I said to myself, “If we can keep the front of the eye alive in culture, why is it not possible with the back of the eye?” We need to have human retinal neurons alive in culture to study therapies in a pre-clinical human system. With no expertise in engineering but the strong will to persevere, I sought help from family and reached out to my mechanical engineer cousin, Husain Lohawala.
Husain and I brainstormed for weeks before we came up with our first prototype.
However, it only allowed culture of the eye but no automation with fluid systems to keep the eye alive for long periods. I turned to my husband, Gaurav Sharma, a Software Engineer, and an accomplice by marriage. I requested his assistance and said the work could go no further without his expertise. With his help we proceeded to build numerous prototypes. It wasn’t successful each time, but we did learn from each prototype. We would build a prototype and have successful functionality in certain aspects but not in others. So ensued multiple brainstorming sessions with my mentor and the team. And finally, we had a successful model in our hands.
The first-ever device for maintaining the human posterior eye under pressure, which could revolutionize clinical therapy testing.
With a utilities patent underway, it was a phone call from Dr. Emmanuel Urquieta at the Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH) that started my journey in the field of space biology. His simple question about whether I was interested in submitting a proposal for a grant solicitation from TRISH changed my research trajectory. He was intrigued about my novel model, and inquired if it could be utilized for Spaceflight-associated Neuro-ocular Syndrome (SANS).
This syndrome of ocular clinical findings is seen in astronauts after six months or more of long-term missions. Amongst other visual changes, the astronauts become increasingly hyperopic (long-sighted) over time which essentially requires dynamically changing reading glasses. This may not seem significant in short missions but could become mission critical during long duration Artemis or Mars missions, which makes it a high risk for NASA.
I was interested and amazed how this idea for pursuing space research and SANS just fell into my lap. Submitting a TRISH proposal was a high-risk idea, but I was enthralled, eager to commit, and excited to acquire funding to characterize my model for SANS. I immediately spent the next two weeks reading and writing a grant proposal for TRISH to use my model as a ground analog for SANS. After many sleepless nights, six weeks later, I found out that I had received funding for my first-ever extramural grant from TRISH. I was on the way to exploring new frontiers.
I and my research team spent the next six months purchasing all the supplies, reagents, and equipment for the project, and were on the cusp of starting our large-scale study, when suddenly COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. Everything we had worked for came crashing down. We had to immediately shut down the labs, the experiments were closed out, and all the human eye samples were discarded in just a span of one week. It was devastating to have spent so much time and effort for everything to be put on pause, but our lab shutting down seemed inconsequential compared to the immense tragedy that engulfed the lives of everyone who was suffering from COVID or loved ones who passed due to the virus.
With an eye on adaptation, we changed gears and brainstormed new ways of completing the milestones we intended to set out to ensure that we were truly doing justice to the initial proposal. The silver lining from the pandemic was and has been the ability to adapt and accept change, while still moving forward.
In the meantime, my professional career was also taking a turn. I had been offered a position at Indiana University as an assistant professor. I was in the middle of a pandemic, 7 months pregnant with my second baby, and starting a new position in Indiana. I was leaving my family support in Texas to start a new life in a new state with my growing family. The TRISH grant amidst all these changes was a blessing in disguise. There were a lot of opportunities coming my way and I was at the right place at the right time. I realize that my current faculty position is in part because of TRISH and the doors it opened for me. Under the directorship of Dorit Donoviel, PhD, TRISH has steered toward novel high-risk projects and discoveries that surpass normal NASA priorities, ensuring TRISH awardees keep innovating. TRISH did not just provide me with a grant but has since supported educational as well as mentorship programs, encouraged current and previously funded investigators such as myself at numerous events and platforms, boosting our confidence, giving us a stage to speak on, and encouraging our drive.
After I received my grant, I had numerous offers for faculty positions from multiple institutions. It was truly an embarrassment of riches. However, Indiana University stood out to me the most. The collegial and collaborative environment, including the perfect rapport between basic scientists and clinicians, is what drew me to Indiana. I knew the horizons of research that I was trying to explore were nearer and more so because my ultimate goal has always been translational research. The core of any basic biomedical science research is to eventually translate it to clinical research. My model and training in stem cell technology gives me the opportunity to test therapies with a focus on precision medicine that encompasses all diversity of individuals.
My educational experience and career have been a whirlwind from having grown up in multiple countries and having diverse cultural exposure. I am a woman and have deep ethnic roots. My dad is Indian, and my mom is Tanzanian. Their multicultural background allowed me to appreciate diversity and its impact on how you view the world. Through my childhood experiences, I learned that life is not confined to boundaries of wealth, culture, or ethnicity. These experiences have translated into my career in many ways, from my research focusing on neurodegenerative diseases - where the role of race/ethnicity is critical to understanding disease development - to my lifelong interest in mentoring young women and students traditionally underrepresented in science.
I’m grateful I had the opportunity to have a village and experience meaningful mentorships throughout my career to sustain my vision to help people. From my Ph.D. mentor, Dr. Abbot Clark, whose passion for glaucoma is never-ending, to my first postdoctoral mentor, Dr. Budd Tucker, whose drive for saving vision is relentless. And I cannot say enough about Dr. Colleen McDowell, my second postdoctoral mentor. Without her support, compassion and belief in me, the Translaminar Autonomous System would have not been born. I was lucky and blessed to have these mentors in my life. They helped me when I needed it. They believed in me when I did not believe in myself. They pushed me when I had given up hope, not ever leaving my side. Even to this day, they are the helping hand when I need it. Their mentorship is what drives and inspires me to be a better mentor.
Even as a faculty member, I feel that without mentorship, I would be lost. At Indiana University, I have been given a similar mentorship support system, with Drs. Tim Corson, Yoshikazu Imanishi, Kathryn Haider, and Alex Robling. Their support has been endless, and they ensure that every grant I submit, every career move I make and every important decision I enquire about helps my career trajectory. Their support encouraged me to apply for the Boosting Spaceflight Underrepresented Research Equality (B-SURE) program, supported by TRISH which pairs NASA research mentors with under-represented mentees like me.
The B-SURE program assist mentees to apply for space health research funding through various NASA solicitations. The program not only encourages our applications but downstream, provides guidance on grantsmanship and reviews.
The B-SURE program has transformed my outlook and perspective on how to get immersed in the NASA human research program and space biology field. This program, implemented by Drs. Rachael Seidler, Ana Diaz Artiles, Josephine Allen and Christine Wegner, is truly transformative. The experience has been invaluable, from the Foundations of Funding Workshop they organized, to giving mentees financial support to attend conferences such as the NASA Human Research Program Investigator’s workshop in Galveston.