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Bengaluru: PhD students in India are often ridiculed for their choices, sometimes by their own families and at others by trolls who think of them as ‘parasites’. While the former manifest as casual remarks or snide comments at social gatherings, the latter resort to name-calling on social media. Although research scholars in humanities have been the favourite targets of trolls, those in the sciences have not been exempt.
These scholars, however, constitute a majority of the workforce running research and development in the fight against COVID-19. Collectively, their work covers a wide range of areas: modelling the spread of the disease, estimating healthcare resources, isolating and growing the SARS-CoV-2 virus, sequencing the genome of the virus and analysing it, diagnostic testing for COVID-19, and technological innovations – developing test kits, new materials for PPE, low-cost ventilators, etc.
As the government began expanding its testing facilities, many institutes stepped in to support, and several PhD students volunteered. Among the first few was the CSIR-Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Hyderabad, which already had a functional biosafety level 3 (BSL3) laboratory and people trained to work there. This is a laboratory dedicated to handling highly infectious pathogens, built-in with additional safety measures.
Santosh Kumar Kuncha, a PhD student who has been organising volunteers and testing strategies, said the exercise began after circulating a Google form that drew forth 107 volunteers for COVID-19 testing. This included PhD students, research fellows and postdoctoral fellows. Krishnan H. Harshan, a virologist, trained the first few students, who each trained a few more and so on until there were enough trained volunteers. The facility now has 58 students testing samples.
“RT-PCR … is something that is used regularly in any molecular biology lab,” Kuncha said. “Our familiarity with the technique and our background in research made the training for COVID-19 testing easy for us. We established the testing protocol, made [standard operating procedures] and circulated it among hospitals. We also trained doctors in handling samples and testing.”
Along with two other PhD students, C.G. Gokulan and Uday Kiran, Kuncha also developed a new testing strategy: it eliminates the need to isolate the virus’s RNA from the samples, thus reducing the risk of infection. “Love for science, passion to contribute to humanity and the country, and familiarity with the technique have motivated me to contribute to the cause,” Kuncha said.
He also acknowledged support from Rakesh Mishra, the director of CSIR-CCMB, and his peers at the institute.
Mishra also expressed his support to and appreciation of the volunteers on Facebook on April 20.
The heads of other institutes have also appreciated their student volunteers. In an article covering the testing efforts of the Bangalore Life Science Cluster, Satyajit Mayor, the director of the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bengaluru, said, “We felt that we must engage in this endeavour to provide testing for the State of Karnataka. The whole activity is voluntary, and the campus is very proud of our army of COVID testers.”
It’s as important to develop drugs and vaccines to fight the virus as it is to test, trace and isolate infected individuals. Understanding the virus’s genetic make-up can strengthen these efforts. The CSIR-Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology (IGIB), Delhi, is one of a few Indian institutes sequencing the novel coronavirus’s genome.
After the pandemic began, Vinod Scaria’s laboratory at CSIR-IGIB initiated a few projects to analyse the virus’s genetic data as obtained from different parts of the country.
“In the course of our PhD, we work on several exciting scientific questions that are relevant and help science advance in some way or the other. But to work on a project that is the need of the hour is every scientist’s dream,” Mukta Poojary, a PhD student working with Scaria, said. “So without any second thoughts, we quickly jumped on to the tasks that we were assigned.”
One strategy scientists have used is to investigate whether drugs already available in the market to treat other diseases could be effective against COVID-19 as well. One tool they use is computer simulations that test the physical and chemical properties of these drugs, especially if they can target proteins present on the virus.
A research group led by Arnab Mukherjee at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Pune, has been working on repurposing and generating drugs to target the novel coronavirus’s spike protein. The team includes two undergraduate students, Rituparno Chowdhury and Venkata Sai Sreyas Adury, PhD student Amal Vijay and postdoctoral fellow Reman Kumar Singh. Interestingly, the group executed their project remotely during the lockdown.
In the last four years, Chowdhury and Adury had been working on a programme that could generate drug candidates to block a given protein. When the pandemic broke out, they produced a list of drug candidates, shortlisted the best of them and mapped them to a list of repurposable drugs.
At the same time, Vijay and Singh employed advanced simulation techniques to calculate the potency of each drug. This way, the team identified a set of new as well as repurposable drugs that could bind and block the virus’s spike protein.
“The methodology to tackle the problem had the same protocol of computational techniques, which I could now apply to the SARS-CoV-2 virus,” Vijay said.
Although infectious diseases come under the broad ambit of biology, this epidemic has brought people from different branches of science and engineering together in a special way.
In one example, a few material scientists from the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, developed a composite material for a virucidal mask. (Editor’s note: The author is a PhD student at IISc.)
The project was a collaborative effort led by Kaushik Chatterjee and Suryasarathi Bose of the department of materials engineering. Three PhD students – Monika Rajput, Ammanuel Gebrekrstos and Tanyaradzwa S. Muzata – worked under their guidance.
“Considering the magnitude of the detrimental impact caused by the [novel coronavirus] worldwide, it was a great honour and privilege to have contributed in the fight against this pandemic,” Muzata said.
These are only a few examples of the many PhD students, from institutes across the country, working to bolster our response to COVID-19.
Joel P. Joseph is a science writer.