Interviews with Scientists: Shivani Sachdev
Next in our interviews with scientists, we spoke to Shivani Sachdev! Shivani is a PhD Student at the Macquarie University in the Connor Lab, and she’s studying the pharmacology and toxicology of novel psychoactive substances.
We spoke to Shivani about the importance of her work and how it could influence drug policy, the challenges faced by life scientists, and what the biggest lessons from her PhD have been so far.
Hi Shivani! Let’s start by finding out a bit more about your PhD…
I am in the second year of my PhD, and my thesis is focused on elucidating the molecular mechanism underlying the adverse effects of synthetic cannabinoids.
Synthetic cannabinoids are man-made chemicals designed to mimic the effects of THC, which is the active ingredient in cannabis. Synthetic cannabinoids are often marketed as a blend of legal plants and herbs with different brand names such as K2, Spice and Kronic. But in fact, these are dangerous synthetic chemicals sprayed on dried plant material. The precise formulation of this chemical is constantly changing, if one synthetic is banned from the market, another two will pop up instantly – it’s crazy!
In reality, unlike cannabis, synthetic cannabinoid users can experience hallucinations, rapid heart rate, seizures, kidney and liver damage and death. It is not yet clear why the effects of synthetic cannabinoids are so varied and so toxic. One of the reasons could be that synthetic cannabinoids activate the CB1 receptors in the brain with maximum efficacy compared to THC, which activates the CB1 receptor partially. To further understand their toxic nature, we have measured the response of synthetic cannabinoids on human cannabinoid receptors and other protein targets. I have recently submitted a paper on the quantification of the relative efficacy of illicit synthetic cannabinoids on CB1 receptors. Although, I did not enjoy writing to start with, I acquired a taste for it by the end of it. I really find writing oddly satisfying. I don’t know why. I am now optimizing an assay to study the biased G protein signalling on CB1 activation by synthetic cannabinoids.
Did you always want to be a scientist when you were younger, and why?
I realised quite early that I wanted to be a scientist one day. My school principal introduced us to a guy who presented on the future of science. His presentation blew my mind. I was looking at an apple that was orange inside, a purple broccoli, etc. At that time, I didn’t exactly know why they would make genetically modified food, but I was intrigued by the idea that broccoli might taste different. I thought to myself that science is what I want to do for the rest of my life. I went back home, and said: “Mum, I want be a scientist, when I grow up.” Little did I know that this soft spot would grow into passion.
What are you enjoying most about your PhD?
There is so much I enjoy about my PhD. I’m naturally curious, and I’ve always been driven by my curiosity. I think you slowly grow into a person with a never-ending appetite for learning.
On a personal level, what excites me most is when I present my findings in conferences and get appreciation for my work. I’ve recently discovered the use of Twitter for academic research, and I enjoy it more and more every day.
What do you think are the biggest challenges currently facing life scientists and their work at the moment?
The continuous pressure of applying for grants and publishing papers is a major challenge faced by scientists all the time. I think the quality of science should not depend on grant money or flashy publications, but rather encourage strong experimental design and transparency into the research process.
What advice would you give to someone just starting out with their PhD?
I would say think deeply about your research. This will help develop critical-thinking skills that students need to master in their PhD. Be organised and flexible. I regret sometimes that I was not very organised when I started my PhD, but it’s okay. We are all learning. I would also say that while you are reading, keep a track of what you have read. It will save you loads of time and stress later down the road.
Also, your supervisor is an extremely important person who will have a lot of influence on your PhD experience. Developing good communication with your supervisor is important. The sooner the better. It’s okay to ask questions. I always start mine with: “This question might sound stupid”, but his reply is always: “No question is stupid”.
Tell us a bit more about what you’re working on at the moment...
I am optimizing cyclic AMP assay to study the effect of synthetic cannabinoids on activation of CB1-Gs/Gi pathway. CAMYEL is a biosensor that detects intracellular cAMP levels in the cells, often mediated via Gs activation. The CAMYEL constructs needs to be transiently transfected into the cell line of interest. The readout for this assay is measured by a high throughput microplate reader (FlexStation), which allows rapid and dynamic readout that enables the detection of a biochemical reaction in native cell environment.
To start with, we assessed the real-time kinetics of CP55,940 induced inhibition of forskolin mediated cyclic AMP production in HEK-CB1 cells. In future, we plan to look at the highly concerning synthetic cannabinoids to understand their mechanism of action as a means to identify effective therapeutic strategies against their toxic effects.
While I was optimizing this assay, I realised that it was hard for me to focus on the small technical details. There are so many parameters to work on. If you’re like me this can sometimes drive you crazy. But I know that good research won’t happen overnight, it takes time.
What does a typical day in the lab look like for you?
No two days are same. I start my day with music, unlike most people who start their day with coffee. The first thing I do when I arrive at office is spend some time planning what my day or week will look like. Five minutes of planning saves 30 mins of doing.
I go to the lab almost every day. A day in lab usually involves tissue culture, cyclic AMP assay or membrane potential assay to study different downstream signalling pathways into GPCR activation. I also spend some time on my part-time Research Assistant job, tutoring, and being a MedSoc rep. Having these roles really helps me to organise my time and structure my days. I’ve realised that the more things I have in my to-do list, the more productive I am.
Outside the lab, what do you enjoy doing most?
Some weekends, I go swimming to clear my brain. I also use some weekends to catch up on my research, working at a very chill pace. And some Sundays I do absolutely nothing.
If you weren’t a scientist, what do you think you’d be doing?
That’s a hard question. I am not quite sure. I think I would be into marketing. I love networking, so I might do fine there!
What is it about your work that gets you most excited?
It’s not about excitement for me. I hear almost every day on the news that more people have overdosed on drugs and been admitted to hospital. When I hear about deaths from drug overdoses, I get quiet. It is sad to see people throwing their lives away to drugs. But what drives me is that my research can make a difference. Sometimes a big change starts with a small step. It is already happening; our lab has a collaboration with EMCDDA and we provide them with rapid screening of drugs, which might have an impact on drug policy.
Which scientists working today do you most admire, and why?
I am surrounded by great bunch of scientists. The motivation I have felt towards my work, and the drive of wanting to achieve something every day, would never have been possible without my principal, adjunct, and co-supervisor.
My principal supervisor, Mark Connor, is very supportive of almost everything I want to do. He taught me the importance of solid science: high quality studies and well-articulated methods. Not long ago I was discussing with him the experiments I was going to start, and I said: “What if we do not see the same results as they publish, or what if we cannot reproduce their results. Can I still publish my data?” He replied: “Of course, there are journals where you can publish these results. What matters is the research question, quality of experimental design, soundness of analysis, and results. It is what it is.”
What’s your favourite science joke or quote?
Hmm… I could tell you a science joke but all the good ones Argon.
What do you think is the greatest scientific discovery of all time?
You might hate me for this, but I don’t have a favourite. I think every discovery matters, big or small. But if I must pick one, it would be… penicillin, I think.
Thanks so much Shivani, your research sounds fascinating and so incredibly important. Best of luck with everything, from the whole Hello Bio team.
Connect with Shivani on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/shivani-sachdev-491141...
Follow Shivani on Twitter: @GrrrlInScience
Find Shivani on Google Scholar: https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=bhRPxXAA...
And, if like Shivani, you are on your PhD journey, check out a list of resources that we have put together specifically for PhD students: Resources for Life Science PhD Students