She made headlines a week ago when home minister Rajnath Singh posted a tweet congratulating her for being part of a team that successfully decoded the deadly Zika virus, a critical advancement that will help in treatment. Meerut girl Devika Sirohi, a research scholar at Purdue University, US, is proud to be part of a team led by Purdue University researchers which is the first to determine the structure of the virus, which reveals insights critical to the development of effective antiviral treatments and vaccines.
The team also identified regions within the Zika virus structure where it differs from other flaviviruses, the family of viruses to which Zika belongs, that includes dengue, West Nile, yellow fever, Japanese encephalitis and tick-borne encephalitic viruses. Excerpts from an interview.
Tell us about yourself.
I was born in Meerut and finished my schooling there. I did my bachelor’s in biochemistry from University of Delhi and master’s at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai. I learned a variety of disciplines spanning immunology, cell biology, molecular biology and developmental neuroscience.
Currently, I am engaged in PhD research at Purdue University, US. The bulk of my PhD work is focused on dengue virus. I am the lead author and participated in multiple stages of the project including its initiation.
Why did you choose to go abroad for higher studies? Why Purdue?
Purdue is an excellent place for doing basic and/or applied interdisciplinary research in a variety of areas. A lot of talented scientists supported by good infrastructure and a great learning environment, from what I had heard. I joined Dr Richard Kuhn’s laboratory and the opportunities for growth here have been tremendous. He is the director of the Purdue Institute for Inflammation, Immunology and Infectious Diseases and head of Purdue’s Department of Biological Sciences.
How did you zero in on a college abroad?
Research, resources and faculty are what I looked at when I was zeroing in on a graduate school for PhD.
What is your research area and focus?
My research is focused on the structure and maturation of flaviviruses. Flaviviruses include pathogens such as dengue, West Nile, yellow fever and Zika virus and impact millions of people around the globe.
How was your experience being part of the research team that decoded Zika virus?
Given our experience with dengue and other flaviviruses, structure studies with Zika were a natural extension. We heavily relied on the expertise that Richard Kuhn, Michael Rossmann and Ted Pierson’s research groups have gained over many years of work with different flaviviruses. Purdue has state-of-the-art biological safety level II laboratories, cryo-electron microscopy facility and necessary infrastructure that made the structure studies feasible in a short time-frame. This was a collaborative project between Richard Kuhn and Michael Rossmann at Purdue University and Ted Pierson at National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. The team also included Zhenguo Chen, Lei Sun and Thomas Klose, who are post-doctoral research associates at the university. Each person in the team brought with them their unique skill sets and contributed to the success of the project. Zika virus is a bag of unknowns and inspires tremendous scientific curiosity. We have just scratched the surface and we will continue our efforts to deepen our understanding of the virus.
Your future plans?
I plan to pursue research as a post-doctoral fellow after I defend my PhD thesis.
Do you wish to contribute to research in India as well?
My research interest lies in the field of infectious diseases; many of which are endemics in India. Therefore, I will be connected to research in India either directly or indirectly. Research in any country requires funds, infrastructure and opportunities.