Dr. Sushila Maharjan winner of “The Elsevier Foundation Award 2016”
Dr. Sushila Maharjan is a research director at Research Institute for Bioscience and Biotechnology (RIBB), Nepal since its establishment on 2011. She is one of the founding members of RIBB and serving as a member of board of directors.
Currently, she is a research scholar at Brigham and Women’s Hospital at Harvard Medical School, USA. Her present research is based on developing ‘organ-on-a-chip’ systems to mimic human organs in vitro and also to fabricate functional polymeric biomaterials to control cellular behaviors with particular emphasis on developing engineered materials and systems for tissue engineering.
Before joining Harvard Medical School, she was a postdoc fellow at laboratory of Biomedical Polymers and Tissue Engineering at Seoul National University, Korea. Dr. Maharjan received her Ph.D. in Biochemistry from Sun Moon University, Korea, Master’s degree in Chemistry and Bachelor’s degree in Biological Sciences, both from Tribhuvan University, Nepal. She has extensive research experience in diverse fields including molecular biology and biotechnology, metabolic and genetic engineering, drug and vaccine delivery, and biomaterial and tissue engineering.
She has contributed over 20 articles in peer-reviewed international journals and 2 book chapters. Dr. Maharjan’s exemplary achievements in research have been recognized by prestigious “Elsevier Foundation Awards for Early Career Women Scientists, 2016” and “Best Poster Award, Korean Society of Glycobiology 2011”. She has also received several fellowships and research grants including “American Fund for Alternatives to Animal Research fellowship 2016”, “Brain Korea 21 PLUS fellowship 2015”, TWAS Research Grants in Basic Sciences 2013,”, Korean Research Fund Scholarship 2007- 2010″, and Sun Moon University PhD fellowship 2006.
Dr. Maharjan’s research goals are to develop an independent and multidisciplinary research program at the interface of molecular biology, biomaterials, controlled drug delivery, and tissue engineering. Currently, she aims to develop ‘organ on a chip’ models to mimic human organs in vitro. Dr. Maharjan is a member of the ‘Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD)’ and TWAS (The World Academy of Sciences) Young Affiliate.
The worldwide emergence of multidrug resistant pathogens has become a major threat. Therefore, I have always been enthusiastic to develop new antibiotics/drugs against multidrug resistant ‘superbugs’ from the indigenous Streptomyces of Nepal.
Apart from the Streptomyces natural product research, my other goals are to develop a multidisciplinary research program at the interface of molecular biology, genetic engineering, biomaterials engineering and tissue engineering. Specifically, my aim is to develop ‘organ on a chip’ models to mimic human organs in vitro and also to fabricate functional polymeric biomaterials to control cellular behaviors with particular emphasis on developing engineered materials and systems for tissue engineering.
Interview Episode of Dr. Sushila Maharjan:
Sabeera: Describe about yourself as a scientist?
Sushila: I was always a good observer at scientific experiments from my school days. Besides, I was much curious to learn practical methods to observe the scientific principles in real experiments. Thus, the enthusiasm for research induced my capacity for creativity and problem-solving ability. I am self-motivated and I am passionate about continuing to learn and keeping my mind open for all new ideas.
Sabeera: What was your motivation to choose biological sciences being graduated in Chemistry?
Sushila: I completed Intermediate in Science (ISc) and Bachelor of Science (BSc) with a major in biology. At the last semester of my undergraduate study, I realized that chemistry is the basis of all kinds of research. Chemistry is often called the central science. Therefore, I completed Master of Science (MSc) in Organic Chemistry from Central Department of Chemistry, Tribhuvan University, Kirtipur, Nepal. During MSc, I became acquainted with many important natural products, such as antibiotics and anticancer drugs, that are boon to human life. As my interest shifted to develop medically useful chemicals from biological sources, I focused my research on the development of novel antibiotics and anticancer drugs through genetic engineering of bacteria during my PhD study.
Sabeera: Tell us about your early life education and experience?
Sushila: When I finished SLC, the trend was, once you get first division you tend to study science. I was not an exception. I was an average student during my student life until undergraduate. However, my passion to complete higher studies led me to receive scholarship to undertake MSc in organic Chemistry at Tribhuvan University, Nepal. The scholarship that I received motivated and directed me to do wet lab based research work. By then I had learnt that my interest was in scientific research.
Sabeera: You have been exposed to different cultures in your scientific journey. Share your feelings?
Sushila: Nepal is a home of diverse cultures itself. In fact, Nepal is a multi-linguistic, multi-cultural, multi-racial, and multi-ethnic country. When I was pursuing my MSc degree, there was only one university in Nepal for higher study in chemistry. So, I had an opportunity to meet colleagues with different backgrounds from all over the country. Initially, I had little difficulty in communication with new colleagues from diverse cultures but my ability to carefully listening and understanding enhanced my interaction with them. No doubt, there was a big cultural shock when I first visited South Korea for my PhD study at the Department of Pharmaceutical Engineering, Sun Moon University. The department is the host for many international students where I had an opportunity to work in a completely new environment facing a new culture and using a foreign language. I was very excited, but at the same time a little nervous. It took me a while to adapt Korean customs and cultures. I was much influenced by their disciplines and the tradition to respect their elders.
Sabeera: You are a most influential person and stand as one of Top 12 Nepali Scientist around the world. How did you feel about this?
Sushila: I had always a dream to be known as a scientist from Nepal to the world. Amid a few famous people from Nepal, it is my fortune to be selected as an influential scientist of Nepal. I feel so honored to represent the women of Nepal.
Sabeera: Tell us about your current scientific affiliation at Harvard medical school, USA?
Sushila: I love learning and discovering new things. I believe that the pursuit of knowledge is the most important and fulﬁlling human endeavor. To further broaden my skill of biomaterial engineering and gain the requisite technical knowledge in tissue engineering and on organ-on-a-chip, I joined Brigham & Women’s Hospital at Harvard medical school.
Sabeera: 5 women scientists have been awarded with “The Elsevier Foundation Award 2016”. How did it happen? Was winning the award added befits to your career development?
Sushila: In 2015, I had been performing a research funded by TWAS (The World Academy of Sciences) to isolate novel antibiotics/anticancer drugs from indigenous Streptomyces in Nepal. Our team at RIBB could obtain very promising results from the research. While the successful results boosted my confidence level as a scientist, my research team encouraged and nominated me for the award. On a cold day of December 2015, I received a warm news of my selection for the award. I believe that initiating the basic science research in Nepal through RIBB and getting success to some extent are the keys that helped me to receive this recognition. On top of that, my research was focused on subjects related to Nepal and its biodiversity. After receiving the award, my research and social life have changed drastically. While the award brought me a fame to the world of biotechnology, it also put a heavy responsibility on me to contribute for my society.
Sabeera: Tell us what was the proposal that brought you the award?
Sushila: Elsevier Foundation Award is given to young women scientists in the developing countries in recognition of their excellence in research that has strong potential health and economic benefits. Despite hurdles, I had started my scientific career in Nepal with the support and encouragement from my team. In my part, I proposed my future research plans to develop new antibiotics or drugs to combat various drug-resistant infections and cancers. Due to my previous achievements and potential contributions for the advancement of Science in Nepal, the award reviewers should have selected me for the award.
Sabeera: Have you been nominated and won any other awards/prizes apart from The Elsevier Foundation Award 2016”?
Sushila: Yes, I have received a prestigious Brain Korea 21 Program for Leading Universities & Students (BK 21 PLUS) fellowship, a human resource development program initiated by the Korean government, in 2015 to visit as a postdoc fellow at Seoul National University. Under the Research Grant in Basic Sciences from The World Academy of Science (TWAS), I got my first research funding in 2013 to conduct an independent research as a principal investigator. I was also honored with Korean Research Fund Scholarship, given to International Intelligent Student in Korea for three years, in 2007- 2010 and PhD fellowship from Sun Moon University, Korea in 2006.
Sabeera: How do you want to help society through your research?
Sushila: I always had great intention to develop natural product-derived therapeutically important drugs from natural sources of Nepal. Nepal is well known for biodiversity due to its unique geographical position and altitude variation. In fact, the main theme of my PhD thesis was to design and develop novel antibiotics and anticancer drugs by genetic engineering of Streptomyces bacteria. These bacteria are the original sources of the most of the important antibiotics that are in use today. However, antimicrobial resistance threatens the effective treatment of an ever-increasing range of infections, and drug-resistant diseases are another serious problem. My research revealed big insights into the modification of microbial synthesis of medically important antibiotics/drugs to combat the emerging drug-resistant diseases.
After completion of my PhD, I returned to Nepal and continued my research on Streptomyces, funded by TWAS, to find novel Streptomyces and subsequently new antibiotics and drugs to overcome various infectious diseases and cancers that are creating major health issues worldwide. My team has successfully isolated several Streptomyces that produce highly efficient antibiotics to kill various pathogens including multi-drug resistant Staphylococcus aureus. Importantly, some natural products from these Streptomyces have also demonstrated potent anticancer activities against various cancer cell lines. These findings could lead to new kinds of antibiotics/therapeutics for drug-resistant infections and cancers. Hence, my research on Streptomyces can have a great impact on antibiotics and drug discovery for the benefit of science and humanity.
Besides, one of the important missions of our institute is to expose young graduates to modern science and technology and to equally encourage to study those disciplines, fostering their future success. In addition, RIBB also offers training courses to local companies and organizations, and organizes workshop in local level, especially in rural areas so that greater number of women can participate and get benefited.
Sushila: I am really honored and delighted to represent myself as a first female Nepali scientist to international community.
Sabeera: What was your most satisfying achievements in career?
Sushila: Nepal is lagging in science and technology. Because science, technology and engineering are key drivers to socio-economic development, no nation could grow without proper implementation of science and technology. My country desperately need young scientists and scholars to create new educational system that emphasizes the development of science, technology and engineering for the development of the nation. I always wanted to become an independent investigator at a university or institution where I can share my experience and knowledge with next generation and where I can conduct research, using natural resources from Nepal, to identify and focus on key issues that address present challenges in biomedical field. My most satisfying achievement in my research career is the establishment of research institute and to pursue scientific research career in Nepal.
Sabeera: How do you find solution to a problem? What motivates you to stay focused?
Sushila: I believe every problem has solution if you try to find it. When I have problem, I first look at each step of a process causing the problem, check the variables associated with the problem and finally locate the origin of problem. If I cannot reach a concrete decision by myself, I share with my colleagues and find a solution through discussion. I keep myself up-to-date on the current research topics and trends. So, any interesting discovery usually excite my zeal and motivate me to work more.
Sabeera: Being a women professional have you ever faced gender discrimination?
Sushila: As a woman, I have faced both social and professional discrimination.
Sabeera: Gender equity is lacking in Science and it’s a global issue. Do you agree?
Sushila: Yes, the proportion of women in Science is considerably lower than the proportion of men around the globe. Normally, women in developing countries have fewer opportunities for higher education mainly due to economic and social problems. Although women in developed countries make up high percent of their participation in high level of education, women are still underrepresented in the fields of science and engineering due to gender bias.
Sabeera: How to raise the bar for women to choose and stay in the Science field?
Sushila: Women are as competitive as men when they are freed from household works. In most cases, when women are at the peak of their careers, they are tied to social responsibilities, such as getting married and raising children, and therefore their energy and enthusiasm toward Science eventually decline. Until our male dominated society do not realize the importance and potential of women, women need to suffer and sacrifice their careers. If women are kept free from social bars and pay rewards for their attempts, I believe women can compete equally as men in any field of Science.
Sabeera: Do Nepali nationals show enthusiasm to choose Science as a career?
Sushila: In recent years, there has been growing interest in Nepali nationals to seek career in Science. But, due to social, economic and political problems in Nepal, many of these interested candidates seek jobs abroad to fulfill their dream.
Sabeera: Can you mention any top 5 difficulties women face to be a Scientist?
Sushila: I’d like to mention several difficulties that women face today to become a Scientist. Women are severely underrepresented in Science due to culture of gender bias, less access to higher education, discrimination at position or salary for women, and struggle to balance career and personal life.
Sabeera: How to increase the visibility of women professionals to improve their participation?
Sushila: To raise the visibility and representation of women in Science, we need to support early career researchers by funds, encourage women’s participation in seminars with rewards and create a visible community of women role models. Personally, I believe, a better result would come if we could create an environment to allow men to take on equal responsibilities in family life through making career breaks and working part-time to support the family instead of women.
Sabeera: Where do you want to see yourself in coming 5-10 years?
Sushila: Ten years from now, I want to see myself as a committed and successful scientific personality with several scientific publications that benefit students, faculty, society and eventually a country.
Sabeera: Share your opinion about our project “Biostandups”?
Sushila: Biostandups did not come to my site before this interview. I was very delighted to see the website dedicated for women in Science. In my opinion, Biostandups stands as a hub of women for women and it has been doing a tremendous job to promote the visibility of women professionals and their contribution to society and nation. In other way, Biostandups is a great platform to encourage and inspire many young women scientists around the globe.