Chandrika Rao’s Deep Dive Into the Brain to Understand Alzheimer’sNews
For Chandrika Rao, PhD, pursuing an important and challenging scientific question is a key driver of her passion for research, and what more critical and elusive disease is there than Alzheimer’s?
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“Even though we’ve been studying this disease for over a hundred years, we still don’t have effective therapeutics,” she noted. “And we just don’t understand exactly what causes it. It’s one of our biggest scientific mysteries.”
Chandrika has placed her bet for understanding Alzheimer’s on stem cells, and she’s working toward finding out what causes this generation’s most difficult-to-understand ailment as a postdoc on The NYSCF Research Institute’s neurodegeneration team led by Valentina Fossati, PhD. Her work has recently earned her a 2022 NYSCF – Druckenmiller Fellowship.
Learn more about her journey to become a scientist, how stem cells are helping unlock new Alzheimer’s insights, and why she values diverse, team science.
What made you decide to become a scientist?
I’ve always been interested in learning about a wide variety of things, but I was especially drawn to science, particularly biology. I was curious about how all kinds of systems in the natural world work, but the question of how humans work was an endlessly interesting topic of study to me. As I got further along in my research journey, I decided I wanted to make an impact and try to help people with the work that I do, which informed my career in disease research.
What made you interested in stem cells?
I didn’t have a lot of exposure to stem cell biology when I was an undergraduate student, but I had some lectures in developmental biology, and I remember thinking that it was so amazing that you can start from a single cell and ultimately build an entire embryo.
I then pursued a research assistant position where I studied lung development to gain more hands-on experience in the field, and that’s when stem cells started to especially intrigue me. Their potential to become and do everything in the body is what made stem cells so fascinating to me, and there are so many avenues of research you can pursue with them: whether it’s understanding organ function, untangling cell fate decision processes, or studying a disease.
What made you want to study Alzheimer’s disease?
My PhD research was rooted in basic biology – deciphering the fundamentals of how the brain develops at the earliest stages, but I wanted to move into research that could have more of a direct impact on people. Alzheimer’s is a disease that everyone has heard of, and we all likely know someone who is affected by it.
It’s so complex – studying it can be like trying to find a needle in a haystack. It’s like trying to find many needles in many haystacks, actually. So I think I wanted to study it because it’s fascinating, challenging, and important.
How do you use stem cells to study Alzheimer’s?
We use patient-derived stem cells to build models of Alzheimer’s disease in a dish. We are particularly interested in trying to understand how the immune cells of the brain, such as the microglia, are involved in neurodegeneration. Using genetic engineering, we are introducing specific Alzheimer’s-associated mutations into stem cells, turning them into the different types of cells that make up the brain, and evaluating how these mutations affect the cells. This is pretty fundamental work that we hope will translate to clinical outcomes and therapeutics, but the main goal currently is really to understand what’s happening in a normal brain versus an Alzheimer’s brain so we can get to the root of the disease. And stem cells are the perfect tool to ask those questions, since it’s so difficult to study the human brain without them.
What do you hope to achieve in your career?
I want to make a contribution, however small it may be, to help put together this big puzzle of understanding human biology and translating that to cures. I’d be quite happy with that, I think.
What advice would you give to young people interested in pursuing STEM?
I would say to keep following your interests and expanding on them. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, dive into the literature, and learn from those around you.
Also, I’d say try not to compare yourself to others. Everyone is on their own path, and there are so many avenues you can take. Keep checking in with yourself and try to figure out what makes you feel engaged and happy, and that should hopefully help guide your research and your career.
Can you talk a little bit about the role of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) in STEM and how you’ve seen its importance throughout your career?
It’s obviously an important issue for everyone in STEM to consider. It’s great to see renewed energy toward including and celebrating minorities in science.
I think representation – at every level – is critical. It helps young people see that a career in science is possible for them, because if you never see someone like you doing this work, then it becomes hard to imagine that it’s a path you can pursue.
Diversity of people also adds to diversity of ideas and of questions being asked. We need people from different backgrounds who may have unique ways of approaching things, because I believe that’s ultimately how we are going to make the most progress in science and beyond.
What is most exciting to you about receiving this award and joining the NYSCF Innovator community?
I think the biggest draw is having access to the greater NYSCF community and making connections with people who work across different diseases and topics. It’s always helpful to have a strong network of people to help you reflect on your own work and provide feedback.