India Alliance Fellow Spotlight: Dr Pinky Kain
01 Feb 2019
Regional Centre for Biotechnology, Faridabad, India
Can you tell us about your academic journey so far? How did you get involved in a career in science?
Coming from a family of engineers, the passion and motivation to do science was always there. As a kid, I always enjoyed my science projects and experiments in school. I loved doing things differently and working on new ideas. I was very much inclined towards biology; frogs, mice, and preserved specimens in the biology laboratory fascinated me. I think I already knew that I wanted a career in Biology.
When I failed to get a medical seat, I thought biology should be fun in any form and thus I started my journey as a microbiologist being trained at Bachelors and Masters.
Genetics and neuroscience were even more fascinating. I loved every single experiment that we did with flies in our genetics practical course during my Master’s degree. I loved looking at the fruit flies and staining tissues that later turned into adult organs. I enjoyed solving problems of genetics as a mathematician. After that, there was no looking back and I continued in Neurogenetics research. Research is now my bread and butter. I am doing what I like and enjoy.
What are you currently working on? In layman’s terms, please share some highlights about your project/field of research.
The dew loving flies—Drosophila melanogaster—are able to taste an amazingly similar range of organic molecules as humans can. Working with the knowledge already available, we are using the tiny flies as models to understand taste and its modulation. Taste is important for all organisms to evaluate and choose foods that are rich in calories and avoid bitter compounds that may be toxic. We are interested in understanding how do flies make the feeding decisions. How and where taste information in wired in the brain? How taste memories are formed?
It is exciting to map and manipulate neural circuits in the fly brain and the periphery using various genetic, neurobiology, imaging, and computational tool. Identification and understanding of the taste neural circuits that convey taste information to the brain and are involved in simple feeding behaviours like acceptance or rejection of food can provide valuable insight into the neural architecture of appetitive and aversive circuits.
Increased consumption of foods high in sugar, salt, and fat is a growing concern because it has been linked to the rising incidents of metabolic and eating disorders including obesity, diabetics, cardiovascular diseases, and hypertension. Some people have high preferences towards salt, and we don’t understand why. We are trying to understand the behavioural and sensory factors involved in maintaining high salt preference as a prerequisite to successful programs aimed at reducing sodium intake. In our lab, we are investigating a mechanism that is involved in regulating high salt intake in flies. In addition, we are trying to understand the effect of artificial sweeteners on feeding behaviours and health, testing some natural drugs used for treating diabetes, exploring how the hunger and satiety are regulated in flies to understand these phenomena in humans better.
How did you get interested in the “science of taste”? What is the potential impact of your work?
My long-standing interest in chemosensory pathways goes back to my PhD days in the labs of late Veronica Rodrigues and Gaiti Hasan at NCBS TIFR, Bangalore. I started with exploring the taste and olfactory transduction pathways in Drosophila and wanted to steer my research towards topics that have a more direct impact on people and behaviour.
Our food is the memory of all the previous choices we made, and every eating experience is a learning experience. How simple food choices can have so much effect on our health, behaviour, and well-being is something that excites me.
Our sense of taste has direct links with our quality of life and overall health. Many of us have easy access to tasty, energy dense foods. Our sensitivities for sugar, salt, and fat food have contributed to over-nutrition-related diseases. In our modern lives, it is important how our food tastes. Many conditions like obesity, aging, diseased state, and overconsumption of certain foods alter our ability to taste. A delightful meal or pleasant smell can improve social interaction and enjoyment of life. Decreased taste and smell can lead to less interest, diminished appetite, and no enjoyment while eating. In some people, it can even lead to suicidal tendencies. Just differences in our taste choices can have a huge impact on our behaviour.
The sense of taste and smell and feeding behaviours affects the host- and food-foraging activities of both disease-carrying and crop-destroying insects and thus transmission of many insect-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue fever are affected by feeding behaviours. Learning how feeding behaviours are regulated in insects has broad implications in understanding the brain functions, and in understanding the ecological significance of feeding in insects, the organization and evolution of feeding circuits, and its relationship to behaviour.
Understanding appetitive behaviour and factors, such as aging, diet, drugs, hunger, satiety, and glial cells, that act on taste cells, will eventually help us understand the origins of disease states and ultimately, how neural pathways can be targeted for better drug treatment. An understanding of the neuronal pathways and processing centres for feeding behaviour may lead to the development of novel tools and safe and affordable strategies for insect control.
The work we do has a potential impact on medical research, flavour and fragrance industry, agriculture, and drug targeting technology.
What is your biggest challenge or struggle in the lab?
To set up a new lab with every single resource in one place is the biggest challenge for many researchers, especially if your lab is not in one of the big cities. I was very fortunate to set up my lab very fast; thanks to Prof. Sudhanshu Vrati and RCB for the generous support.
Other challenges that I struggle with in the lab are getting flies on time for experiments and saying no to aspiring researchers who want to work in the lab because of the limited resources available.
What does the Fellowship from India Alliance mean to you?
I am very grateful to the Wellcome trust/DBT India Alliance. It is not only the funds, but also the generous support and flexible structure of the fellowship that makes it a unique opportunity for researchers. The India Alliance is not just supporting researchers to come back home, but letting them set up their own labs and create their own niche. The fellowship structure allows me to pursue limitless research, maintain international standards in science, and collaborate and learn from the best international mentors. I am also grateful that the India Alliance supports our public engagement activities.
I should also mention that the fellowship provides excellent support and flexibility to women scientist. A one-year full cost extension to fellows on maternity leave during their term helps women scientists handle their pregnancy and career better.
What could the research community in India do to attract more researchers like you?
Science itself is very rewarding. However, it can be frustrating when one comes back after a postdoc and doesn’t find a suitable job in India. Many PhDs are graduating every year in India. Most of them go for post docs and never come back because there are not many opportunities back home. Making things more transparent, having no age bars, increasing the science budget, and improving the salary structure or fellowships can retain and bring the talent back to the country. Engaging researchers in Universities with rewarding scientific programs, building infrastructure to recruit researchers in managerial roles (we are best managers; we know how to work with limited resources), and creating more job opportunities especially for women scientists are some other alternatives ways.
Science is for the betterment of the society, so let everybody invest in it. It will be interesting if programs could be developed to encourage investments in science. Platforms for start-ups and recruitment of more scientists in industries could aid the situation. It is important to have a clear picture of “What future holds for us”. Making science more rewarding is necessary.
Have you had a mentor that stands out to you? Tell us how he/she has helped you.
More than men, many women have played a major role in my life in shaping my career and helping me travel so far. My mother, my sister, my PhD guides, Gaiti Hasan and Veronica Rodrigues—I am indebted to all these women who have helped me grow both personally and professionally.
I am grateful to Prof. VijayRaghavan, Christain Klaembt (my post doc PI), Teiichi Taniura (my mentor), and Axel Brockmann and Pankaj Kapahi (my collaborators) for their continuous support and exciting science.
We understand that you yourself are passionate about mentoring. Tell us more about this aspect of your life.
I would say I’m privileged to be a mentor, who has been guiding and teaching students, since the days of graduation at TIFR-NCBS, Bangalore. Today, I can say that I have mentored students from all parts of the world; however, this journey started at home when I was in class 9th and used to teach disadvantaged kids.
I also work with Freedom English Academy (FEA; http://feaindia.org), which is an initiative that works with the disadvantaged youth of India to integrate them in the mainstream. I started mentoring students at FEA in 2018. My association with FEA started with the help of Prof. Pankaj Kapahi, who is an advisor at FEA. The aim of FEA is to develop programs that improve English and employability skills, encourage critical thinking, build confidence and self-determination, and enable personal development. It is a wonderful opportunity for me, and it has helped me in driving my long-standing commitment of reducing inequities in the education system. I would like to encourage researchers and post graduate students to please join hands and be a part of FEA that focuses on reducing disparities in education. Just one class every month via skype can help in shaping the career of these students.
What role do you think scientists can play in society today?
As scientists, we could help make the public more aware of the issues of health and the environment. Our knowledge, when delivered in a layman language, could increase awareness and improve our communication with society. Doing open public outreach programs in public places like parks and streets and engaging with the public to improve the general understanding of science is important. We generally lock ourselves in tiny research areas/enclosures. We should be more prepared and get more and more involved in understanding what the society expects from us.
I would also say we need to push women forward. Encouraging more girls to do science, and promoting “no gender biases” in jobs is important. Why should availing maternity leave be difficult or awkward? Women should be heard more.
When you are not at your lab bench, what do you do for fun?
I love colours and I’m into oil painting. Very recently, I made two oil canvas paintings for a colleague in RCB, India. Since childhood, I have been interested in art. Some of my paintings have won awards and many have been showcased on TV. I also love trying my hand at photography. My images have been liked by National Geography and have won accolades. I have passed on my “artist genes” to my son, and I’m very happy to see him doing it with the same passion.
Finally, if not a scientist, you would be a...
If not a scientist, I would have enjoyed being an artist, a teacher, or a chef. I love experimenting—with colours, food ingredients, and my teaching skills.