Interns Zainab, Pranati, and Maria had the opportunity to interview Dr. Priyanka Baloni, PhD, Senior Research Scientist in the Hood-Price Lab at ISB this summer. It was a pleasure to be able to talk with such an inspiring scientist! Below is the interview transcript:
What has your journey been like becoming a Senior Research Scientist at ISB?
I started my journey as a postdoctoral fellow at ISB. Right before my postdoctoral fellowship, I was a PhD student at the Indian Institute of Science in India and after completion of PhD, I fortunately had the chance to join Nathan Price’s group and do a lot of metabolic modeling research. I joined his lab in early 2016 as a postdoctoral fellow. I did a lot of projects with him and my first project at ISB was a collaborative work with a pharmaceutical company. That work resulted in me constructing the rat liver model which was quite interesting, and also testing how the drugs had an effect on the rat liver. It took me almost two years to publish the work because of the policy of the pharmaceutical company for publication. I had my ups and downs in the journey of publication, and as we are in the science field it is important to publish. There is a saying in this field of science, ‘Publish or perish’. So if you don’t publish, you perish in the science field. Therefore, getting a publication was quite important for me. While I waited for my first publication to come out, I also contributed to various projects like Alzheimer’s disease, Huntington’s Disease, cancer, and also pregnancy related work. And, from all these works, I got my own publications later on. Because of my productivity within the group I was promoted to the research scientist position in the later part of 2019. I was due for my first baby in December 2019, but unfortunately I had late onset preeclampsia so I delivered in October 2019. My kid came out in my 33rd week of pregnancy, and it was a challenging time for me because my kid was admitted to the neonatal ICU for almost a month. So after surgery, I had to travel everyday to take care of him. During my maternity leave, half the time went into just commuting from home to the hospital to take care of the kid. I had a tough time at that time post-delivery, but my group mates were very nice and the Hood-Price Lab supported me during that time. I remember that we had some annual reports that were due at the end of October, but because of me being admitted to the hospital, they took care of all these things and helped me a lot. After delivery I resumed my work after three months of maternity leave. After resuming work, I continued my effort in writing papers and publishing more work for the projects that I was involved in. Later in 2020, I got promoted to the Senior Research Scientist position in the group. So my journey had its own ups and downs. I faced some challenges on the way, but it’s always good to face challenges so that you come out of your comfort niche and then you emerge as a new person. While being a scientist, I also became a mother and took care of my kid and especially during the pandemic when there was no support system available, it was quite a tough time for us. But it has been an eventful journey for me and I have been really pleased that I joined the group and was a part of it.
How did you end up at ISB after immigrating to the USA? How was the research work different in the Indian Institute of Science than at ISB?
I did my PhD from the Indian Institute of Science, and during my PhD, at the end stage of it, because I was working on metabolic modeling, I connected with Nathan Price. For me it was a coincidence that Nathan visited India for a conference and I had the chance to meet him in person and connect with him. He liked the work that I was doing and I then gave my formal interviews at ISB, and then later on joined his group. So that’s how I ended up in Seattle, and especially at ISB in Nathan’s group. The work I did at the Indian Institute of Science was completely different from what I am doing here. I’m a trained microbiologist, and I mostly did experimental work. But during my PhD, I did a lot of computational work. My work was on host-pathogen interactions in latent tuberculosis infection. I was looking at how the host genes and the transcription factors interact with Mycobacterium tuberculosis and can lead to the bacteria being in a dormant state in the individual causing latent TB infection. I was studying how these factors can help in regulating the infection and also later culminate into active TB infection. So that was my PhD thesis. And after I joined ISB, I basically joined the projects in which I could do a lot of metabolic modeling. So I did metabolic modeling for Alzheimer’s disease, breast cancer, and pregnancy (to see how preterm birth is different from term delivery) and I also collaborated with Jim Heath’s group at ISB to analyze INCOV patient data. I looked into the metabolic dysregulation that happens due to SARS-CoV2 infection. So I have my hands full with different projects that were ongoing in the group- but they were quite different from what I did in PhD.
What is an ugly truth of your research/job and what are some ways to navigate it?
That’s a very good question, especially for a scientist. The ugly truth here in this field, is maintaining a work-life balance. It’s very tough to have a family and also dedicate a big portion of your time to science. Because it’s not like we can work from 9-5 and then shut our brain off (do nothing related to science). You have to constantly think about the projects and how it can be integrated into the work that we are doing. We have to constantly read the recent publications related to our field. So you have to be updated for the literature and you have to be updated on the methods that are being developed. Due to the constant work pressure, it’s tough to maintain a work-life balance and that’s the ugly truth in science. The way to navigate this is to find that balance, make yourself productive at work and also be more efficient at home, so that you are there for your family (family always comes first). The only thing that helps us in such situations is being more collaborative and creative because you cannot always be working in your niche field (think of new, useful ideas that can result in grants and other funding opportunities). It’s always good to be more creative and up-to-date on the advances in the field. The other ugly truth in this field is the challenge of being a woman in science, and especially a woman of color in science. You have to constantly prove yourself to be equivalent to the male counterparts in the field because women of color are not dominant in this field. There are a handful of women in science who have excelled in the field majorly because most women have to manage different aspects of their life. Managing the work-life balance and overcoming the gender disparity can only happen if we continue working hard and prove our worth in the field by continuing to publish and collaborate with our peers.
Could you give some insight on any projects or research you are currently working on, and what motivates you to work on this specific research?
I am the only metabolic modeler in the group, so I have been a part of many projects within the Hood-Price Lab at ISB. One of the projects that I have been working on recently is looking at the metabolic dysregulation in Alzheimer’s disease. I am a part of the Alzheimer’s Disease Metabolomics Consortium- it is funded by the Accelerating Medicines Partnership in Alzheimer’s disease. We are looking for metabolic markers in Alzheimer’s disease that can be later on used for therapeutic purposes. One of the works that I published recently was constructing the brain region’s specific metabolic networks. These networks are mathematical models that are helpful in integrating omics data (like metabolomics, transcriptomics) with the model as well as identifying the differences in the metabolic pathways that are occurring in the Alzheimer’s Disease individuals versus the normal individuals. The work that I published recently was looking at the role of bile acids (the primary ones are produced by the liver and the secondary bile acids are produced by the gut microbiome) which are helpful in breaking down cholesterol. We recently identified the presence of bile acids in the brain of Alzheimer individuals, so our work was looking at the role of bile acids and their association with cognitive decline in Alzheimer’s Disease. A subsequent work that I gained interest in was looking at the homeostasis of sphingomyelin and ceramides in the brain of Alzheimer patients. This work was done in collaboration with our partners at the Alzheimer’s Disease Metabolomics Consortium. By analyzing multi-omics data we identified the metabolic changes in the brain and validated our findings by performing experiments. We also identified drugs that could be repurposed for Alzheimer’s disease treatment. Alzheimers is one of the leading causes of dementia in the world, with only one recently approved FDA drug approved for treatment. Our work helped in identifying an FDA approved drug that had been approved for treatment of relapsing multiple sclerosis and the drug can now be repurposed for the treatment of Alzheimer’s Disease. So it was quite interesting to have the drug tested in the animal models and we can now look forward to finding drug analogs that can be used in humans as well for the treatment of Alzheimer’s Disease.
What advice would you give to someone hoping to transition from the experimental research to the computational field of research?
Because I am a trained microbiologist, I had very limited understanding of programming languages and how to code. For me, the transition happened during my PhD when I was exposed for the first time to programming and the languages that can be used for it. So my work involved building models and trying to integrate data with the models. I first started when one of the seniors in my lab taught us C++ programming, which for me as a biologist, was very tough to understand. I could not get it. I was super frustrated because I had to learn programming to do some of the work that I needed to do for my PhD. But for me, it took a long time to learn and I still could not grasp anything from C++. So I looked into online courses (like Coursera) and started learning R and Python, which I implemented, at a smaller scale, into my projects. As a biologist, it was tough to have my nerves rewired so that I can think like a computational person. So I had to rewire some of my nerves and get a hang of how the coding happens, like the syntax and different languages, and finally I could get a grasp of it and understand it! So, for me, the advice I can give to a first-time coder is to go slow and steady. Pick up a single language at a time. Don’t start learning 2-3 different languages because it’s very tough to understand the syntax of different programming languages. First start with the language that is best for you and the data that you want to analyze. Once you learn the basics and the syntax of that language, you can switch to another one. The major thing is to go slow and steady, because learning a language is not easy. As a biologist, we are not trained to think about stuff from a mathematical perspective.
What do you think is unique about systems biology in comparison to regular biology or work you have done before?
That’s a very tricky question because systems biology uses the information from regular biology. So it is built on the information that comes from a regular biology observation. In systems biology, you model a system and then look at the system as a whole, instead of breaking it down into single molecules like genes, proteins, or metabolites and then looking at them separately. In systems biology, you have a holistic view of the system and you try to understand why the system is showing a specific output. You cannot do this in regular biology because you have to do experiments, but you cannot have them designed in such a way where you can look at all the proteins or metabolites at one go, you have to cherry pick some of the key molecules which you can do experiments with. So, the advantage that systems biology has over regular biology is getting a ‘30,000 feet view’ of what’s happening in the system, so that you can later on design experiments accordingly.
Link to ISB Profile: Priyanka Baloni, PhD · Institute for Systems Biology (isbscience.org)
Link to Hood-Price Lab: Hood-Price Lab | The Hood-Price Lab (isbscience.org)