With the Researcher Spotlight, the Microbial Systems Initiative aims to introduce you to the breadth and diversity of research interests and potential growth opportunities at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus. We hope that by highlighting both the researchers and their research, we can help you to learn more about and connect with your colleagues to enhance multidisciplinary research and education in microbial sciences here at Illinois. For fall 2020, we have expanded the spotlight to focus also on the bright, dedicated graduate students and postdoctoral researchers who make up the next generation of innovators and leaders in our community.
PhD Candidate, Department of Microbiology
Pooja Agashe is a fifth-year graduate student in the Kuzminov Lab in the Department of Microbiology. Before starting her PhD, she received a master’s degree in Bioscience Technology from the University of York, UK.She was initially working in industry as a Cell Culture Technician and later as an R&D scientist. Pooja’s graduate work at Illinois is focused on mechanisms of DNA damage and repair in E. coli and investigating the synergistic lethality of nitric oxide with hydrogen peroxide. She is also an intern at the Office of Technology Management. Pooja loves books, wine, and food and also spending time with her family, friends, and her pet dog Eddie.
Do you have a personal story to share or path that led to your interest in this area of study?
I have always loved being a part of the scientific community. No matter where I went, I always connected with like-minded people. My career started with my undergraduate degree in microbiology from the University of Pune in India. After that, I got a master’s degree in bioscience technology from the University of York in the United Kingdom. For my master’s thesis, I was trying to determine the species of origin (bovine or porcine) of gelatin in food using mass spectrometry. After graduation, I ended up working in an industry position at Oxford Gene Technology for about 5 years. I was trying to find autoantibody biomarker panels for early diagnosis of prostate cancer. Later, I moved to the Genomic Biomarkers group studying colorectal cancer. However, I always missed microbiology and the process of learning. I then decided to enter the PhD program at Illinois, and I joined the Kuzminov lab in the Department of Microbiology because I was, and continue to be, fascinated with DNA, especially DNA damage and repair.
How does being part of the University of Illinois and/or the Champaign-Urbana community impact your research?
I work on DNA damage in E. coli, specifically the cause and repair of double-strand breaks by nitric oxide and hydrogen peroxide. From the beginning of my PhD studies, I have gotten fantastic feedback and help from my committee members. I have repeatedly received help from various labs with respect to new experiments, protocols, and equipment. Additionally, there are plenty of career development opportunities available at Illinois. I have gained teaching experience across numerous semesters. I am currently pursuing a part-time internship as a Commercialization Analyst at the Office of Technology Management. This has been a wonderful opportunity to gain insight into how research has an economic impact on society. I have also been a part of the Molecular and Cellular Biology Graduate Students Association and I am currently a member of microERA (Microbial Early-career Researchers Association). The microERA symposium and Zoom seminar series have helped me connect with other researchers to develop ideas and answer some of my own research questions.
How will your work help to improve society or reach people?
Nitric oxide and hydrogen peroxide are routinely used by our immune cells to kill pathogens. However, the mechanism by which they do so is unknown. My research will provide insights into the mechanism of DNA damage caused by these chemicals, which in turn might inform drug development targets to aggrandize and exacerbate the immune response.
Recent news has pointed to the COVID-19 pandemic, systemic racism, and mental health as major societal health challenges. What part can researchers in your field play, in and out of the lab, in addressing these challenges?
As a scientist and microbiologist, I have had numerous discussions with my friends and family about all these topics. As researchers, we are in a unique position because we have access to university data and resources to analyze and self-educate about these challenges. I believe that we can use these tools for outreach and help curb misinformation and fear. We should also try to be safe, kind, intuitive, and respectful of each other both in and out of the lab.
Do you want to tell us about any projects or activities that you are particularly excited about right now?
I am really excited about my internship in the Office of Technology Management at the moment as I now have access to all the cool discoveries and inventions happening here in Illinois. I am also writing my first first-author paper and I am eager to finally put my research out in the world!