“It is possible to do world-class research in India”: Dr Kaushik, assistant professor at SPPU

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“We can talk about anything but Covid-19,” nine-year-old Abhay replied when his mother Karishma Kaushik asked for his opinion on the launch of a new online forum “Talk to A Scientist” (TTAS) in March. 2020.

Two years ago, as the world prepared to deal with the once-in-a-century and permanent coronavirus pandemic, medical researcher Dr Karishma Kaushik saw a great opportunity to create a platform one-of-a-kind science awareness campaign for students who are forced to miss school.

“It was an idea I shared with my research colleague Snehal Kadam and in no time we were online, answering many questions from young school children,” recalls Dr Kaushik, assistant professor in the Department of Biotechnology from Savitribai Phule Pune University. (SPPU).

Now nearly 100 weeks old, TTAS has taken firm root with a devoted audience of 40 to 50 children per session, she says. “It’s wonderful when I meet the families of new colleagues, first I get asked about TTAS. Then I have to remind them of the research going on in my lab,” she says.

Interest in clinical research

Born to lawyer-doctor parents and hailing from Mumbai, young Kaushik arrived in Pune to pursue medical studies at Dr. DY Patil Medical College in Pimpri. Throughout her college education, she remained active in community-related medical activities. “During a brief stint at Sassoon General Hospital, I realized that my broader skills remained largely underutilized in the typical practice of medicine,” she shares.

But her medical career took a turn during her three years of medical school at the Armed Forces Medical College (AFMC), where her interest in clinical research was ignited. “I won the Ranbaxy Young Scientist Award for a research project that involved the genetic characterization of clinical strains of varicella. That day I realized there was an aspiring researcher within me. My time at AFMC has shown me that you can do world-class research in India,” says Dr. Kaushik.

Dr. Karishma’s marriage to Kaushik, a computer engineer based in Pune, and moving his base to California in the United States brought many changes. It was a mixture of starting life in a new country, going through a different university system, and facing a series of rejections to enroll in a doctoral program at top institutes in California. “But my husband persuaded me to start with an informal research experience at UC Berkeley. The larger plan was to become familiar with the American university system,” she recalls.

A doctorate in the United States

A few years later, his doctoral journey began at the University of Texas for which the couple moved to Austin. The doctoral studies were not easy since the couple was expecting their first child. “Even in the United States, university systems are not equipped to integrate maternity leave into the doctoral program. I took unpaid maternity leave. I had to pay my allowance to a colleague to cover my teaching assignments. Had it not been for our individual financial situation which allowed us to do so, it would have been a difficult situation. And that really needs to change,” she says.

“A doctoral program cannot do without maternity leave or a policy of long leave, in general. Although the doctorate was a healthy experience, being a new parent was simultaneously isolating. The accompaniment of personal choices and situations is an important reform that we must see in doctoral programs around the world,” she suggests.

According to Dr. Kaushik, the biggest gain while pursuing doctoral studies in molecular genetics and microbiology was the opportunity to be trained to work with multicellular bacterial communities, also known as biofilms. “In nature or in the human body, bacteria grow in clusters and I was part of a team – a physicist, a mathematician, an engineer – who discovered a metabolic compound that could increase the action of antibiotics . I had several publications during my doctorate,” says Dr. Kaushik.

Its association with the University of Texas continued for another three years as a teaching faculty for undergraduates. On the experience, she says, “I developed the curriculum and content for the lab classes and it was a wonderful experience lecturing to some 300 brilliant undergraduate students. At the same time, I was also exploring opportunities to return to India.

Back to India

It was thanks to the Ramalingaswami Re-entry Fellowship, offered by the Department of Biotechnology (DBT), Government of India, that Dr. Kaushik was able to continue her research after returning to India in 2018. With the fifth year progressing, she is proud to establish a unique research program that works on oral wounds and infections, using human-relevant approaches that are neither simple laboratory models nor animal models at SPPU.

“This scholarship gave me the opportunity to enter the Indian university system. We build on-chip infection platforms using human-relevant systems such as human cells and proteins and design devices that mimic the human infection state. In these systems, we study infections caused by biofilms such as wound infections. With this, we are developing a preclinical platform for novel antimicrobial screening purposes. This can accelerate the testing and development of new antibiotic approaches for biofilms,” she shares.

Dr. Kaushik has been a member of key committees in Indian science including the latest Science, Technology and Innovation Policy (STIP) 2020. She was part of the committee which recommended that more female scientists be in decision-making positions and fought to provide equal opportunities and extend benefits to LGBTQIA+ scientists in India.

To improve the ease of doing science in India, minimal red tape is important, Dr Kaushik believes. She also hopes young PhDs will get more postdoctoral opportunities in India.

‘Be the change…’

Doing science anywhere in the world is not easy and India has its own challenges, Dr Kaushik points out. She adds, “But the past few years have shown me that we can overcome challenges and really impact the ecosystem, which has responded positively in my case in the form of opportunity and recognition.”

To other researchers and young researchers, his advice is to acquire skills and diversify. Its motto remains “Be the change you want to see in Indian science”. She is optimistic about Indian science and future opportunities to contribute to the scientific community.

Dr. Kaushik, who prefers to be known as a researcher-facilitator, prefers to consider everyone in her team as a colleague and to blur hierarchical positions. “We all work together and we are all stakeholders. If something succeeds, we all benefit,” she said.

After 5 p.m. on working days, Karishma finds time for exercise, family and reading at home. “Once home, I engage in an hour-long exercise that helps me decompress for the day. I like to read in the evening, but make sure it’s not science,” adds she.

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