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Spotlight: Richa Sharma, Biomedical Postdoctoral Research Scientist at University of Edinburgh

Tell us a fun fact about yourself

I love sketching, painting and creating crafts from recycled materials. I have a trash treasure of used bottles, cans and boxes to upcycle as crafted pieces! I enjoy reading fiction and watching movies (while munching on chocolate bars!). I am trained in Indian Classical Dance forms and enjoy travelling. I want STEM to reach and inspire everyone, and try my bit in this mission. Recently I presented my research in the European Researchers’ Night and Explorathon 2021, Global Science Show.

Tell us about your career journey so far

Understanding life and Nature through Biology was my passion in school, so I chose it as a career. I believed I could apply my knowledge of Biology to develop solutions for global problems. In my undergraduate I, therefore, chose Biotechnology (application of biology to technology). After completion, I moved to a new city to enrol for a Master of Technology in Industrial Biotechnology, where I learnt about technologies to improve health, agriculture and food. By this time I had developed a deep interest in research and the excitement of new findings. I decided to do a PhD in applied Biotechnology. I investigated food quality and safety, by identifying harmful components therein. Last year I moved from India (my home country) to work in Edinburgh, UK for my postdoctoral research. I am funded by the Royal Society, UK and Science and Engineering research Board, India to carry out my research here.

What was your favourite subject in school and why?

My favourite subjects in school were Biology, Maths and Literature. I found practical classes very interesting – especially anatomy and physiology of plants, animals and humans where I learnt how our body works. My strength in Maths helped me solve many engineering problems in University, such as, how quickly heat passes through our skin, how fast blood flows through veins and how genes get shuffled during evolution. I participated in public speaking competitions – they strengthened my communication skills. The best time I had in my school were with my friends, having fun solving puzzles and playing outdoor games.

What subjects/qualifications are useful in your role?

My present work involves quick identification of disease-causing micro-organisms (pathogens) in the body and easy treatment. Our research group in Edinburgh consists of people from various backgrounds – engineering, chemists, pharmacists and biologists. Knowledge of Biology is important to know how the pathogens live and grow in the body. Chemistry helps to design novel compounds that will attack and kill these pathogens. Additional knowledge in pharmacy helps to design drugs, and engineering enables to design machines to easily locate these pathogens.

As a biologist I contribute to our mission by studying the effect of chemical compounds on the target harmful microorganisms.

What is your favourite thing about your job?

The best part of being a biology expert is that you can see and explain how living beings around us live, eat, grow, fight, reproduce and die. It is an everyday thrill to see colourful chemical compounds, dyes glowing in the dark and tiny bacteria swimming under the microscope!

As a research scientist also I have immense opportunity to know about the worldwide status of my research, talk to experts in my field, tell them about my findings and be known globally for my contributions. I have published my findings which are accessed and appreciated by scientists from different nations.

What is a normal day in your role like?

A major part of my work is performing interesting experiments in the lab. I collaborate with colleagues to design these experiments and troubleshoot issues. I make new chemical compounds, grow bacteria and fungi in the lab and attach the compounds to these tiny microbes. Then I look at them under a microscope to see if they light up in the dark!

We have team meetings where we pool our ideas and come up with new ones. Besides helping my teammates in their research aims, I share responsibilities to maintain the safety and smooth working of all lab facilities. I get to travel to different universities and visit new cities to collaborate with other scientists. We work with groups in Glasgow, India and the USA, among others. I display my work in international conferences and science exhibitions, participate in outreach activities for schools and general public, including editing for the University science magazine.

And what does your job title mean?

During doctoral studies, a PhD student is presented with a research problem, such as, extracting medicinally important substances from seaweeds, or (as was in my case) developing quick methods to identify unsafe food. The student performs experiments to come up with a unique and useful solution. Similarly, after receiving the PhD degree, a new problem can be investigated in similar fashion – this would be termed “post-doctoral research” – my present role.

Besides performing experiments, my role involves taking responsibility of the laboratory where experiments are carried out, guiding and collaborating with team members for their research problems, reading about relevant research and publishing the findings in international journals.

Suggest an activity that could be done at home that illustrates an aspect of your work?

Microbes are all around us. But how are they important in helping or harming us?

1. Learn how yeasts help to liven up bread by producing gases here: 3_micropia_microbiologie_voor_thuis_of_in_de_klas_-_airy_fungi_def2_-_en.pdf

2. You can even learn to grow your own microbe. You need the right food and environment for the tiny bugs to eat and multiply. In fact once you know how to grow them, you can see how ‘dirty’ are your fingers and whether soaps and sanitizers are good at cleaning them. : 2_micropia_microbiologie_voor_thuis_of_in_de_klas_-_culture_your_own_micro-organisms_def2_-_en.pdf

3. Build your own paper microscope from the kit available from Foldscope Instruments

4. Check out my script and voice on how Listeria, a food microorganism, can be tackled:


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