Mahak Sharma studies pathways within human cells to find genetic disorders
Communication is key for a team to achieve success, and that holds true not just for humans but for cells in the human body too, which have to work together to perform crucial functions necessary for survival. Within a cell as well, there are compartments that need to communicate with each other and transport cellular cargo such as proteins to their correct locations.
An important part of what Mahak Sharma, 36, associate professor in the department of biological sciences at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Mohali, does is study how cellular pathways instrumental in sending proteins to targeted subcellular locations are regulated. Examining the players regulating these pathways helps her pinpoint the function of proteins, mutation in which can lead to disorders such as lysosomal storage diseases characterised by an abnormal build-up of various toxic materials in the body’s cells.
RESEARCH AMONG TOP 10 PAPERS
A recipient of the Department of Biotechnology National Women Bio-scientist Award in 2018 along with the National Academy of Sciences (NASI), India, and the Indian National Science Academy (INSA) awards, Sharma’s work on the function of a lysosomal protein PLEKHM1 (mutation in which leads to osteopetrosis or “stone bone” where bone resorption is faulty) was published in the Journal of Cell Biology in 2017. The work was done in collaboration with her husband, the laboratory of Dr Amit Tuli at CSIR-IMTECH (Chandigarh). The study garnered significant attention from the cell biology community and was also selected as the top ten papers of 2017 by the journal.
Sharma’s study focused on the mechanisms that regulates PLEKHM1’s association with lysosomes, which are sacs of enzymes within cells that digest large molecules and pass the digested material on to other parts of the cell for recycling; and how its function is regulated during endocytosis (when a living cell takes in matter) and autophagy (cell mechanism breaking up damaged subcellular structures). Sharma, who did her post doctoral degree at the department of rheumatology, immunology and allergy in Harvard Medical School with Prof Michael Brenner , an immunologist and a PhD from University of Nebraska Medical Centre, Omaha, USA, says her research will help to better understand the fundamental process of how proteins within the cell are transported to lysosomes for degradation and recycling. Her laboratory has also been involved in understanding how bacteria such as Salmonella (that causes gastroenteritis, often referred to food poisoning) exploits these intracellular communication pathways within the human cell for its own growth and survival.
TINKERING WITH MICROSCOPE
Born and brought up in Delhi by her surgeon father and gynecologist mother, Sharma had a natural inclination for science, an interest that grew when she and her older sister were allowed into a lab at home on and tinkered with the microscope.
A B.Tech in biotechnology from Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University, Delhi, Sharma joined IISER Mohali in 2011 after returning from the USA. After doing her research training in USA, joining IISER Mohali, which did not have its own campus at the time, was a big change. When she joined the institute she had to design her research lab from scratch, something “that I had no experience of,” she says. Funding, grants – everything takes time, she says, and “involves a lot of paperwork”. Even though the situation has improved over the years, things have to speed up. “Scientists can’t give the same results as proposed if you drastically cut their budget and don’t release funds on time” she says.
Sharma, who has a two-month-old daughter, now, expects her everyday schedule, involving writing of journals, paperwork, taking classes and lab work, to change in the coming months. The good thing is, IISER Mohali has a day care centre and flexibility of timing, which, she says, is very important for scientists who have to balance family and work.
When not working, she loves binge watching television shows on Netflix; and often takes breaks to spend time “close to nature”.
She’s inspired by her PhD mentors Steve Caplan, principal investigator and professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Centre and Naava Naslavasky, assistant professor in the same department.