A Day in the Life of a Research Scholar


A Birth Defects Insights Blog by Shashi N.Kumar, PhD

Scientists everywhere are adapting to the “new normal” in the age of COVID-19 as the world around us demands rapid answers to complex questions. The current situation has shone a light on the importance of exposure-related research and has revealed the critical need for crosstalk between public health experts, the medical community, laboratory-based research scientists, and the general public. Several of the important questions to arise during this pandemic focused on the dangers of viral infection to pregnant women and their developing offspring. The importance of exposure science in the context of pregnancy and birth defects research has been underscored by the COVID-19 crisis. Whether the exposure is viral, bacterial, psycho-social, nutritional, or environmental, we know that understanding the risks during pregnancy to the mother and developing offspring is paramount to protecting human health. Below is a discussion of my previous and current research as well as my future research interests.

I began my research on pathological changes in combined toxicity of the pesticides endosulfan and ochratoxin- A (OTA) in adult male Wistar rats as a postgraduate (Master of Science) student under the guidance of Prof. Rambir Singh, Bundelkhand University, Jhansi and Dr. Avinash Gopal Telang, Centre for Animal Disease Research and Diagnosis, Indian Veterinary Research Institute, Izatnagar, Uttar Pradesh, India. This study was designed to address the concern that in real life, organisms are concurrently exposed to several i.e., more than one pollutant or toxin. Therefore, from this study, I had drawn the following conclusions that low doses of OTA @ 4 mg/kg BW and endosulfan @ 5 mg/kg BW either alone or combined for 30 days caused significant toxicity in adult rats. The results suggest that both toxins (OTA and endosulfan) had additive effects in rats.

Before becoming a doctoral student, I worked as a research fellow at Environmental Toxicology, ICMR-National Institute of Pathology. During my fellowship, I was inspired by the passion and dedication of each of my co-workers to truly give out to the public and challenge myself to fill in their shoes one day. Dr. S. Sriramachari was the Founder Director of the Indian Registry of Pathology, later named Institute of Pathology (ICMR) and is now called the ICMR- National Institute of Pathology (ICMR), New Delhi. He was the first in India, who used the human placenta as a dual biomarker for monitoring fetal and maternal environments with special reference to potentially toxic environmental pollutants. He headed the committee on Bhopal Gas Tragedy and research on the toxic effects of gas leakage and submitted the report on it to the government of India. So, I decided to pursue a doctorate in Toxicology with the intent to work on research that will support the implementation of sound, scientific policy for public health. I obtained my PhD degree entitled ‘Study of Toxic Manifestations of Exposure to Pesticides in Workers in Tea Gardens in North Eastern State of India’ in 2021 atICMR-National Institute of Pathology and Jamia Hamdard, New Delhi, India with a dissertation in real dynamics, under the supervision of distinguished Scientist Dr. Arun Kumar Jain and Professor (Dr.) S Raisuddin. Both my supervisors always stood by my side and guided me through all the difficulties while doing my research studies. During my doctoral study as a research scholar, I did a lot! The majority of time was spent designing and conducting the various experiments, analyzing the data, and interpreting results. While pursuing my PhD career in ICMR-National Institute of Pathology, I was also inspired by one of my senior colleagues, Dr. Banajit Bastia who was already working in the same Lab on a thought-provoking problem of “Effect of Tobacco use (Nicotine) on the Fetus (low birth weight babies) due to tobacco consuming mothers with special reference to Placental changes. I used to see him passionately working in the Lab and conducting his experiments relentlessly with great determination. He used to discuss with me whenever he faced the problem with experimental as well as analytical issues and we try to solve it by amicable scientific conversation. This scientific exchange of thoughts and knowledge with him regularly on the wider environmental issues generated curiosity in me and probably imbibed the much needed scientific temperament in me. This inspired me during my early days in the ICMR-National Institute of Pathology to take on this challenging field of research on environmental toxicology.

All this would not have been possible in my life, especially the achievements of my research career, without the help rendered by my Father (Mr. Harpal Singh) and Mother (Mrs. Murti Devi). I owe a lot to them, as this was their dream to see me as a PhD scholar and do some research for the welfare of society.

Detailed studies undertaken in my research career with the outcome till now is provided in a nut-shell as below:

Pesticides are globally used to eliminate pests from crops and plants. The increased use of pesticides has posed a serious threat to human health. This study evaluated the effects of pesticide exposure on pregnancy outcomes in tea garden workers. Tea (Camellia sinensis L. O. Kuntze) is one of the most cultivated

perennial cash crops in Assam, a state in India. More than51% of the tea produced in India is cultivated in Assam, which accounts for around 1/6th of the worldwide production of tea. Generally, the spraying of pesticides is handled by men, whereas the collection of tea leaves is done by women workers. This arrangement directly exposes both men and women to the pesticides used.

My dissertation explored whether female tea garden workers were more vulnerable to pesticides exposure than housewives because female tea garden workers were directly exposed to pesticides during pregnancy. Pesticides such as heptachlor, endosulfan sulfate, phosalone, imidacloprid etc., cross through the placenta, enter the fetal blood and accumulate in the fetus, subsequently causing adverse health effects. In addition, some pesticides accumulate in the placenta and cause potential alterations in the development or functions of placental structures resulting in adverse effects on fetal development. Results suggested that occupational pesticide exposure during pregnancy may decrease acetylcholinesterase (AChE) activity and cause in utero pathological changes accompanied by an increased hypoxia-inducible factor-1a (HIF-1α) expression, which also contributes to placental insufficiency and fetal growth restriction. Taking into consideration the vulnerability of the embryo and the fetus to environmental chemicals, our results are of great concern and need for a follow-up study. If researchers do proper follow-up study then researchers can have ample potential data which can help the government for making policies to prevent the exposure of pesticides in female tea garden workers. Economically tea plantation workers are not very sound, illiterate and socially backwards. Thus the females don’t pay attention and can not afford to have proper and nutritious diets during their pregnancy and have to work throughout the pregnancy, which affects placental physiology and fetal development. The finding of the thesis illustrated that female tea garden workers have low socioeconomic status. The information regarding socioeconomic status was already studied and known facts but it become more manifested with my further research. Therefore, the income of female tea garden workers should be increased to lead comfortable and hygienic lifestyles, and invest more in health and education. This study also suggested that there is a need for awareness about the potential hazards of occupational exposure to pesticides and the benefits of protective equipment for tea garden workers.

As a graduate student, I enjoyed my experience because it allowed me to think both critically and creatively, to hone my skills as a scientist, to connect with numerous research interest groups and societies, to delve deeply into topics of interest, and learn from others. Travelling to and presenting at scientific meetings was another part of the graduate student experience that I truly appreciated. Something I learned about myself through presenting at meetings is that I have a real passion for communicating science! Whether it’s in writing or aloud, conveying scientific concepts and findings to a diverse array of audiences is so rewarding, and there are ample opportunities to do so as a graduate student.

I published various research papers in esteemed journals with high impact factors from my PhD work. Also, I had been awarded the best oral presentation award and a young scientist award for my research by the Electron Microscope Society of India and Geno-Pro-Invertis University, Bareilly, India.

More About The Author

I am a research fellow at Environmental Toxicology and Electron Microscopy Laboratory, ICMR- National Institute of Pathology, Safdarjung Hospital Campus, New Delhi, India with an interest in contributing to a deeper understanding of how chemicals cause placental toxicity and to determining new strategies to prevent adverse effects on pregnancies. My research is focused on investigating the use of a combination of animal/cell models and biomarkers to investigate how early life exposures affect the development, function, and subsequent health of the offspring. I favour interdisciplinary approaches to biological questions and have incorporated analytical biochemistry as well as cell biological and biochemical approaches in my research. In the current situation, I am working as a postdoctoral fellow on a project entitled “Developing a predictive model for the early detection of Intrauterine Growth Restriction in new-borns from polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) concentration in maternal blood”. Based on our previous research (Kumar, et al. 2020), we are trying to estimate the PAHs exposure in mothers during pregnancy and their toxic effects of PAHs on newborn babies. Further, this study will try to develop a predictive model through machine learning for the early detection of intrauterine growth restriction (IURG) in newborns from PAH exposure.

Future Research Interests

Looking ahead, I am very interested in pursuing a career related to environmental health at the intersection of public health, primary research, and policy. The mechanistic causes of a majority of adverse effects on developmental organisms remain unknown but are believed to be multifactorial, having multiple levels of control involving genetic, chemical, dietary and environmental factors. Therefore, the overall goal of my future research interest is to elucidate the mechanisms underlying the developmental toxicity of environmental chemicals and drugs in animal models and humans. Also, my research focus will be on understanding the role of cell signalling pathways (like- P-38, endothelial receptor, Nod-like receptor and inflammasome family members) in placental tissues and in regulating pregnancy outcomes, including those complicated by chemical, dietary, genetic, zika virus, coronavirus and environmental factors.

Although this next step has yet to be determined, I am confident that my involvement in the Society for Birth Defects Research and Prevention (BDRP) will help me get my foot in the door, whether through networking opportunities or professional development. I feel that I have already benefitted from being part of BDRP; Recently my research (Structural changes, increased hypoxia, and oxidative DNA damage in placenta due to maternal smokeless tobacco use; 20 July 2021 https://doi.org/10.1002/bdr2.1941) from my doctoral work has been published in the BDRP journal, Birth Defects Research.

More About The Society For Birth Defects Research And Prevention (BDRP)

To understand and prevent birth defects and disorders of developmental and reproductive origin, BDRP promotes multi-disciplinary research and exchange of ideas; communicates information to health professionals, decision-makers, and the public; and provides education and training.

Scientists interested in or already involved in research related to topics mentioned in this blog are encouraged to join BDRP and attend the being held virtually this year in June. BDRP is the premier source for cutting-edge research and authoritative information related to birth defects and developmentally mediated disorders. Our members include those specializing in cell and molecular biology, developmental biology and toxicology, reproduction and endocrinology, epidemiology, nutritional biochemistry, and genetics, as well as the clinical disciplines of prenatal medicine, pediatrics, obstetrics, neonatology, medical genetics, and teratogen risk counselling. In addition, BDRP publishes the scientific journal, Birth Defects Research. Learn more at http://www.birthdefectsresearch.org. Find BDRP on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.