Making a mark for Women in Science: In the spirit of International Women’s Day held recently in March, we meet some of the recipients of the 2020 Women in Engineering, Science, and Technology (WiEST) Conference Grant. First up is NTU School of Biological Sciences PhD student Chinmayi Prasanna. She shares with us how she got to where she is now, and her views on women in science.
What inspired you to pursue a career in Science?
As a high school student, I always wanted to be a scientist! My science teachers piqued my curiosity in science. While most of my peers preferred engineering, I decided to do a degree in biological sciences in Bangalore, India. During my undergraduate days, I was captivated by the classical experiments conducted by Griffith, Avery, Hershey and Chase, among many other scientists. Since I had access to the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) library, I started reading books and review papers in molecular biology. The more I read, the more I was determined to pursue a career in science, particularly biology.
How did you first become interested in structural biology?
While I knew I would be pursuing a career in biology, I still hadn’t figured out the specific area yet. After graduating with a Master’s in molecular biology, I got the opportunity to work as a research assistant in NMR Research Centre at IISc in Bangalore. I started as an NMR spectroscopist conducting routine NMR measurements for small molecules. After a year, I moved to the biomolecular NMR laboratory of Professor H.S. Atreya at IISc, and gradually developed an interest in structural biology during my three years working there.
Why did you choose to do your Ph.D. with NTU SBS?
I was looking for opportunities to pursue a PhD in structural biology, specifically using NMR spectroscopy, as I had started enjoying working in this field. I came across an advertisement for a “PhD position in solid-state NMR on chromatin” under Professor Lars Nordenskiöld and co-supervised by Associate Professor Konstantin Pervushin at SBS in NTU. At that time, not many labs attempted using solid-state NMR spectroscopy for structural studies of chromatin. Although I had experience in solution NMR, I was nervous to transition to solid-state NMR as it is highly challenging. My application for the position was successful. Things fell in place perfectly for me – working with DNA, my favourite biomolecule, getting the opportunity to work on understanding chromatin including telomeres, and a having fantastic supervisor!
What are you currently working on?
I am a 4th year Ph.D student at Professor Lars Nordenskiöld’s lab. In this lab, we work on biochemical and biophysical characterization of chromatin using AUC, SAXS, X-ray crystallography, cryo-EM, NMR spectroscopy, magnetic tweezers and molecular dynamics simulation. While the structure of the nucleosome is well studied, information about conformational dynamics remains elusive. SSNMR is one of the complimentary and powerful techniques which can address this gap in the characterization of chromatin dynamics at atomic level. Understanding the structure of chromatin is vital as it provides fundamental atomic information to delineate its roles in cellular processes like DNA replication, transcription and repair. The nucleosome core particle (NCP) is the fundamental unit of eukaryotic chromatin composed of four core histone proteins (H2A, H2B, H3 and H4) organizing ~147 bp of DNA.
The objective of my research is to investigate the structure and dynamic properties of histones in the nucleosome at atomic resolution using solid-state NMR (SSNMR) spectroscopy. Our work is one of the first SSNMR studies highlighting the ns-µs and µs-ms dynamics of histones in the nucleosome 1. Using SSNMR, we have compared the secondary structure and intra molecular dynamics information of histones H4 and H3 in canonical and telomeric nucleosomes (to be submitted). We are currently working on extending the SSNMR studies to other histones and the project “Solid-state NMR study of heterochromatin maintenance by HP1 protein at telomeres”. We intend to eventually carry out SSNMR studies on chromatin fibres.
What is your long-term research goal / what are you seeking to accomplish in the long run?
My long-term research goal is to continue working in the field of structural biology. I intend to use NMR spectroscopy combined with other biophysical techniques to answer enthralling questions in structural biology. At the same time, I intend to work in science communication.
Any advice you might have for other women interested in science or this grant?
Irrespective of gender, it is very important to have passion and enjoy doing science. As Robert M. Sapolsky rightly said, “The purpose of science is not to cure us of our sense of mystery and wonder, but to constantly reinvent and reinvigorate it”. As women, we might have to take breaks in our career due to various reasons. However, with the right support from family, colleagues and workplace, some women scientists have shown that it is still possible to accomplish a great deal in science. I find them motivating. It is crucial for us to stay updated with the latest scientific progress, plan, network and collaborate, not compete. If you are interested in some project/PI group, do not hesitate to write to them with specific interests. It is better to write than regret not doing so. Keep an eye on fellowships, grants and scientific networking events.
The WiEST conference grant is a great initiative by Women@NTU encouraging female researchers in early stage of research career. Apply for it and make the most of it for networking and discussing your research with peers and get inputs from experts around the world!
- Shi, X.; Prasanna, C.; Nagashima, T.; Yamazaki, T.; Pervushin, K.; Nordenskiold, L., Structure and Dynamics in the Nucleosome Revealed by Solid-State NMR. Angew Chem Int Ed Engl 2018.
About the WiEST Conference Grant
The Julia & Ken Gouw Foundation with the College of Engineering and the College of Science at Nanyang Technological University (NTU Singapore) established WiEST Conference Grant in 2018 for: Women in Science, Engineering & Technology to facilitate networking opportunities for young women engineers and scientists to embark on their careers. For more info, click here.