MEET A WHITEHEAD POSTDOC: Namita Bisaria

Postdoc Namita Bisaria

Namita Bisaria is a postdoc in Whitehead Institute Member David Bartel’s lab investigating how microRNAs regulate gene expression. She currently holds an NRSA fellowship for her postdoctoral project. We sat down with Bisaria to learn more about her and her experiences in and out of the lab.

 

What are you investigating?

I study a protein called Argonaute, which binds a small RNA called a “microRNA” that directs Argonaute to different mRNA transcripts to degrade them. mRNA is the intermediate between a DNA sequence and its final product protein, so by degrading mRNAs, microRNAs reduce overall protein expression. People have successfully used this type of mechanism to regulate mRNA levels in the context of therapeutics and disease; if you can design a small RNA that can target an mRNA that's bad for us, then you can degrade that mRNA and so treat the disease.

My principal investigator (PI), Dave Bartel, has been a leader in studying microRNAs. A microRNA is around 23 nucleotides long — it contains 23 letters of RNA — and most of what people know about which molecules a microRNA will target depends on how well that molecule pairs up with the microRNA’s seed region, which is the first eight nucleotides. What I’m interested in is nucleotides nine to 23. There's all this other real estate of nucleotides that are conserved, and the targets that have pairings to these nucleotides are also conserved, yet we don’t know much about how this real estate is used by the cell to define targets. My project is to understand what these nucleotides are for, and whether they contribute to the efficacy of microRNAs against mRNAs. I do that by first making millions of affinity measurements of Argonaute-microRNA complexes against many different possible target sequences and then interpret these measurements in the context of models for how this part of the microRNA behaves.

 

What does your average week at work look like?

The structure of my project is that I do 3-4 months of intense molecular biology to generate the data, and then I analyze the data for a similar amount of time. Currently I’m in the data-analysis phase of this cycle, so I spend most of the day coding. I take breaks to get coffee or eat lunch with my lab. We are a really supportive and sweet group, which makes going to work a treat.  When I’m not coding I read papers and plot future projects and collaborations.

 

What are your favorite and least favorite parts of your job?

My least favorite aspect is the amount of sitting when I’m in the data-analysis phase of my project.

My favorite aspect of my project is that if I have an idea, or a comparison I want to make, all the data is already there. I don't have to go do an experiment to answer the question. I just pull out the subset of data that I'm interested in and make the comparison right there on the spot, and then I plot it and get an answer. For a paper I'm wrapping up right now, I essentially did nine variations of the same experiments, and every figure in the paper is pulling out a subset of data and asking and answering a question with that data, which is incredibly satisfying.

 

What's the biggest disaster you've ever had in the lab?

My most famous disaster was in grad school. I used to do single-molecule FRET experiments, which involve high-resolution imaging, so there couldn't be any background gunk on our slides; otherwise we might mistake it as a relevant molecule. The way we got the gunk off of our slides was to use something called piranha solution, which is a mixture of sulfuric acid and peroxide. It’s extremely acidic and when you add these two solutions together it creates this totally exothermic, boiling reaction. You have to let these slides sit in the solution for four hours, so I hacked together this Pyrex dish to hold the container with the piranha-slide solution in, but the exothermic reaction heated up the dish so much that the Pyrex dish broke. All of this piranha solution fell out of the hood and splashed on the floor. It was a major chemical disaster. I threw a bunch of basic powder on it to neutralize the reaction, but the safety department wasn't pleased with my jerry-rigging.

 

What did you want to be as a kid?

As I kid, I definitely wanted to be an astronaut. Growing up, I thought it was cool that my dad was an engineer and worked on the Titan rockets that launched many of our satellites and some manned space flights. I went to Advanced Space Academy, which is basically space camp on steroids. No one tells you how to be an astronaut, so I thought an astrophysics degree would be a good path. I know now that a more reasonable path is something like going to school for engineering, then flight school or the Air Force, and then becoming a payload specialist.  I instead went to college for astrophysics and after a few years of higher-level physics and math and astro-research projects, decided that a career in physics was not for me. I instead joined a new “integrated science” curriculum that had just started up at Princeton that was combining physics, chemistry, computer science, and biology, which was incredibly fun and a transformative experience that helped to me apply some of my quantitative inclinations to biological questions. I’ve never looked back since.

 

What are your hobbies or passions outside of work?

My most defining hobby is that I play a lot of soccer. When I first came to Whitehead Institute, I was playing four times a week, just pick-up games at MIT and Harvard and some organized games. Historically, soccer has always been my balance, where I work in lab a bunch, go play soccer, work in the lab, and then go home. That’s been my schedule since I started working in biomedical research a decade ago.

Photo of Namita's dog
Namita's dog, Khloe
Courtesy of Namita Bisaria

I have somewhat of a new hobby, which is my dog. I got her a year ago, and like all people who get really passionate about what they do, I've gone full blast on being a dog owner after never having a pet in my life. She's an Australian Shepherd, she's really smart and she has a lot of personality. I named her after Khloe Kardashian because she has a real attitude, like when she was a puppy she used to look me directly in the eyes while peeing on the floor.

 

How is puppy training going?

I’m taking her to a lot of classes. I think she’s pretty bored of them at this point. There's this training school near Davis Square called The Pet Republic that has all these different classes. They have puppy classes, where the goal is for puppies to meet other puppies and not be afraid of things, which is really important during their most formative time in their social development. A dog can't see an umbrella for the first time when they're an adult or they’ll freak out, so we introduced them to umbrellas, vacuum cleaners, different types of people. Then there’s a manners class, where you learn how to make the puppy sit, stay down, come to you, etc. I'm currently taking her to a nose work class, which involves finding things by smell, which I think she’ll like. We play a lot of hide and seek. That's her favorite game. I'll leave her in the middle of a field and go hide and she'll come find me. She’s really into finding things.

 

Do you collect anything?

I collect tiles from countries I've visited. It's not a serious collection, but one day I'm hoping to own a house where I can put up a mosaic of said tiles. Of course, none of the tiles match, so I can't imagine this mosaic being that good.

 

Where do you see yourself in ten years?

I see myself as a PI at a research institution, and I’d like to have a diverse and sustainably sized research group. I’d also like to be involved in biotech in some capacity; I hope work from my lab may provide fundamental experiments that can be translated into therapeutics for patients. I recently had some experience with a startup, and it taught me a lot about how biotech companies go about translating and enhancing scientific innovation into therapeutic modalities. It was a lot of fun to think about the same scientific idea from a different perspective — like how straightforward is manufacturing? How do we make it efficacious over the time relevant to a patient? Really, in ten years, I hope I’m applying my scientific training to thinking about cool problems in biology, mentoring trainees, and am happy.

Whitehead Institute postdoctoral researcher Namita Bisaria

Image: Conor Gearin/Whitehead Institute

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