Our sensory system has the ability to discriminate signals coming from eyes, ears and skin, says Shubha Tole, associate professor and principal investigator, Department of Biological Sciences, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in a chat with Sanchayan Bhattacharjee
1) Tell us something about your work
Brain is the most amazing computer ever made. But unlike regular computers which are made using motherboards, chips and hard discs, the brain has to be grown from a simple sheet of tissue in the embryo. Starting from this sheet of tissue, the embryo has to form a brain consisting of billions of brain cells (neurons) for a diverse array of brain structures. Then they must be wired up with extreme precision to ensure normal brain functions. My work asks how the blueprint for the brain was designed in evolution, and how it is executed during its development.
2) What are the practical applications of your research work?
My work explores the formation and development process of a normal brain. Different genetic strategies are used to carry out processes like cell division, migration, neuronal wiring etc. These processes become compromised in neurological disorders such as autism and other psychiatric syndromes. So we need to understand the normal development of the brain in order to be able to figure out what goes wrong in these disorders.
3) Tell us something about your ongoing research projects
Our sensory system has the ability to discriminate signals coming from visual, auditory, or somatosensory (touch) pathways. Think about what happens when you pick up a cup. You need to be able to locate the top of the handle, the bottom of the handle and so on. How would your brain get this information? In order for the brain to perceive the two as physically distinct, nerves carrying sensation from the two fingers- one on the top and one on the bottom of the handle- must connect to two separate points on the cerebral cortex, so that the brain can perceive the two points distinctly. It is similar for every bit of our skin- there is quite literally a body map in our brain.
We have found a gene that controls this high-resolution circuitry for touch in mice. In rodents, the whiskers on the snout serve as the ‘fingers’ in terms of sensing the environment. The fundamental molecular mechanisms that govern the formation of this circuitry in the mouse model would be broadly applicable to humans as well. I am part of a project which aims at better understanding this circuitry.
4) What is the scope for life science research in India? Is the private sector as a whole doing enough when it comes to supporting research work?
It's a good time to enter the biosciences field in India. There is a lot of funding, a number of job opportunities- and most important, and many uncharted seas to discover. The private sector could become more involved in supporting basic research- via grants, fellowships, or funding schemes that complement the funds coming from the government. For example, in the US there are prestigious fellowships or grants that people apply for on a competitive basis, right from PhD level. It’s considered highly advantageous to have a fellowship from a private foundation. It also gives you the flexibility that government funding may not. But broadly, it sends a social message that research is a valuable and worthwhile pursuit.
5) Recently, the government increased the stipends of research associates and research scholars in India. Can you comment on the same?
It’s a long-awaited and welcome move. Students and post-docs need better compensation if they are to spend the better part of their 20’s acquiring research skills, so that they can go on to contribute to scientific advances when they finish their training. It’s difficult for example, to support a family on a post doctorate salary even after the increase. Why put our highly trained personnel through such a constraint? Furthermore, increases of this kind should be linked to inflation. It’s not reasonable to wait till things reach a low point and then increase things in a big jump.