Fellow in Spotlight : Dr. Kavita Babu, Intermediate Fellow, IISER Mohali

02 Oct 2018

Fellow in Spotlight : Dr. Kavita Babu, Intermediate Fellow, IISER Mohali


Dr. Kavita Babu is an Assistant Professor and India Alliance Intermediate Fellow at Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Mohali. Her group uses C. elegans as a model system to study the development and function of synapses. 

What are you working on and what impact do you hope it will have?

We use the small free-living nematode Caenorhabditis elegans to understand aspects of neuronal and synaptic functioning. Since the neurons in C. elegans have been well characterized and there is conservation of synaptic molecules like neurotransmitters, receptors and other molecules including cell adhesion molecules with other organisms, including humans, this small worm makes for an elegant genetic model in which to study the mechanisms of how these molecules work at the synapse.

Our lab is currently looking at two aspects of neurobiology. We are interested in understanding the molecules and mechanisms that enable normal functioning of the neuromuscular junction, more specifically we are looking at the signaling roles of known cell adhesion molecules at the neuromuscular synapse. A lot of previous work has indicated that alterations in the molecules we study (claudins, cadherins and NCAMS) are involved in different brain related diseases. I hope that our work will give interesting new insights into the mechanism of how these molecules function at the neuromuscular junction.

We are also interested in understanding how neurons “talk” to each other through small peptides called neuropeptides. We are trying to find neuropeptides involved in different behaviors of the worm and then go on to try and decipher the neuropeptide-based circuit. This work is especially intriguing as we get insight into which neuron activates or inhibits which other neuron, what molecules are involved in this process and finally how we can tweak these molecules to change behaviors in an organism. I am very intrigued by the functioning of neuropeptides and hope our studies could at some point help understand how these peptides work in parasitic nematodes.

What inspired you to become a scientist? 

I have grown up around scientists and was always interested in how biological systems work. I think the experiences I had as a summer student in different laboratories helped me understand the process of doing science in a laboratory setting and since I really enjoyed both doing science and life in the lab, I decided to pursue science.

What intrigues you the most about the synapses in the brain? Any recent discoveries that took you by surprise?

I think what intrigues me most is the fact that tweaking the function of neurons through molecular manipulations can give rise to different behaviors. Using a simple system where the behavior, molecules and neurons can be identified and changed by simple manipulations allows for a powerful tool to get to the molecular mechanisms of neuron, synapse and ultimately brain functions.

So many recent discoveries are exciting and intriguing. Many technical discoveries like RNA interference and more recently CRISPR-Cas9 are propelling biology forward like never before. I am going to share a couple of lines of a very recent discovery in C. elegans that I found really exciting. Till very recently, C. elegans and other nematode neurons were thought not to have classic all or none type of action potentials, the neurons were thought to fire largely through graded potentials. A study published earlier this month by Liu Q et al shows that an olfactory sensory neuron in C. elegans shows characteristics of action potentials. These studies were elegantly done using electrophysiological recordings and calcium imaging experiments and have a lot of implication to future studies both in C. elegans and in other nematodes.

Is there an area of research other than yours that interests you deeply?

Yes, aspects of developmental biology. More specifically, I have found two aspects of developmental biology really cool and interesting:

  1. Understanding how asymmetry is brought about in a cell. Studying how starting from a single cell a complete organism is formed involves understanding how intrinsic and extrinsic factors influence the symmetry of a dividing cell, which is essential for formation of any multicellular organism. These studies would encompass so many different themes in developmental biology that I find it really exciting.
  2. The concept of formation of somites in the vertebrate nervous system through the functioning of a segmentation clock. I was fortunate to hear a lot of talks on this subject as a graduate student and have always been fascinated by the wave-like expression of proteins involved in somite and segment formation.

What role do you think scientists can play in the society today?

Scientists have a really crucial role to play in society today. Today’s society can get any information (right or wrong) with the click of a key, this has led to popularization of half truths and falsehoods by many people including some who hold positions of authority. Scientists need to propagate fact-based theories and critical thinking among society at large.

Two examples where scientists can and are helping immensely is in the fields of environmental sciences where society need to become aware of how our way of life is affecting the environment and what we can do to help preserve earth. A second example is in the field of disease biology where scientists and really most people can teach society at large about the advantages of immunization and propagate vaccinating babies. I feel that India has taken up the challenge of vaccination rather well and are trying to get infants immunized, this is in large part due to collaborations between scientists, policy makers and media which informs our society about the benefits of vaccination. However, we still have a long way to go both with respect to designing and implementing vaccination for diseases.

In my opinion a society where scientists, clinicians, public health researchers, media personnel and policy makers work together to spread knowledge in an accurate and palatable manner to the world would immensely help our society.

How has Wellcome Trust/DBT India Alliance funding helped you and your research?

The Wellcome Trust/DBT India Alliance funding has been invaluable in allowing me to start my career as an independent scientist and lab head. Over the course of the six years of funding, we have largely addressed the proposed aims of my project and made headway into understanding how a class of proteins that have so far not known to function at synapses, function at neuromuscular junctions. Our work has also given more insight into behavioral circuits and the role of neuropeptides in these circuits. All of this was possible because of the flexible funding policies of the India Alliance and the timely help and answers given to me by my grant advisers throughout the course of my fellowship. I can’t thank the India Alliance and their staff enough for all their help.

What keeps you going everyday?

My students and colleagues in the lab keep me going everyday. Although I don’t get to spend an enormous amount of time with, what time I spend talking to them, meeting with them, teaching and in the lab is pretty awesome. I especially love the process of transition and eventual transformation of a PhD student from not understanding much, to starting to understand papers to being able to think about a project and then being able to interpret their experiments and go on to argue and defend the experiments they propose to do. I love how they start of as students and become colleagues who know far more about their subject than I do. I have seen this transformation in all my PhD students by year four/five or so and in a couple of undergrads as well, in the course of a couple of years. Going through this process with them is really exhilarating and one of the reason I keep going. I hope I am fortunate enough to have many more of such wonderfully talented members in my lab.

Finally, if not a scientist, you would be a...

Professional poker player (Texas hold'em), actor (stage) or a brewer. Hopefully I'll get to do dabble in a couple of these at some point.