Interviews with Scientists: Heema Vyas

Interviews with Scientists: Heema Vyas
5 years ago

Interviews with Scientists: Heema Vyas

Heema Kumari Nilesh Vyas is a PhD student at the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute, whose work focuses on understanding Group A Streptococcus (GAS) biofilms that may be present in cases of GAS pharyngitis that simply do not respond to antibiotic treatment.

Heema is passionate about antimicrobial resistance, and after her PhD, wishes to continue her journey in understanding the role bacterial biofilms play in chronic infections. She is also interested in gender equality and equity in STEM. Moreover, as a biracial South Asian woman in STEM, Heema firmly believes in the importance of diversity, representation, and inclusivity of women of colour. As such she is particularly focused on how race, as well as other intersections (age, disability and sexuality) further limits or impedes women’s access to opportunities in STEM.

We spoke to Heema about her PhD, what gets her most excited about her field of research, intersectionality and diversity within STEM, and more.

Thank you for taking the time to talk to us Heema! Firstly, please can you tell us a bit more about your PhD?

My PhD looks at Group A Streptococcus (GAS, Streptococcus pyogenes), a Gram-positive human pathogen that causes an array of diseases ranging from mild, infections such as impetigo, tonsillitis and pharyngitis, to serious invasive infections including necrotizing fasciitis, streptococcal toxic shock syndrome, cellulitis, and numerous autoimmune diseases (including rheumatic heart disease, acute rheumatic fever, and glomerulonephritis).

However, my PhD focusses on GAS pharyngitis, and trying to understand why in some cases (20-40%) antibiotic treatment fails. A proposed hypothesis behind this is the presence of biofilms. Biofilms are microbial communities that aggregate upon a surface and exist within a self-produced matrix of extracellular polymeric substances. The biofilm phenotype provides an increased survival advantage, enabling bacteria to persist and resist both host immune defences and antimicrobial treatment. Although biofilm has been studied for a variety of bacteria, little is known about GAS biofilm in vitro or in vivo. So my project is looking at better understanding GAS biofilms in the pharynx by designing a model that more closely mimics the in vivo environment of the pharynx. I am also interested in looking at how pharyngeal cell surface glycans impact GAS biofilm formation and growth.

Did you always want to be a scientist when you were younger, and why?

From a young age science has been my interest and passion. I was lucky, and privileged, to have parents that recognised the importance and value of knowledge and education, and had the means to provide me with the necessary tools and materials. My journey towards finding my passion and interest began with educational books, specifically the ‘Horrible Histories’ and ‘Horrible Science” collections, among numerous others. The books that appealed to me most were those in the ‘Horrible Science’ collection, specifically ‘Bones and Body Bits’, ‘Chemical Chaos’, and ‘Deadly Diseases’ – to name a few. However, the book that completely blew my mind and captured my imagination and interest was ‘Microscopic Monsters’. The book described various important breakthroughs over the course of the history of microbiology, detailing the initial discoveries of various bacteria, the gruesome but fascinating diseases they caused, and of course the subsequent developments of the various antibiotics designed to destroy these pesky bacteria. These books were my first exposure to human biology / chemistry and importantly, microbiology and antimicrobials and antimicrobial resistance (AMR). My parents quickly realised how much I loved science and were more than happy to provide me with numerous biology / chemistry kits. I remember one of them even having a (basic) light microscope with pre-prepared slides in it – it was so cool!

This interest grew exponentially when I joined high school. By years 10, 11 and 12, despite having interests in other subjects (visual arts, IT/multimedia, and chemistry), biology remained my favourite, and strongest subject.

University course selection was a no-brainer, and I had my eye on ‘Medical Biotechnology’ offered at the University of Wollongong, which covered infection and immunology, vaccine development, biochemistry and genetics amongst other things. The course was heavily lab based, with opportunities for lab research projects over summer and honours. During undergrad, I thoroughly enjoyed lab life and all the experiments, with microbiology and AMR remaining my passion. So, I eagerly signed up for a few summer lab-oriented research projects. This is where I first got into contact with bacterial biofilms, with a project looking at using a novel nitric oxide releasing antimicrobial compound as a potential anti-biofilm strategy. I was totally enthralled by biofilms, and the idea of finding ways to destroy these otherwise highly persistent and resistant communities. Lab life and experiments seemed comfortable or natural to me, and I continued on to an honours project run by the same supervisor looking at Staphylococcus aureus biofilms, and their eradication via novel antimicrobial formulations. I finished with a first class honours, and was 100% set on continuing on with microbiology and AMR for my PhD!

What are you enjoying most about your PhD?

I enjoy hearing about the latest cutting-edge research both within and outside microbiology through the various conferences and seminars I have attended, as well as talks given at my institute by my colleagues that span a variety of research themes. I also love the opportunity to network and connect with new people, hearing about their work and their stories / experiences of how they got into science, where they are at now, and where they hope to be.

What do you think are the biggest challenges currently facing life scientists and their work?

Personally, I’d say mental health has been a big challenge for me since beginning my PhD due to various reasons, both PhD related and personal. Poor mental health can truly diminish one’s ability to optimally perform in your PhD project / work, where you require focus, commitment, engagement, and the strength to be resilient. It is apparent that mine is not a unique case, and through talking to my peers I came to know they have also struggled with their mental health at times. This was comforting, but also a kind of red flag suggesting an underlying problem that needs addressing.

I did a bit of digging, and it is well documented that poor mental health is becoming a big problem among PhD students. According to a study in Research Policy (2017), mental illness has been reported to occur in one in three PhD students. So I definitely believe stress, anxiety, depression and overall poor mental health is a big issue, and a barrier present among those pursuing research / academia. It requires further attention, and strategies to alleviate sources of stress / anxiety / depression stemming from research life, as well as providing proper support systems, resources, and tools for people who are struggling.

You mentioned that you're interested in promoting diversity and inclusivity in STEM, what does that look like for you?

At the moment, I am sadly not involved in any official groups or movements that formally tackle, or get involved in promoting, intersectionality in STEM. I do however, like to keep updated in my spare time on this matter via reading up on articles and studies, and discussing / sharing views and ideas over various platforms (like Twitter or Instagram), or in general discussions with my peers. I would love to be formally part of any related groups or movements where I can assist to create change, or at least raise awareness on issues surrounding intersectionality in STEM.

Additionally, I try to connect with as many women* of colour / people* of colour (WoC / PoC) as I can because I think having a support network among ourselves is an important initial step. Having such communities and connections can create a safe space for ourselves where we can share experiences, provide a listening ear, offer guidance, and even just socialise via casual get togethers.

*I include and acknowledge Trans and Intersex members of our STEM community from here onward.

How can life scientists advocate for better representation in the STEM fields?

Unconscious bias or subtle / unintended bias is real! It is well documented in numerous studies conducted in the UK and US that there is a disproportionate representation between white women vs. WoC in STEM, whereby gender bias is further impacted by race. This is also noted among other intersections, e.g. ageist bias, or bias towards those who are disabled and so forth.

Some fantastic reads that began my journey into understanding intersectionality and bias etc in STEM include:

I think people need to be more aware, or mindful of, their own privilege, and be aware that various intersections may sadly lend some individuals in STEM a disadvantage or differing barriers to opportunities over others.

Moreover, I think we can all try to actively identify and unlearn problematic attitudes or pre-conceptions we may have towards certain marginalised or disadvantaged groups. I think these are some initial simple steps we as individuals can take to create a more understanding and inclusive environment for all in STEM. Lastly, giving a platform and space to those who come from the various intersections within STEM to share experiences, discuss, and be heard is important for anyone to be a supportive ally, and in turn use their privilege, as well as resources, position, and voice to assist in changing social attitudes within STEM. I believe these initial steps can further improve opportunities for equality and equity for all in STEM.

What's your experience of being a woman of colour working in STEM?

As a biracial (half white) South Asian woman I have privilege from being white passing – i.e. people don’t typically recognise me as non-white due to my fair skin, and thus based off my physical appearance alone, I do not suffer most prejudices, or bias faced by my fellow darker skinned South Asian women.

Have you noticed your area of research becoming more diverse in recent years, or is there still a long way to go?

My research facility actually has a lot of women. There are also a diverse range of people from various races / ethnicities, ages and so forth. However, this is an individual case, and does not represent other research facilities / universities across Australia or globally.

I think there definitely is still a long way to go in terms of reaching equality and equity in STEM based on gender, let alone the further consideration of steps and inclusive support systems that need to be implemented to achieve parity for those women who have the additional intersections of race, age, sexuality, and disability.

What advice would you give to someone just starting their PhD?

Choose the project you are absolutely passionate about, excited about, and engaged with. It’s a big commitment of your time and energy, as well as your supervisor’s time, energy and funding. Choose wisely.

Outside the lab, what do you enjoy doing?

I like going to the gym, star and moon gazing, watercolour painting, dancing, and hanging out with my sisters, family, and friends.

If you weren’t a scientist, what do you think you’d be doing?

I honestly don’t see a life without science, so maybe instead of being a researcher or pursuing academia, I’d be a high school biology teacher. That means I still get my daily dose of biology, whilst also being able to teach, and pass on knowledge, and hopefully inspire the next generation to further pursue biology or another science.

What is it about your field of research that gets you most excited?

THE ENDLESS POSSIBILITIES. Bacterial biofilms are such complex and dynamic communities, or as I like to think of them… miniverses. There are so many exciting things to explore and understand; from the physical structure / architecture, to the biochemical processes that trigger various responses within the biofilm, to the more social aspects of the various bacteria living in consortia. Importantly, exploring the many ways to eradicate these bacterial miniverses via novel antimicrobials really fascinates and excites me!

Which scientists working today do you most admire, and why?

My PhD supervisor inspires me every day. I look at her in awe because what she has and does is what I aspire towards. She’s an academic, ingenious researcher with a brilliant mind, an engaging lecturer, a wife and mother, she’s caring, gentle, empathetic, a total boss lady, and she’s involved in empowering committees and discussions focusing on women in STEM and leadership, alongside numerous other committees and boards she’s part of! #GOALS.

And just generally the academics and researchers around me in my institute / university, and of course all those I have come across – they all inspire and motivate me.

What’s your favourite science quote?

Not a science quote, more so a way of life…

“And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it” – Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist.

What do you think is the greatest scientific discovery of all time?

Penicillin, 1928 – the first antibiotic (such a typical response from a microbiologist! haha!)


Wow, thank you for such a brilliant, passionate discussion Heema! We wish you all the best with your fascinating research.

You can read Heema’s guest blog for us, which she co-wrote with Rachelle Balez, here:

Workplace Wellbeing For Life Scientists

You can also connect with Heema on Twitter here: @HKNVee


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