect someday. The essential thing in life is to get up every morning with fresh thoughts and new energy. I like to plan my day to achieve most of my goals and stay focused. However, I keep my plans flexible enough to accommodate a few unplanned activities at work and home. The key to a balanced life is knowing your goals, strengths, weaknesses and planning accordingly. Keep the contingency plans so that you can avoid becoming a disappointment to yourself and others. 

What is it you love about this job? 

I am a very creative person in life. I can’t imagine myself doing a routine job. I am happy that I am doing something involving innovative thinking and problem-solving skills daily. 

How does your work benefit society? 

Our work on marine microplastics will help the public understand the harmful impact of microplastics. The fact that some sponges can thrive in a polluted environment can provide a natural bioindicator of microplastic pollution. 

Besides these, there is the possibility of finding a novel microbial consortium via an omics approach to pinpoint the enzymes or pathways responsible for the biodegradation of MP (microplastics) inside the sponge body.  Such information will help plan advanced studies for the bioremediation of MP using marine-origin enzymes or microbes that are active and functional at a wide range of temperatures, pH and other harsh conditions, making them most desirable for various industrial applications. 

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

We often hear Pasteur’s quote, “Chance favours the prepared mind”. Something similar happened to me while I was doing my PhD. I was working on the growth modelling of marine sponges to optimise the parameters to achieve successful reproduction (budding) in sponges in an aquarium. After a lot of struggle and optimization for months, one fine morning when I was not expecting to see any result, I found that the experiment had finally worked, and there were lots of buds (sponge babies attached to the mother sponge). This is one of the best memories of my scientific career, as this teaches us never to lose hope and keep doing our work. Maintaining a good observation notebook and writing down every tiny detail is very important. Also, hard work always pays off, as this work was published on the cover page of an international journal. 

What is your advice to students based on your experience?

Follow your dreams, and don’t hesitate to take risks in life. But also, don’t get disheartened by your failures. It would be best never to lose hope and always have contingency plans.

Future Plans?

I plan to work in the marine field.