#WIISER Spotlight | Prof. Jayasri Das Sarma : On training scientific minds and not just hands
WIISER : Women in Science at IISER Kolkata
Vedanth Sriram and Arunita Banerjee
A group photo of Prof. Das Sarma’s Lab, December 2019. (Left to right : Abhishek Bose - SRF, Dr. Mahua Mallick - Postdoc, Mithila Kamble - JRF, Vaishali Mulchandani - JRF Debanjana Chakravarty - SRF, Prof. Jayasri Das Sarma, Fareeha Saadi - SRF, Lucky Sarkar - SRF, Soma Nag - Lab technician, Soumya Kundu - SRF, Sourodip Sengupta - SRF, Abass Safiriyu - International PhD student, Anurag - undergrad student, Akash - Lab technician and Prosenjit - Lab technician. The picture was clicked by Sourav Rohilla - JRF (missing in photo).
Prof. Jayasri Das Sarma joined IISER Kolkata as an Associate Professor in October, 2008. Her lab conducts studies on understanding neurological diseases, with special emphasis on a coronavirus that affects mice models and aims at developing therapeutic targets for human patients.
1. What influenced your decision to become a scientist? Do you come from a family where people have taken this career path before? Who have been your biggest influences/role models in your journey?
This is a rather interesting story, because becoming a scientist was not entirely my decision but my father's. There are no scientists by profession in my family but my elders were successful in their respective chosen career paths in the Indian Administrative Services and able enough to guide me in the right direction. After completing my Master’s in Zoology, I was equally interested in an administrative position as I was in research. Honestly, I was not so sure about research, but I was about administration. But my father’s outlook was completely different. He told me I was better suited for research owing to my perseverance and inquisitiveness. While I was preparing for both NET and Civil services exams, he confronted me and asked me to choose one of them, as he felt that otherwise I wouldn’t be able to achieve success in either. What made the most impact was him reminding me how I have always tried to find the reason behind everything. With that kind of inquisitive mindset, a career in research would help me thrive while the same nature would be quashed if I chose to opt for an administrative role. So, yes with the right kind of motivation, I was able to find passion in my career. My father has been my guide and role model ever since. Not to forget, my aunt, who has always been a constant support. In fact, she herself wanted to be a researcher but it was much more challenging in her time, than it is today. So, in a way she got to live her dream through me. She was my constant support for as long as she lived.
2. If a layperson asks you to explain what research is happening in your lab currently, and why it is impactful, what would you tell them?
To start with, Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is a neurodegenerative disorder, very common in the West. Due to the lack of diagnostic facilities, MS was earlier not identified as a separate disorder in India, but with recent advances in diagnostic technologies, the cases identified in the Indian subcontinent are increasing by the day. Given its relapsing and remitting nature like epilepsy, and since most pathological studies cannot be studied in humans, we take help from animal models to recreate the diseased condition in a lab environment, and then slowly move to human studies. So, my lab works on an animal model for MS, where we use a coronavirus, Mouse Hepatitis virus (MHV), that infects only mice, and causes certain symptoms of the MS disease in its central nervous system similar to what is seen in humans. We then study the different pathologies in combination with cell biology, neuroimmunology and molecular biology to understand the mechanisms of myelin degeneration and axonal loss which culminate to long term progressive neurological disorder. However, MS is still considered a neglected disease in India and only a few others work in the clinical aspect of the disease. Evenven today there are no other researchers working with an experimental model to understand the mechanisms of nerve damage in MS. Our findings are impactful to help answer questions about a tangible human disorder. Together with this, we have been invited to develop animal models to study the neuro-psychiatric aspect in another autoimmune diseases like systemic lupus erythematosus and in cervical and ovarian cancer models in mice as a test bed to develop novel targets for therapeutic interventions as well as screen repurposed drugs.
3. What are the hardest parts of doing research in your opinion?
Honestly, I am not the right person to talk about the hardships of research because I have been gifted with both money and able students. Along with the right kind of collaborations and shared enthusiasm we have been moving steadily together.
4. What in your opinion have been your biggest achievements in your career, and what have been the most memorable experiences in your career?
Well, I have two achievements that I would like to mention. The first one is the post-doctoral award that I received from the National Multiple Sclerosis Society (NMSS), USA for doing my research on MS. The society not only gave me funds during my postdoctoral tenure but supported my independent research when I was an Assistant Professor at Thomas Jefferson University. They also funded me during the early years at IISER Kolkata. I am ever so grateful to the Multiple Sclerosis Society International Federation (MSIF) for giving me the task to build a group in India with equally enthusiastic young minds. I took it very seriously and tried my best to train my students accordingly. Another achievement that I hold very dearly is my job at IISER Kolkata, where I have been gifted with many talented students. Their high aspirations, successes and achievements make me feel content and proud. The way they have been receiving grants and representing IISER Kolkata in the scientific community both nationally and internationally make me very happy. In fact, I wouldn’t be lying if I said my students’ achievements are my biggest achievements.
5. Looking back, if you had to give your younger self any advice, what would you say?
I was not very good at communicating in English because I studied in a Bengali medium school. I worked really hard on it during my postdoctoral days and trained myself. It’s often said that science doesn’t need you to be really good in English, but then how do we communicate our findings? Though my scientific aptitude was much appreciated, I realised that communication was just as important as my thought process. So, I would really like to put my younger self in a good English medium school and save myself the extra effort that I had to put in just for this. But I am grateful to my school teachers for teaching me values which are praiseworthy. Another thing I would like to mention here is that I was not trained to write grants or fellowship applications which nurture the capability of scientific writing. Well, I cannot really tell my younger self anything about this, but I try my best to leave no stone unturned in guiding my students. I take their help in writing grants and meeting proposals because I really don’t want them to suffer due to the lack of any kind of experience, especially considering the competition nowadays. This is my message, not just to my younger self but to all my fellow researchers, “Kindly train your students for writing research grants and proposals, popular writeups, and fellowship grants because this is of utmost importance. We need to train minds and not just experimental hands.”
6. Besides science, what are your hobbies or personal interests?
I find solace in reading, especially spiritual articles. Though I am a very passionate scientist, I am indeed spiritual. I also take much interest in geographical history. I am people’s person. I like to talk, make friends. I make a lot of friends even in scientific meetings. I like to travel a lot; I was an ardent traveller back in my days as a postdoc in the USA.
This electronic interview was coordinated and conducted by Vedanth Sriram and Arunita Banerjee for Cogito, IISER Kolkata. Vedanth Sriram is a 3rd Year BS-MS student at IISER Kolkata. Outside sitting in whatever course seems remotely interesting to him, you’ll mostly find him exchanging trivia with anything that breathes. He intends to graduate in 2022, or whenever the coronavirus will let him.