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UI CCOM Faculty Focus: Dr. Sushmita Sinha

Sushmita Sinha, PhD

What is your hometown?

My home town is Agra, India also known as the City of Taj Mahal.

When did you join the University of Iowa faculty?

I started in March 2013.

How/when did you become interested in science and medicine?

I am a very inquisitive and analytical person by nature. As I kid, I loved participating in science fairs and making models with my father. I guess this interest just grew stronger with over time.

I am particularly drawn toward translational research that can potentially benefit patients, and enhance human health. Working with human diseases, gives me the best of both worlds.

What interested you to pursue a career in Immunology?

When I was in college, a family member developed an autoimmune disease and this was the initial spark that got me interested in the complex world of immunology. As I researched more about it, I realized that inflammation is the prominent component of great majority of human diseases. I was fascinated by the complex interplay between effector and regulatory arms of the immune system that fights infections and maintains a precise balance to prevent autoimmunity.

Autoimmune diseases became the focus of my research since there are still many tough, unsolved problems that pose a huge challenge in their prevention and treatment. We know that all the three components, environmental, genetic and immunological, should fall in place to trigger an autoimmune disease, however, how and when this happens still remains a mystery.

I find this complex world of over active immune system very challenging.

Is there a teacher or mentor who helped shape your career?

Actually there are two.

The first one is my graduate advisor, Dr K.N. Prasad, Professor at SGPGIMS, India. His enthusiasm for his work always inspired me. The most important lesson I learned from him was that science is not always about finding what you expect. It is more about applying reasoning and logic to your results and finding explanations. He let me lay out my own roadmap for my research, and more importantly, develop my own insights about my work. I believe, that this approach allowed me to grow as a scientist and develop confidence in my ideas and judgements.

The other person that inspired me greatly and continues to do so is my mentor at UIOWA, Prof Nitin Karandikar, Chair and DEO, Department of Pathology. My interactions with him have added another dimension to my scientific career, and that is how to become good leaders. He is very committed to fostering careers of young people by giving advice and providing resources; he is helping me greatly. His ability to derive pleasure from other people’s success is very inspirational.

How or why did you choose the University of Iowa?

It has a great infrastructure to support cutting edge research. Ample opportunities of collaborations exist. It is culturally diverse and that makes a difference.

The University of Iowa’s faculty members are united to provide exceptional patient care while advancing innovations in research and medical education. How does your work help translate new discoveries into patient centered care and education?

My research work is focused on elucidating immunological pathways in Multiple Sclerosis (MS) to find novel therapeutic targets.

Multiple Sclerosis is a complex autoimmune disease of the central nervous system and is the most common cause of disability in adult population. Animal models of MS have provided great insights into the immune-mechanisms of the disease, however, there are limited studies looking directly at patient samples. I have identified a novel molecule which is downregulated on the T cells of MS patients. As part of a collaborative project, I am collecting blood samples from MS patients longitudinally to confirm my findings in a larger cohort of patients and to study the effects of drugs on the expression of this marker. This could possible unravel a novel mystery regarding the immunobiology of MS patient and could potentially serve as a novel immunotherapeutic target.

The other way in which our research benefits patients is by looking at therapy mechanisms. Elucidating these mechanisms is invaluable for improving the current approaches and find better options.

What kinds of professional opportunities or advantages does being a faculty member at an academic medical center provide?

One of the major focuses of an academic medical center is advanced research. This is like an intellectual home with so many experts in diverse fields under one roof. One can always reach out and get scientific support on the projects. There are ample technological resources available to facilitate research. Young investigators can get a lot of help and advice on their research projects. There is a system in place to help with the grant submission process.

Please describe your professional interests.

Research and teaching. Research provides me with infinite opportunities to learn and discover. I also act as a mentor and teach young trainees guiding them toward successful pathways.

How does working in a collaborative and comprehensive academic medical center benefit your work?

My research relies heavily on patient recruitment.

Collaboration with clinicians in Department of Neurology has made it possible for me to recruit MS patients for my studies. There is a seamless system in place which requires a collective effort from the clinician, research nurse and lab personnel for an effective enrollment process.

There are several instances when I have reached out to other experts for scientific help with my projects. I think this is a great benefit of working in an academic medical center. In addition there are advanced core facilities which provide technological support at low cost.

What are some of your outside interests?

I like gardening. I like to explore nature. I love going on long walks. I enjoy reading and good food.

Do you have an insight or philosophy that guides you in your professional work?

The first step toward finding a solution is to discover the problem. Identifying the key questions is very critical, be it in science or life. I strive to find novel challenges in my work by thinking thoroughly with an open mind and applying new perspective to the existing challenges.

If you could change one thing about the world of medicine/science, what would it be?

I wish scientific community would be more receptive toward negative data. I think there should be a platform to discuss negative findings.

Journals can change the trend by publishing negative data. This will in turn save resources and time that goes into duplicating this “unknown” negative data that already exists somewhere.

What is the biggest change you've experienced in your field since you were a student?

Technological advancement has been outstanding. Techniques used in basic science labs are now being used in clinical labs for diagnosis and such.

Kit based systems have replaced time and labor intensive protocols.

What one piece of advice would you give to today's students?

Don’t believe in “something that has not been discovered doesn’t exist”.

What do you see as "the future" of medicine/science?

Next generation sequencing and chip based technologies. Next gen sequencing will be used a lot in patient care, diagnostic labs, public health, and research. I think its applications are endless and this technology will be instrumental in advancing biological sciences.

In what ways are you engaged with the greater Iowa public (i.e. population based research, mentoring high school students, sharing your leadership/expertise with organizations or causes, speaking engagements off campus, etc.)?

At this point, the only way I am engaging is by mentoring high school students whenever an opportunity comes.